Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 16 (Feb 26) - Mumbai - What a crazy place!

After a short flight we arrived to the famous city of Mumbai, AKA Bombay. What a place! For starters, it took us more than an hour to make the trip from the airport to where we were staying, and that was without much traffic. At 15 million inhabitants, Mumbai is one of the great metropolis of the world, and it extends for mile after mile.

We dropped our bags at The Oberoi hotel, a very fancy place by the shore but in the business district (which means that the opportunities for exploring quaint Mumbai were severely limited), and promptly jumped in a mini-bus to do a bit of sightseeing. A lot of cool sights, but let me just make reference at a few things that seemed unique to this crazy city:

To begin with, Mumbai is a city of contrasts, where the fabulously reach live across the street from slums formed by thousands of hovels built with oil-impregnated cardboard. The city hums with activity, and the slums are not necessarily inhabited by destitute people; rather, they are simply inexpensive dormitories whose sole function is to provide a bed and a little personal storage space. Many smartly dressed people come from the slums in the morning, to work throughout the city, and they don't go back until it is time to lay down to sleep.

This spartan way of living has opened the way for a couple of unique business. For example, someone has to provide laundry service. The answer to this need are inmense laundry facilities, where an army of young men work from sunrise to sunset washing, drying, ironing, and folding. The clothes are picked at your "residence", and are then separated by color and type, because a portion of the laundry is devoted only to whites, or to sheets, or to green sarees. Then the wash goes to drying (notice all pieces of the same color were washed and are drying together), ironing and folding, and then miraculously all pieces find their way back to the original bundle and are delivered to you, generally by the afternoon of the same day!

Another unique business is the delivery of lunch. It may be that your wife cooked you a healthy vegetarian lunch, or it may be that you suscribe to lunch from given lady that cooks to supplement her household income. In either case your lunch is collected around 11 am by the lunch man, whose bicycle is surrounded by dozens of small sacks where the stackable pots with your lunch are lovingly cradeled. He then zips through the Mumbai traffic, and in some way that defies the laws of physics manages to deliver the lunch to your desk, warm, and always on time.

Our travels took us to the "Hanging Gardens" of Mumbai, a misnomer given to a cute but not particularly significant park, most notable for the absence of any trees. It turns out that this park used to be a large open reservoir at the top of Malabar Hill (the fancy district of Mumbai), where pumped water was stored to be delivered by gravity. Unfortunately the adjacent property had been occupied since time inmemorial by a Parsi "cemetery", so the British authorities decided to cover it with concrete and a thick layer of soil for public health purposes (and that is why there are no trees there). You might think that they were being a little paranoid, but you should know that Parsis are the ultimate environmentalists, so in order not to contaminate soil and water they dispose of their defuncts by cutting them in pieces and then letting the vultures finish the job (and because vultures sometime drop a piece or two the reservoir had to be covered). Yes, the practice continues to date, with the outmost respect and in total seclusion, but you can see Gustav was eyeing suspiciosly a group of vultures circling over our heads.

A highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the house where Gandhi used to stay when he was in Bombay. In fact, he spent several years in this house, editing three newspapers that took the lead in the quest for Indian independence. The house is now a museum, and is throughly impregnated with the soul of the great man. I of course knew of Ghandi the pacifist, but in this museum I got to feel the spirit of Ghandi the fighter. He may had been a gentle, peace loving man, but make no mistakes. He was a corageous fighter for the cause of Indian independence, and from his simple room he wrote powerful calls for the end of the British Raj, maintained an enormous correspondence with freedom fighters throughout the world, guided the efforts of the Indian congress, and overall united all of India under a common banner (he also traveled extensively through India and the world, leading inspiring demonstrations of peaceful civil disobedience, getting arrested, and step by step gaining the respect of the world for Indian home rule). Klaus contributed to the new library in Waterford the autobiography of Ghandi, which I have started to read. Too early to tell, but what has impressed me the most is his unwavering devotion to the truth. The statement that "to the best of my knowledge I have never been able to say anything but the truth" impressed me profoundly, because I have always been careful to keep the truth content in my own statements at well below 50%.

We also visited an active Jain temple, and that is where we learned of the strict vegetarian customs of the priests and community members. Priests are so concerned about not damaging any living being that they sweep the ground where they are going to step to move aside the small insects, and filter their water through fabric before they drink it. We were told that some of them also use a thin fabric mask to avoid breathing flying insects.

That night we decided to take a break from vegetarianism, and ended the evening at Ruby Tuesday, a modern restaurant that offered "Simple American Food" and Happy Hour, where we pigged out on baby back ribs generously irrigated with cocktails and wine. It is quite clear that none of us was cut to be a Jain.

1 comment:

Karrie said...

And i will bet that that was the best American junk food you ever had, right!?

You really captured the dichotomy of India--the Jains want to preserve the very bugs under their feet, yet throw their trash into the river. One of my teammates to India is the Chief Coroner of Stanislaus County, and so she saw some of their processing of earthly remains. Yes, chopping off of extremities is the norm, including the head and keeping the head for identification purposes. The body, well that gets burned. She did not mention the vulture portion :)

I also did not make it so far north as Mumbai, but plan on returning to India one day to explore further, beginning at the Himalayas and working my way south to my new friends in Chennai.