India

So I got into a little bit in my earlier posting about India, and the experience of seeing something so very different.

Our first stop was Cochin, a medium-sized city, and one of the oldest in India.

Leslie, two other front office staff members and I took a three-hour auto-rickshaw ride through the city.

First off, they don’t seem to have any form of garbage collection which is really unfortunate. The city was actually quite beautiful with tree-lined streets, gorgeous buildings, friendly people, and a scenic river-front. But there was garbage literally EVERYWHERE – every nook and cranny, every ditch, every alleyway, and washing up with the wavelets from the river.

But life continues amongst the mess – and maybe those who live there haven’t known any different…or they live with it.

And live they do. Some in very traditional jobs, such as fishing at the riverfront with the mammoth Chinese Fishing Nets. These really have to be seen (i.e. go to the photo page)…these fascinating ancient contraptions that have been used for ages to fish.

We also visited India’s first Catholic church, a Hindu temple, and a Jain temple. I was surprised to see swastikas all over the Jain temple, not being aware that the religion uses it as a sacred symbol. The variety of major religions co-existing, and the mix of rich and poor, old and new and slower/simpler/older ways of life with the new was really fascinating (especially visiting a spice warehouse! Thinking back to all that India was about, and how that led to so many historical implications with colonialism and trade!)

The driving in India was also fascinating. The horn is used more often than brakes, there are no traffic signals or even lane markings. Cows are traffic obstacles, auto-rickshaws ride around on three wheels, and big transport trucks co-exist with people pushing carts down the street. And somehow it all works, without a dent to be seen on any of the auto-rickshaws. I’m not sure if that fact was reassuring or not as we were traversing the streets…but it counted for something.

And finally, by far the neatest thing I saw in Cochin was a snake charmer playing the flute as his pet cobra came out of its basket! Now that was incredibly cool!

From Cochin, we went to Mumbai.

Leaving the port gate, no fewer than 10 taxi drivers surrounded us enticing us to take a ride with them. And incessant – grabbing at us, pleading with us, blocking us from walking on, and following us for 5 blocks. Eventually we got a taxi, and took a journey of several hours to see some of Mumbai.

Our taxi driver took us to stop at his friend’s persian rug shop and a jewelry store. I had to take charge and say “we want to see this and this, not this.” AND we want to actually STOP and go see these things, not just drive by them!

Getting off at any site (see the photos of the train station, garden, etc)…we were again bombarded. Young girls with half-naked babies coming at us begging for anything we could give. When we’d get into the taxi again, throngs of beggars would poke at the windows hoping we would open them and give money. And the blood still flushes from my face when I recall the man who was crawling on hands and feet (he had no arms or legs) around me, trying to trip me so that he could get something from me.

Terrifying, eye-opening, fascinating. India, and Mumbai in particular, was unquestionably different than anything I had before experienced.

When considering the experience of Mumbai, a few important statistics (I’m not a statistics guy) put it into complete perspective.

Mumbai’s population is 18 million. More than 50% of Mumbai’s people are homeless. That’s more than 9 MILLION homeless people. Think about that for a second, and you understand the desperation and extreme competitive spirit among the beggars. It was very difficult to digest at times, and incredibly annoying as well I’m somewhat ashamed to say.

To put it further into perspective, my friend Raymond and I ventured out in the evening to visit Hard Rock Cafe (I’ll get more into the concept of westernization in Mumbai in a second…) But on our taxi ride in the late evening, the most shocking thing of all was to witness the streets. It wasn’t just homeless people lying on the street as you’d see in Toronto. Rather; it was streets OF homeless people. The sidewalks covered with people – every bench, some sleeping underneath the city busses that were parked for the night. Everywhere. This is their life, and it’s 50% of Mumbai.

Thinking outward from the city…another statistic is very telling. 40% of the entire income tax revenue for India comes from Mumbai. BUT…if 50% of Mumbai is homeless, that’s only 9 Million people providing 40% of the income tax for a country of 1.13 Billion people! Tells you a lot about the amount of homelessness and poverty, and the small small concentration of wealth.

So, those are the unbelievable differences that I witnessed in India. And a two more: the public laundry. You simply have to see the pictures to understand 10,000 people living and using an outdoor laundry facility.

And the train station. You can always count on the train stations to give you the very best cross-section of a city’s people (and I REALLY insisted to our taxi driver that we go INSIDE the station). 5 Million people pass through Mumbai’s train station every single day, venturing between the city and into the far rural reaches of the country. Here, you saw it all…the beautiful saris, the rural people carrying grains and baskets on their shoulders, and business people on their cell phones. And people hanging off the trains. And the trains so old that they look Soviet-era…yet, they’re almost completely electrified. We don’t even have that in Canada.

So, India…very different! 

And I can’t say enough how wonderful it was to feel that I finally got beyond the “commercial, westernized cities” to see more of the “eastern world.” (By the way, I realize that I’ve been using the words Eastern and Western rather often in my blog, and I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to use them in any sort of elitist way…I’m trying to underscore how surprised I was to realize that inside of me, I actually had an expectation that this part of the world would truly be ‘another world.’ But I’ve realized that in some ways I was wrong, and in some ways I was right. That’s what I mean about the similar versus different part).

With all these amazing and endlessly fascinating/enlightening differences unfolding, I was also intrigued at how much was *NOT* different.

Mainly, I found myself surprised that Mumbai on the whole didn’t resemble an ancient city – as I had mentally expected. It wasn’t dirt-road markets. Rather, it’s paved roads and highways, a smattering of skyscrapers (though not that many compared to other cities), and apartments everywhere (some in very bad repair, others dazzlingly modern and beautiful). I mean, it’s a city. With it’s own Hard Rock Cafe. And it’s very much in the 21st century. There’s billboards, cell phones, all that. 

And there’s poverty (incredibly so!) and people living different ways of life, such as pushing their entire livelihood along the streets with their carts.

Both the old and the new co-exist in a dizzying way that makes Mumbai, and India, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Different – yet still similar – indeed.

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