My first impressions of Mumbai were the smells.
Pools of urine. Dung. Rotting fruit. Enticing sandalwood clinging heavily to a sari as its owner swept past me, her slim hips swaying timidly against gold threading and pomegranate fabric.
Even dust had a scent. Choking and harsh, clinging to the throat for hours on end.
Flora and fauna caught my eye next. Most definitely tropical. Palm trees or vibrant flowers bursting with colors. Everything that you do not find in cold, dead places up North.
The third was the dilapidated state of the buildings, or maybe it was just the disarray of them.
Some are built to code and perfection, beacons of Indian engineering, while others are crumbled, rebar exposed and accusatory. You didn’t finish me.
What might be the most interesting is the staggering amount of rubble along the side of the roads. Large chunks of concrete, dropped to the earth by Shiva’s wrath. Lord Shiva, the destroyer of worlds, clearly leaves his mark.
Besides concrete, garbage, debris, objects you wouldn’t imagine belong there, somehow do.
Burning garbage may not be sanctioned by law or environmental groups, but it’s a practice still done on a regular basis.
And the driving. I exaggerated in my last post about driving rules. There are some.
The common way to drive is pass other vehicles, no matter what they are. Large trucks, motorcycles, scooters, autorickshaw, economy cars… you name it. The object is pass them by driving straight into oncoming traffic and leaning on the horn to “alert” someone you’re passing and there’s nothing you can do about it. Then with cat-like reflexes you steer back into your own lane, narrowly missing a head on collision.
I have yet to witness an accident.
Finally, the men. It was mid-morning on a Friday and a significant amount of men were present. Constructing buildings, driving all the cars, rickshaws, taxis, walking or purchasing. Eventually more women emergeed, but only smatterings. With some gains that India has made in feminist circles, Mumbai feels very male dominated. Can’t speak for the rest of India or even Mumbai, having only seen a fraction of its riches or truths.
It reminded me of a trip to Turkey. A country for men and brotherhood. Women were an afterthought in public life. I stand out like an exclamation mark in a sea of periods.
It’s a land operating by their own rules, none that I can recognize or process yet. Even within the chaos, more disorder can jolt the foreigner. A pair of oxen chilling on an ordinary sidewalk, a sight unheard of where I hail from.
There is also an ease and openness that I’m still grasping. People do what they do, and there lacks any outward judgement on it.
I am in Maharashtra state, a significant swath in India’s layered history, well known for some extraordinary cave temples and monasteries. Maharashtra served as a trade route between north and south India.
The landscape is painted with mountain ranges and abandoned forts are located further inland. Level ground and fresh water supplied by the might Western Ghats were sound spots to defend against large armies.
For the first few days, I felt my own emotional fort undergoing construction. Here I am amid the sounds, smells and visual explosions, wondering why I even came.
Seeking some order in the chaos? Love or rejection might be the key.
3 months of volunteering won’t entail hopping jovially to tourist hot spots or backpacker beach parties, it will be work, a sort of meditation.
An early verdict is India is not so much enjoyed, but experienced.
I’m steadily hoping the ‘why’ becomes apparent.
Have you ever found yourself traveling somewhere, only to land and wonder what brought you in the first place?
Editor’s note: I will be updating with tips or stories on a weekly basis during my 3- month volunteer stay in Savarsai, India. Thanks for reading!