The Scariest Place I Could Think Of

Day 725 – 23 February, 2017

India. I really can’t think of another word that terrified me more than that. I didn’t want to go. I had heard horror stories about projectile vomiting and punishing heat and rats the size of frisbees and Homo sapiens pooping in the street. The thick population and the legendary rancid smell…it all gave me knots in my stomach. But there was something. Something about all of those terrifying nightmare scenarios that lodged itself in my subconscious, something that pulled me toward the subcontinent like a magnet. I had to see it for myself. I was sure I would hate it, but what if….what if I didn’t? It was meant to be so mind-alteringly different to anywhere I had been. It was meant to be challenging in ways that were beyond my imagination. In a way, India would be the final exam after two years of travel pop quizzes.

After a serendipitous night out with some Argentinian girls I met in South Africa, they convinced me to go and what’s more, they convinced me that I could do it by myself. I don’t know why I ever thought I couldn’t handle it alone. I mean I’ve been almost everywhere else alone and I always figured it out, but India was the mythical big bad monster that will chew you up and spit you out so over time, I had begun to doubt my fortitude.

I had a connecting flight from the Seychelles to Mumbai via Abu Dhabi. My gate in Abu Dhabi was set apart from the other gates, seemingly in the basement with flights going to places like Tehran and Baku. I consciously dressed that morning wearing loosely fitting pants and a conservative top, yet I felt every set of eyes follow me through the cramped terminal anyway. I scanned the terminal for a place to sit, landing my gaze on two other western-looking travelers. One was a young blonde girl with a yoga mat tucked firmly under her arm and the other was a dreadlock-laden hippie with leather sandals and a burlap sack as his carryon. Almost as soon as I approached, they got up to leave so I just took a seat in one that they had vacated. I later learned she was from the UK going for a yoga retreat and he was from the Netherlands planning to travel on an extended visa. It’s perhaps for the best that my encounter with them was brief, for I would meet countless other souls that fell into these two categories – yogi and hippie. Truth be told, I secretly wanted to identify with either of these cliques because they always seemed super brave and confident in their decision to go to India. That certainly wasn’t me.

Somehow, I was lucky enough to be seated in the bulkhead next to the window. A middle-aged Indian man sat in the aisle and when the boarding was completed and our middle seat was still vacant, he and I exchanged a subtle smile for our good fortune. The flight departed at 1:00am and was expected to land around 6:00am so true to form, I spent most of the flight not sleeping because my body absolutely refuses to shut down while in flight. I can sleep anywhere as long as I’m horizontal. A seated posture just doesn’t work for me. By the time our flight was landing in Mumbai, I was tired and cranky and a huge ball of nerves about leaving the airport. The Indian man sitting in my row asked if I was traveling alone and I noticed that his accent sounded more westernized than I had expected. Turns out, he was originally from Mumbai, but had lived in Chicago (!!!) for about 20 years. He and his wife had moved back to Mumbai only a year earlier with their teenage children – they wanted their children to experience living in India for a little while so they would have a better appreciation for their citizenship in the US. His name was Rajan and while we only began talking during the landing and taxi to the gate, I noted his warmness and admiration for what I was doing. He didn’t seem at all worried or surprised that I was alone; he was encouraging and optimistic. He even gave me his phone number in case I needed anything. I typed it into my phone and hoped that I didn’t actually need to use it, but I felt comforted in the fact that I had my made my first contact in this scary country and that I was no longer alone in spirit.

Passing immigration was a breeze with my 10-year visa securely affixed in my passport, but I made a novice mistake about 5 minutes past that point. Chalk it up to unease with my new surroundings, but instead of trying to hire a taxi or auto-rickshaw the traditional way, I went to the transportation desk. Stories of shady taxi drivers were superfluous, i.e., they will take you somewhere other than your predetermined destination and insist you pay an extra fare to go to the correct address, they will take you somewhere with a similar name to your destination because they may get a kickback from the new location, or they might tell you that where you want to go is closed or burned down so that they can choose your new accommodation (for a fee, of course). By going to the transportation desk, I thought I could avoid this game and get a straightforward taxi fare. Yes, indeed. For 1000 rupees, I could get a non-AC taxi. For 1200 rupees, I could get an AC taxi to go the 2 miles to my hostel. 1200 rupees is about $18USD for a 2 mile taxi ride…in India. For perspective, I ultimately traveled around the whole country for 6 weeks on $32 per day, including food, transport, and lodging. I paid it, blindly, for I was new and unrested and hadn’t worked out the conversion yet. I had no idea that I was willfully getting completely ripped off.

On the bright side, my taxi driver was polite. But on the other hand, the AC was broken, the car smelled like the exhaust was being filtered right through the large hole in the back seat, and the driver had absolutely no idea where he was going. Like always, I followed along on so that I could make sure we were going the right way. I had to direct him by yelling “left!” and “right!” over the clanking noise of the engine and the other traffic buzzing by outside. He only followed my directions 50% of the time so I was off to a rough start. But with that said, I immediately found I wasn’t intimidated by this. It felt very familiar, no different than being with a rogue taxi driver in Ecuador or Paris. I was in India, but just like confronting the shadows under your childhood bed and realizing it was nothing more than your lost teddy bear, I no longer felt scared when I acknowledged the reality was nothing compared to my imagination.

I had chosen one of the only hostels in town. Old Bombay was surprisingly light on backpacker accommodation. There was only an obscure low-profile sign, depicting a small squat house between a tire repair business and a cluster of food stalls. It looked suspect, but once inside it was brightly painted and the powerful AC left condensation on the exterior windows. It was about 7:00am and the adorable couple that owned it had prepared breakfast – a type of millet porridge laden with Indian spices. The other residents were typical of any backpacker hostel; there were several Germans and Brits, and a quite a few more Americans than I would have expected. An interior room was designated for smoking and a haze hung behind its exterior glass wall that would form new shapes every time the door swung open and a cloud would escape to the non-smoking area.

That first day I was reluctant to leave the hostel. I told myself it was because I was tired from my overnight flight, but the reality was because I was still a little intimidated. It was one thing to be in a taxi, watching the chaos bubble and blur around me. It was an entirely different matter to walk in it. That day I met Sarah, an American who had actually been traveling as long as me and was due home within a few weeks. She convinced me to go with her for an afternoon meal (only two doors down) and I entirely credit her with my first steps outside that day. We ate thali, a plate of curries and rice and marinated vegetables that will be replenished as long as there is still room in your stomach. We ate with our fingers, as is customary, and shuddered as a group of boys repeatedly set off firecrackers that sounded like gunfire. I retreated back to the implied safety of the hostel, but I was gaining my travel legs for India already.

The next morning as people were gathering for that day’s complementary breakfast concoction, lentils in a spicy broth, I met Jill and Mel from America and Natalie from Canada. These three and several others had pre-booked a slum tour in Dharavi, the most famous of Mumbai’s slums. Of the nearly two months I spent in South Africa, I had never visited the impoverished townships. My original reason was on principle that it somehow seemed vile for me as a white privileged American to tour a poor black township as if it was a novel attraction. Later, I changed my mind, thinking that a visit to a township could only help to improve my understanding of the complicated history and perhaps open my eyes to the pervasive racial tensions that permeate every layer of society, while contributing the cost of my tour that goes directly to the township you choose to visit. Unfortunately, by the time I had changed my mind, I had run out of time in South Africa. Now, here I was confronted with the same opportunity to visit an Indian slum so I decided to go. Not only would I glimpse some of the maddening injustices of the country on my very first day out, but I wouldn’t have to do it alone.

There were about 7 of us Westerners together, which is a bit of a rare sight in India, especially in the part of town where we were staying. As we walked the few blocks to the commuter train, we learned that staring at white people is common cause for traffic accidents and other general calamities. We boarded the train at Kurla, northeast of the tourist district. Five of us were women and we boarded the train on the ‘Women Only’ car, agreeing to meet the 2 guys at our destination, the UNESCO-designated Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal. The implication was that the ‘Women Only’ car would be less daunting for a first timer, foregoing the presumed groping and aggressiveness of the shared cars for another day. The sheer mass of bodies in India takes on a character of its own. At times, the collective humanity of the entire country seems to march in organized chaos and you either move with it or you fall into an otherworldly hysteria that is at once both paralysis and panic. It felt natural to me to choose the former. I already felt like I was a part of it.

Women dressed in magenta, marigold, emerald, and scarlet saris gathered on the platform. Many of them sat on the ground or on top of their goods to wait. They gossiped in Marathi or Hindi, stared at the five white women awhile, and were generally in a jovial mood. I was so entranced by my new surroundings and the colorful dress that I was imagining I was in a field of rainbow poppies when the train arrived. When the doors to the train opened, this somewhat lethargic hum of feminity turned into a throbbing mob of WWE wrestlers angling for position. The white women were not spared. Pushing, shoving, pinching, hair pulling, and tripping are all fair game to ensure yourself a square foot of standing or sitting room on the train. A brightly-saried elbow to the gut. Body-checked by a literal sack of potatoes. Clothes-lined by a long black braid. I had to admire their creativity. In a matter of seconds, the train was departing the station and the white women confirmed that we were all still alive and accounted for. I looked around at these female warriors and they had turned back into mild little old ladies and warm-eyed mothers carrying infants. One woman even insisted that I take her seat while she stand with her sack of potatoes. The irony of this place was puzzling and wonderful and I was immediately absorbed by it.

We met at the train station for our tour to Dharavi. Our local guide was a lifelong resident of the slum and had started his own business, giving tours of his very own neighborhood. Out of respect for the occupants, I didn’t take any photos, which is usually what drives my memory for the details of a place, but the most important thing I took away from our visit was the spirit of Dharavi. You imagine that people that are living in some of the most deplorable conditions on the planet, with open sewers for toilets and cardboard for a roof, would be downtrodden and apoplectic. The essence was something quite different, full of energy and entrepreneurship. Every business imaginable was represented in Dharavi. The residents provided for themselves after being shunned from every other aspect of society. Doctors, carpenters, grocers, fishmongers, shoemakers, medicine men, and yogis were mixed in with naked children playing with rocks and barefoot mothers washing their laundry in plastic buckets in front of their shacks. The structures that served as sleeping quarters for Dharavi’s one million residents were haphazardly stacked in uneven rows and spaced so closely together that a fire could (and often did) take out massive blocks of homes. Scraps of canvas or cardboard or flattened out paint cans served as walls and roofs. The floor was often left bare. The air hung stagnant with the ripeness of warm sewage with an overlaying scent of saffron and open fire, while a mangy stray dog, ribs protruding, nosed an empty plastic bag, trying to scavenge his next meal.

Nothing was wasted as I witnessed one of the best recycling programs anywhere in the industrial world. Plastic from all over the city would be collected and sorted by color before being brought to a factory in Dharavi where it was broken down and resold. It could be reused for anything except children’s toys or drinking containers. Paint cans would be reused three times, fired and sterilized between each use, before finally being flattened and used in construction when the integrity as a paint vestibule had run its course. Textiles were fashioned from ripped clothing into blankets and from ripped blankets back into clothing.

I didn’t know what to expect in Dharavi. I had assumed it would be the worst that India could show me. And perhaps it was. Perhaps from my perspective having spent the previous four months in Africa my view of poverty had been tempered, but I didn’t sense any deprivation in the little girl with uncombed hair and a toothless smile. These people didn’t want my first world pity. These are the definition of survivors. When the world gives you lemons…the residents of this Indian slum would use the rind, pulp, seeds and juice to make something bigger and better than I can conceptualize. Dare I say that they seemed happy? Westerners often want to believe that poor citizens of a developing country would be sad and depressed and struggling to get out. Perhaps this desire does exist; however, I saw a strong sense of family and community and making their way in a city where they have been marginalized for decades.

Bangkok has long been heralded as the king of street food, but I found that Mumbai brought my tastebuds to life. Eating street food is always a risk, but one I’m delighted to take. You must look for stalls that are busy to ensure high turnover in the product. If a vendor doesn’t sell his kebab today, he will just try to sell it tomorrow or the next day or the day after that so turnover is key. You must also seek out the stalls where the locals eat. A touristy stall doesn’t really care if you get sick because they will likely never see you again and have an endless supply of tourists to take your place tomorrow. A stall that is popular with locals has more of an incentive to provide good food because their customers will return again and again if they like what they are served. And as for what items to select from a street vendor, anything prepared with unboiled water is a big no-no. Eating meat in India reflects your personal tolerance of risk. I know plenty of westerners that ate meat and didn’t suffer any problems, but I also know a few who did. Many Indians are vegetarian so the meat-free options are plentiful and delicious. For me, as an on-again/off-again veggie, the choices were endless.

We ate potato samosas, pav bhaji (bread served with mashed spicy vegetables), pani puri (hollow fried bread that you fill with a mash of chickpeas, spices, and potatoes), and my favorite, vada pav (fluffy potato patties mashed with garlic and chillies, fried, and served on a bun). Ok, I need to stop…thinking about this now makes me want to return to Mumbai for the food alone!

For nearly every backpacker in India, the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts has been read and reread. It’s 936 pages of the author’s love affair with Bombay and is one of the reasons why so many hippie travelers make the pilgrimage to this city every year. I read the book nearly 5 years earlier and it romanticized India in such a way that I couldn’t quite divert my attention even when the fear of traveling there had almost paralyzed me. When I found myself in a posse of backpackers that had also read the book, there was no question we would visit Leopold Cafe. To be clear, Leopold’s is a true tourist trap. It’s located near the Gateway to India and on the opposite side of the Taj Palace Hotel. It’s full of white people, paying exorbitant prices for lattes and chocolate cake, rock n roll music blaring through the speakers. Shantaram made it famous for being the place where Lin, the protagonist, meets many of the other characters in the novel, but its more recent fame is for the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai when members of an Islamic extremist group wanted to target a site popular with western tourists. Bullets are still lodged solidly in the wall by the stairs.

Continuing our self-made Shantaram tour, we walked along Marine Drive, the Queen’s Necklace nicknamed for the street lights that resemble a string of pearls at night. The Arabian Sea glistened in the afternoon sunlight and I watched modest young couples hold hands as they talked quietly with each other. We were a group of 7, mostly talking amongst ourselves, and I found myself falling back so that I could appreciate the atmosphere and absorb the details. You miss too much when you’re with other people. I wasn’t ready to give up the crutch of a group, but my love affair with this country was just beginning to blossom; I needed to be alone with my thoughts.

For my last night in the comfort of this family-run hostel, they were preparing a feast. Folding tables were set up outside; only a concrete wall separated us from the exhaust-choked city streets. The outside community was invited to purchase tickets for the buffet, while the hostel guests were permitted to eat for free. There was curried okra, spicy lentils, steamed cabbage and so much more. A large bucket filled with soapy water was available for dirty dishes, but our hostess insisted that we not wash our own plates which violated our code of being good hostel guests. Meanwhile, the locals gathered around us to watch these strange foreigners sloppily eat with our fingers while they effortlessly scooped up mounds of rice and sauce from hand to mouth without dropping a grain. They gawked as we tried the various dishes, waiting for our reaction whether it be a smile reaching for a second serving or a red face recoiling from the intense spice. I tried to maintain a poker face even when a whole black pepper caught in my throat.

The dress in India is much more conservative than other places I had visited. In good practice, women should keep their knees and shoulders covered at a minimum. And this is not about feminism or making a point or pushing the limits to see what a woman can “get away with” – for me, it was about respect. I saw several western women that wore whatever they pleased, but for better or worse, I needed to go shopping.

Jill and Mel and I had decided we were traveling to Goa together. Safety in numbers, after all. We went to the mall where we ransacked a store that we dubbed the Indian TJ Maxx. I bought some plain t-shirts; Mel bought a bikini for our beach vacation. Jill debated between several shirts for quite some time, but ultimately only bought one. Jill was in her 30s and from middle America and had been traveling for the previous 8 months. She had spent a lot of time in Albania, working on an organic farm (wwoofing) and had most recently traveled in Morocco. In contrast, Mel was 22 and was from the east coast of the US. It was her first time out of the country and she chose India, which I greatly admired about her. She had already been in the north of India for the previous 4 weeks so of the 3 of us, she was the most experienced with Indian culture. I liked them both immediately. My confidence of traveling on the subcontinent was growing in leaps and bounds since my arrival a few days earlier, but I gratefully accepted the crutch of travel companions on my first bus journey out of Mumbai.

The three of us and together with Natalie shared a taxi to the tourist stand where we had purchased our bus tickets. We had tickets from Mumbai to Margao, one of the main transportation hubs in Goa. Natalie was due to fly from Goa to Sri Lanka so she wouldn’t be continuing with us to the beach. To my surprise, a courier arrived right on time to take us to our bus. He beckoned for us to follow him as he darted between the crowds in the street. We were laden with our backpacks, trying to avoid obstacles in the road like people, animals, auto rickshaws, cars, garbage, curbs, and excrement, dripping with perspiration, and not wanting to lose sight of this nimble courier. We walked for about 10 minutes, through back alleys, up and down sets of stairs, finally pausing on a quiet street with several other passengers who had arrived with other couriers. I know this all sounds a bit sketchy, to follow some random guy from the bus stand for 10 minutes, hoping he is taking us to our bus, but believe me, this seemed perfectly normal after 2 years of travel. And it felt equally normal that once we arrived, the bus was nowhere to be found.

I checked the sidewalk for obscene ickiness (not to be confused with general ickiness which is par for the course) before I tossed my backpack on to the ground so that I could use it as a seat. I could tell from the posture of the other waiting passengers that it might be awhile. Jill, Mel, and Natalie followed suit. Street vendors passed by offering to sell us a packet of warm nuts or some freshly cut mango. A plump Indian woman in a blue sari checked her watch and smiled at us apologetically. An orange and white cat swatted at a cockroach and disappeared in pursuit over a short wall. After approximately an hour of waiting, the courier collected our tickets and began hailing a series of taxis to ferry the 20 or so passengers to yet another location. Each taxi was filled with 4 passengers, while our luggage was carelessly strapped to the roof. So far, no one had addressed us in English so we didn’t really know what was going on, yet we went through the motions unquestioning. Twenty minutes and several kilometers later our taxis pulled up behind 2 half-filled buses in another part of town. My backpack was still attached to the taxi’s roof and while the seat I had purchased was already occupied, there was another one available only 2 rows back. Success so far! As I boarded my first of several night buses, I thought, “India, here I come…”

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