Don’t worry, I’m not writing another book (not planning on committing to that ginormous task again in a hurry…) but the first chapter of my 5 weeks in India/Nepal started out with 4 nights in Mumbai, or Bombay as people tend to still call it.
Right from the beginning, before I had even left Sydney at 9pm on Thursday night, something wasn’t right. Well, something wasn’t right according to the security people checking my hand baggage. Although I had ensured not to bring my nail file on board, in my rush to pack somehow I had my pocket knife inside. Down my knife I was promptly checked for drugs and who knows what else. Oops!
Thirteen hours or sixteen hours or whatever it was later (I never keep track of time in transit), we were preparing to land. From the airplane Bombay looked like every other big city : tall buildings and lots of smog. As we got closer I saw it. The slum. A big mass of grubby tents stretching for miles. It was a stark reminder – Bombay is not your average city.
Before the seatbelt light was off, the other passengers in the half-empty plane started to stand and as I looked around I realised – I was the ONLY Caucation on the flight. Besides two Chinese passengers, everyone was Indian – another sign of what was to come.
Walking toward baggage I stopped in the restroom. Squat toilets. I remember them well – from Thialand and Japan – only I didn’t expect to meet them so soon and in an international airport.
I stood for half an hour while my visa was verified, feeling as if my knife incident had cast an air of suspicion around me. Am I a terrorist in disguise? I’ve read Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.. you never know who is playing what role. But know. My role in this world is not that exciting. I am simply an Australian student about to get the greatest culture shock of my life.
I got my bag, the last one circling the belt, and walked toward security. A large Indian woman in a white dres beckoned me to her. What now??? She pointed to the exit. I could miss lining up for yet another security check with the, what seemed like 99% male, passengers. I was free to take my first breath of the fresh clean air Bombay is so well known for. Thank God. Or maybe not.
The air, at that point in time was the last thing on my mind. I walked out the airport door to be confronted by three walls, each 30 meters long, of Indian men holding signs. Please let my pickup be here, I prayed. I walked down the first edge with hopeful eyes. Hopeful eyes gazed back at me saying “pick me” “pick me”. I reached the first corner – crap! – nothing. I started down the second. The I see it: Juliet Bennett … my sign, but no driver standing behind it. The man next to it called over to suntosh, my driver. Phew!!! I was overwhelmed with relief and very glad I had been orgasnised enough to have a pickup.
The ride was enough culture shock for one day. The streets of thic city are seciously insane: motorized rickshaws (or what I will probably forever call tuk tuks), cars, buses, cows. All except the cows are trying to go as fast as they can, hence no one is getting anywhere very fast at all. It is manic. Horns bals from every direction and there appears to be no road rules whatsoever. The only rule seems to be CONFIDENCE – the more agressive the driver (usually, but not always, relative to the size of the vehicle), the more others give way. It is like one massive game of chicken. And the pedestrians seem to be the least important of all. Run or get hit – it is as simple as that. These running targets carry baskets of fruit and carafs of water on their head – the produce they sell.
Skinny children run past with their arms above thier head and wide smiles across their faces, while other ssleep by the side walk in rags. I look out at the mayhem from the comfort of my air conditioned pickup van and thank god once again I had been organised. And that I was born in Australia.
[VIDEO ON ITS WAY]
I arrive at my fairly up-class serviced hotel room to discover it has no computer for me to finish my speech. The first of many moments to come where I would wish, and wish, and wish, that I had brought my laptop with me on this trip. The hotel does have wifi, but my iPhone does not like it much. Either that, or the internet in India sucks. The later is pretty much what my friend who lives here has told me. It doesn’t let me to much more than post a few tweets and pull out my hair trying to access the address of tomorrow’s conference.
I give up and venture out onto the street to find the internet café that the hotel staff insists is just up the road. I look, but I don’t see. After ten minutes on the street my ear drums were bursting, so I give up on that too.
Then my friend, an Aussie director who has been living in Mumbai this last year, replied to a plea I posted to facebook. A phone number. I call it. We organize to meet at Seaview Hotel for a few beers overlooking the beach. At 745pm I took one last deep breath of the hotel’s air conditioned air and stepped back on the street.
Lucky Seaview was easy to find. I was even early, so I invited myself to join a table of three Americans, relieved at the sight of white skin. Note that I have nothing at all against dark skin, in fact I find it beautiful, but after a day of seeing what felt like millions of dark I took comfort in the familiar.
‘You guys look like you speak English,’ I laughed, as I dragged over a seat. They were impressed on my first night in this massive city I had managed to find what they thought was the best place for a cold beer.
‘It took me months before I found it,’ one of them said.
My friend soon joined us and we drank, ate and laughed, then decided to take a taxi into the heart of Bombay and sneak our way into some fancy schmancy club. We managed it, thanks to a low cut dress, and took a seat in what looked much like a British outdoor garden party.
‘So this is how you survive here,’ I let out another sigh of relief. A western haven in the middle of Mumbai mayhem, full of wealthy Indians wearing almost nothing (compared with the outside cover-alls). We drank (one drink apparently costing the same as a rich person pays for a maid for a month), and chatted with a friendly Panjabi man in a turban, who bought us drinks and gave me his card, instructing me to mail him my book when it is published. I agreed with a smile. He was good value.
At 2am I made it home, showering longer and scrubbing harder than I had ever before. Some six hours later I ate the complementary breakfast buffet, venturing out into the unknown Indian cuisines on offer, unsure how my stomach would appreciate curry for breakfast.
It was then that the no-map-no-internet crisis came to a head. I know the name of the conference center, and I know from its website that it is posh and fancy, and by the looks of its centrality on google maps it looked famous, important, and it didn’t look like it was very far away. Unfortunately in Mumbai there are two worlds: rich and poor; and the poor had never heard of such a place. Eventually we managed to get the address of The Club, and with the street name and number scribbled over three long lines on a piece of paper, one of the hotel staff led me to the street. A tuk tuk (I know I know, an auto-rickshaw), stopped and with no taxi in sight, I felt I had no choice but to get in. The hotel dude explained the address to the tuk tuk driver, who looked unsure but nodded in acknowledgement.
There I was gulping in smoke and pollutants, bopping up and down like a piece of pop corn, and hanging on for my dear life as the driver honks his horn and zig zags between traffic – in the new Chloe sunglasses I bought at the airport, my new Leona Edminston dress I bought especially for the event, a Herringbone shirt I had added in attempt make it conservative enough for Indian standards, and holding my black Donna Karan sack bag up to protect my nose from the aweful smells and foul feeling such gross pollution causes one’s insides. I was almost in tears when suddenly I saw the humour of my situation. I cracked into laughter, pulled out my iPhone and filmed the craziness.
[VIDEO IS ON IT’S WAY]
What a city!
We did get lost, of course, and while what should have taken 15 minutes took an hour, I did eventually arrive at my destination.
‘Peace and Education conference,’ I said to the security man who stopped us at the gate. He let us pass and we continued up a long drive. As we did, the energy changed: welcome to the land of the rich. I paid the tuk tuk the 70 rupees he requested, and 10 extra. 100 rupees is about $2. Less than $2 for an hour’s work – this world is so unfair.
As I walked into the conference entrance door I was suddenly bombarded with ten cameras in my face, two video cameras, and about five Indian girls surrounding me: one put a flower lei around my neck, another put red dye and rice on my forehead, and the others just smiled and said ‘welcome!’ ‘welcome!!’ leading me through toward the massive auditorium decked out with a panel of 12 at the front, and a big sign that read: World Peace Movement Trust. I was lead through and immediately introduced to the Indian Minister of the Tribes, the Minister of Education from Afghanistan (who will soon be running for president!), academics from Nigeria, Germany, Turkey, and many other people whose seeming importance made me nervous and clucky. What the heck are you meant to say to important people??? I was out of my league.
I didn’t know what to expect when I submitted my abstract to a call for papers for this conference, but I had asked Dr Ravindra Kumar, the organizer, how many people were coming and he hadn’t answered with a number. And when I asked about using PowerPoints he said casually, ‘no, just speak about it, I’ve read your writing, you can do it.’
I interpreted this to mean a small conference, maybe 30-40 academics sitting around sharing their research. No-sir-eee. This was quite an ordeal. It even made the newspaper and tv. The ceremonial presentations of respect, flowers, trophies, certificates, all put to dramatic music and captured on camera, meant that all the presentations were cut from 20 minutes to 8-10 minutes.
Lucky my presentation wasn’t until the second day, so I had time to find a computer, make the changes I had wanted to make, and decide what parts were least important to say.
It wasn’t easy, but I did it. And up on the stage in front of a hundred or two hundred people, I nervously read it. The feedback was positive. I was just glad it was over. Now I could relax and what I managed to arrange to be a 5-week holiday can really begin.