I flew from Delhi back to London at 2:30 this morning, landing at 7am and heading straight to the office for a full day of work. In other words: urghhhhh.
But rather than dwell on that, I want to reflect on India before the memories (and the henna tattoos) fade too much. It's just been such an amazing and enriching week.
There is far too much to put into one post, so I'm going to divide it up by cities/experiences, beginning with my time in Mumbai, but not including the Indian wedding, which definitely deserves its own entry.
I landed in Mumbai (which everyone I spoke to still referred to as 'Bombay,' having grown up with that word on their lips) on Thursday afternoon, after transiting in Delhi.
Even before landing, though, I could see something remarkable (for the wrong reasons) from my window seat on the plane: slums. Veritable cities of slums. It's hard to tell from my fuzzy picture below, but those are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of shanty dwellings--and that's just the ones that are directly next to the airport. In fact, at least 62% of Mumbai's residents live in slums. Bear in mind that Mumbai is the world's 4th largest city, with about 22 million people, and it's safe for me to say that while I've seen poverty before, I haven't seen anything like this. It was shocking and sad, and that's just from the plane. It's almost all the more shocking when you see how beautiful the airport is inside--such disparity, just a few hundred feet apart. Hard to ignore, and I can't deny this caused a fair amount of sad moments for me during my trip.
After I hopped into a spectacularly-poorly-chosen prepaid taxi, my driver proceeded to get fully and completely lost. He spoke pretty much no English and didn't seem to be able to read. Add that to the scary-beyond-all-reason traffic in Mumbai, and I legitimately thought I might (a) never reach my intended destination, and/or (b) die trying.
Finally, fiiiiiinally, after a good dozen U-turns, and pulling over (I kid you not) at least 20 times to ask different people for directions, we pulled up in front of the home of my friend Ritesh's family, who were generously hosting me that first night. They immediately plopped me down in front of enormous amounts of food, which turned out to be a running theme throughout my entire stay: "have you eaten?" was perhaps the most common question I'd end up receiving.
That night, after I'd listened to Ritesh's young cousin, Lei, play me some One Direction songs on his Spanish guitar, admired his beautiful paintings, practiced his (very good) French with him, commented on his excellent report card, and just generally concluded that Indians are super-accomplished, the family took me out to dinner. "Would you like Indian food, or non-Indian food?" they asked me considerately. "Indian food!" I exclaimed, eager for some culture.
(This choice later led me to quite literally cry in front of the entire family upon taking a bite of too-spicy-for-me dosa topped with chili. I digress.)
After dinner, Ritesh's cousin-in-law Ketki asked me, "Who do you live with?"
"I live alone," I replied, and her eyes widened. In a country where you typically live with your parents until you get married, at which point the bride often moves in with the groom's family, this definitely isn't common. She tried a follow-up question: "do you have servants?" (I definitely do not have servants.)
The next morning, Friday, I excused myself to go meet my Mumbai-based friend Neel, whom I hadn't seen since we finished grad school almost 2.5 years ago. I braved another cab to meet him at Leopold Cafe, a popular eatery in Mumbai's Colaba neighborhood that is apparently mentioned extensively in the novel Shantaram, which people keep telling me to read and which I really should.
A note here about security in India: it's really high, and what's sad about that is that they have good reason to be. Throughout my trip, sites were strictly limited on what you could bring inside, there are metal detectors and patting-down stations everywhere, and even something as simple as going to a café, you're likely to have your bag looked through, as was the case at Leopold's. But that's an even more tragic story, because Leopold's was also one of the sites of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, wherein 164 people died, including at least 10 at Leopold's. They've intentionally kept some of the bullet holes in the walls and mirrors, looked down on by posters of Old Hollywood stars.
It was so great seeing Neel again and catching up on so many things that have happened the past few years. The thing about seeing old friends is that time never really stands still, and it can give you a chance to reflect on what you've been up to since last you saw them, too. He's still as chill as ever. Great to see him. We took so many trips together in 2013, including one of my absolute favorites, to Laos. So we had lots to reminisce on.
After breakfast, we played tourist and walked first to the National Gallery of Modern Art, then to the Gateway of India monument, then through the fancy Taj Mahal Palace hotel (another site of the 2008 attacks), and finally over to meet Ritesh and a few other grad school friends for a fun Indian lunch.
That night the wedding festivities commenced, and would take up the bulk of my remaining time in Mumbai. Saturday morning, though, I did sneak out for a bit of shopping at a local mall (where I was the only non-Indian there). I made out like a bandit with some great deals, and indulged in a cheap massage. I traveled to and from the mall by rickshaw (my favorite!!!). Obviously.
I think Mumbai is not really a big tourist destination city. Other than the Gateway of India, it has no major monuments, and few photo opps. It's huge and crazy and full of trash and riddled with poverty. But it's got a feel. It's got excitement. And now I've got some memories to grow on for next time.
Plus, I got two of my favorite travel buddies together again. Priceless.