I arrive in Mumbai on no sleep at all.
All night on the plane from Barcelona I gave sleep my best shot, but it just didn’t happen.
Finally, after a stop in Dubai, another quick flight across the Indian ocean, and two hours in line at immigration, I’m reunited with Morena.
I’m unimpressed by the lack of organization at the taxi stop, but only because I haven’t seen anything else yet.
Two minutes later we’re out of the airport and I’ve forgotten all about the taxi-stop experience — now I’m in absolute shock at the chaos of literally everything else.
“Where are the traffic lights?” I ask.
“Not a lot of traffic lights here. Everybody just goes through the intersection at the same time and hopes for the best.”
“What about sidewalks?”
“No, not a lot of sidewalks either.”
“Why do all those buildings look like they’ve barely survived 20 years of civil war?” I ask.
“What are you talking about? Those are nice buildings.”
A couple of minutes later we’re driving through a slum and I see she was right. Let’s not go into details. Suffice it to say, anything I’d seen and considered to be “poverty” up until that moment would be a lifestyle of unspeakable luxury compared to what’s going on in the slums of Mumbai.
There are nicer neighborhoods too, but none of it is remotely like what I’m used to.
Finally, after about half an hour, we get to the hotel, which seems perfectly acceptable.
I feel like I’d better see where this no sleep thing takes me, so I suggest we head down to the beach. It’s just a few chaotic blocks away, and when we get there the sun is setting.
The pollution creates a gray haze over land and sea, and hundreds of people are just standing there, fully dressed, on the sand. Nobody’s swimming, nobody’s sunbathing. A few brave souls have kicked off their sandals and are getting their feet wet. Some guys walk around selling hot tea out of thermoses.
I’ve already been up for about 30 hours, and I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating or not. Probably not. Most probably, it was just fuckin’ weird.
Guess we’re not in Europe anymore, Toto.
A Ganesh Temple
The next day, I want to see a real Hindu temple, and Morena is willing to oblige.
“You’ll have to take off your shoes”, she says.
We’ve already got a driver who’s attached himself to us for the day – for 15 euros he’s willing to take us wherever, and wait for us while we wander around, eat lunch, and see the sights.
We’ve just been to a fort on the edge of the sea, seen more pollution, a large bridge, and a popular cuddle-spot for Hindu teenagers. A couple of Indian guys have asked to take a selfie with me. They must not get a lot of bearded gingers out here.
(I assume some of the people we see are tourists from other regions of India, but there certainly aren’t more than a handful of “Europeans” out seeing the sights today.)
In any case, now it’s time for the temple.
So after another chaotic half hour of traffic, the driver lets us off at a streetcorner in front of a fried food stand. No temple in sight.
We walk a ways, through women selling flower garlands and guys offering (really agressively) to keep our shoes for us while we’re inside.
But we’re not even inside yet. At the entrance (ladies and gents separately, presumably so you can be groped by two security guards of your own gender) the guard turns me back. No cameras in the temple. He makes me keep it in a locker, apparently oblivious to the fact that everyone on the planet is carrying a high-def camera attached to their smartphone – even in Hindu temples.
The entry hall has all the ambiance of a municipal fish market – we leave our shoes at an official-looking “leave your shoes stand” – and find that the actual temple is small, with steel railings guiding the line of people around a little altar to Ganesh.
A couple of beefy, shirtless Brahmins are tending to the image, and the faithful crowd around trying to get closer to Lord Ganesh. One older guy sits cross legged, meditating. Another is on his hands and knees, forehead on the cement. But mostly, people are just crushing towards the golden elephant.
“Is this it?” I ask.
“Yeah. This is it.”
“You know how in Europe we have giant cathedrals, with awesome thousand-year-old architecture, and art everywhere, and a quiet, contemplative vibe?”
“This is nothing like that.”
“Nothing at all like that.”
I had heard, abstractly, that the swastika was an Indian symbol for good luck that the Nazis had co-opted.
(Cultural appropriation… Oh no! #cancelNaziGermany)
But I didn’t realize it was a current thing… that your driver might have a swastika painted on the back window of his autorickshaw, or that you’d find it over the door of a bar.
“Must be 21 to enter. Also, here’s a swastika.”
In one restaurant we go to, after I’ve already been offended by the fact that they only serve vegetarian food, I look up to see a swastika painted on the back wall in what appears to be blood.
“You know, as a modern liberal snowflake, I’d rather not have to look at swastikas while I eat stupid vegetarian food. Also, why is it painted in blood?”
“It’s not blood, it’s saffron! And stop calling it a swastika! It’s not a swastika.”
“What’s the Hindi word, then?”
Morena is silent for a moment, thinking.
Then she says, “Shut up!”
(The Hindi word is svastika.)
I got nothin’ here. No conclusion.
And I’m certainly not here because it’s so spiritual. (Is it? Meh. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, either.)
In fact, this is all about getting Morena’s work permit.
But now I do know what people mean when they say travel broadens your horizons.
Because it looks like what I thought was “the world” up until this Tuesday afternoon was actually just a small segment of the world, with a small segment of humanity living comfortable, well-organized and clean lives.
Well, looks like I was wrong about basically everything.
Guess I’ll deal.
P.S. Honestly, so far India is basically like I expected. But one thing is seeing a couple of movies about it, and another is being surrounded in the whole 360 degree India experience, complete with sound, smells, cows, banyan trees, goats, trash and traffic. In any case, it’s cleaner than I imagined. And noisier. And just as crowded. But really, not that bad, once you get over the initial shock.