Friday, October 24, 2008

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

Post by: Beth (Who am I kidding? This is a joke. Raja doesn't even READ the blog anymore.)

So I woke up this morning and decided to take some pictures of the view from our window in our bedroom. Bombay is situated on the Arabian Sea, and apartments that have a view of the bay (Mahim Bay) are laid out in an interesting way ... sort of long and narrow, with 2 out of the 4 sides constructed almost entirely of windows. In ours, the bedrooms and living area are on the water side, so each of those rooms have one wall that is essentially just a huge window. The goal of this construction-style is to have a panoramic city and water view that is as uninterrupted as possible. If you walk into our front door and straight down the hallway, looking right, the only breaks in the long stretch of city line and water are the walls that separate one room from another. This is beautiful and really what sold us on this apartment, but the disadvantage comes in the morning when the sun (is there anything brighter than the morning sun in India? seriously??) comes in through the huge windows. This is an easy fix with heavy curtains, but with all the work still being done in here, we don't have very heavy curtains yet. Still, it's a VERY small price to pay to be able to wake up and look out our windows and see an amazing view of Bombay.

The view is great and we're high up enough to where we can hear the sounds of the city, but can't see the roads and traffic and masses of people. It's great to be able to relax in the morning in our home before we submerge ourselves in the dusty streets, cacophony, and confusion. There are points in time where we'll be in a restaurant or a shop, or even in our home, and I literally forget I'm in India. (I've taken to judging restaurants' atmospheric quality by whether or not I feel like I'm in India during the entire meal. If you lived here, you'd understand.. Everything is so vastly different that if I manage to be surprised by the madness when I step back out on the streets, that place of establishment gets 5 stars in my book of ratings.) This actually happens a couple of times a week, but I've also learned that if I search for reminders that I'm still in this country, I can usually find them. The perfect example provided itself this morning as I'm taking (what I find to be) picturesque views of the city and water line. So peaceful.. almost awe-inspiring... and then I look down to one of the outdoor patio areas and am quickly reminded "Oh yep.. I'm in India. Definitely." The cause of the reminder?- One of the construction workers that is working on our apartment building is taking a shower on the patio, with the use of a hose and some soap he brought from somewhere. (I will say that it's not uncommon for people to sleep and bathe outside in this city.. After all, if you remember the pictures of homes from my earlier blog post, many homes don't have air conditioning or power. It's not very practical to take an actual shower in a home that has a dirt floor, and it's much more comfortable to sleep outside where the breeze from the water can find you. So anytime you drive down the streets after midnight or so, it's not uncommon to see sleepers lining the sidewalks, and in the mornings, many residents don small clothing items and shower outside.) Things like this stop seeming strange after a while and I hardly take notice anymore. But most of you readers would probably find it as curious as I did in the beginning here, so I wanted to post some photos I captured from our window. (By the way.. this man DOES have shorts on. They're a tan color, so hard to see in the photo, but they ARE there, I promise. I never would have taken photos otherwise!!)

This is right after I spied him with my little eyes.... I saw this man undressing on the patio and was very confused. I tried to urge Raja over to the window so he could help figure it out (maybe it's a man thing??) but he was busy trying to get the internet to work. I figured "Fine.. if my alarmed cry of 'This man is getting naked on the patio!!' doesn't seem to concern him, must investigate further on my own." I hurriedly scrambled to find the camera, because thought to myself that a man undressing in broad daylight may be leading to some Indian activity that is picture-worthy.

By this point, I'd realized that he was just taking a shower. Was less eventful than originally thought, so was disappointedly putting camera away.. hopes of authentic Indian activity in which one must be mostly undressed have dissipated in a puff. Then remembered that most of you may never have been spies of Indian men showering outside, so started clicking away with camera. (Raja still seems unconcerned that I am taking pictures of could-be-naked man.)

Once shower complete, said man dried off with thin cloth-like towel he brought along. Quite efficient at this, he is actually.

Is now almost dressed and ready for work day. Entire shower took only 3 or 4 minutes.
Picked this moment to halt my voyeurism, and casually sauntered back to bed.. Offered Raja camera to view photos, but still seemed uninterested in the could-be-naked guy from the patio.

In the meantime, will keep eyes peeled for any authentic Indian activities requiring partial undress.

Monday, October 20, 2008

"Home is where we tie one end of the thread of life."

Post by: Beth
*Note: these pictures seemed to upload a little bit blurry for some reason.. possibly due to slow internet connection. I'm going ahead with the post, but will fix these pictures ASAP.

Sorry for our prolonged absence … We have been moving into our apartment this past week so we haven’t had internet access during the move. Never fear, though.. I have still been diligently taking pictures and have some new ones to share! :)

As I’ve said before, there are lots of vast differences between the places I’ve lived before and India. Specific to Mumbai (since I can’t speak for the rest of India on this one), the homes are incredibly different and some are like nothing I’ve ever seen in the U.S. As is par for the course in India so far, there’s a broad spectrum covered, with plenty of extremes on either side.

Driving through different areas, some apartment buildings are very nice on the outside and look like any apartment building you can find in any large city in the U.S. They’re tall, architecturally-complex buildings with pretty facades, roof decks, and rows of large balconies. In contrast, and sometimes lining the same streets as the tall luxury apartment buildings, are the small huts and shacks that serve as homes to so many residents here. These are the ones that are different from any home I’ve seen before. Many of these homes don’t have a front door… the “lucky” residents may have a tarp that covers the hole that serves as the entrance. The roofs are usually “made” of crinkled aluminum sheets that are just laid down on top of the rows of shacks. Driving on the highway gives an interesting perspective to these types of houses: The bright sun glints off all of this silver metal, making it hard for your eyes to adjust. Once they do, you can see how large these areas are… Some of the villages have thousands of homes constructed in this way, and trash and debris are piled on top of some of the roofs to keep the aluminum pieces from getting caught in the wind and blowing away. (It sounds silly, but upon seeing these tiny, shaky homes, my first question to Raja was: “They don’t get hurricanes here off the bay, do they?” Luckily, the answer was “Nope.” I can’t imagine what a bad storm or hurricane does to these homes… It’d be a sad sight during monsoon season, I’m afraid, and I hope they have some type of system in place to avoid flooding in these low-lying homes.) It’s a strange picture to see, and further confirms the contrast of life situations here: The tiny shacks piled together with garbage holding the roofs down, and behind it, a huge gleaming apartment building soaring above the fray.

The pictures I’ve taken of different homes in the area show the huge gap between the societal classes here. Raja and I were just talking yesterday about how easy so many of us have it compared to so many of the people here, and it's easy to take so many things for granted. Until you see things like this, it's almost impossible to imagine so many people live without electricity, plumbing, and a house that has 4 solid walls. Despite that, many people in these villages seem genuinely happy. Children skip down the streets laughing, fathers teach their little children to ride bikes, moms rock their babies and chat with other moms, and teenagers play enthusiastic games of cricket in the streets and fields. It's overwhelming and at the same time, humbling, to peek into their lives and homes.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"When in doubt, go shopping!"

Post by: Beth

Luckily for me, no matter where we go in our new city, there’s one thing we are guaranteed to see: shops. And just as most activities in India boast a huge range, so do the shops here. Literally every street here is flanked on both sides by shops ranging from tiny to massive; dark, cramped spaces to sprawling, brightly-lit retailers. If you need it, chances are a number of these varying shops have it, and the only trick is discerning which shops sell what. Many of the store-front names are scrawled in Hindi, but some do boast the larger-than-life English fonts that I’m used to from home. On any given street, you can find a miniscule hole-in-the-wall store selling leather goods for prices unfathomably cheap compared to U.S. prices, multiple boutiques displaying towering high heels and shiny handbags, stalls brimming with elaborate hand-sewn silk bedcovers and curtains, and a tiny shop selling pre-paid cell phone minutes for a small token. They even have tiny copy shops on the streets, which is really just a window with store clerks hurriedly copying customers’ projects on 1 huge machine… It’s a far cry from FedEX/Kinkos, for sure.

The vendors manning most of the smaller street stores and stalls generally don’t list prices on any items for sale. Raja and I had read of this odd set-up before moving here, and understood beforehand that we would be prime targets for severe price gouging… carried out with a “trustworthy” smile, of course. Sure enough, it only took a couple of days before we were treated to the extortion practices by our new neighbors. I’d seen pictures of a particular street in Bandra known as “Linking Road,” and was excited to see it in real life. It features stall after stall of clothing and shoes, each booth brimming with goods and teeming with potential customers after a bargain. It’s loud, crowded, chaotic, and completely disorderly. I start off tentatively… picking up one sandal and carefully inspecting it, turning it over in my hands and looking closely to see if it’s going to fall apart as soon as I put it on my foot. My timid demeanor didn’t stand a chance in this frenzied environment, as the stall vendors began flocking to my sides, associating my blond hair and blue eyes with a rare chance to overcharge to the point of ridiculousness without being questioned. They had no idea who they would be dealing with when it came to an actual transaction… I quickly came to realize this when Raja hissed in my ear “If you see something you like, don’t tell them… tell me.” The challenge was on, and he stood back and observed sales being made between regular customers and the merchants. Since the majority of the sales were taking place in Hindi, I had no idea what was being said, but Raja apparently listened closely to gauge a fair price point. It wasn’t long before I found a sandal I liked, so I elbowed Raja and held it up for inspection. He grabbed said shoe and waved it around in the air, asking in Hindi, “How much??” I found out later that the initial asking price was 7 times more than what the regular customers were paying, and of course Raja was having none of it. Four minutes of animated quarreling ensued, and we finally walked away with my sandals, paying only 25 rupees (50 cents) more than the majority of sales being made between long-time residents and the shopkeepers. Definitely an experience…

After the stall-shopping on Linking Road, the malls here come as a welcome change of pace. There are actually prices listed on the items, and each customer seems to pay the same amount regardless of skin color, accent, or status. The malls are splendid in their appearance, and such a change from the streets of India. The shopping centers are huge, shiny, incredibly clean, and some are even nicer than what you commonly find in the States. It’s a remarkable contrast to the dusty roads you travel to get to these malls, and it’s another experience where it’s actually possible to forget you’re in a place as different as India.

Whether it’s “American-style Chips” we’re after, bargain sandals, or a handbag that’s just unusual enough to be fun, here’s obviously no shortage of shopping available here in Bombay!

Here's an example of some of the stalls on Linking Road:

This photo is sort of dark, but if you look closely, you can see that there are hundreds of pairs of sandals hanging in each stall.

Handbags... I haven't yet looked at the handbags in these stalls, so not sure as to if I'd like many of them, but they're pretty abundant so I'm sure I'll take a look at some point. You can see the tiny ballet slippers hanging up here, and just below, the sandals that line the stalls. Each stall has 3 sides that are covered in shoes, and of course the 4th side is the opening, so you just step up and look at all of the shoes. They put a small nail just in the bottom of each sole and hang that nail on a metal grid that serves as the wall.

These clothing stalls go on for blocks and blocks. It's amazing to me, but there are ALWAYS plenty of people at every single stall, even in the middle of the day. At night, these stalls are ridiculously crowded, so much so that it's even difficult to walk up close enough to see the items, so you have to jump in when there's an opening.
And in complete contrast, the pictures below show some of the shopping malls in Bombay. They're always spotlessly clean, and the store attendants are so happy to try to help you find what you're looking for.
This is an outdoor mall called "High Phoenix Mills"... It's about 15-20 minutes away from our home on a day when traffic isn't too heavy.
Many of the malls have 5-6 levels, and are impossible to cover in a day.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"When all's said and done, all roads lead to the same end. So it's not so much which road you take, as how you take it.”

Post by: Beth

Our apartment is on the 4th floor of a very tall building. Tall buildings around the Bandra area in which we live are not too uncommon due to the number of business and condominiums present, but the number of elevated buildings is still largely inferior to the number of one and two story homes and buildings. This means that being even on the 4th floor gives us a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood and surrounding vicinity. Since we can look down on so many structures and roads, our balcony is a great spot for taking photos.

Tuesday morning was the first chance we got to see the area around our home in the daylight. It was surprising to me to see palm trees, coconuts, and so much greenery. If you look out from our balcony and keep your eyes focused directly ahead, it really looks like a resort town. I’m only used to palm trees and coconuts being this evident in vacation spots, so it’s a strange juxtaposition to see the tropical atmosphere, then to look down at the roads and homes below and see a life that seems very hard compared to the average middle-class life in America.

One of the first things that I noticed when I was able to see the area in the daylight was just how many forms of transportation there are here, and how greatly some of them differ from what we’ve become accustomed to in America. Everything looks different … most cars look different, taxis are unrecognizable to people that associate a large yellow vehicle with a taxicab, and there’s generally a lot more manual labor involved here when moving things around.

Here is what’s called an “auto rickshaw.” It’s a 3-wheeled automobile that runs on gas, and is a take-off from what used to be more common: the rickshaw, which is a cart that carries passengers and is pulled by a person. Rickshaws (I’m told) can still be spotted frequently in smaller cities and towns in India, but have mostly been replaced by the auto rickshaws in the larger cities, like Bombay. Auto rickshaws have a meter, much like a cab does, and we’ve been warned that expatriates and foreigners can be easily tricked by the meters, as they count in rupees and in a funny manner. We have not yet ridden in an auto rickshaw, mostly due to the fact that it’s an open vehicle, so there are no windows and locked doors that separate the passengers from the beggars in the streets. Not quite up for that one yet……
For the most part though, these automobiles are quick, small and very maneuverable, inexpensive, and a fine method for traveling small distances.

Next up… buses. There are LOTS of buses that come through the area, and they’re usually jam-packed with people. They are not air-conditioned, so all of the windows are always down. During rush hour (which is like 4 hours in the morning, and 4 hours in the evening), there are incredibly long lines of people waiting for buses when getting to and from work.

To finish, the most interesting mode of transportation (to me anyway) is people themselves. There are so many people here that single-handedly move items themselves. You see people pulling large carts of vegetables and fruits down the main streets, right alongside the cars, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, and cabs. They take their places in the lines of traffic and since traffic usually creeps along at a snail’s place, they have no trouble keeping up with the flow of vehicles. Also fascinating to me is the number of people that have mastered carrying baskets, buckets, and boxes on their hands... USING NO HANDS. They just walk along normally, like nothing is happening, and you’ll look at their heads and see a huge basket full of beans, peas, or any other number of goods. I haven’t really been whipping my camera out very much when traffic is moving so slowly, but I was able to capture these shots from our balcony.

And last but not least, I uploaded some videos we took of the streets around our apartment. It doesn't really give a great sense of how traffic is here on the main roads, but it's still interesting. I'll try to take some video of main road traffic soon and upload as well.

Fun, no? You really see it all here. When I see more interesting ways people get things from Point A to Point B, I’ll make sure I take pictures and post them so you can see.

We hope you're all doing well! :)

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"If you look at Bombay from the air . . . you get a sense of its possibilities. On the ground it's different."

Post by: Beth
Disclaimer: This post is extremely long, making it not for the faint-of-heart. Feel free to read in sections. ;)

So we are safe and well in Bombay, as many of you know from my limited emails, Facebook posts, text messages, etc. We’ve had sporadic internet access, so that combined with how busy it’s been means no blogging obviously… until now! I decided to go ahead and write the first post, and then hurriedly publish it during a time we had internet so I can get photos up. They’re already piling up – I’ve taken over 100 pictures so far (omg I sound like my mom….) but am sparing you and not posting all 100. There is so much to capture in this city, and there are sights and pictures words just cannot paint. I’m making a commitment during our time here to post as accurate a view as possible – this means the good AND the bad, so I’m going to photograph and tell of the gritty parts as well as the shiny parts.

That being said, Raja and I have sort of developed two mottos here that are helping us adjust and take everything in as best as possible:
1) You really do have to take the bad with the good here. There is simply no way to have only the good. We already feel as though we’re in a bit of a bubble… We are staying in a serviced apartment that has a hotel-like feel to it. People come in and clean each day, we can order room service at any time, the exterior and interior are both very nice. Some of the restaurants and shops we’ve visited have been incredible – some even seem to be held to a much higher standard than what’s considered “nice” in the U.S. The service in nice stores and restaurants is like nothing I’ve experienced before. People cannot wait to make you comfortable, smile at you, refill glasses, replace your napkin, make a chocolate milkshake even though it’s not on the menu, etc etc. It’s actually surprisingly easy to forget we’re in India when we’re inside at some points. But all that changes with one step outside.
2) You cannot possibly come here and try to compare it to anywhere you’ve lived before (for most people). It truly is a different world. If you come here and expect the roads, the buildings, the people, the day-to-day life to be similar in any way to what you’re used to, it’s going to be almost impossible to adjust.

Being here and trying to adjust to all the changes has definitely been slightly overwhelming, as expected. Many times we’re in the car, it’s silent, because Raja & I are both looking out the windows, trying to take in and register what’s going on around us. I’ve been taking the camera most places with us, and sometimes I get so sucked in to watching and observing that I forget I should be taking pictures to show everyone. Some of the times, I really can’t believe what I’m seeing and how different it is. Other times, I’m surprised by the blatant and numerous influences from the west. Some of the photographs I’ve taken so far reflect both instances, but overall, it’s been so different that I had trouble figuring out the best way to lay out the photos for our friends & family to view. (“Should I do it in chronological order… in categories… just post them on a photo-sharing site?... etc) I decided to post them sort of in categories so I could also explain some of them and compound the photos by things we’ve seen that I didn’t get to take a photo of (Most of my pictures so far have been taken from the safety of the car, so if I miss a shot because of the car going too fast, I’m just out of luck.)

To start with, we left New York in the evening. As we flew, we passed through the rest of night, then into daylight, then back into night. So we took off AND landed in the evening (both at 9pm actually). I’m not sure if that made the effects of jet lag better or worse... Could be good because it felt continuous in a way, but could be bad because we slept through the daylight hours, so we had almost 24 hours of darkness. Sort of a strange feeling. J At any rate, we did get to see the sun setting after we woke up, and it was beautiful from the plane, despite the fact hat we probably missed the best part when it first began to set. I also got to take a picture of the first star I saw in India! (You can see it in the 2nd picture below… The shiny point on the engine is not another star – just a light on the engine casing. The only star is that one shiny point above and to the right of the engine.)

Yes, we had officially entered India by this point, but we still had no idea what to expect after we touched down. The airport was a bit of a jolt for me, and actually a bit of nostalgia for Raja. The last visit he made to India was almost 10 years ago, so he seemed really surprised and said that it smelled exactly like what he remembered. I couldn’t really smell anything, but I guess it’s this subtle thing he remembered from visiting so many times when he was younger. For me, it was a lot of noise, chaos, and instructions in another language I couldn’t understand. (All I know is they weren’t saying “Hello, how are you?” “Please listen” “I speak a little bit of Hindi” or “I am very well today” because those feel like the only Hindi phrases I can still say or understand amidst all the super fast talking and slang terms they use. Unfortunately for me, Indian people don’t seem to use these phrases very much. I, however, am like a parrot with these few beloved phrases.) Luckily, Raja busted out some Hindi from SOMEWHERE and was able to talk with the people that helped us with our bags, the rental car and driver that were arranged, and some of the airport officials. I think once I got a second to catch my breath and stop staring around wildly and emerge from the yelling crowd, my first complete thought in India was “What?? What is going on here… This truck is moving, but there’s no one driving it!???” A few seconds later, I realized that Indian drivers sit in what we consider to be the passenger seat. It also did not take long to realize that when people told us there were really no hard-and-fast traffic rules in India, they were not lying. Trucks, cars, animals, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, taxis, autorickshaws… EVERYWHERE. No paying attention to any of these “lanes” I’m so familiar with. No certain direction they must go when on a particular road. No problem with U-turns, anywhere, at any time. And a lot of honking of the horns. Almost constant honking of the horns. I’m not sure which vehicles have the right of way, seriously – it could be cars, but I’m not sure. Trucks surprisingly get left behind, seemingly due to their size and inability to wedge themselves in to tiny gaps in traffic. Sometimes motorbikes seem to get the go ahead. And many times, it’s the animal (sheep, goat, cow, horse, you name it) crossing the road that seems to be the highest bidder at that auction for the right to pass.

The drive to our apartment/hotel was actually quite alright … The driver of the rental car was very nice, spoke English, and came equipped with bottled mineral water for us. He had no trouble finding the address, so we mainly got to look outside at the streets, roads, and neighborhoods. First impressions: crowded, tons of people in the streets, lots of noise. We’d be riding along and all of a sudden we’d be in the middle of some festival taking place in the streets: drums thumping, women in glittery saris dancing to music, children running and laughing. I also got a very sudden glimpse into the poverty we’d heard so much about. All along the drive, we saw families fixing their cots on the sides of the roads; bathing in washtubs filled with muddy water, children without clothes on, and hardly anyone fixing their beds for the night had the luxury of shoes. In America, so much of the country tries to hide its homeless or struggling. Here, there’s simply too much of it to hide, it seems. It’s all out there, and if you look away from it, you’re merely greeted with it on the other side of the street. For better or worse (they are pretty dark and from a moving vehicle), here are many of the pictures I was able to snap on the way to the apartment.

For everything that's different about this place, there are 2 things that look pretty familiar here: gas stations and billboards. :)

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to post some of the pictures from our apartment and also show some of the roads around where we live. The transportation methods here alone are so different from what I’ve seen in the States, so I took a few pictures of how people get themselves and their belongings from Point A to Point B. Check back soon… : )
We hope you’re all doing well!