It’s all coming back to me…

After spending several days in Mumbai, I was feeling restless. I’m not totally opposed to the tourist experience; but given the choice between staying with friends or a behind-the-scenes tour from a local that leads to traveling to their home town outside of the original destination and meeting their family and staying with them for a few days or the conventional tourist experience, I’ll choose the former options, for sure. For me, the conventional tourist experience is more appealing with at least another tourist or two, and I wasn’t having any luck flagging any down on my jaunts around Fort, the area where I was staying. I also wasn’t giving off the “I’m-searching-for-companion-tourists” vibe, because, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really looking for them. 

I was feeling ready to get going with my project. I was more in the mood for…well, not continuing to spend a lot of money every night on a hotel and then more money to get around and do touristy things. I was beginning to feel like having no plans for a whole week in Mumbai was a waste of time and money. If I had had friends in Mumbai, it would’ve been a different story. Or even if I was more familiar with the city…but felt so big, so noisy, so overwhelming, and mostly, so expensive. I wasn’t feeling it. 

  Fortunately at the peak of my feeling ready to move on, two things happened. I found out that some friends from Pune had moved to Mumbai and I got the approval from AIIS to come to Pune for a few days and sit in on Marathi classes for a few days. I checked out of my hotel on Tuesday morning and headed to the Mumbai CST train station to buy a train ticket to Pune. A few hours later, I was enjoying my first India train ride of 2015 – sleeper class (no a/c and no designated seats, which means that you could have as many as five people sharing a bench in one berth, plus someone stretched out above you and five across and someone above them – and oftentimes more people than that!). I hopped on the ladies car – no men allowed. Just women and kids. 

 The train ride was a bit longer than expected due to some delay (who knows…) but it was pleasant enough. Five hours after leaving Mumbai, I had arrived in Pune. I had tried to make arrangements to stay with some current AIIS students, but relying on my Marathi teachers to communicate my request to students that I had never met before proved to be trickier than I thought it would be. About 3/4 of the way into the train ride, I did get a call from a former student named Jake who is completing his dissertation in Pune and has a flat in the Koregaon Park (KP) neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to the total last minute nature of my arrival, he wasn’t able to host me Tuesday night. So when I arrived in Pune, I whipped out the Lonely Planet and looked up a hotel (I’ve since decided that this book must weigh at least 5 lbs and why lug it around when I can easily buy a digital version?! I’m leaving it in Mumbai.) I ended up at a pretty nice place in KP…pricier than I wanted but it was close to school and it was only for a night. It’s all part of the experience, right?

I was able to sit in on classes at AIIS on Wednesday and Thursday. It was so good to be back and see my teachers, meet new students, share my 2 cents with current Fulbrighters, and try to articulate what exactly I will be attempting to do in a week or so. I was surprised with how much Marathi I remembered but also feeling overwhelmed with how much was locked away in the deep recesses of my brain under a rusty lock whose key is lost under a pile of three years of English and AmeriCorps and St. Louis… 

  Before coming to Pune I had been wracking my brain trying to remember how to say “to the right” and “to the left.” But hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember. Then Wednesday morning I checked out of my hotel and argued a rickshaw wala into driving me to school, saying I would pay him 10 extra rupees for my bags. I was anxious; would I remember how to get there? I had gone every morning for 4 months. Surely it would come back to me. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. The minute I was sitting in the rickshaw I remembered. “Oojwikade ani nunter dawikade. Ha, ha. Tithe za. Ha Deccan College ahe. To the right, then to the left. Yes yes, go there. That’s Deccan College.” 

I spent Wednesday and Thursday in class and getting to know a smattering of students (one of whom had actually read my blog before when he was looking into coming to AIIS). It seemed like hardly anything on campus had changed. Not so for the rest of Pune. There is now a Starbucks in KP. Globalization. Sigh. 

Friday classes were canceled and I headed back to Mumbai to meet my friend, Noor, and her family. After a brief scare of losing my phone (it fell out of my pocket when I stopped at an ATM) I finally caught a bus to Bombay. By 10 on Friday I was at Noor’s place, with a hot, home-cooked meal, a cool shower, and a freshly made bed waiting for me. It was the best sleep I’ve had here so far.

  Today, Saturday, was a chill day. I slept in, read the paper, caught up with emails, did a bit of research, and then went to temple with Noor and her family. This evening we went out and managed to find some postcards. It seems in this digital age, the art of sending postcards is quite passé. But I promised about 30 people a postcard from India. And I will deliver! After a bit of walking and shopping, we had chaat (delicious Mumbai street food) and then walked home. Over some snacks and wine we reminisced on how we first met and all the adventures we had the last time I was here, missing our friend Robin who had been a part of it all. As we walked home from the market tonight, I told Noor,  “I am finally feeling relaxed and comfortable here.” With good food, the comfort of a friend’s home, and the familiarity of the pace of life here in urban India coming back to me, I am starting to feel at home.

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up early to head to Jawhar, where I will meet Shubada, the woman who will be working with me as my “translator” (read collaborator, co-conspirator, companion) for the next several weeks. There is a seed festival in Jawhar in the afternoon. We will take a day or two to get to know each other and sort out the details for our upcoming journey. Then it’s on to Nagpur to reunite with Ajay and Yogini. And from there, back to see Pournima, and then Sangita, and all the rest of my Mulgavan friends. I. Can’t. Wait.


You Live, You Learn. Today I’m $30 wiser.

Saturday morning. I woke up and skimmed over the section on Mumbai in my Lonely Planet India guidebook. There are lots of sights to see, and I figured that as I wandered around I would stumble across a few. I narrowed down the areas that I wanted to explore: The Fort Area and Colaba.

I waited till about 10 am to hit the train. I wanted to avoid the morning rush. When I got on it was much less crowded, although all the seats were taken. All I had to do was wait a few minutes and several women indicated that I could have their seat since they were getting off at the next stop. I sat down and let the breeze from the fans and the open windows wash over me. I looked out the window and saw sights of Mumbai that didn’t make the guidebook cut: the slums, kids playing wiffle ball, “billboards” which are ads painted on concrete walls–remarkably the font doesn’t really differ from one ad to the next.

I reached CST, snapped a few photos and ducked into a Cafe Coffee for some caffeine. I had slept well the night before, but a cappuccino and a place to flip through the guidebook one last time wouldn’t hurt.

cappuccino from Cafe Coffee

I oriented myself on the map and ate the last few bites of my samosa. First order of business, find the CS church in Mumbai. I had looked up the address on a whim earlier that morning and it happened to be right in the Fort neighborhood and in the direction of the rest of the sights I wanted to see. It was easy enough to find. Leah greeted me in the Reading Room and invited me to come back later that evening for the screening of the annual meeting. We talked for a bit and then I went on my way.

I walked south down Mahatma Gandhi Road, passing bookstalls and coming across the first sight on my path: the Flora Fountain. 

As I continued past the Flora Fountain down MG Road, I came to the University of Mumbai. This was an area of Fort that I had meant to spend more time observing, however it was at this point that Albert began to talk to me.

He said he was a student of the University of Mumbai and we chatted for a little while as I continued to walk. He called me “like his big sister” and insisted that he show me a festival that I was so lucky to be here for because it happens only once every 4 years. Every time I asked him what festival it was his answer was drowned out by the noisy traffic. We walked quickly and I discovered that Albert was from Pune. We passed the cricket fields, the cricket stadium, and the football stadium. Finally we arrived at a temple and burial site. This was where the victims of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai were burned. Apparently the Obamas had paid their respects here on their last visit to India.

Lord Krishna

I couldn’t understand the name of the temple, and when I asked Albert to spell it he bashfully said he couldn’t. This should have been my first clue. A University of Mumbai student in his 3rd year of studies and he couldn’t spell the name of this temple for me? I didn’t think much of it, giving Albert the benefit of the doubt.

where they burn the bodies

We sat and he told me about the crematorium and how the rich burn their loved ones with sandalwood which costs about 4 lakhs (400,000 Rs, $8,760 USD). The middle class use mango trees (6,000 Rs, $130 USD) and the poor use banana trees (4,000 Rs, $87 USD). It takes about 3-5 hours to burn the body and the family sits across from the body as it burns. The ashes are collected and the rich take them to the Ganges, the holy river in Northeast India. Those who can’t afford to do that usually throw the ashes into the Arabian sea, just a few minutes from the crematorium.

where they store the ash pots

Albert and the guy at the temple gate showed me the wood they use, where they store the pots to collect the ashes, where they bury the babies, and the sacred tree. As we came to the end of our tour, the guy at the temple started talking about how expensive it is to bury the babies and to cremate the poor. I realized they were asking me for a donation. I was cornered! I felt obligated to donate something. After all they had given me a tour and let me take pictures. Fortunately I had been smart enough to keep my bigger bills in my pocket and when I opened my wallet I showed him that I only had about 400 rupees, which is about $8. They were not happy that that was all I had and told me there was a bank nearby, but I insisted that was all I could give. The feeling of being ripped off began to grab at my core, leaving me feeling a little ashamed and nauseous.

sacred tree

When we left the temple Albert insisted that I go to the ATM since it was one that accepted all cards and I would need more money. I was a little confused, but went along with it. Again, I put most of the money that I took out in a separate compartment of my bag. We got in a cab so that I could go on with my sight seeing. Albert said he had to teach a class at 2 and first he had to stop by the bookstand and buy his students their books. They cost 300 rupees each and he had five students. He looked at me. He looked at my purse. Not again! I was frustrated, but also felt grateful that Albert had shown me around. I got out my wallet.

“I only have 1,000 RS,” I told him.

“That’s only 3 books,” he said.

“I’m sorry, that’s what I have.”

“Ok,” he said, holding out his hands. After I gave him the money he asked me if I was happy. I lied and said I was.

“Because if you’re not happy you can take the money back.” He knew I was upset that he was scamming me.

“No, it’s ok,” I said, rolling my eyes at how naive I had been. As Albert got out of the cab he said make sure you don’t talk to Indians. They just want your money. He repeated these words of advice several times. I laughed. Ok. He had gotten his money, but I think he could tell that I was a well-meaning young girl who had learned her lesson and didn’t want to be put in that situation again.

I made it to the Gateway of India. Built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V, it was completed in 1924. It’s a gathering place of local and foreign tourists. You can pay to have your photo taken or you can buy a giant balloon. I didn’t stick around long. The afternoon sun was hot (where were the monsoon drizzles when you wanted them?) and the plaza was busy. I was ready for a quiet cool place, The National Gallery of Modern Art.

There were very few people there. It was nice to walk around slowly in a quiet place (although the sounds of the traffic bustling outside were still audible). I was able to gather my wits about me. I also really loved some of the pieces on display. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed, so I can’t show you the ones that I liked.

Next stop, FabIndia. It was time to get some local garb. I walked back up MG Road and by the time I got to the CST area, it was about 5pm. Just in time for the screening of the annual meeting at the CS church. I was hesitant to go, but thought it would at least be nice to sit in an air-conditioned room for a little while before taking my train back to TISS. I’m glad I went. I enjoyed hearing thoughts about what church really is (structure of Truth and Love, in any form) and how change is important in the infinite understanding of Truth.

After the screening I was able to get a bite to eat and chat with some of the members about my project. These conversations led me to think about what types of solutions I could be offering farmers. I need to be wary of just marching into a community, taking their stories, and marching right back out. What’s in it for them? A story in a newspaper really doesn’t make much of a difference to them. I also began to think about what angles I could take with my research. How can I link farmers’ criticism of Monsanto in the US to the struggle of cotton farmers in Maharashtra, India?

Victoria Terminus (CST) at night

I had lots to mull over on the train ride home. It had been a live and learn day. It seems like most of my days here have been so far. And to think, I haven’t even started trying to learn Marathi yet!

Well, it’s Monday morning and I’m going to wander around the area surrounding my campus a bit. Tomorrow I meet with my advisor, Ritambhara. And on Wednesday I finally head off to Pune. Things are unfolding, slowly but surely. Until next time!

Foreign Regional Registration Office, aka waiting.

Hello! It’s hard to believe it’s been almost exactly a week since I set sail on this adventure. And so far it is living up to the name adventure! Orientation in Delhi was busy and between lectures and feeling the jet lag, there wasn’t much time to go out and explore. But adventure was waiting for me in Mumbai!

On Wednesday I flew to the coastal city of roughly 18 million people with 6 other Fulbright students. Five of them are going to be living here in Mumbai and one of them, like me, is affiliated here, but will be living and working in Pune. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive, 3-4 hour train, and 5-6 hour bus from Mumbai to Pune. Housing in Mumbai is so hard to come by that many people commute from Pune to Mumbai everyday for work!

All of the Fulbright student researchers in the Mumbai area are being put up at the YMCA in Bombay Central. I had already made arrangements to stay at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the institute that I am affiliated with for my research. So, I’ve been on my own!

Well, mostly. On Thursday morning Arunima (uh-ROO-ni-muh), a facilitator hired by the United States India Education Foundation, Mumbai (USIEF), met me at the TISS campus. Her roommate, Sharon, had accompanied her. I felt bad. I was very out of the way for the girls. Chembur is in the “suburbs” of Mumbai and they had to come quite far to get me. They smiled and said it was no problem. We all got in an auto rickshaw and headed to the train station. Our mission for the day: meet up with the other Fulbright students at the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and register. Since we will be in India for over 180 days straight, we need to register and show proof of residency and explain why we’ll be here for so long. At the Delhi orientation we heard all sorts of horror stories about the registration process; for some in the past it had taken days…4-5 visits to the FRRO. Yikes!

We got to the train station and Sharon took my hand. It was rush hour and this was going to be quite an experience! Sharon smiled and asked if I was going to be ok. I said yes; I felt relieved that Sharon and Arunima were watching out for me.

In Mumbai, the first car of every train is a “Ladies Only” car. It was very crowded on the platform and even more crowded on the train; we had to push and shove our way onto the train. Arunima and Sharon went in front and behind me so that they could help me make my way through the crowd. Once on the train we crammed into the middle of the car and held onto the overhead handholds. There is room for about 4 women in each row of seats. Two rows face each other. There are four of those in each compartment of the car. Women crowd their way into the car, standing between the rows of seats facing each other and in the aisle between compartments. You have to keep an eye out for any one who is getting ready to exit the train so that you can push your way to their empty seat. After about 30 minutes of standing, the three of us managed to get seats. In another 15 minutes we made it to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, previously called Victoria Terminus).

across the street from CST, what I saw when I emerged from the station

As we emerged from the pedestrian subway, my hostesses took turns telling me about the history of CST. It was designed and built by the British. It was completed in 1887 but the first trains started running from it in 1853. It and the other buildings in the Fort area were some of the most beautiful in Mumbai, leftovers from the British rule. According to my guidebook CST is “a meringue of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles whipped into an imposing, Daliesque structure of buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained glass windows….adorned with peacocks, gargoyles, cheeky monkeys and lions” (Lonely Planet India, 2009). It certainly was an impressive piece of architecture!

Exiting CST

We walked around, located the FRRO and then called the other students to see where they were. They were delayed at the USIEF office getting all the various papers that everyone needed in order. So the three of us headed back to CST to find a place to kill time. McDonalds. Yes folks, I got coffee with Sharon and Arunima at McDonalds. It was the first time I had been in a McDonalds in about five years. The menu was small and it had been “Indian-ized.” The coffee was small too, and milky and sweet–almost more like a mocha. A couple other girls from their hostel stumbled upon us there. We all sat and chatted about various things–where I was from, what each of us was studying, what our names meant, what sights I should see while in Mumbai. Finally, about 2 hours later we got a call from the group. They were on their way. So we went back to the FRRO and waited for them.

Waiting. That was the theme of the afternoon. I should have had some food at McDonalds. I was at the FRRO from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. Fortunately there was a decent waiting room. I think it was even air-conditioned. I was prepared for the wait and had brought a book. The artwork on the walls was very interesting. It wasn’t like the cheap, tasteless art that graces most official offices in the US. I think that the art was actually for sale and the waiting room doubled as an art gallery. What a great use of space and a clever way to sell your work since so many people are trapped and end up staring at the walls while they wait.

Fortunately the most difficult part of the registration process was sitting for five hours and not eating anything. All of us got our FRRO booklets and hopped in a cab. We went to Chowpatty, a neighborhood on the coast, famous for it’s beach and marine drive that looks beautiful when lit at night. After eating we all felt invigorated and decided to try to get cell phones. We walked around Mumbai for a few hours. A friendly guy on the street stopped and asked us if we were on couchsurfers. It’s big here in India! A few of us are members, so he walked with us for a bit and directed us to a big mall where we’d be able to get cell phones. We successfully got our mobiles and wandered around the maze of stores, picking up SIM cards, plug converters, and other miscellaneous things. This mall had pretty much everything. After we left the mall I said farewell to my fellow Fulbrighters; it was getting late so I hopped in a cab and headed back to CST to catch a train home.

Stay tuned for another update soon! I set out exploring on Saturday and had yet another adventure. Check back in a few days to read about it :)