Saturday, May 31, 2008

First Impresssions

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Generalities, India tagged at 3:01 pm by graceandpoise

At the end of Day 2 in Mumbai, my first impressions are, in no particular order:

  • Sidewalks. These are not necessarily meant for walking – sometimes they are for sleeping, sometimes for selling, sometimes for parking, sometimes they’re the local stray dog hangout, sometimes they’re for holding construction materials, sometimes they’re simply in such poor repair that they’re in desperate need of some construction materials of their own.  Every now and then the sidewalk will disappear into either a worn-down section of dirt or, worse, a gaping hole where there was once a grate covering an entrance to the sewer systems.
  • Smells.  The city smells dusty, and perhaps a little chemically.  It smells like flowers when standing under certain trees in the midday sun.  It smells like noxious exhaust from all of the rickshaws and buses when in close proximity to any of the busier streets.  It smells like mold and mildew.  It smells like garbage burning, or like food cooking (both, by the way, common uses for sidewalks – see above).
  • Shops.  We have been searching (unsuccessfully) for a real supermarket-type shop.  Perhaps they’re just not in our neighborhood.  What is in our neighborhood, though, is everything from super-upscale designer boutiques to grotty little one-man shops selling only one thing, and everything in between.  And what really gets me is that these are not in separate areas – one might stumble upon a boutique no “normal” person can afford to shop at in the middle of 3 blocks of nothing but dusty little demi-storefronts catering to those with very little to spend, with the proprietor (or his/her 10-yr-old son) squatting outside on the sidewalk munching on something.  I saw our neighborhood described as the “Beverly Hills of Mumbai” somewhere before I came, but the comparison doesn’t quite hold unless Beverly Hills recently incorporated significant chunks of South Central L.A. (perhaps without the guns, but I’m not entirely sure) – it makes for a heady, somewhat overwhelming mix of sights, sounds and experiences.
  • Food.  The Indian version of Chinese food isn’t bad, though it’s frustrating to have only the names of the dishes on the menu with no description to provide a clue as to what you might get if you ordered it.  They seem to love gelato around here, though I have not tried it yet to see if it approximates the Italian version at all.  One can easily live a vegetarian lifestyle here and not want for a variety of flavors, textures, and styles of preparation.  And yes it’s true – generally no pork or beef (though we did find a teensy “western-style” deli today that has ham on offer, tucked between vendors selling wilted vegetables and shops with dusty notebooks and bars of soap).
  • Drivers.  These are what make walking dangerous.  Honking the horn seems to be a national pastime.  It is even common to see trucks with “Horn OK Please” painted on the back.  As in Korea, there seems to be an unspoken rule that one must constantly endeavor to rush forward and pass the people in front of you.  However, whereas in Korea pretty much everyone is driving a standard-size car or SUV, here they have added agility (and therefore added unpredictability) due to the prevalence of smaller vehicles like 3-wheeled rickshaws, motorcycles, even occasionally horses or push-carts.  Traffic lights and laws are not always obeyed, and pedestrians certainly do not have the right of way.
  • Weather.  It’s hot.  Very hot.  And very, very humid.  It’s sticky outside, and the air feels thick to breathe.  After a few hours of wandering around, you become sticky yourself.  I think I am developing a new appreciation for that line from the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird: “Ladies . . . were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum powder.”

More later – but that’s my 2 days’ worth for the moment.

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