Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mumbai - First Impressions

Picture a school of fish, a boiling mass of fish swelling and contracting but always connected, maintaining shape and a sense of order amongst the roiling chaos.Up close, these fish endlessly change positions, narrowly angling towards the inside and outside of the cloud, flying past one other, never satisfied with where they are, always striving ahead. From far away, however, the shifting mass has a sense of order and direction. Somehow, it works.

Now picture each one of those fish with a cute sounding horn. And lights they can flash. Watch them use their horns and flash their lights every time they want to change position. Note how they're all talking on cell phones. Now picture cows standing in the way of those fish clouds, big, horned cows that won’t budge or even take notice of the commotion. And then, everywhere along edges of the cloud, watch as sea horses (pedestrians – stay with me as I really overdo this analogy) fearlessly dart across and through the cloud, seemingly ignorant of the speed and the narrow separation from crazy fish and the horns and the lights, intent on getting to the other side of the cloud. And every once in a while, the cloud completely loses all forward motion as it collides with identical looking clouds coming from other directions. The horns and the lights and the ringing cell phones never stop.

That is driving in India.

We’ve been driven to various destinations during our stay and I find myself torn by an eager desire for the entertainment of near-death experiences counterbalanced by a deep desire to avoid further witness to the destitution and poverty found everywhere. The poverty is absolutely everywhere. Try this on for size. There are 1 billion people in India. The country is smaller than Australia and yet has more people in just the city of Mumbai (18 million) than in the entire land down under. Approximately 50% of the Indian population is illiterate and one third of the world’s poor is found in this country. India has admirably matured as a young democracy – gaining its independence from Britain in just 1947 – with a GDP that ranks 11th in the world. However, income distribution is highly skewed. 42% of tax revenue is generated by the city of Mumbai alone. Yes, almost 50% of all Indian tax revenue comes from this dot on the west coast of India, home to the country’s finance industry. Population density is crazy high, income is very low – any surprise at these roadside sights? This country just can’t raise the revenue to help and can’t sweep the poor out of sight to pretend otherwise. There’s just no room.

Jarringly, even the most destitute wear brightly colored – and to my male, Western eyes – beautiful saris. But these saris are worn by women squatting in filth, many holding babies, making do with next to nothing in tar paper shacks located on every sidewalk and beneath every overpass. It’s so overwhelming that perhaps it’s no surprise how the other Indian classes seem to ignore the destitution so completely. They just don’t pay attention when walking through and among it (it’s unavoidable to walk otherwise). They acknowledge it, they bemoan it, but there is a what-can-you-do attitude accepting each person’s lot in life. Even the lowest castes appear to accept their lot. I could be wrong but during our short stay I have the impression there is no ambition amongst those lower classes. They’re born as beggars and that’s fine, that’s what I was born to do, could you spare a rupee? Shannon has had trouble accepting this acceptance but I have begun to resign myself to the reality.

All this is viewed through a car window. In person, the Indians have been extremely friendly, quick with a smile and a “Hello, sir” or “Hello, sir. Hello, madame.” (Never just a “Hello, madame”. There’s still an undercurrent of chauvinism that recognizes men as being in charge. You know, maybe I could get used to this place…..) All of the top hotels are fronted with security who check automobiles for explosives or contraband and asks every visitor to place their bags on an x-ray belt, just like at the airport. Mumbai has known terrorism so the security is welcome and reassuring. Once in the hotel, as Shannon already shared, we’re in an oasis on the Arabian sea. Great views from our room window and surprisingly good food. Not that I expected bad food but we don’t find ourselves compromising in the name of overseas travel. The food’s good! We wimped out our first full night here and ate Italian food at an in-hotel restaurant. You know what? The Indians can do Italian!

Oh, by the way, we’re here for Surrogacy. We look around and think cripes, we've done it. We're in India...

I’ll share our first full day in the next post, Shannon the day after that.

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