Archive | April, 2013

The Italian fishing village in Mumbai

25 Apr

In the small fishing village of Worli next to the bridge between south and north Mumbai, my fiance found a small slice of Italy in India. But more importantly, I walked around a holy basin next to a Hindi temple, unaware that this would tie Dominic and I together for seven lifetimes.

“You won't find any buildings with colours like this anywhere else in Mumbai”, Taronish told us.

Wandering through the fishing village of Worli, we left garbage-ridden Mumbai behind and entered a world painted brightly in pink, yellow, purple and minty green. Small, charming houses stood nodding cheerfully to each other along narrow streets.

Like some of the Brazilian favelas, I suggested.

“This could be Italy!” my boyfriend replied with a small laugh.

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Yet, this is one of Mumbai's slums.

Though maybe not for long. Taronish, a resident of Mumbai and our guide for the day, said the residents are working hard to improve their village. Already, Worli is the only slum in Mumbai with organised garbage collection. The roads, kept impeccably clean, have been constructed by the residents themselves.

“This place changes from month to month. People are renovating everywhere, so maybe in the future this area will not be considered a slum”.

However, one obstacle remains. “They are still working on the toilets. That is why you will find people using the sea. Because there are some public toilets, but they are very dirty. And people can not afford to have private toilets because of the space.”

“And no one is ready to take responsiblity”, Taronish continued. “But they are working on it. They told me, within the next year we will manage that as well. So they are very confident. Very determined to do whatever they want to do.”

Further on, we reached a broader street with multicoloured houses. Bright yellow houses with orange window frames and pink verandas. It looked like a tacky seven-year old's dream lane. Or like Goa, Taronish told us. “That is where these houses get their structures from. Open roof balconies and low porches. You know, they sit over here in the evenings, and chitchat with each other and morningtime have tea, breakfast”.

But it's not only the houses that are colourful in this village.

“The women here like to wear colourful saris. It also has a social reason, because they are the ones that go to the market, you know, to sell the fish. When they dress is very beautifully, they look very attractive so more people come and they can make more business,” Taronish said.

And what about the men? But no. The women in the village are less lucky.

“The men? They generally go in the sea and do the fishing, so they are stinking, working with the fish etcetera. The women on the other hand have to look very pretty and beautiful, to go into the market and sell the fish.”

We strolled around for another hour, our pace slowing down as the heat increased. Just outside a temple in the middle of the village, we discovered a pink and yellow wash basin. Apparently women walk around it before entering the temple. “It's for good luck. You should do it!”, Taronish encouraged me.

So I did. But I got more than I bargained for.

I actually paused briefly at one point before my seventh round was up. “So, what will actually happen?, I demanded. “You will get stronger!”, my guide shouted reassuringly.

But hadn't she mentioned something about marriage as well? But, Taronish had no time to answer, because my fiance, who helped me keep count, ushered me on. “Two more rounds. Keep walking!”

So, I blame what happens next – now or in the very distant future – on him.

Because, eventually, the seventh round was up and I turned to Taronish. “So, what happens now?”

“Now you have your husband Dominic for seven lifetimes!”, she stated triumphantly.

“Err…For seven lifetimes?”, I repeated, “I didn't sign up for that.”

Likewise, my boyfriend. “Whoa…whoa… Seven lifetimes!? I thought it was just for a long time. Because I was thinking in the third lifetime of maybe, you know, swap…”

Laughing, Taronish shook her head.

“No”, she said, simply.

Yes – so that is us, people. Deep blue bliss for seven lifetimes.

More photos of Worli? On our facebook page!.

Or do you want to know more about Mumbai? Our host here, my cousin Eli, has a brilliant blog – Expatliv – about her expat life and her work in the Annawadi slum.

My afternoon in the Annawadi slum

24 Apr

Yesterday, I sat apprehensive in the car. We were on our way to the Annawadi slum near Mumbai airport.

Rewind a few months, and I was next to a fireplace in Norway, reading about the hopes of upward mobility of Abdul, Asha and the other residents of this slum. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, the boy Mirchi explains how the slum huts are circled in by extravagant hotels and a new international airport: “Everything around is roses. And we’re the shit inbetween”.

So yes, I was excited. I had soaked up the pages within days. But now, as we were coming closer to the real thing, my body language revealed an increasing anxiety. Hands clenched in my lap, I had stopped talking. We were on our way to the slum dwellers. The home of the garbage pickers, the alcoholics, and the stink of sewage. We had already had a quick stop at a nearby mall. Though we had followed the advice of avoiding water melon for breakfast and not drinking too much, we needed to make sure. Neither of us had any intention of being in need of an open-air toilet.

The car inevitably came to a halt at the slum entrance, where two beaming social workers stood waiting for my cousin Eli from Bergen, Norway, and her two visitors. “They always come to collect me. It’s safer”. Seeing our stunned faces, Eli added with a laugh, “I also have an agreement with the driver that he will come looking for me and call my husband if I’m not out by the agreed time.” “And you’re telling us this now?!” The concern was exaggerated, but my boyfriend wasn’t entirely joking.

Because here we were. On a street lined with garbage. Next to a small lane that would take us into slum huts and away from the air-conditioned car. I felt India strongly in my nose. A few metres away, two boys were picking at the trash. Splashes of colours appeared, as women in bright red and yellow saris crossed the street. Eli looked at us, “shall we go?”

We were entering Annawadi to help with two rounds of afternoon English classes. An expat in Mumbai since last year, Eli runs weekly English classes for children whose low-income parents apply and qualify for support from the non-governmental organisation Children’s Future India. “One mother told me that if it had not been for the financial support, they would have taken their daughter out of school after the eleventh grade. They would have needed her income”. But, thanks to their child’s sponsor from Norway, Eli said, the family could keep the girl in school. To sponsor a child costs 200 kroner (26 euro) each month. That equals education, food and medicine for a child in Annawadi. Or four coffees at a cafe back home.

I followed Eli, the two social workers and my boyfriend through slumlanes and past my own fears. It was simply difficult to hold on to my anxiety when people were smiling at me. Cardboard huts were few and far between. Instead, we moved through narrow walkways inbetween low and colourful two-storey brick buildings seemingly built on top of the next. As I rounded a corner, I heard a woosh from above. One of the social workers turned to me. “That is not a waterfall”, he said with a grin. From a long pipe leading from one of the houses, sewage splashed into the black river on our left.

Across the river, a few more steps, and we were on the second floor of a small yellow building. In this room, the size of a medium sized bathroom in Europe, fifteen girls and boys were waiting expectantly in silence, seated with crossed legs on straw mats. A large fan flapped slowly just below the corrugated roof. Though in the exhausting heat, the fan felt more like a tease than a relief.

Right. And this is where I came face to face with my own prejudices. This crowded room, filled with slumdwelling children, smelt of – nothing. And the children? In neat rows, and equally neat themselves. None of them with tattered, faded clothes. And none of them even slightly on the smelly side. The girls in light-coloured saris. Their hair either braided or pinned away from their faces with hair clips. Some had fresh flowers pinned to their hair. And the boys? Their shirts looked like they had been ironed. My knee-length tunic (kurta), on the other hand, was already soaked at the throat and armpits.

For the next few hours, I sat mostly in quiet joy. In front, next to a white blackboard, Eli explained, laughed and praised. The children beamed. Arms continuously shot high in the air. “Miss! Miss!” Every now and then, one of the four girls squeezed up against me would adjust an arm or a leg to get even closer. Behind me, a ten-year old girl occasionally nudged her five years younger sister. For some reason, this reminded me of a story Eli once told. When asked what they did after school, the children replied that they helped their grandparents. “We fetch them water and medicine, they said. Imagine, that is what a ten-year old does here; fetch his grandmother water.”

Half-way through the class, we moved on to Bob and Sally who had lost their dog Tiny. My boyfriend and I read it out loud for the children to repeat. Every time he spoke, the children made wide eyes. Norwegians are all very good, but a real English person in one’s English class, now that’s something! For a few minutes the two of us almost reached the stardom of teacher Eli.

She, however, held a different class than what I expected. This was far beyond apple, table, sister. We were doing present continuous tense. And, a grin spread across my face as the children shouted out their answers in unison.

“HE IS MAKING DINNER! SHE IS DOING HER HOMEWORK!”

Having boys and girls in the slum not only learn grammar, but also challenge gender roles in their weekly English class will perhaps not make much difference. But it’s a small step. And an important message in an area where small girls do not walk safely on their own. Each and every girl in this class, which takes place in broad daylight, is accompanied to school and picked up after class by a parent.

And there was to be one last surprise. After the last giggling child had shaken hands with the visitors and disappeared down the stairs, a neighbour put a hand through the open door. From her balcony, only a few centimetres from the room we were in, she held out a chocolate ice cream to Eli. For the past hours, the pitiful fan had done nothing with the ferocious heat. And visible to the neighbour, Eli was not only doing an impressive job but she was also coated in sweat.

So. My afternoon in the Annawadi slum was everything travels should be. Unpredictable, emotional, joyful. I went there not knowing what to expect. Yet, I still ended up with something I did not expect at all.

Hours of eager learning.

These children are in the middle of their school holidays.

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And I understand why they still come - this is brilliant fun!

Spot the neighbour!

Head, shoulders, knees and toes!
Even in the Mumbai slum, Asians do the V-sign on photos.

What’s it like, being in India?

23 Apr

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Well, mainly, chaotic for the mind. This place simply disbelieves time. Walking around in Mumbai, you’d think Alice has put the gold key in the lock.

Perhaps if you walked around on your own, you would have time to digest and pass on to others in a coherent manner what you are experiencing. But, and let me add thankfully, we are being hosted by my wonderful cousin Eli and her family. Expats here since last year, the stories they tell are just as mind-boggling as the sights and smells in the streets.

If I were to tell you everything that has happened since last Friday, we’d spend hours here. But I have India on my doorstep and you have, I assume, lots to do as well. I am therefore going to simply write down whatever comes to mind over the next few minutes. It is bound to be messy, but at least I get to scribble down some thoughts and keep friends and family a bit updated.

So, here goes:

We’re in a high-rise apartment building. On the TV, “You can’t escape the sun, but you can reverse the tan”.There is a swimming pool downstairs, a garden with palm trees, a fence to the shacks. In the shadow of the luxury building, a handful crooked, one-room huts that cost so much to rent that forty people shackshare. Twenty sleep at night, twenty come in the morning to sleep during the day.

We pull out with the car. There is a sikh with a blue turban in the front seat. Past the children waiting at the entrance, children of the construction workers nearby, waiting to get breakfast from the rich man who lives in the building. He feeds them every day. Karma.

In the city, Leopold Cafe of Shantaram, with bullet holes from when terror shock the city in 2008. And the best butter chicken I have ever had. Three strawberry cocktails. We head for the Gateway of India, where children line up to have their photo taken with the pale giants. Men sell giant balloons. Again, into the air-conditioned car, hiding from the 40 degree heat, and onwards to the local tailors. Layers of colourful fabric lining the walls. Tailors bent over small, black sewing machines. Again, I see India through books I have read. A thin line. Two tailors leave their village and the caste violence. I order two linen trousers and buy two kurtas. A maze of shops.

Into the air-conditioned car. To malls, frequented by the middle class and the wealthy. Emporio Armani, Hugo Boss. One has a roller coaster on the top floor. Eli’s daughter and I join an Indian flash mob. We laugh, when in India. People take more photos of me than I take of them. We go to Starbucks, where we meet an Indian college professor who has returned to Mumbai after 18 years in the US. She speaks of gender roles. Of how men speak to her son, her husband, and not to her, and how women here have an uncertain future. We talk about our travels, which we now see as a loop from Mumbai and up north. Who knows, maybe Dalai Lama is home?

The view of Mumbai, the highrises, which makes us compare it to New York. That passes quickly. In the sea, small children swimming. They are not looking for fish, but for plastic, our guide says. They sell it in Dharavi, the slum from Slumdog millionaire. A small boy waves to my camera, he is far out in the sea. Young men demand photos. I decline. I pose for women and children. Our cheerful guide points to people who are standing next to us with scales. You know, we Indians don’t like to watch our weight, she laughs. So, we don’t have scales at home. If we are in the mood and want to know our weight, we come to these. When she weighed herself the last time? A bubbly laughter. Maybe a year ago.

The garbage, the goats, the stench. My stomach churns. A small boy spots my camera and does a little dance. The white, crumbling mosque. Used as a mausoleum, so women are allowed to peek inside. Though not go inside, still inferior. A brush made out of peacock feathers is tapped on my head. Blessed. The temples. I remove my shoes. A six-year old girl looks after them for three rupees. Officious security guards look through my bag. It feels like airport security. I am given a blessed sweet. I give it to a child. I toss the rose from the temple in the ocean and make a wish.

First impressions of India: days spent staring

21 Apr

India has me stunned.

Driving around in Mumbai these past two days, my eyes have been glued to the window. Next to each our respective window, my boyfriend and I have remained largely silent.

Stunned, staring, fascinated. The sights and smells. I have never experienced anything like this.

The moment I have been about to make a comment, there's a new impression demanding my attention. Or I should actually say people, people everywhere.

This is the world's second most populous country. We're in its biggest city. 20 million people. Every second of those lives in the slum. But this city also has more millionaires than any other Indian city. Home to the poorest and home to the richest.

It is fascinating, beautiful, repulsive, noisy. All at once. Red dots on the forehead. A cow eating a bag of plastic along the road. Black rickshaws honking. Shacks, palace-like apartment blocks, beggars and women in colourful saris. It smells. Of butter chicken, garlic nan and dosas. Of heaps of garbage where black crows scramble around with children for the best bits. It is amazingly green. There are hills. The sea.

Mumbai, they say, is all of India tossed into one.

So, give me a few days to gather my thoughts. I don't yet have the words to describe what I see.

In the meanwhile, I stare at people. But as I stare around wide-eyed, there are eyes staring back. Just as fascinated.

So there we are, people staring.



At the Gateway of India – posing with some children who asked for a photo.

Testing the glam Mumbai life – at the Waterstones country club today.

 

Having the time of my life

19 Apr

Here’s the bit where I get around to reflect. On how books are better reads when you travel. How I no longer waste time, but simply have free time. And, in the end, I hand myself a gold medal for managing to pull free and go travelling.

We are three months into our journey. 90 days of far-distant places. Days in which I have had mango cocktails on the beaches of Phi Phi, climbed the temples of Angkor Wat, eaten pig intestines together with shamans in Luang Prabang, and splashed water on everyone in sight during Songkran in Chiang Mai. And right now, I have taken you with me on today’s flight to Mumbai.

A privileged traveller

Travelling long-term and seeing the world should come with an euphoric feeling of being on top of it. Because let’s face it – although often on a tight budget, all Western backpackers are part of a global elite. It only takes a few conversations with locals in the places we visit to realise it. Like the monk I spoke with in Chiang Mai, who dreams of seeing the birth place of Buddha in India, or this chat with our sixty-something taxi driver last week:

Him: “Where you go next?”

Me: “Bangkok. Have you been?”

Him, with a small laugh: “Oh no, I only Chiang Mai”.

But, butterflies can’t flap every day for three months. Although not blase yet, it is sometimes useful to have someone grab hold of you, shake you, and remind you that Alice is indeed dreaming.

And that is where my last read comes into the picture.

A privileged non-worker

Among the joys of this year is having the time to read. In many ways, travelling and reading are part of the same curiosity. A good book pulls you in, takes you wandering and makes you lose all sense of time. And, a good read becomes an even better read when the pages you soak up provides context to what you experience.

When travelling, I have therefore favoured books about the places we visit (ok, or any book by Agatha Christie). The reason is simple: double bonus. Reading is a pleasure and it takes me beyond the first impressions a short visit would normally offer.

But, next to the swimming pool in Chiang Mai, I read a gem whose pages gave some context to our journey itself.

 

In Zadie Smith’s NW, the character Leah sits with her “paperworkpaperworkpaperwork” in a boxy, cramped office.

 

This too will pass. Four fortyfive. Zig, zag. Tick. Tock.

I have backpacked before. But, backpacking at thirty comes with a different understanding and appreciation than at twenty. Mostly, because I now can relate to Leah and her concept of time. In her words, how it is to feel “time poor”.

Leah pushed the message again a few pages on.

In the end, only one idea reliably retained: time as a relative experience, different for the jogger, the lover, the tortured the leisured. Like, right now, when a minute seems to stretch itself into an hour. Otherwise useless.

Time nevertheless speeds up, but only to leave Leah late for her meeting with her friend Natalie. Sitting at a cafe, waiting, Natalie reflects on how she manages her children so that time is maximised. Always moving forward, thinking of the next thing. Only she, at that cafe, is allowed to waste time.

I paused when I read that. Wasting time. Here I was, four months and six countries after my last day in the office (Norway, France, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos – and now Thailand again). Completely taking time for granted.

There are no phones laid on top of the table. I have no meetings to rush to. My inbox contains fun messages from family and friends. Last week, my sister roared with laughter when I cut our Skype call short, “Oh, it´s almost eight. I have to go – we have an appointment to play UNO!”.

We chose – and continue to choose – to not plan our travels. We have it narrowed down to Asia. But, what we do one week is normally planned the week before. This flexibility costs a bit more money, but it leaves us with an even more valuable feeling of having all the time in the world. Time simply feels plentiful when the future is left entirely open. We get to do whatever we want. We can waste as much time as we want.

Back in the book, Leah’s colleague packs her bags.

The folder-shutting and bag-packing begin with an eagerness no different from when they were all six years old and the bell rang. Maybe that was the real life?

Meanwhile, equally semi-detached Natalie is desperately looking for something more than “pure forward momentum”.

 

There is an image system at work in the world. We wait for an experience large or brutal enough to disturb it or break it open completely, but this moment never quite arrives.

Natalie never got her experience. But in the remainder of the book she was determined to get the message across to me that I am clearly living mine. I am three months into a year of exhilarating moments.

By the time I closed the book, I felt like yelling, “YIPPEE! Can you believe this?! Look at me – I am sitting by a pool in Thailand during working hours!! We are travelling the WOOOORLD!

But that would have been socially awkward and inspiring only to me, so instead, I put down my book and made a promise.

Because at one point I will be back in the familiar, back managing my time, back dreaming of weekends. And when that day comes, I need this text. I need to have it written down in black and white that I knew how lucky I was when I was out there travelling the world, bashing in time and freedom.

So I might not be yelling it out loud, but I promise to enjoy this year to the fullest.

And now, onto Incredible Indiaaaa *chants CNN ad over-excitedly*!

Happy, happier, happiest festival on the planet

17 Apr

This weekend came with the kind of moments that, decades later, will still make me laugh out loud. Teemed with all the excitement and wonder and adrenalin of an eight-year old child, we took to the streets of Chiang Mai to splash water and celebrate Thailand’s annual Songkran festival.

Songkran is a three-day New Year celebration in mid-April, the hottest time of the year, that also takes place in Cambodia, Laos and Burma. In Thailand, reportedly the wettest of them all, the city-wide water fights are celebrated with the most gusto and ease in northern Chiang Mai thanks to its old city moat.

The intensity and joy of this celebration is hard to grasp. Thousands upon thousands of children aged five to sixty-five fling water at everyone in sight for three full days. And, as the buckets of water are emptied on top of a stranger’s head, it’s accompanied by a cheerful sawatdi pi mai (Happy New Year) or suk san wan songkran (Happy Songkran).

Blissful drenching in other words.

Traditionally the water thrown on strangers was water recaptured after it had been poured over Buddha statues for cleansing. Today’s fusion of old traditions and joyful celebration was at its most evident in the parading of Buddhas through Chiang Mai on the first day of Songkran. For hours people lined up to watch the procession and squirt water at the Buddhas with water guns.

Rumours have it that elderly people still walk around and gently pour “blessed water” on passers-by to wash away the past year’s misfortunes. But the only ones I met not going for the full-fledged drenching were the ones whose buckets were filled with ice water. Yes, that’s right. A block of ice that had been melted in a bucket. Armed with such ruthful treats, they only needed a lovely little cup to send shivers down someone’s spine.

Icy cold water was however the least of our concerns. It was the moat water we were told to worry about. Though the local authorities drain and refill the moat before the festival, you would still want to keep your mouth firmly shut in between the bursts of laughter. With the moat water, Songkran also illustrated the illusion of choice. As locals in “Songkran shirts”, floral print Hawaiian shirts, lowered their buckets into the polluted canal, you either stayed and waited for the moat water shower or walked out of their reach and into the slow-moving traffic. But there, on top of each roof-less pick-up truck was a delighted Thai family with a massive barrel of water and multiple buckets, splashing everyone in sight.

A piece of advice: The red pick-up trucks that function as taxis in Chiang Mai may be cheap, but they leave you as sitting ducks during Songkran. People posted along the road will be delighted to get up from their lawn chairs with their garden hose as your truck comes to a halt. Most will however take the greatest pleasure in splashing buckets of ice water at you. Yesterday, our merciless ten-year old opponents had time to go and refill their buckets before the light went green. But today. Today we set out armed with 50 water balloons each as well as each our single-barreled 5500 pressure purple and orange water gun. Don’t get mad, get even!

Natti, whom I know from our hotel, said Songkran is getting increasingly wilder. While local teenagers play their part, the main reason is the influx of young tourists. Most of us are a welcome addition. “Falang [foreigners] liven it up”, Natti told me at the end of yet another drenched day. “Many Thai people will come up to you and just gently pour some water on you with a small cup, and say ‘Happy New Year’. But then! Falang!” At this point she put together her hands as if shooting with a machine gun. “KABOSH!! KABOSH!!” Natti laughed, “makes it much more fun!”.

But some people take it too far.

This morning, Natti’s colleague Von called me over to her desk at the tour agency of our hotel to show me a photo. Two young male tourists doing Songkran Borat-style with their shorts half-way down their bums and thongs pulled up as suspenders. In no need of seeing hairy butt cracks, I remember the disdain of my own when spotting the two yesterday. Now, local media in Chiang Mai were running a story on disrespectful falang.

“And look at this”, Von showed me a longer text chunk in Thai. I could only make out the figures 22.20. Reportedly, falang had been at it with the water fights until someone called the police to shut them down. Thai people let the festival wind down around seven each day to make it possible for people to walk around safely and dryly at night time. Tapping her computer, Von shook her head. “You know, people come home from work or dinner around that time. That’s not fun”.

So. Join in, but don’t be a bully in the playground.

And now, here are a few photos for your enjoyment: