I don’t know how many cities are worth a 24-hour train ride in sleeper class in 42-degree weather with no air conditioning but Mumbai is definitely one of them. Riding along in the back of a cab heading south along Marine Drive with the Arabian sea breeze sweeping my sticky skin (after sweating on my bunk for 24 hours), I watched as we passed extremely modern buildings, REAL coffee shops, couples walking hand-in-hand and a really handsome man holding his 5-year-old daughter who looked like she just came from her ballet class (my heart melted). I directed the cab and we pulled up outside of Chateau Windsor Hotel in Churchgate. Since the spot was booked by my “I’ve never left America!” aunt, I knew I would be welcomed by air conditioning and a shower with an actual shower head. Sadly, this is how I define luxury now.
After my well-needed shower, I dressed in my new Punjabi suit that Rekha and Jashoda made for me: solid red pants and a red kurta with white hearts all over it cut into a t-shirt with a beautiful neckline. It was given as a gift to greet my mother in at the airport when I picked her up in Mumbai. It was actually a very emotional moment between the three of us and Saroj. I sat with them in the sewing studio chatting with mataji, papaji and Harseet on the phone. The three of them had travelled to Sri Ganganagar to visit dadiji, mataji’s mother, for the weekend. Saroj passed the phone to me and I listened to Harseet’s little voice “bua, bua!” and for some reason, I instantly started to tear up. I love that little boy so much. When he grows up, what if he doesn’t remember me? He’s only four-years-old; he literally turned four on the 28th of April. How will he remember these moments? Rekha asked me why I was suddenly so sad. I expressed how I felt and I began to cry. “I only have 6 more weeks in Gajner when I get home, Rekha. I’m going to miss you guys so much.” Rekha, Jashoda and Saroj instantly started to tear up. No one really realized how soon I’d be leaving and no one wanted to let the thought cross their mind, let alone say it out loud. “We will miss you so much. You are our family,” Rekha responded. I looked into all their eyes, one after another. Rekha sunk into her chair in heartbreak, Jashoda curled up, bringing in her knees to her chest as tears ran from her cheeks to her leggings and Saroj stared into my eyes as tears rolled one after another from her big beautiful eyes and splashed onto the marble floor. “No rona, no rona” Rekha said, wiping my tears “No crying, no crying”. Just as she did so, Rajesh walked into the house and began to laugh lightheartedly at us. “No rona, Jazzmine,” he said softly. It took a while for my eyes to dry but eventually I took a deep breath, hugged all my sisters and put on my beautiful new suit to show them how it fit. As I put it on in the hotel room of the Chateau Windsor, I couldn’t stop thinking of their tear filled eyes. Although most people in Mumbai don’t wear Punjabi suits, mostly kameezes which are long and loose fitted tops, accompanied by tights made from cotton or light material, I had to wear it. And I wore it with a smile on my face all around Mumbai that day.
I planned to have lunch with a really sweet family I had met in Bikaner one morning at Harasar Haveli, my Sunday breakfast spot when returning home from weekend trips. The Gajner gang and I actually got into a really great discussion with them regarding the documentary “India’s Daughter” after I noticed it was no longer available on YouTube in India. We all chatted for a while and ended up exchanging contact information before they headed out to Jodhpur. The three of them, Anuradha, her husband Piyush and their 21-year-old daughter Aadya, were on a tour of Rajasthan checking out all the major forts and castles (and there are tons in the state of Rajasthan) but are originally from the beautiful city of Bombay.
I walked along Veer Nariman Road to the Churchgate local railway station and with just 10 rupees I was able to go about 10 stops to Mahim where the family lives. 10 rupees! I sat in the fan filled ladies only cart surrounded by all different types of Bombay women. Young girls with red bows and braids in their hair, giggling away in their blue and white school uniforms; older women in their beautifully coloured sarees stretched out with their feet up on the seats; girls around my age dressed in modern jeans, shoes and sleeveless tops hanging halfway out of the cart, letting the wind cool their slender bodies; and women in kameezes and tights checking out my very un-fashionable and huge Punjabi pants.
Anu picked me up from the station, greeting me with hugs and mineral water. We jumped in a cab in the humid Mumbai heat and headed to her apartment, enjoying each others company in the comfort of her living room chatting and drinking refreshing carbonated water with lemon and sugar. When lunch was ready, the four of us indulged in an incredible and traditional Maharashtra meal prepared by Anu, followed by fruity ice cream topped with strawberries. It was such a pleasure to spend time with them and the food was so delicious. The people of India really couldn’t be any more loving, giving and caring. The hospitality never ceases to amaze me.
I walked along Marine Drive as the sunset behind me, the wind cooling me off after an extremely hot day in the city. When the clock finally hit 10pm, I skipped and jumped with excitement into a cab heading for the Bombay international airport to pick up my mother Kathy, aunt Cindy and cousin Jack. The airport is massive and extremely beautiful. It looks like it belongs in Dubai rather than Southern India. The arrival terminal is decorated with a very luxurious and ginormous fountain with purple and blue lights colouring streams of water as they shoot up elegantly into the air. It reminded me of a scene in a romantic film when someone picks up a loved one from the airport. I sat in the heat with a swarm of mosquitos and Frankenstein in hand. As more foreigners started to leave gate B, I closed my book and leaned over the metal rails separating the huge crowd of taxi drivers and loved ones from those arriving. I spotted my family and waved and jumped and looked like that usual airport idiot who is never seen right away by the people they are awaiting. Finally the two blondes and Jack spotted my flailing and approached, my mother running in front and embracing me in a death grip of a hug. They were all surprisingly well rested for having just endured a 19-hour flight and looking to hit up the bar (well, they are my family after all). With not much traffic for a Saturday night in Mumbai, we were to and from the airport to Churchgate within the hour. The sea breeze welcoming them as we turned into our hotel.
With only two days of Mumbai, and a lot of city to see, somehow we managed to accomplish quite a bit, drink quite a lot and purchase almost everything. We started our first morning in Colaba, checking out the Gateway of India for some touristy shots and cruised along the Colaba Causeway buying silly jewelry, funky harem pants and beautiful hand crafted leather shoes. The causeway is so much fun for tourists. Filled with rows and rows of shops on both sides of you as you walk along the sidewalk. My excitement oozed out of me (literally, we were all sweating out almost every ounce of water in our bodies) when I spotted Leopold’s Café, which has been made especially famous from the incredible Gregory David Robert’s novel Shantaram, but is generally pretty famous due to its existence since 1871 and the variety of delicious drinks, desserts and dishes it offers. We sat in the cute café sipping lattes and indulging in their cheesecakes and moussey tarts while I admired the décor. The café has definitely not been re-done since the late 80’s. Old school soda company ads remain on the walls along with those silly antique posters that you usually find for sale from the street vendors of New York, and long white fans hang low from the ceiling to cool off its parched and foreign visitors. Following our coffee break, we continued our shopping and then stopped for another chill out…followed by more food, more walking and more relaxing. It was definitely a true “vacation” day.
To catch the beautiful pink and orange, creamsicle coloured sunset over the Arabian Sea, the four of us caught a cab to Haji Ali Dargah, a mosque set at the end of a kilometer long-ish cement walkway out into the sea. The crowd was chaotic. We all held on to each other as we scurried in between people, avoiding falling off the edge of the walkway into the garbage filled waves reaching for us. We spent about two minutes in the mosque before the crowd started to trample us. We immediately made an exit, a little defeated, but caught the beautiful sun as it set into the sea behind the gorgeously lit up mosque. It was definitely the crowded “hello and welcome to India” experience my family needed but hadn’t expected.
Our final day in Mumbai was quite a shocking one for my family as we began early with a tour of Dharavi; the slum made famous by the popular Hollywood hit Slumdog Millionaire. But what you saw in the film is not Dharavi. What you saw was Hollywood trying to turn Dharavi into what you think a slum is.
Slum (noun) – a densely populated usually urban area market by crowding, dirty run-down housing, poverty and social disorganization.
This is the only definition I found that I actually sort of liked. Slums are usually defined as “a district inhabited by very poor people” but this isn’t always true. The term slum originated from the many illegal areas of housing that you find in some parts of Asia, like India and Pakistan, and Mexico. When there isn’t enough room in the city, and people cannot afford rent, especially migrants, they set up homes on government owned land. This is defined as “illegal” housing, an illegal slum. Dharavi is an illegal slum but with approximately one million people living in it, the government knows it would be a bad idea to come and demolish the homes leaving 1/10th of the cities population homeless and out of work, and work in Dharavi is plentiful. The slum is actually very industrious and commercial and their waste management system is incredible. Everything is recycled, everyone has a job and it is actually the largest leather exporter in all of India. And it isn’t just inhabited by the poor. Many doctors, police officers and other men and women with good paying jobs live in the slum in 100-square foot homes with their family of four or six. Although my aunt and mother were a little weary about walking along the 2-feet wide by 5-feet tall alleys through the densely packed homes of those in the Muslim area of the slum, I stepped through with a smile, while trying not to smash my head, and greeting all the giggling children who passed us with a namaskar. It was a surreal experience and our guide from Reality Tours was extremely informative.
The rest of the day was spent cruising through more markets, indulging in delicious North and South Indian cuisine and passing out for a well-deserved nap. After sunset, we strapped our hilariously huge backpacks onto the roof of a cab and sped down to Metro Cinema to catch our overnight bus to Goa. We squeezed into double beds aboard the bus and slept pretty terribly during the 14-hour journey as the driver insisted on speeding along the uneven and slanted roads from Mumbai to Margao.
Getting off the bus in Margao, Goa, the air was just so different; so tropical and humid. Squished in another taxi, we rolled through colourful villages filled with Portuguese and European architecture, rows and rows of dense palm trees, farm land being worked by beautiful dark skinned Portuguese and Indian women and then, we pulled up to the cabins on the beach of Palolem; rows and rows of blue cabins with a view of the entire beach. It looks like you could walk it for days and days as it wraps around mountains and rocks. After a beer, or two, we dove into the warm sea and smashed into waves as our suits and hair filled with salt. The beach is really something else. It doesn’t feel like I’m in Bahamas or Cuba or Mexico. This is an Indian beach and the feeling you get here is pure serenity. Definitely worth the horrible sleep to get there.
As I sit here to write and reflect on the last couple of days with my family, I am accompanied by a milky Nescafe, my bikini (I haven’t felt this naked in a long time), the sound of the waves crashing into the white sandy beach and a sea breeze that I’ve never felt or experienced before.
Oh my Goa, this is heaven.