I've been in India for a whole week now, and so many things have happened. In some ways it feels like I've been here for a while - I've acclimatized to walking in the middle of the road with cars and motorcycles driving around me, I've been to Big Bazaar four times and can navigate the hordes of Indian families preparing for Diwali, and I know which of the endless light switches on the wall turns on the fan. But at the same time, outside of work, home, Chabad, and the Uber rides between them, I really haven't seen anything. Apparently there's a big outdoor market on the other side of my block, and it's only a 15 minute walk to the Arabian Sea, but by the time I get home from work in the evenings I'm so sweaty and exhausted that all I want to do it take a cold shower and sit in the AC (unfortunately for me, the AC is still broken, but tomorrow supposedly a repair man is going to come, uninstall the AC unit from the wall, take it to his repair shop to fix it, and then come and reinstall it afterwards).
It's raining outside. The type of rain we never used to get in Vancouver, the type of rain where the water comes down in solid sheets and there's no hope of staying dry so people put away their umbrellas, slip off their shoes, and enjoy the emptiness in the streets. I'm sitting on my caged-in balcony, enjoying the coolness the rain has brought, and sipping Assam tea, handpicked in the North of India, exported for production to England, and then left in my apartment presumably by the British former-resident of my apartment.
I arrived in Mumbai at 2:45 am last Tuesday. After a brief round of introductions I visited the Tiphereth Israel Synagogue to attend a ladies class on Sukkot. In the future, one of my jobs will be to lead the monthly discussion about women's roles in Judaism, especially in relation to the Jewish calendar and holiday rituals. We return to the office, and my boss takes me on an adventure to Big Bazaar. Big Bazaar is sort of a mix between a grocery store and a department store. Think Walmart concept but Safeway size. At this point I was exhausted and jet lagged and perfectly happy for my boss to push around a shopping cart and point out which of the 30 or so types of lentils would be best for me. I poked at a large bag of ghee, a bright yellow clarified butter used for cooking. I bought four rolls of paper towel.
The next day was Hoshana Rabba, the 7th day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Indian Jews fast on this day, as a way to give a little bit extra before the end of the High Holidays, so the office was closed, and I started to unpack before I got too tired and took a nap. I ventured back out to Big Bazaar. My first time alone in India! Big Bazaar was very overwhelming. The Hindu festival of Diwali is coming up on Thursday. It's a day of celebrating the return of their lord Rama after his exile, and everybody is busy preparing with colourful lanterns and special foods. Even though it was the middle of the day in the middle of the week, Big Bazaar was packed with people. There's a certain way you need to prod people with the end of your wagon so they know to try and shimmy over a bit so you can get through. It's quite literally like many many cans of sardines. After buying kosher dishes and bottled water along with groceries and cleaning products, I realized walking the ten minutes home along the side of the busy road with a highly impeded sidewalk was not going to be practical, so after I paid for my groceries, I tried to figure out how to order an Uber. Big Bazaar has this very strange type of parking lot which only has room for six cars, and is at the end of a long narrow one-lane driveway. A sign at the entrance says 'parking lot full' but people seem to ignore it and drive up the narrow driveway anyways, which causes a lot of confusion, cars driving in reverse, and clumps of shoppers trying to make room. I had six or so heavy bags, so I pushed my shopping cart to the main road where I figured the Uber would meet me. He did. I started unloading my bags into the back of the car when one of the grocery store employees came over, told me to sit in the car, and loaded my bags for me. He then demanded a tip. All I had were 100 rupee bills, which is two Canadian dollars. A friend later told me an appropriate amount to tip would have been 20 rupees.
Wednesday night began the string of Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Shabbat, a three-day Jewish holiday which equates to 73 hours without using electricity or transport, so I took the hour-long taxi ride to Chabad (which cost less than $5) and spent the holiday with the sweetest family there. They're Israeli and have four kids under the age of five, and they're such amazing people. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say about Chabad of Mumbai so I'll save it for later, but it was a very nice time and I'm very thankful for their hospitality.
Chabad is located a short walk from the Gateway of India, a massive archway completed in 1924 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary on their 1911 visit to India (things don't always happen so quickly here). Friday afternoon after yontif lunch I set out to explore the area around the Gateway of India, and the Taj Palace Hotel which is nearby. However, since it was the holiday, I couldn't use my phone for directions, or even to look up a map to get my bearings. So with that I left the safety of Chabad and set out to explore the streets of Mumbai all by myself (spoiler alert: I made it home safely). The area around the Gateway itself was mildly underwhelming. There were very few Western tourists for what I've been told is one of Mumbai's biggest tourist attractions. In fact, the area there was my very first time seeing white people since I landed in India (except for at Chabad). The area around my apartment and work are almost completely locals, which is kind of nice. People sometimes look at me quizzically, but only in a way which indicates that they wonder what a young white woman is doing buying cleaning products in such a grocery store. After the Gateway of India, I headed back along the water. Feeling confident in my way-finding abilities, I took a few extra turns to go down some of the streets. I spent some time in a market watching chickens go from being alive to being skinned and chopped up within a few minutes. I saw carts piled with different varieties of garlics and eggplants. I saw a funeral procession with a body wrapped only in fabric and adorned in bright flowers being hoisted above a crowd of sari-wearing women. And suddenly I found myself back at the water's edge, looking out at a beach made entirely of heaps of plastic garbage. Small children were wading into the water picking out plastic bags. Corrugated tin shacks were piled on top of each other as far as I could see. I turned another corner and found myself walking past guarded high-rise apartments with fancy SUV's parked in front. Within several minutes I was back at Chabad.
On Sunday I accompanied one of the girls I work with on a program called Sunday Funday. The program takes classes from a school in the Kalwa Slum on educational trips to different attractions around the city. For many of the kids it's their first time leaving the slum, or experiencing this type of leisure. This time they visited the Dolphin Aquarium, a strange sort of theme park that has no dolphins. It does have a large round room filled with an assortment of semi-tropical fish tanks in the centre of a murky fish-filled pond. The path around the border of the pond is lined with wire cages containing diseased rabbits, a few colourful birds, and a single iguana. The kids were quite excited. The volunteers from the JCC led the kids in icebreakers, and then around through the different exhibits. The kids could ride a little toy train, as well a four-cart hand-operated ferris wheel. They thought it was amazing. For lunch, a taxi pulled up and a woman in a full sari took a bathtub-sized pot in a blue plastic Ikea bag out of the trunk. She spooned out massive servings of biryani rice, potato and pea curry, and papad for the kids, who set their plates on the ground and enjoyed their lunch. I sat and ate with them, even though I'm generally opposed to eating on the ground here. After lunch we made origami Diwali decorations. The kids were so sweet, and it was a very special experience to be able to spend so much time with them. Before I came here I watched a lot of movies like Slumdog Millionaire, and of course had all sorts of pre-conceived notions about what these kids would be like. I didn't really know what to expect, but the kids were remarkably well-behaved and very sweet. Sunday Funday isn't one of the programs that I'll be working with a lot, but it was a great opportunity to see some of the work that's being done, and I'm very grateful that I got to have that experience.
And that brings us to today. One of the guys from the office picked me up on his motorcycle, which was very exciting, and not nearly as terrifying as I imagined it would be. I was in the office all day which was nice, getting settled in and getting to know everyone. So far it's been amazing, and I'm looking forward to continuing to explore my new home and hopefully do some important work.