Today I came home from work and I wasn't totally exhausted from the heat. I stopped to pick up some onions from a street vendor, and when I got home the first thing I did wasn't a cold shower to wipe off the accumulated dust of a full day in Mumbai. Fifteen days in and I'm getting used to this new life.
I went for a walk this morning. It was the first time I've headed West from my apartment. First are three blocks of storefronts and street vendors, which gives way to residential buildings and a small park with metal climbing structures and discarded amusement rides. Soon comes Lady Jamshedji Road which is quite busy with traffic and meat shops slaughtering chickens right on the sidewalk. Away from the main road I walked through narrow alleyways with children squatting on the ground, women selling piles of garlic and custard apples, and men with buckets of raw fish on their heads, swarming with flies in the late morning sun. I had entered into a predominantly Muslim area, and as I approached a large white and green mosque several shopkeepers beckoned me to buy large silk shawls with sequinned images of Mecca embroidered onto them. Many people gave me quizzical looks - this is not the type of place where tourists venture.
I've been having trouble finding things to photograph. When I told people I was coming to India, the usual response was 'Oh, you'll take such nice photos there.' All across my travels in Southeast Asia and Israel and Eastern Europe I've never been one to shy away from shoving my camera in someones face in the name of art or photographic anthropology or something like that, yet here life plays out on the streets. In Indonesia the market vendors expected the photographs, but here it doesn't seem necessary. Not because I feel like people would be offended or unwilling - in fact when people see me with my camera sometimes they even indicate that I'm welcome to photograph them. It just seems unnecessary in that even though I'm seeing so many things that are different than from my life in Canada, it feels like these people are just living their normal lives along side me living my normal life. I smile at them as I walk past but I'm not filled with the desire to photograph the women crouching on the sidewalk weaving intricate strands of flowers to hang in their houses and temples. I'm merely walking to work, and they're already at work. This morning as I set out with my camera and my big bottle of water, all I could seem to collect were an assortment of faded scratched street signs and crumpled papers falling off of walls.
I've been thinking a lot about barriers. Every window in my apartment is covered in a thick iron cage. Every morning I sit on my balcony and eat my breakfast while looking through the metal bars at the busy street below. This morning a coconut seller pulled up and started serving coconut water straight out of the shell, but the bars held me back from going down and buying one. Almost as soon as I got here I developed an ear infection, and until yesterday was only able to experience the sounds of Mumbai in that filtered way that someone hears through water or earplugs. Maybe it's the air conditioning, but maybe it was my body's way of creating barriers, holding me back from fully falling into Mumbai. In college we talked about breaking down barriers and creating community, but in this city of 21.3 million people, perhaps these barriers serve some sort of purpose.
On Sunday I took the train for the first time. I can see the white stone wall that borders the tracks through the metal bars from my kitchen window. It's maybe 20 metres away, but I hadn't climbed the stairs over the wall to see what was on the other side. My friends gave me very clear instructions, and even wrote out the name of the stop I needed in English and Hindi on a little sticky note. I handed the sticky note and 30 rupees (60 cents) to the woman at the ticket window, and she gave me a little piece of paper. The train journey took almost two hours each way. I managed to get into a ladies carriage, special carriages on the train designed only for women for safety and comfort during peak travel times. I stood by the open door (far enough away so as not to fall out), and watched as the train rushed past families and children living their lives on the tracks, only 20 metres from my apartment. But these barriers contain me. I met up with my friend at Dadar station and we travelled on together.