Thursday, June 10, 2010
I was hoping to greet you with something more exotic, but unfortunately (or conveniently), "hello" is how they say hello in India. I am starting to understand why everyone who comes here feels the need to describe it and say how amazing it is, even though you've already heard the same thing from everyone else who has visited India. That's because it is SO amazing, and unlike anywhere else.
Eddie met me at the airport in Mumbai on Friday morning, and the hourlong taxi ride back to the center of the city was my introduction to this country. It is incredibly loud, because the drivers beep every time they see another vehicle, just to let that vehicle know they're there, as if everyone were blind. It's kind of like a countrywide, earsplitting version of the kids' game Marco Polo. It's also incredibly hot. A breeze helps, but if you happen to be standing in a pocket of dead air, sweat starts pouring off of every part of your body and your mental faculties begin to leave you. So, there are ways to combat the heat. My favorite is to drink a lassi, a refreshing yogurt drink. In the US I had only tasted mango lassi, but here the plain, "sweet lassi" are the tastiest: thick and frothy with a fresh tangy yogurt flavor. It can also help to step into an air conditioned shop or bank for a few moments to take the edge off the heat and prepare yourself for another plunge. Of course this is only easy because as a Westerner with white skin I am welcome anywhere. A street beggar could never get a respite from the heat by stepping into a nice air conditioned shop.
I am sure it is already a cliche to you, but the vast gulf between rich and poor was particularly vivid on our last day. After stepping over street beggars and passing parapalegics dragging themselves along, as well as using rupee coins with images of fingers held up instead of printed numbers, because so much of the population is illiterate, one of Eddie's friends invited us to a wedding party. His father is a very successful businessman, and his family is part of the "Mumbai elite," of which everyone else at the party was a member of as well - "all multi multi millionaires." The party was in a really fancy hotel with a marble lobby and many conference rooms. The fabrics or the saris were captivatingly bright and beautiful, all covered with sequins and embroidered with gold thread. There was a banquet of fine food and a huge open bar. The servers pushed through the crowd dancing to both Indian and American music, pouring drinks down people's throats in a fit of conspicuous consumption. For example in a bottle of very fine Grey Goose vodka they would add a huge amount of fruit juice until the drink was barely alcoholic, and then come around and pour it down people's throats. So it was more about appearing to be consuming than about actual consumption. What a different world!
To me, the most striking aspect of this country is that it all seems to work. There is so much poverty, so many people, so few resources. Along the train tracks there are huge slums and people defecating on the tracks because there is nowhere else to go. Yet in the places I have been (and yes, Mumbai and Goa are very wealthy), there is running water, electricity most of the time. Once you have reserved train tickets, you find your train car (as the train departs on time,) and there is a paper with your name on it. Oh India! That is quickly becoming a common phrase in my vocabulary as I encounter more of this unique country.