Friday 26 June 2015

Can't Mumbai Me Love

If I had to describe India in one word, it would be impossible. By that I mean, the word I would use would be "impossible" and India itself is impossible. It is impossible to fully know, it is impossible to completely understand and above all, it is impossible to predict. I'm not meaning to be derogatory when I say that everything I've seen so far of India is a patchwork of contradictions and inconsistency. In fact, I think this is the most charming aspect to India, albeit the most difficult to navigate.

Holy Cow!

Power and Internet is intermittent at best, and it is currently cooler outside than in my hotel room, even with the tired air conditioner doing its best. Time and dates are a flexible concept and the distinctive Indian head bob seems to be (atleast in my opinion) a refined cultural answer to any question roughly meaning "Yes? No? Maybe?". That having been said, not knowing the answer hasn't stopped any of the locals from answering our questions. I'm starting to suspect that not even the locals are totally au fait with everything and I think that's just the way it is here.


Food, for example, is amazing but difficult. Just when we think we've worked out what a dish is and how it comes, it will be served entirely didn't somewhere else or on a different street. When we order food, we seldom get what we asked for and when we do, it's usually a different colour to what it was yesterday. Sometimes we get cutlery and sometimes we eat with our hands. Sometimes, when we eat in a restaurant, the waitstaff will be fastidious in attending to our every needs, even serving out food onto the plate, every time it looks empty. The next day, the same staff will throw dirty plates and bowls of food down on the table without even looking at us. Even the Kit Kat, the restaurant next to our hotel is different every time we visit. Last visit, for example, had death metal blaring at maximum volume throughout the whole restaurant, making any attempt at conversation impossible.


The overwhelming Indian bureaucracy does nothing to simplify matters either. The best anecdotal summary of Indian administration is our attempt to buy train tickets to the nearby city of Aurangabad. This simple task required three separate visits to the central train station, a meeting with the station manager, being directed to literally 10 different counter windows across 4 buildings and three floors, scanned copies of our passports and two sets of forms filed in triplicate and at the end of all that, we ended up with only 6 of the 10 tickets we asked for. Again, I don't want to sound negative. In a strange way, it's almost part of the magic of India and its definitely part of the experience. Still, its a little bit frustrating when it's too hot to really deal with anything properly.


As a group, we're all still slowly adjusting to life in Bombay in our own ways. Aside from one instance of drinking the tap water, everyone seems to be in good health and spirits. We've done a bit of exploring in our time outside of the NGO but Mumbai is such a hectic city, there's always something new to see or do.

Chowpatty Beach

"Fosters; It's daaaaaaaaaamn cold!"

Happy birthday Jess

We had our first class today at the college we're attending each Friday. The classes are on 'Public policy' in general, and specifically India. The class is full of local students from St Xavier's College, students from UC Berkeley and ourselves. I'd be lying if I said it was the most riveting class of my life, but it could be worse.


On the NGO front, Madison and I accompanied Meher and Kunal to a local NGO school/orphanage for disadvantaged women and girls. Officially, the purpose of the visit was to discuss the finer points of managing the legal requirements and stipulations in regards to running an educational charitable society, which was intense and complicated (see Indian bureaucracy above). The highlight of the trip was definitely the tour around the school, however. The orphanage and the high school is exclusively for girls, although the primary school is coed. Most of the children are orphans, were abused as children or simply have nowhere else to be.


Madison cried but she won't admit it.



As I'm sitting here writing this in a room with Madison and Jess (another girl from the immersion experience) and talking about what we've been most moved by so far. The prevailing thought seems to be something I touched on in the last post; that the more different everything is, the more it brings home how similar we are. Walking along the street today, I mistook a man sleeping on the street for a pile of garbage. He rolled over and looked at me as if I was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. It made me realise that as strange as life here is, we are the strangers. Life moves on here in a certain way and it's just normal for everyone here. For the man in a suit walking to work and the starving beggar he walks past without blinking, this is normal. They live their lives in their own little bubbles, content in the belief that this is just the way life is. Although my life experiences might be at totally opposite ends of the spectrum from the garbage man, our perspectives realities are only as real as each others.


Tuesday 23 June 2015

Get That India!

The mysterious subcontinent. An exciting and foreign land of strange customs and shocking extremes; where the air is thick with the heady scents of exotic spices, blaring horns and the gut-wrenching cries of beggars and orphans. A place of extreme, crushing poverty juxtaposed against the dizzying wealth it surrounds and where a human life is as cheap as the mouthwatering delicacies served for a matter of cents on the side of every gridlocked highway and narrow, over-crowded lane. A cultural landscape attempting to combine the ancient and the modern, filled with millions of hot, sweaty bodies crammed together in the sticky humidity, echoing the national sentiment of "there's always room for one more!".


Well, that's what I'd heard, anyway.

Gateway to India

There is a lot of truth to all of that. India is hot and humid and crowded. It is home to the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor and it is seemingly locked in a gargantuan struggle between adherence to ancient customs and the inexorable imposition of global modernism. I would be lying, however, if I said the transition into this hectic, foreign country was as abrupt or shocking as I expected. Maybe I've simply not seen enough or perhaps it was simply overhyped but I feel I've slipped into life here with a relative ease which I didn't expect. Relative, of course being the operative word. This is by far the most totally different place I've ever been to. It would be unfair and untrue to call it backward, but suffice to say that everything here is the reverse of everything I know back home. It would be difficult to imagine a place more exotic and unusual, and yet, at the same time it is strangely familiar.


The people are incredibly friendly, at no point have I felt at all unsafe or uncomfortable and there is a definite feel of a lingering, ancestral, colonial link to home. If I had to compare it to anywhere, however, it would be Bangkok, or maybe Saigon. Again, I can only talk about what I've seen and what I've seen thus far is limited but it hasn't been too confronting... yet. I'm sure that will change, but so far the culture shock hasn't been uncomfortably shocking. Plus, any shock can be overcome by the incredible food on offer. I don't think I've stopped eating since I've been here and I haven't had anything that wasn't incredible. And for anyone interested (which I will vaingloriously assume is everyone), I have not experienced any gastronomic discomfort (touch wood), despite my perpetual smorgasbord of street food, eaten exclusively with my hands.


The reason I've come to Mumbai (or Bombay, as the locals still call it) is on an immersion experience, run through the University of Western Sydney, in conjunction with the Federal government Colombo Plan, aimed at opening links between Australia and Asia. Whilst I have been (and probably will be in future) pretty quick to criticise of a lot of things done by both UWS and the Federal government, this one is an absolutely fantastic program and I'm extremely grateful. Top work guys! Good hustle! For the program, myself and 15 other students are working as 'interns' at NGO's (Non-Government Organisations - essentially charity organisations) for one month. Myself, and my partner Madison, have been assigned to the Centre for the Advancement of Philanthropy ( Unlike the other charities which educate children, feed the homeless and perform other tangible services, CAP focuses primarily on helping to establish and operate an NGO. In other words, they will help you set up and run your charity which is a valuable service, overlooked primarily by the fact it deals with a little more paperwork and a little less adorable orphans than most charities. Even still, we met with the staff and management today and they all seem like fantastic people, eager to play their part to make the world a better place.


We are staying in a hotel in central Mumbai (in a region I struggle to pronounce) and have no complaints so far. It's monsoon season here, which means its raining pretty much constantly. And when I say raining, I mean pouring torrentially all day.


Also, being a white person makes you something of a novelty and people ask to get photos with you. They seem a bit confused when you ask for pictures with them, however.


Day two saw Madison and I involved in a meeting with a representative from another NGO at CAP and an afternoon of wandering around Kalabar with a few of the other girls who were told not to bothering going to work today, due to the rain. We made friends with Amar, an Indian man who spent the afternoon showing us around the markets and practicing his English with us. Somehow we ended up in a shop that sold traditional Indian clothes.

Other purchases of the day included umbrellas, totally legit $4 Rayban's and 96L of bottled water.


For myself, I realised when I got to Changi airport and had to make a transfer to the other terminal, how good it really was to be out in the world again. I think after two years of staying relatively close to home, my travel bug had become a little content. It's nice to be out in the world again.




NB: I may outsource some of the photography for this trip.