Saturday, 11 February 2012

The kindness of strangers

I'm home and so happy to be here. The last few days of the trip were clouded by my battle with an intestinal bug, so I have a skewed idea of Mumbai, I think. Also, I'm not much of a big city person and they don't come much bigger than Mumbai. Actually, according to my Google search, Mumbai is the 4th most populous city in the world, with a population of about 20 million and is set to overtake Tokyo as the world's biggest city by 2020. Canada's population is 34 million, so that puts it in perspective. India as a whole has over 1.21 billion people. Flying into Mumbai from Bangalore, we dropped down through the brown cloud of smog and then as we descended I could see the slums that ring the outer edge of the city. Here's a link to a National Geographic article with some photos that capture it well:

Mumbai is a good city for walking, but unfortunately I was too weak for that. So I hired a taxi and the driver and I became friends for two days. (When you find someone who drives you where you want to go and accepts the payment you agreed on without argument, you want to stick with him). On my last day in the city, I went first to Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai's open air laundry, which was fascinating. For some reason, I felt like I could have watched it all day. Though the water looked questionably clean, the laundry hanging to dry is crisp and bright.

Then to Chowpatty Beach. It was Sunday afternoon, just before sunset. The beach was crowded with families, sweethearts, groups of friends, hawkers of roasted corn, roasted peanuts, giant balloons, florescent pink cotton candy, toys, juice, deep fried food of various kinds and garbage. Lots of garbage. It's hard to know what to say about it; it seems like a desperate problem and I found it upsetting to say the least. But I'll let the photos speak for themselves.

Now that I'm home safely, what sticks with me is the kindness of strangers. It makes all the difference when you're traveling. There was Jay, an Anglo-Indian man discovering his family roots and fellow traveler on the Golden Triangle tour. When we first met and he saw I had a cold, he went to his room where he had a tea kettle that he travels with, and he brought me back a cup of hot "Lem-Sip", a lemon drink like Neo-Citran. I later gave him some melatonin tablets which the next day he pronounced "brilliant."

In Hampi, not quite strangers, but fellow writers Eugene (from Korea) and Birgitta (from Sweden), helped me with my unwieldy luggage (the London clothes which I had hoped to ship home from London but was unable to), by hiring a taxi to drive us to the train station, instead of taking a complicated route involving a ferry and auto-rickshaw. At the Hospet/Hampi station, Eugene lugged my heavy bag, even though she herself was traveling with a light knapsack. And Birgitta answered my every craving, first for a Coke, then an orange, then potato chips and apple juice as I sat immobile on a dirty bench smelling of urine, and watched the trains, praying we'd get the first class compartments we were waitlisted for, instead of sleeper class. We didn't. When I had to make a dash to vomit in the nearest garbage can, I think Birgitta almost cried along with me. It was a low moment.

But what made it bearable was the Indian family in the station who saw my Air Canada baggage tags and began to talk to me about Canada. When they learned I was sick, they carried my two heavy bags onto the train for me and stowed them safely under my seat. And as luck would have it, they were sharing our compartment. The berths (Eugene took out her antiseptic wipes) were pretty dusty and you don't get any bedding in sleeper class, but I had my scarf and a blanket I'd brought from Canada and hadn't needed until then. I was so spent, I was just grateful to be horizontal and I felt safe with the kind family sitting and talking with Eugene and Birgitta. I actually slept really well on that train and thankfully wasn't sick again.

These aren't my train photos, by the way. I was in no state to be capturing the moment. I found them online.

On my last day, when I was catching the taxi to the airport at 11 p.m., I gave my blanket and my remaining change to a man who worked at the hotel. It was only because I had no more room to pack the blanket and had left in the room. When he came to carry my bags and I told him I was leaving it behind, he asked if he could have it, since he has to sit outside the hotel all night and it gets cold. And I gave him the change because I had no more paper money to tip him. But as I got in the taxi, he said, "God bless you." And it seemed so heartfelt that I truly did feel blessed, always a good feeling when you're flying.

The taxi driver (the same one who'd driven me around Mumbai for two days) rode along with me and his friend (he's a day driver; his friend shares the taxi and is the night driver) and then when he was dropped off at his train stop, he fussed over the airport arrangements and told me to call him on my cell when I got to the airport.

It was a good trip. Now, every night since I've been home, I've been dreaming that I'm still in India.

No comments:

Post a Comment