Dispatch: Mumbai 18.97°N, 72.82°E
A journey that begins in India, slaps one about the face. Almost exactly halfway around the globe , Philadelphia sits at 75° W latitude and Mumbai is found at 72°E. The cultural divide exceeds the geographic distance. Everything useful to navigate the Western world, no longer is.
Mumbai has long been the gateway to India and that role has expanded in the post-colonial era to become the gateway to India’s financial heart. Mumbai banned tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled transport with a lawn mower engine and cows, goats, camels and other wandering animals seen everywhere in Dehli and most other Indian cities. There is a veneer of order about it…until a foreigner bumps up against the bureaucracy. Make no mistake; government officials control this country regardless of the elected party.
We swept smoothly into the stunning year old marble-clad airport and found our driver amid dancing fountains. My husband, Terry, didn’t believe the tales I’d told about India being an assault to the senses as he entered the country efficently. Then the driver asked if we had the yellow card.
“What yellow card?” We had completed the complicated visa forms with requirements like “When you sign do not let your signature touch any of the lines of the box or your application will be rejected” and obtained the expensive ($200) visa before we left.
“If you’re leaving on a ship, you need the yellow card to get into the port and onto the ship.”
I stopped Terry’s soulful plea—no one told us—and jumped right to how-do-we-get-the-yellow-card. It was 10:30 pm and what ensued next was a search for the illusive yellow card beginning with wandering unpaved streets for a Xerox copy place, a drive down a sketchy alleyway to a poorly lit police station. The driver remained cool until Terry exited the car to go inside with him.
“Stay in the car. I’ll handle it.” His voice held an edge of panic that pushed me to suppress thoughts like will my GPS record our location if this is the place we disappear….
After a two hour long process and a similar bureaucratic kerfuffle at the Yellow Gate ( think yellow card, yellow marigolds, yellow curry and why not yellow gate?), the after hours entrance to the industrial docks, we dragged our bodies onto the ship. The boat glowed like a beacon, clean and orderly, a place where rules we understood were solidly in place.
The next day a sunrise illuminated the Koli (fisherman) hard at work hours before dawn. The Koli founded Mumbai among the archipelago of seven islands, now occupied by over 21 million people.
The New York Times offers travelers a 36 hour itinerary for major citties. We had eight. We managed to visit the Dhobi Ghat laundry where the workers process sheets, towels, and the clothes of Mumbai for approximately 15 cents per piece. Water is pumped into stone tubs where they slosh, sling, pound (with rocks), flap and fling clothes in and out of a sudsy mix. Another worker hangs them out to dry and yet another team does the delivery.
“Amazing how white and clean they get them,” says Douglas, our Indian guide of Irish heritage. I needed a closer look to examine how the laundry managed in the dusty air and the smoke from the nearby train station.
The dabbawalla lunch bucket brigade demonstrates more of the organizational prowess of Indian teamwork. Five-thousand dabbawallas with their Nehru caps bring homemade lunches from the steps of workers’ suburban homes into the city by train, grab the racks of lunches off cargo cars, re-sort them near the Church Gate Train Station and forward the 200,000 lunches to Indian workers’ offices via trolleys and bicycles.
“Only one mistake in generations of delivering the metal buckets,” Douglas declares.
I ask about the mistake, what happened to the dabbawalla who tarnished the record. Details are thin, better forgotten, Douglas replies.
“What about Subway?” We stand near the ubiquitous yellow (again!) sign.
“We don’t like it.”
We ate a tranquil lunch at the Ziya Restaurant in the five-star Oberoi Hotel. Ziya has stunning views of the Arabian Sea. The Michelin star chef designed a fusion menu that is more about chilis’ Scoville scale than a blend of Western and Indian cuisine.
Lunch was followed with drive-by views of the Slum Dog Millionaire train station where a million people pass through each day, the Taj Hotel standing defiant after the 2008 bombing and the Gateway Arch that has welcomed Maharajas, English royalty, Barak Obama and us to this complicated country.