Mumbai, India: Alone in a Sea of Smiling Faces

I am a proud, self-proclaimed nerd. Worn glasses all my life. Collected rocks, stamps, and coins. Played Dungeons and Dragons when it only required some dice and an avid imagination. And I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Religiously. Every year.

There is a part of that trilogy when one of the characters, Zaphod Beeblebrox, is tortured by being put into a device that shows him his place in relation to the vast scope of the galaxy. His own frail, transient existence held in stark contrast to the slow, grinding movement of stars turning for eons across an unimaginable distance of empty, emotionless space.

Although the point of the torture device was to make Zaphod realize his own insignificance in this fleeting world, he came out of the thing feeling pretty good about himself. And, for reasons other than those cited by Zaphod, I find an exercise in insignificance to be quite liberating as well.

I have already alluded to the importance I attach to breaking out of our comfort zones, of finding those paths that skirt along the border of predictability and challenge us to alter our perceptions of what is normal, or real, or safe.

For it is along those less-traveled paths that we are more aware of our own small space in this world, more inclined to see that “normal” holds a different meaning for others. And, by purposefully stepping into an environment that puts us into the minority and calls into sharp relief our own insignificance, makes us more willing to listen. More apt to hear. And more certain to find new understanding.

Angela booked our adventure to Mumbai while we were in the car on a road trip. As she related during a previous post, I didn’t really understand what she was doing at the time. We often play the “where in the world” game while driving, and I honestly hadn’t given India much thought as a potential travel destination until she announced that the tickets were bought.

When I informed friends and coworkers that our next trip would be to India, the resounding response was an incredulous, “Why?” Chattanooga has a thriving, successful Indian population that boasts business owners, doctors, philanthropists, educators, and some of our very dear friends among its ranks. When I began planning the trip, the question that kept tickling my brain was, “Why not India?” It was never previously on my radar. Why was that? What had kept me from researching an expat life in this most beautiful, ancient, exotic country? Why was India a place I was reluctant to explore? In short, what did I fear?

I eagerly anticipated our journey to find the answers to such questions. And I found them. In the vibrant crush of the brilliant Mumbai markets. In the echo of Buddhist cave songs sung in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. In the culinary pride of Pickle Nation. In the misty waterfalls and dizzying drops of the Khandala mountains. In the ease of friendships forged over quiet meals, long journeys, and universal gestures of appreciation.

If you’re an American and you want to get lost—truly lost—in a sea of humanity that looks and sounds completely different than you, go to Mumbai. You will find yourself blissfully insignificant. And infinitely rewarded.

The city of Mumbai is a dense, raucous mass of people, horns, and half-finished buildings. Everything is in motion, like the confluence of a thousand rivers, working with individual purpose to erode the very foundations on which they move. Ripping up the rocks and bricks and fences, only to deposit the debris a few feet further, impossibly, in the form of an exquisite piece of modern architecture or an ancient temple that has stood resolute like a lighthouse against the storm of centuries.

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Churchgate Railway Station in Mumbai, India (photo: Randy Carlson for National Geographic)

The air is hot and sticky and orange. You find yourself unconsciously taking shallow, timid breaths. With each inhalation new, dangerous aromas come to assault you. Spices, traffic, dust, ambition, hustle, history, hope. And over it all, the edgy smell of abject poverty juxtaposed with fabulous success.

And I loved every bit of it.

Even after our unexpectedly luxurious flight from New York, we were exhausted when we arrived at The Orchid Hotel in Mumbai. It was 3 a.m. local time, and the jet lag was intense. We crashed, and the boys offered zero resistance to the suggestion of sleeping for the better part of the next day. We would get ourselves turned around and begin experiencing India in 26 hours or so.

Early the following morning, surprisingly refreshed and fed, Angela and I decided to let the boys sleep a while longer and undertook our first adventure into the city. Not yet ready to brave the open-air thrill of a tuk-tuk during the Mumbai commute, we opted for a traditional taxi and asked the driver to take us to Juhu Beach so we could touch the Arabian Sea for the first time.

Even from the relative safety of the car, the traffic was unbelievably harrowing. Hundreds of bicycles and mopeds weaved in and out of once stopped, then suddenly speeding gridlock, often taking to the sidewalks when the route was too congested. Pedestrians would stand between lanes, narrowly missed by dump trucks, crossing ten lanes at will against the better advice of warning signals and blaring horns. Evidence of past accidents adorned the bumpers and side panels of nearly every vehicle. Occasionally, a pristine and gleaming Ferrari or Lamborghini would edge through the dusty chaos, like a shark cutting through a school of fish.

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Juhu was nearly empty on this Wednesday morning. We surmised that most of the tourists were still asleep as the souvenir stalls and food venders were only just now raising the metal doors to display their wares and stoking the fires to mix curry with exotic vegetables and proteins. Little did we know that there were few foreign tourists in this part of Mumbai, and we only began to appreciate the bliss of that isolation toward the end of our trip.

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Angela at a nearly empty Juhu Beach

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Juhu Beach in Mumbai, India

Back at the hotel, we roused the boys and planned an afternoon trip to some of the cultural highlights of Mumbai. Specifically, we wanted to visit ISKON, the iconic Hare Krishna temple in Juhu, as well as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (CSMVS) before venturing further afield. Both locations were fascinating. ISKON for its religious lessons, and CSMVS for its history and art.

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At ISKON, a colorful Hare Krishna wagon used in religious parades

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Ancient temple doors (and Ballard men) on display at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum

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Ben sketching a period piece at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum

A friend back in the States hooked us up with a car service run by his cousin in Mumbai. Our driver, Surya, would be with us for the duration of the vacation, driving us to destinations both near and far. And, in the process, becoming a good friend to us and our boys while serving as a fantastic cultural ambassador for India.

With broken English on Surya’s part, butchered Hindi on our end, wild hand gestures, and the welcome help of an international data plan for GPS navigation, we communicated that we wanted to visit some national parks outside of Mumbai proper. When Surya realized our requested destinations, he succumbed to our excitement, having never ventured that far outside of the city, and looked forward to the adventure nearly as much as we did.

The next morning we set out for the nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park. As we left the heart of Mumbai behind and began climbing in elevation, the air lost its orange cast and became breathable once more. The landscape grew greener. The sky returned to its original brilliant blue. And precolonial India revealed itself to us for the first time. These were the hills and secluded Kanhiri Caves that Buddhist monks called home two thousand years ago.

This was the India I had come to see.

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Ben contemplating the two thousand-year-old aqueduct system

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An Indian elementary school field trip at Kanhiri Caves in Sanjay Gandhi National Park. You can barely see the downtown Mumbai skyline through the fog in the distance past the forest.

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Zack and Ben kneeling at one of the stone tables in the ancient lecture room

And this was also the India I had come to hear.

Our guide at Sanjay Gandhi National Park was both informative and talented, treating us to the Buddhist chant you hear in the clip above. It was a serendipitous moment I could have enjoyed for hours. These are the things that stick with us, leave us yearning for more, and entice us to a speedy return.

The next day, Surya took us further from our home base in Mumbai, venturing all the way to the Khandala region in the southeast. If Kanheri provided the history I was seeking, then Khandala provided the natural vistas.

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Cattle in the roadway, presumably also on their way to Khandala

India becomes an overgrown, lush, tropical destination as soon as the city is shed. Our car climbed through hairpin turns and past spontaneous waterfalls to arrive at the Khandala overlook. Admittedly, you have to ignore the apathetically discarded rubbish on the ground in the parking lot. You have to forgo the tourist-trap camel ride. And you have to commit to a precarious trek along a sheer cliff face.

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Crowds of visitors and salesmen at the main parking area in Khandala

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Once you get away from the throng of casual tourists, Khandala becomes a transcendental place of wind and flowers and dragonflies.

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Mike, Zack, Ben, and Surya braving the wind. (Posing for photos on precipitous ledges isn’t Angela’s thing.)

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Ben trekking uphill through the flowers

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For our remaining time in Mumbai, we stayed closer to the hotel. Despite our marathon sleep during the first day, the time change was catching up to all of us. Zack wanted to experience the Arabian Sea and Juhu Beach since he’d slept through our earlier visit, so the two of us hired a tuk-tuk for an afternoon, traveling through the smaller back streets and stopping at several markets along the way.

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Tuk-tuk-ing like a boss

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Zack on a much more crowded Juhu Beach during the weekend

At the market, we stopped in a dress shop, and I bought a saree for Angela. We stepped into a used bookstore and purchased a couple of paperback mystery novels to read on the long flight home.

We were in a part of Mumbai that seldom saw tourists of any kind. The owners of the dress shop had been pleasantly accommodating, if a little trepidatious. At the bookstore, we had achieved an unwarranted celebrity status. A throng of people tentatively approached us, smiling and asking questions. Where were we from? What did we think about Mumbai? How long were we in town? Did we know Brad Pitt?

And that’s when it hit me.

We were anomalous. Puzzle pieces that didn’t fit. Foreign. Isolated. Insignificant in our distinction. And glaringly so.

This was the experience I wanted to give to my kids and my wife. The same feeling I had when I first went to Saudi Arabia in 1982. That feeling of humility in a world that keeps turning, inexorably, despite our futile, concerted efforts to make ourselves the center of it.

We answered their questions, bought their books, shook their offered hands, and returned to the familiar comfort of our hotel, where the air conditioning was perfect and the wait staff didn’t flinch at our southern American accents as we ordered strange and exotic (to us) foods.

India had awakened in me a feeling I had been seeking since my childhood. A longing for a world that would always hold me apart. But that, through my open arms and mind, through my effort and understanding, through my curiosity and naivety, I could someday, hope to call home.

India Map

The India travel route. Click here for more detailed info.

Expat evaluation: +2 for history, +2 for friendly locals, -3 for pollution