Mumbai, India: Arriving & Surviving

The lead up to my trip to India was a mélange of emotions; anxiousness, excitement, fears…. most of the gut feelings one has when heading to a 3rd world country for the first time and for an extended period of time.  Let’s not dismiss all the preparations; gathering, arranging, giving away and storing stuff (ALL my stuff),  the vulnerable feeling of giving up the comfort of a steady income and my own 4-walled home and the general pain-in-the-ass it is having to close up the accounts to one life and open up another.

Truth is the leaving wasn’t really what was playing on my mind.  It was the arriving.

I diligently asked questions of people I knew who had been to India for what I might need and, or, any advice; “pack toilet paper’, “make sure you have good bug spray’, “take Imodium or some anti-diarrhea drug”.  “It will hit you between the eyes”, “you will be shocked”, “you will be overwhelmed”, “your life will change”, “it might be a good idea to pack pepper spray” – it was a chorus of warnings, and encouragement “you’re going to have an amazing time!”  So, I packed all my repellents and sprays and bindings and any other armor I needed to guard me from all the discomfort and bad stuff that could happen.

Normally I am actually pretty nonchalant about foreign travel but this, India, was different.  I was going far away, like no easy access to the internet far away.  Like no toilet paper in toilets I have to squat in, far away.  Like, shaking a man’s hand can often be interpreted as opening my legs, far away (and I pride myself on my handshake…my very ‘firm’ handshake).  So, naturally, I was bloody well anxious.

I wasn’t afraid I wouldn’t have an amazing experience; I was simply anticipating all the firsts.  It’s been a long time since I have traveled this way and it’s the firsts that are always the most significant.  The first time I would be ripped off, the first time I would feel unsafe, the first time I was face to face with a menu I didn’t understand besides korma and curry.   And then, all the things I knew I didn’t know.

I knew that I didn’t know what Mumbai looked like, or how to get around.  I knew that I didn’t speak Hindi, I knew that I would see poverty beyond my wildest horror and I also knew that I didn’t know how I would feel upon seeing that.  I knew that Mumbai would be hot, but I didn’t know what the air felt like on my skin.  I knew that western women can be seen as easy prey and I didn’t know if I would feel safe or not; a feeling that is born of our own creation as much as the environment we find ourselves in. Would I have the energy to muster courage all the time?

And then, let’s not forget the big reason we all feel fear; conditioning.  I have been living in the United States for the past 13 years – the global breeding ground for fear and protection.

So, I loaded myself up like Rambo with a cache of fear fighting equipment – mostly feeling more like my mother than myself – and stepped onto the plane.  Many things had changed during the lead up to this trip (the most significant, but not necessarily worrying, was that my friend was, in fact, not going to be with me during it).  It wasn’t until I cozied up on my fully reclined seat in business class (one of the ‘things falling into place’ factors) that I realized it was probably time to pack a little bit of trust too.  Not just trust that I had everything I needed to repel the bad guys but trust that there were kind strangers who lived in India too, trust in my own intuition and intelligence and that, statistically speaking, I was more prone to safety rather than danger or, poetically speaking that there would be a lot more to embrace rather than repel.

It was 9:30pm on January 1st, 2013 the plane touched down early.  I had in fact, woken to a new year, in a new world.  I had arrived in Mumbai, India.  I waited to feel nerves, I waited for fear, I waited for my anticipation and, if I looked suspect it was because I was waiting for all of it to come bounding around a metaphorical corner whereupon I become so overwhelmed, I would be rendered useless.  Instead, I walked off the plane and followed the signs; all of them in English and Hindi.  People smiled, we all shuffled along.  “Just like any other airport I’ve been in” I thought “with more saris”.

I made my way to the luggage conveyer belt.  I waited for that moment where the belt was empty and I was the only one still waiting, sans luggage.  Or, the other moment where my bag made its way around the corner and was torn to shreds with nothing in it.  But, within 10 minutes my bag showed up and I promptly followed the exit signs.

I waited for that moment, as I proceeded through customs and out of the terminal, where I would be seen as the, obvious, western woman alone; a walking billboard that screamed “Best to take advantage of me”.  I anticipated the billion, or so, people throwing themselves at me, touching me, pick-pocketing me, trying to take from me.  Instead, the very well laid out airport made it quite easy to navigate to the back of the very civilized line to wait for a pre-paid taxi, and people were more interested in their own journey than mine.

At the taxi-stand window I held my breath for the moment the woman would tell me that she had never heard of my hotel and that it didn’t exist and that I would have to find myself another hotel at a much larger expense.  Instead, she told me that it was 720rupees ($13 for a 45minute ride) and my taxi number was 640.

In the taxi I prayed I wouldn’t encounter the moment I would feel the pit in my stomach rise to such overwhelming proportions when the driver turned down a dark road and slowed down to stop.  You know the scene, just he and I and a bunch of his mates in a dark alley in Mumbai.  Instead, we inched our way through the grinding traffic, cutting and slicing our path forward, through slums and celebration and general chaos until we reached my very civilized, very existing, hotel.

And there I arrived, very safely, in the lobby of my clean, well lit marble and dark, mahogany wooded hotel lobby with smiling attendants and official doormen sporting fancy turbans.

Apparently the same things happen here as they do everywhere, things work out.  So, I was fine.  Actually, I was more than fine.  I felt alive and not just in the breathing in and out kind of way.

I felt alive in the way we are first born; in awe, curiosity and gratitude (I’m pretty sure a baby sleeping is the universal symbol of thanks!)

And, as for the toilets I have to squat in?……I’m a yogi, I should have trusted – I had the pose covered years ago!

P.S. The internet is painfully slow here, feel free to check out my Instagram feed for a smattering of photos


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