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roaming the world and enjoying the scenery...

Dhobi Ghats redux

Looking down at the dhobi ghatsAs part of our “Day About Mumbai,” our second stop (after the flower market) was the Dhobi Ghat area. It is famous as the place to have laundry done, and we got an eyeful. Dave had been here before a few years back, but this was the first time for the whole family. From above, it looks crazy enough, but we shelled out the big bucks to go on a walking tour.

The purple dye matches his clothes! Drying shirts in the middle of green curtains for mosques Hand washing in chemical water
Men (for the most part) work all day washing, dyeing, and drying clothes out in the open, plunging themselves into water of dubious chemical composition. Almost everything is done by hand, although we did see some electric washers, hand operated dryers, and even a wood-fired heating tank!
Taking a break from duties Washing the whites Standing in that water all day long...
While it was still fairly early in the day (before 10), the heat was building, but these guys didn’t seem to take much notice. They kept about their labors, squeezing out what profit they could. According to the ‘guide’ we had, the individual stalls (and corresponding water) rent for 300 rupees per month (about $6) and are often kept in a family for generations
Keeping an eye on the tourists Arc of water among a rainbow of clothes!
All they are is a concrete enclosure with a slab for slapping and walls for hanging clothes on. Each piece of clothing has a special symbol written or sewn into it, to identify the delivery vehicle and proper owner – a great piece of organization for a crew that is probably primarily illiterate.
Clean clothes ready to hang up Finished product drying
And of course, the final product was usually hung up in colorful lines across the rooftops. We were shown which areas were for clothes getting ready for export, which were from the major hotels, and which were from smaller institutions. While we were there, business was slow but steady, and it was cool to walk through without it being too much of a hassle. The dhobi ghats are a Mumbai institution, and the stop gave us another idea of the goings on of the Maximum City.

(This page is replicated on our website if you prefer that sort of layout…)

Dharavi tour

Well, we finally got around to visiting one of the most infamous places in Mumbai: the slum called Dharavi. The shooting location for the early part of Slumdog Millionaire, Dharavi has been called the largest slum in Asia. The latest guesstimates are that over a million people live there, crowded into less than one square mile of land.

We went with a group called Reality Tours, and one of the rules that allows them to bring foreigners into the slums on a twice-daily basis is a “no camera” policy, so pictures from our particular tour don’t exist. There are, however, thousands of sites to get a glimpse of life in the slum – here’s a set on flickr.

Dharavi - CC licensed from http://www.flickr.com/photos/lecercle/3833278858/

A shot of Dharavi from Flickr

One of the first misconceptions was that “slum” is a derogatory term. When we hear that word, we think “Poor people living in terrible conditions.” Our guide explained that slum was actually a legal term that referred to an area where the government owns the land, but homeowners own the physical buildings situated on the land.

We followed the winding, narrow alleyways through residential shacks and industrial settings, watching the homegrown industries that bring in over $650 million to the area each year. The recycling process was shown to us in detail: people sorting through plastics that ‘ragpickers’ had brought from all over Mumbai, shredding them in homemade machines, washing and then drying the shredded pieces on rooftops, and finally melting them back into raw material ‘pellets’ for reuse – all pretty much done by hand. Susan commented on how she’d like her dad to be able to see the machines constructed to tear apart plastic, Alea noted how hot the workers were inside corrugated metal shacks, and Dave was astounded to see all this work going on with no shirts, shoes, gloves, helmets, or safety goggles (well not really surprised, but still amazed).

As we wandered through the area, we were constantly being smiled, waved, and spoken to by the young children of the slum. While this in and of itself is not really too unusual in India, it definitely is in Mumbai, and really should have been in an area that has an average of 2 tours per day coming through. To see the hope and happiness among what most of us would easily have termed squalor was amazing.

By the end of our walk, we had seen plastic recycling, block printing, leather being worked (from the skins of water buffaloes, goats, and sheep), hides salting in the sun, metal cans being washed in boiling water by hand, tortilla-like bread drying on open racks, and pottery works. It was an exhausting look through the very tip of the iceberg that is Dharavi -overwhelming yet uplifting at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing ‘noble’ about the conditions that the people there thrive in. But the very fact that they are able to do so certainly adds another facet of life in India to all that we’ve experienced here.

While we were not able to take pictures, there are certainly plenty of resources available to get a quick glimpse of life there. Check out Shadow City – A Look at Dharavi or simply take a look on Flickr. Alternatively, one of the teachers at our school is writing a book about Dharavi, and there is an excerpt from a chapter posted here.

Just a couple of days in Mumbai

So in the two days, we’ve seen a cow with a 5th leg growing out of its back (on the way to work),  skyscrapers burning (on the way home from work), and goats being sacrificed (at home). None of these are related events, but the goats were part of Eid celebrations this year; the best follow up was our neighbor asking us if we wanted to join him for a barbecue of the very goats we’d petted the previous day!

I mean, really, we eat fresh meat all the time (including goat), so it should be no big deal. Still, to have played with them before they graced the table seems a little weird. But, as a co-worker said, “Just don’t give them names other than Breakfast, Lunch, or Dinner!”

No Showers Allowed

See, I always remember being told that the best way to save water was to take showers instead of baths. Apparently that is just not good enough any more.

Water rationing is starting to hit Mumbai hard these days (the newspapers have talked about cuts of 35% or so) for a variety of reasons – exploding population, localized drought, leaky infrastructure, etc. On our way to school, we saw a stark reminder of how serious an issue this is.

On an overpass, the grim visage of Sachin Tendulkar – who is lionized around the country as the greatest cricket player (in a nation of great cricket players) to have ever graced the pitch – advises people to avoid the ‘temptation of using shower.’ Apparently the new thing in saving water is taking a bucket bath.

It is pretty ironic on a couple of levels. First of all is the obvious juxtaposition with our idea of the shower as a water saver – now it is the water wasting way to do things. Secondly is the fact that many (if not most) of Indians have no access to running water of any kind, making this exhortation a moot point. It reminded me of this great article I’d found a few years ago for World Water Day.

But as we get ready for spring break and our trip to Jodhpur (which is, incidentally, where we are heading this year in case you were wondering), we’ll keep in mind the need for care in our water use. Bucket baths are not that bad: we’ve had them before in hotels, and I foresee us having them again on this trip!

Monkey Mamma

Mother monkey protects baby kittens against the crowsStraight out of Wild Kingdom, another “never seen before” in India: a monkey with 2 kittens!

Our neighbors grabbed us this afternoon to take pictures of a mother monkey who has adopted two kittens and is taking care of them up in the trees! I would never believe it, had Alea and I not watched them today.

Protecting the babies (not more than a month or so old) against the vicious crows that would feed on unprotected babies, she swung down out of a tree onto a rooftop. She was trying to find a spot away from the birds, and we were helping her on by shooting the crows with water guns. We could see them clearly – and hear them meowing – and they certainly looked well cared for. This is apparently the second time she’s been spotted, so some sort of maternal instinct is obviously at work.

This event was doubly unusual in that we have never seen wild monkeys around our house. Watching her disappear back into the tree, we could tell why – the camouflage is amazing.  We don’t know what is going to become of the babies, but our neighbor remarked that they’ll be good climbers when they grow up!

I put together a series of pictures and descriptions on our webpage, so you can see a bit more of this pretty amazing occurrence…

Happy Birthday, Breck!

Even though today was a day off from school (due to India’s biggest holiday – Republic Day), we were all awakened early in the morning. He claimed that he “wasn’t really trying to make too much noise,” but Breck was pretty impatient to get his birthday started!

We’d brought out some presents the night before, so he knew that there was (probably) some good stuff waiting..
He was totally excited about the new Star Wars Lego set that he got!
But the thing that got his (stomach) juices really flowing? Good old American junk food – that bag of chips costs 6 bucks, so it is a real once-a-year treat.

Which is worse?

Cleanliness in MumbaiWashing your car or urinating in public?

Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but apparently the city of Mumbai doesn’t agree with my assessment of the situation. We went downtown the other week and I was able to snap this picture of a ‘civic awareness’ sign.

While it is certainly interesting that a car wash sets you back about $20, and that feeding animals will ding you $10, the far more fascinating bit is that it is apparently worse to let a dog “go” in public than for a person to drop trou! Again, the priorities and heirarchy of concerns are fantastic.

I’ll jump on the bandwagon that an acquaintance of mine here in Bombay started. Actually, he’s not really an acquaintance yet, since we haven’t met in person, just electronically. He’s the dad of a student I teach, and we seem to share a lot of the same amusement at Indian quirks. In any case, he set up a Facebook album of Indian Street Signs that I hope you can see. I’ll post a few more of those that we’ve come across as well – although to be honest, I’m afraid we’ve gotten so used to them that it is hard to ‘notice’ how funny they are any more…

Mount Merry

Mount Merry(insert inappropriate pun here)

Now that you’ve gotten that out of the way, you can enjoy the picture I saw the other say heading home. The neighborhood basilica, built on a hill, is called “Mount Mary” – which is actually an even funnier combination I suppose.

But in any case, this new sign built near our new wonder-bridge is supposed to be pointing us to the Mount Mary basilica (where, incidentally, the Bandra Fair noted in the previous post took place).

Whatever, it made me chuckle…

I’m not going to go into all of the theological implications of how this might impact the story of the virgin birth or anything like that – I’ll leave that up to your imagination. Instead, I’ll end this post with a little joke my dad(!) used to tell:

Why did Popeye want to beat up the Pope?

Because he heard he went to mount Olive.

(and unless you know anything about this and this and recognize the double entendre, the joke will not be funny at all – and it isn’t that funny to begin with anyways…)

Double entendre

Life in a Mumbai garbage dump

Life at a Mumbai garbage dumpYeah – not really an enticing title there, I know. But this is one of those “real life” situations that I actually feel was a true opportunity to see something unique.

In a nutshell, we took a student group out for a day of community service cleaning mangroves, and at the end of our work we headed over to a garbage dump – and were shocked by what we saw.

The kids had never expected to see more than garbage trucks dropping off refuse, and were astounded to find that people made their living by sorting through the trash for things they could sell. It was certainly something that I’d only read about and had never expected to experience.

More pictures and descriptions at the main webpage – but suffice to say that it was quite a way to take stock of just how vastly different life is for some people, and just how lucky we are to have the life that we do.

Free verse Friday – Falcon out my window

Falcon Out My Window(with apologies to John Denver)

Falcon out my window makes me happy
Falcon wakes me up with his shrill cry
Falcon eating dead rats looks so messy
Falcon almost always soars so high

If I had some food that I could give to you
I’d give to you a taste of fresh-killed prey
Maybe then you’d make a nest out here
And sing a song to keep those crows away

Yes, I know they are technically called “kites,” but I simply don’t associate that word with big, killer birds of prey.

We have a couple (whether they are male and female, we don’t know) who have taken up shop on our building and the one across the road (in the background of this photo). We hear their screeching cries to each other, but luckily they are pretty daytime-limited, so it isn’t like they wake us up at night or in the morning. This big guy (or gal) was sitting right outside our hallway window last Sunday, very patiently letting me take a few pictures before flying away.

We are still waiting for them to start a nest and hatch some babies over by us – that would be way cooler than pigeons!

Best business card ever

Best business card ever!We all have private guards that keep watch at our buildings, but not all of them sport business cards. At our TGIF last week, one of our fellow teachers was showing off the card that her guard had given to her. I knew at that moment that I would have to share it as another insight into our life here in India.

I love the name, of course, but check out all the accompanying information. Everything – from the little man icons to the office directions to the list of job titles – is priceless.

When I asked if I could put this on the blog, I was told that it is ok so long as I “remember he is an absolute angel, albeit a gun toting angel.” Maybe I’d better hire a peon to watch my . . . backside.

Mutts and Mangroves

ASB in the mangrovesToday is our Community and Social Responsibility (CSR) day in the middle school, and all the classes are off doing service projects around Mumbai. Alea’s sixth grade is working with a group called Welfare of Stray Dogs, while Dave’s seventh grade advisory is off to clean up mangroves. We had an earlier experience at both these places last fall, and so this is the follow-up to those visits.

We are looking forward to an engaging and interesting experience – hopefully filled with lots of dog hair and mud! I’ll see if there are any pictures to post this afternoon…

UPDATE: A super full day – not as muddy as we’d thought, but hotter and stinkier. We’re trying to put together a ning about what we’re learning (a ning is a social-network type site), so you can check out how we’re doing and see a few pictures!

NCAA Champ 2009!And oh yes – I almost forgot to show off my second-year-in-a-row NCAA bracket championship! I won with my other bracket, the one I didn’t post here. Go figure…

Bombay Traffic: Rules are fine, but Laws don’t count

Traffic SceneFor most people who have driven in India, there is a glaring omission in the “Rules of the Road” below. Where, oh where is the “Stoplights are Merely a Suggestion” rule? I decided to include it in the next chapter of Bombay Traffic, simply because – just like ogres and onions – there are many layers to that idea.

Stoplights are routinely ignored, leading to harrowing games of chicken, as the “Bigger is Better” rule comes into effect (and its corollary – “Momentum Determines Right-of-Way” – meaning that speed also comes into play). Vehicles will poke their noses into lanes of cross traffic, attempting to create enough of a bottleneck so as to allow them (and other jammed up drivers going the same way) to establish their right to cross the intersection.

Traffic CopsThe police, when present, are somewhat effective at stopping some of this, as no one likes to have to pay a small “fee,” especially when most of the rupees end up in the cops’ pockets.

A common sight is of a group of officers – sometimes including  women – sitting around on various corners, getting up from time to time to make a stop. They seem to especially like pulling over motorcycles, as they are easy marks for harassment. In any case, just having them around will sometimes discourage red-light-runners.

So with the obvious role of police in trying to stem some of the crazy driving habits, as well as the school’s dedication to following the letter of the law here, we found it curious that our bus drivers routinely blast through red lights and speed on the way to school in the morning, and asked them about it.

The response was hilarious in its simplicity. The drivers said, apparently in all seriousness, “According to Indian law, traffic regulations are not valid before 8am. We are not breaking the regulations, because they don’t apply before that time in the morning.”  What a great idea!

Bombay Traffic: Rules of the Road Part 2

Here are the next Big Five Rules of the Road, following on the heels of Bigger is Better:

  • Use Your Horn – In Bombay (and pretty much everywhere we’ve been in India), the horn is used as an all-purpose driving device. It warns someone you are coming, it tells people to get out of the way, it signals annoyance /anger/irritation/ happiness, and it gives drivers something to do as they sit in motionless traffic.
  • Lanes Are Pretty, Decorative Lines – but certainly not anything to take seriously. We have never, ever seen traffic pay any attention whatsoever to lanes. Granted, it can be difficult at times, given the varying state of disrepair of various highways and byways – to encourage people to stay in a straight line, but that certainly does not explain everything. A two lane road invariably becomes at least two lanes each way, and forget about maintaining lane discipline downtown. In fact…
  • HawkersFill All Space – At any intersection (especially), vehicles will bunch up in a very predictable manner. The bigger trucks, buses, and cars will bunch to the front, creating at least an extra lane of traffic. Then the rickshaws will swarm in, cramming themselves between the larger autos. Then the motorcycles and scooters inch their way through everything, up to the front of the line, then the bicycles do the same. Only then will the beggars and hawkers start making their way through the crowds, selling their wares.
  • Things Behind You Don’t Count – Once the lines start moving (amid a cacophony of horns), drivers concentrate on things that are in front of them. Once a vehicle has pulled ahead of another, it is as if a switch has been flipped, and the dude behind you doesn’t count. Cutting left and right in front of other vehicles is not a ‘bad’ thing, as everyone does it and everyone knows that – while mirrors sure can be decorated prettily on the sides of a door, they don’t serve any practical function!
  • Karma Rules – Surprisingly enough, however, real aggressive driving is a rarity. Certainly it has to do with the fact that there is no room to do anything supremely aggressive, but I personally think that the Hindu mindset plays a role as well: well, there’s not much I can do about this, the other driver deserves a bigger car/a better position in traffic/a shorter commute, and what comes around will go around. This also comes into play with safety features, as we regularly see drivers with no helmets, long sari scarves flapping in the breeze, 4 (or more) kids balanced on a motorcycle, and big trucks with no doors. Ganesh or Sai Baba or Allah or Jesus (as a person’s personal religious belief dictates) will watch over me…

Bombay traffic: Rules of the Road Part 1

Traffic is a never-far-from-the-front-of-our-attention fact of life here in Bombay. Our schedules and social lives (or lack thereof) revolve around the horrendous crushes of vehicles on the roads and the attendant long investment of time involved in going anywhere. There have been a few traffic-related situations in the past few days, so I figured a few entries (I’m looking at 5 parts at this point) outlining what the roads are like would be in order.

Today’s introductory topic concerns the number 1 rule of the road. This isn’t a rule in the sense of being ‘written down’ laws of any sort. This is just the everybody-follows-it regulation by which you have to abide. If you don’t, then you put yourself in a position of easily getting in an accident.

Simply put, this most important rule is Bigger Is Better. Traffic flow is regulated not by police, lights, lanes, or signs, but by the size of the vehicles – or animals – present. A rough pecking order would include:

  1. Cows
  2. Long haul diesel trucks
  3. Buses
  4. Elephants
  5. Horses, bulls, and oxen-drawn carts
  6. SUVs/minivans
  7. Cars
  8. Taxis
  9. Rickshaws
  10. Motorcycles
  11. Scooters
  12. People hauling items on handcarts
  13. Bicycles
  14. Pedestrians
  15. Dogs, cats, birds

Everybody knows these rules, and everyone follows them. Big trucks rarely slow down for anyone – but then again, no one expects them to and so usually gets out of their way. When that system breaks down, however, horrific accidents usually result (more about that in Part 5).

But usually, however, people are pretty willing to play the hand fate has dealt them. If you are in a rickshaw, you let cars and buses push you out of the way. By the same token, however, that rickshaw will not slow down at all for the family and grandma crossing the road.

While no one would claim to love the traffic, after a while, the mad melee becomes accepted and expected. The most difficult thing for us to get used to when driving in Thailand was that incoming traffic would actually yield to us on scooters – this is unheard of in Bombay.

But everyone stops for cows.

Surprise! Happy Birthday and a half…

Huge weekend plans for Breck – his birthday is on Monday, which is also Chinese New Year this year as well as India’s Republic Day. Since that is one of only two national secular holidays, it is celebrated with parades and fireworks and a day off from school; he is pretty darn excited about having no school on his birthday.

Since this is a great opportunity to have a lot of fun with him, we had a ton of stuff planned. On Friday he took treats to school and then went to a friend’s house to play (while mom and dad both had separate TGIF parties to attend). On, Saturday we had a birthday party for him at home with some friends, after which Dave took them all to a nearby mall (nearby meaning a little less than an hour in traffic each way) for video games and Pizza Hut. Today he is enjoying all his friends’ gifts – righ now he is trying to figure out how to play a new Star Wars computer game. And on Monday, we’ll do a family thing with him. What a lucky guy!

Susan was really annoying me, however, all day on Saturday. Because of the vagaries of trying to ‘time’ how long it will take to get anywhere, we had told kids’ parents that we’d be done around 6 in the evening. For some reason, Susan kept calling the whole time we were at the mall and coming home: “What are you doing now?” “Are you eating yet?” “How come you haven’t left yet?” “What’s taking you so long to get home?” etc… I was tempted to just shut off the phone, and was getting tired of being nagged so much.

We finally rolled in at 6:20, which I thought was pretty darn good. As I walked in the door, Susan grabbed me and said, “I need you to help Alea on the roof. She’s gotten into a huge fight with one of her friends up there and I don’t know what to do about them.” So here I am, after a full day of babysitting a bunch of 4th graders at the mall, being dragged into some kind of middle school catfight. Sigh.

Dave's party

When we made it up to the roof, I turned the corner and a whole bunch of people started singing, “Happy Birthday.” My first thought was that I needed to get Breck up right away, since he was missing his song. Then I noticed that they were all looking at me and laughing (which, granted, isn’t that unusual an occurence), so I figured that something else was going on. When the voices stopped, Susan explained that it was my half birthday, and since I have never had a full on birthday party (because we and our peers are always dispersed across the globe by the time June rolls around), she had set up a surprise “Half Birthday” party. Seeings how my next age change brings up the big 4-0, that fit even more splendidly into her plans.

Having a huge group of people waiting around explains her ‘nagginess’ during the day, as she wanted to make sure that I would be home at a reasonable hour, so I guess I can forgive her! It was a perfect evening for a party, and there was a ton of barbecued meat, catered snacks, and cold drinks. People kept saying “Halfy Birthday” which I thought was cute, and brought all sorts of fun gifts for an old man. One of the most original was “Four Teas for Forty” – a selection of herbal teas, each of which is supposed to help shore up different bodily functions for the elderly: mental agility, iron absorption, bowel regularity, and, ahem, “physical fitness for matrimonial relationship building.”

As things turned out however, that last tea wasn’t needed after the party. Nope, not needed at all:

It turned out that Breck’s teacher brought cigars, and Breck was so distraught at seeing his teacher smoking (having seen very graphic pictures of the effects of smoking during our trip to Thailand) that, after the party, he had to cuddle with mom all night.

So I ended up just kind of cleaning up on the roof after my own party. And then crashing, alone. Thanks alot, Mr. Jordan.