In Spring 2011, I ventured out of Europe and to the East. I went to Jaipur for a month, and Mumbai for just over two weeks. Here is an article I wrote about the experience:
Somewhere between gate 213 of Dubai airport and my seat aboard the fully-laden plane, I entered a microcosm of another country that would begin a two-month long trip. This was a huge step from my life at home into the mysterious area that Geography lessons told me sits east of Europe; is densely populated and unimaginably colourful: India. As it turned out, those things all turned out to be true. The flight to Jaipur meant a transfer in Mumbai airport – which, despite armed guards inside the terminals, the exterior was a mass of people, confusion and luggage. Slum housing jutted out over the barbed wire and jet-liners diced with unforgiving-looking improvement works.
Arriving in Jaipur airport almost a full day after leaving my front door in rural Derbyshire, I was greeted by my host ‘mother’, who was, unusually for the country, a feminist activist and university lecturer, and although her welcoming words were never-ending, so was her horrific driving. I saw nothing of Jaipur until daylight the next morning when I stood on the rooftop and saw the orange mountains in the distance and heard the general buzz and honking horns from the streets below. Still jet-lagged, and not entirely secure in the boot of a tuk-tuk, (with no room for five people on its rear bench) we made our way to a slum school twenty minutes away, where we would spend the weekdays during February. Needless to say, the ride was a near-death but fantastic experience – every inch of land had people living and trading on it, and their rubbish being pulled apart by semi-wild goats which occasionally strayed into traffic. Both a motorbike with a whole family perched on it and a Hindu funeral procession with a very visible corpse passed within inches of us as we weaved through the chaos. I’d just have to get used to the way of life – that is, life goes on and death is part of it. During visits to ‘The Pink City’ at the heart of Jaipur, I noticed how I was regarded with either blank, slightly threatening stares from locals or the hard-sell approach from tourist-shop owners. That said, the former was because I did tend to go off the tourist trail and it must’ve seemed a little unusual.
My job description at the school alternated between ‘keeper of peace amongst very lively toddlers’ and ‘reader of ladybird books to teenagers’. The incredible fact was that the children were there at all, with school fees being only one US dollar a month per child, but the majority not being able to easily afford it – despite two parents in work, if they could find it. Most rewarding was the feeling of being useful – although I doubt if any of the children got much better at reading ‘Thumbalina’ during my spell there. On International Women’s Day, we taught some local women to play ‘pass the parcel’ and a campaigner educating them about their rights was only briefly interrupted by the principal of the school firing up his extremely loud motorbike, parting the assembled crowd in two before disappearing into the slum. Later on, a few of the volunteers ate dinner at his house and this involved a great deal of Kingfisher beers (even several for the principal’s mother in law), a huge Dalmatian (unusual to have pets in India) and half way through the meal, three Jesuit priests arrived and joined in the jovial but bizarre atmosphere.
After a month in Jaipur, I headed back to Mumbai to for a few weeks’ work experience. Here, I found it a relative luxury to be in even an old taxi after the harsh tuk-tuks of Rajasthan. After a sweeping motorway, the city of Mumbai seemed to grow out of an unexpected and beautiful mass of tropical-looking plants and trees. Skyscrapers rubbing shoulders with barren patches of land where children played cricket constantly. One morning, I walked from the Lower Parel district to Chowpatty Beach – finding that, just like London, everyone gets on with their own business in Mumbai, and I was not always met with quite the same looks as I had been in the self-proclaimed ‘backwards states’ of the north. At Chowpatty beach, even though there are surfboards, and hotels with looks that belong in Miami, the sea water is toxic and shouldn’t be swum in. On the plus-side, the beach itself was mostly very clean whilst I was there. Afterwards, I travelled to the Gateway of India, right by the hotel that got attacked by terrorists in 2008. As I left Mumbai for home, everyone was watching the India vs. Pakistan cricket match and so it left the streets pretty empty. Interest in the match was meant to provide a means of cohesion between the two countries, however more recently, other areas of the Mumbai have been attacked – a constant reminder of the region’s political fragility.
However, India is well worth a visit even if you only do it once. It will be unforgettable!