As luck would have it, the day before I planned on leaving Varanasi, I got sick. Again. Seems the ‘every six weeks’ joke I’d made to myself earlier was coming true. I decided to put my health into the hands of eastern medicine India style. I visited an Ayurvedic doctor and sat, intrigued, while he felt my pulse for a few minutes. That’s all he needed to make a diagnosis. I’m not sure he was right but the watching him gring up my medicine in a mortar and pestle was worth the price of admission.
Choking down little newspaper sachets of the chalky pink powder he prescribed and heeding his dietary advice (no cold foods e.g. bananas??, yogurt, oily or fried foods. And no cold water!), I hopped on a train for a 30 (count ’em 3-0) hour ride down to Mumbai (aka Bombay) to meet my friend Kate for New Year’s and adventures beyond. I quickly realized that liking the people you’re going to be sitting with for 30 hours in very close quarters is very important. Thankfully, it was easy.
One of the people I shared a berth with was an older Indian man with dark brown skin, a shock of white hair and thick dark rimmed glasses and a helluva personality. He introduced himself as “B.N. Pandey, Retired Varanasi Rail Station Superintendent!”. He was 85 years old, had lived a very full life and was probably the happiest, most content and proud man I’ve ever met. He was also partially deaf, all of which combined for some fun back and forth as we got to know each other.
I spent most of the trip watching and listening, trying to pick up the regular pearls of wisdom and humor he threw out for the duration about his Indian life, slightly garbled in his mixed Hindi/English. He explained to me the secrets of his long life (drink lots of water, do yoga, go for long walks every day, and if you don’t have to chew it – don’t eat it ’cause it’s probably not good for you!), the significance of Indian weddings, the importance of the Indian family structure and how sad he was for the American versions which often end in divorce and confused kids. Indians don’t just have kids to keep the name going. Indian families serve multiple purposes – including as built-in old age homes for the parents. When a son gets married, he and his wife move in with his parents and eventually take care of them into their old age. His son will do the same and so on. Another in the long list of otherwise bizarre reasons many Indian families wish for sons – a separate and confusing topic I’m learning more about all the time.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Mumbai, after hours of interesting talks and observations (including him telling me to pursue my ‘giving condition’ which he saw in me – still thinking about it), I felt like B.N. was my grandfather by proxy grandfather. After we exchanged addresses (what, no email, B.N.??), I helped him off the train, carrying his bags to his waiting nephew. He hugged me, looked at me and said, “now I don’t have many years left on this earth. Please come back to Varanasi when you’re ready to get married – and have your wedding here!”. It was another in a long line of amazing moments I’ve had with strangers become friends in the last 7 months. Most of which have left me slackjawed and smiling at human nature. That above all else, is what makes this traveling thing so incredible. Take the rest – the sights, food and pictures. Meeting people and connecting in a soulful way is unlike anything else. Me likes.
Enough mushy shit. It’s time to party. I rolled into Mumbai, slightly dirty and very excited. My friend Kate from SF happened to have a month off from work. And she happened to want to go to India just like me. So we just happened to plan to meet in Mumbai for New Year’s Eve. And so began a 6 week mega-adventure together.
Kate’s friend Neeraj from SF had taken a job in Mumbai for a year and had invited us to crash with him and celebrate the New Year. On the ride out to his place in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city (and the country), I started to learn a bit about Mumbai. It is a city of contrasts and contradictions like most of India. Home to the Bollywood, the biggest film industry in the world (bigger in all aspects than Hollywood – # movies, $$ etc) and much of India’s new wealthy elite, it has the highest pricetags in Indian real estate with beachfront homes going for multiple millions. It is also home to the largest slum in the world. Wrap your head around that one.
Neeraj has done well for himself and rents an apartment in that very upscale neighborhood on the beach, with a view of the waves crashing on the beach at the foot of his building. If you look closely you can also see a string of slum huts tucked behind rocks on that same beach. His next door/building neighbor is Shah Rukh Kahn, the biggest name in Bollywood, and probably the world for that matter. I wish I were a fan. I probably would have appreciated it as much as the throngs of fans that gathered every day outside his building hoping for a glimpse.
With traditional views of India in my head as I entered the country, it was hard to process it all. But India of 2008 is a very different place. Booming industry and growing Western influence is throwing the country into a new era, sending more and more into new wealth, while the poor continue to struggle in abject poverty on farms and on the street around the country. I just read in the paper the other day that a farmer actually died of malnutrition recently. His fields had gone fallow and he couldn’t even grow enough to keep himself alive.
With all that in my head, and the fact that I’d spent most of the last 4 months of travel living sorta ‘with the people’ in other developing countries, living on a small budget, eating from street vendors, staying in low rent places etc, it was a bit of a shock to find myself standing on in the middle of a very expensive outdoor rooftop apartment overlooking the city skyline, celebrating New Year’s with a bunch of well-heeled finance types sipping Ketel One, munching on catered tandoori chicken and grinding to Bollywood songs spun by a DJ in the corner My head was reeling. But damn it was fun. Standing there at midnight watching fireworks over the city was pretty cool. I probably won’t forget this one next time someone asks me, “what’d you do for New Year’s last year??”
Here’s a pic from just around midnight – one of Neeraj’s friends and Kate, both much more interesting to look at than my mug..