Approximately three weeks ago, I landed in Mumbai, India, where the smells of rubbish heaps hover over one side of the city while the other side shimmers with Bollywood glamour. I’ve heard it said that Mumbai is a city that looks like it was never finished. It has construction throughout the city and potholes mar roads that look like they were put together by accident or by sheer coincidence. Businesses are run out of garages and tents, and at 3 a.m., those without homes who aren’t digging up pavement are sleeping in auto-rickshaws and on roadsides.
Needless to say, it was in Mumbai that I had my first experience of India. I should point out, however, that this was Old Mumbai, not New Mumbai, which is far more clean and “modernized.” The government created a new part of the city, separated from the old by the backwaters of the Arabian Sea. Urban expansion is happening so quickly in India that before long, one can imagine that Mumbai and Pune, a city three hours away from Mumbai by car, will just be one gigantic city. While now I am in Pune, much of the environment is similar to Mumbai.
For my first ‘ambassador’ report to you all, I thought I would just let you know some things that have stood out to me as the biggest cultural adjustments, the first of which was the traffic. Traffic regulations here are more suggestions than laws as the sheer number of cars on the road makes regulation almost impossible. The way that most people survive the overwhelming congestion is by communication rather than by regulation. You use your horn, your lights and your eyes. For example, on most large trucks here there is painted “HORN PLEASE OK”, and boy, do people listen.
Being stuck in traffic in Pune sounds like being assaulted by an army of circus performers, as many horns of larger vehicles have quirky melodic themes to them. Also, a quick fun fact: when you put an Indian-manufactured automobile in reverse, it plays a melody of your choice to warn those around you that you are backing up. The other day I was walking through my neighborhood and heard my neighbor backing out of his driveway to “My Heart Will Go On.”
Second is the cleanliness and hygiene. As many of you probably know, most Asian countries don’t use toilet paper. They wash, we wipe. I had an interesting experience when I was first introduced to this concept, but I won’t go into that here (it’s posted on my blog, if you’re interested). Indians also generally eat with just their hands. It is important to note that they eat with their right hand, not their left, which is considered unclean because of the aforementioned practice. So technically, the system is very hygienic, although it may not seem that way to the average wiping-westerner.
Lastly, the organization, punctuality and bureaucracy of India took some getting used to. The conception of time here is much different than in America. Being on time often means being ten minutes late. This can be seen at multiple levels, not just with individuals. For example, it took our group five hours to be registered with the police. Our teachers often come into class as much as fifteen minutes behind schedule.
A common saying I’ve heard here is that for everything that is true about India, the opposite is also true. There are also many amazing things and more profound adjustments that I am experiencing here that are a bit more difficult to put into words. I will continue to update on these adjustments in TKS and on my blog at www.xanga.com/sabledog. All in all, everything is amazing here and I wish I could express it in so many words, but I can’t. Hope all is well in Galesburg! I miss Knox like a kid with a fast-metabolism misses cake. All the best!