Reflexive Culture Shock (Mumbai)
Newly arrived at 2:30 am, the gates of India swing open to me at the airport. I set out on my journey loaded with luggage and mental baggage. Cultural shock kicks in as I seek a cheap dive to crash.
The light went on. A cockroach scurried off my bed into a crack in the floor. There was no bathroom. There was no sink. Flakes of old white paint chipped off and snowed onto my bed. “I’ll take it.” I said without hesitation. The night before, at 2:30 a.m., after a long wait through customs, my option for a room for the night was limited to an overpriced hotel near the airport.
The hotel was one of those tourist scams that specialized on jet-lagged travelers who, at that early hour, are too discombobulated to calculate the proper exchange rates for a bargain. The hotel charged the equivalent of $30 (if paid in U.S. dollars) –about six times the normal rate for a budget room. Plus everyone from porters to desk attendants waved their palms in my face hoping that I would stoke them with tips. When I did tip they often implied it wasn’t big enough. They hinted that I should give larger tips for such trivial acts as turning on my television, showing me how to turn on a water faucet, and finding my room number. Feeling fleeced and disoriented, I relented and paid the exorbitant rates so that they would leave and I could get some sleep. The next morning I waded through the city via rickshaw and taxi until I finally settled on a different room in the Coloba district.
After the morning of sightseeing the cockroach didn’t bother me. Maybe it was the monsoon rain that twice soaked that day; or maybe it was the sleeping dog on the staircase with dried, hairless, skin stretched across its thin canine bones; maybe it was the 8-year-old Muslim girl that followed me for two kilometers until I surrendered my leftover mango juice (only to continue to follow me once I did so she could also get some rupees in addition to the beverage); maybe it was the divorced mother who I gave $3 to for a blue tarp roof, to keep the monsoon rain out of the shanty that she rented; or maybe it was the slum dwellers who openly defecated near the highways; or maybe it was the dozens of desperate beggars, pleading carpet vendors, or cripples who dragged themselves out of the rain; or the lepers waving fingerless hands at me to place rupees in the palms that remained; — but, with all these things combined, in my mind a large cockroach had little significance. Thus, I made bed with the cockroach. The roach slithered across my chest as I slept that night. I also made peace with the flies that slid up my nostrils, mosquitoes that imbibed from my veins and an occasional worm in my pistachio nuts.
This account is just one perception of Mumbai. The initial encounter is just one part of India’s kaleidoscope of colors, smells, and sounds –as laced with heavy doses of culture shock and jet lag. The candle-lit shanties, roaming livestock, composting waste, and the incense-scented temples to the four-armed, elephant-headed, Ganeesh are all contributing elements to a broad picture - the cultural Marsala of India. However, it is this initial view of India that many domestic citizens wish tourists could see beyond. There is a near fascination with this extreme poverty that keeps western tourists full of snapshot material and horror stories about India. However, local citizens often reminded me that there is another side of India that is advanced, developed, and progressive. The same city that hosts such extreme poverty also boasts of “Bollywood” the largest movie industry in the world. The same country that suffers rare diseases such as leprosy and bubonic plague also produces some cutting-edge software and Internet programs.
The problem is that it often takes a good deal of work to see the different components that comprise India. India hides nothing. In wears its poverty, corruption, and lack of sanitation on its sleeve. In results, the strongest images among tourists are often the ones that reflect most negatively upon it. The western world is saturated with wonderful Indian spices, textiles, and culturally enriched artifacts. But, it is also bombarded by tourist folklore stories of dead babies being sprung from garbage cans by young girls who want to use the unwitting corpse as a prop to get money from tourists. There are many different facets to this soon-to-be most populated country in the world. In their love/hate relationships with the country tourists recollection of India often seems schizophrenic.
Freshly arrived in Mumbai, I am one of these confused tourists. At the airport I bonded with other mixed-up tourists. I spent an hour helping one young American tourist who, being out of the States for the first time in her life, was overwhelmed by the Mumbai experience. Later, on my second night, my mind wandered dichotomously like a Ping-Pong tournament as I tried to understand everything. The cockroach darted toward discarded scraps of pistachio nuts, vendors bee-lined toward moneyed foreigners, tourists hurried toward inexpensive souvenir shops, and I zigzagged my way through a extended budget vacation. It was all a great cycle of trying to satisfy ones wants and needs. Yet, once the act is completed one always needs more of something else. In the moment, in my cockroach-infested room, I needed to examine my background with poverty. I glared at it without flinching because I wanted to know why this poverty in India shocked me when I had seen so much of it first hand in the United States.
I was reminded of working two years for social service programs for homeless Americans. I have distinct images: families living in the hulls of abandoned boats in Port Townsend, Washington; a Native American in Corvallis, Oregon who suffered a bad case of gout and a neck swollen with lumps from some unidentified source; an indigent alcoholic in Berkeley, California with a hand ballooned by a spider bite as the poison rushed up his arm; two African-Americans in Seattle, Washington fist-fighting over a tiny amount of heroin concealed in a condom; and countless assaults and verbal arguments over one’s position in the food line, or who would sleep on the top bunk, or who would get to use the microwave oven next.
I also have my own personal images such as living in my car while completing graduate school, shuffling penniless from couch to couch while job hunting, living in a camper in someone’s garage until winter became to harsh to live outdoors, and being tracked down and badgered by debt collectors and student loan companies through it all. It is hard to forget hunger and debt because it vibrates throughout your body. My images of poverty still weigh deep on my mind. Like an overripe fruit they sag heavily waiting for release.
If I focus on the worst memories, the deepest pain, the self-hatred, the pity, fear, hopelessness, and anger – if I take all the nastiness and squeeze it in my hand - once the bitter juice has drained I can only think of one thing: American poverty is relative. Class-consciousness does not translate easily between nations, and it is implausible to identity with each other’s poverty. American homeless have it easy compared to the hyper-poverty of India. The transients in the United States whine too often. One week in India would be a shock to them all. The poverty in the United States pales in comparison. Americans at least have illusions of hope and escape, while many impoverished Indians accept their condition as permanent. Their hopes and dreams often don’t scratch longer than a single day or week. In India I can’t look at my own poverty in the same way. My student loan debt is greater than the lifetime salaries of most of the locals that I met –much like the United States’ deficit is much higher than the total GNP of many countries. The sum of poverty is relative to location.
In my room alone, these thoughts as company, I felt a release that I can’t explain. The rotten fruit had fallen from the tree. The cockroach was but a hiccup of inconvenience and the personal images that haunted me couldn’t take hold this far overseas. My past poverty seemed silly to dwell on in light of the poverty I had seen earlier that day. I was reminded that my travel was a privilege that others could not afford. My status as a tourist was given as proof that I was rich. Most Indians will never have the financial capacity to tour Western countries. Although I had little money in the United States, I could still make it last a long time in India. In India, I had the wealth and freedom to take a train to a different city if I liked. I had the illusion of belonging to a different economic class. With a new feeling of lightness I resumed the role of a tourist and began to map a way out of Mumbai. Thus, like thousands of tourists before me, this city, formally referred to as Bombay, has become a buffer zone. I resided in it long enough to incubate my culture shock and jet lag. Once hatched I could leave them behind as I boarded a train to Bangalore – the more developed and westernized stepbrother of Mumbai.