A Little Lesson… Culture Shock & Scams My First Days in Mumbai

rickshaws in mumbaiArriving in India after backpacking Southeast Asia shocked my senses. Traveling for those weeks gave me a sense of rhythm to the region and I had just begun to figure it out. I knew the cultural nuances, had figured out the lay of the land, and I enjoyed traveling with my friend Laura. Landing in India has changed the name of the game again. It’s a whirl of new ideas, people, languages, smells, and culture.

I’ve talked about the slow pace of the Laos, and also about the faster pace of Cambodia. Even my week in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh left me underprepared for the experience of navigating Mumbai. During my first four months traveling, other travelers bombarded me with stories. They spoke of their rapturous love for the people of India, about the kindness and warmth they encountered. Then they tempered that love with talk of extreme poverty, filth, stomach illnesses, and a new culture bearing resemblance to no other one on earth.

My mind jumbled with the thoughts and stories. It made me cautious and curious about what I would find when I touched down at Mumbai International Airport. When planning this year around the world, it’s been this leg of the trip that worried me the most. After the Laos experience, and I fearful of getting sick — my immune system is still low and I’m still a good 15 pounds underweight. I’ve embraced my frugal, backpacker lifestyle in so many ways, but as I landed in India, I sent up a prayer for safety to all of the Hindu gods. I am traveling with my cousin through India and Nepal, and I hope that we both are able to uncover the joy and welcome that other travelers have shared about their own journeys through India.

Mumbai Airport to Colaba

ripped pants

My cousin had arrived earlier in the day and we agreed to meet at our hotel in the backpacker part of Mumbai, Colaba. The visa that I painstakingly procured in Phnom Penh, Cambodia the previous month, it worked flawlessly at immigration control and I was grateful to have no issues getting into India considering that I didn’t yet have my flight booked out of India. It’s a pretty open-ended few months, with only my volunteering stint in Nepal on the horizon. I found another western couple in the taxi queue and we shared a cab ride to Colaba. Much to my intrigued and horrified gaze, I watched our driver stash our three backpacks in the trunk, then he used a fraying, thinned rope to hold the trunk closed. I was betting my every worldly possession on the hope that the rope would hold for our journey across Mumbai.

Funny side story, my pants ripped their seam as I sat down in the front seat of the taxi. These were cheap fisherman pants I had picked up in Laos, so it wasn’t the greatest tragedy, but it was a conundrum. I sat perfectly still for 30 seconds pondering how in the world I could remedy the situation without offending the modest sensibilities of this culture I had just entered. Since we hadn’t left yet, the woman sharing my cab offered to dig through my backpack for my long scarf. It worked! But I’ll admit I was now acutely  self-conscious of the gaping hole in my pants hidden from the world by a thin brown scarf.

Our driver spent a good six minutes bringing to life his sputtering taxi, and after it groaned into life we exited the airport. The airport shinned in the afternoon light, glinting glass and steel. It seemed completely modern and the initial scene could have dropped me at most any airport in the world. And then the line of fancy hotels broke and into the horizon I gazed out at a wall of slums. These rickety buildings stretched far into the distance, a seemingly impenetrable maze of corrugated tin and tape.

mumbai airport slums

The mumbai slums near the airport.

The walls of each hut were constructed from scraps of plastic, discarded bars of metal, and rusted tin. From each column hung a raft of worldly possessions greying in the harsh Indian sun. And while it seems trite to related to the world through movies, they also can provide a different perspective on a situation. Without a reason to visit the slums, I have no knowledge of the inner workings. And yet, I can imagine a life behind the dappled sunshine that must pass through the cracks. I watched Slumdog Millionaire a few days after arriving in India. Apart from being in incredible story —well scripted, beautifully acted, scored, and filmed — it gave me a window into these lives. It’s a Hollywood-ized version yes, but even the spruced up movie version was disturbing enough to point to darker truths about the lives of India’s slum dwellers. (In the years since, I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a haunting nonfiction account of the lives of those living in the Annawadi slum — that very slum I passed leaving the airport. It will forever change your outlook on poverty, humanity, and culture. I highly recommend anyone visiting India read that book.)

Within seconds, however, we had zipped past the slum and then came to an abrupt halt in Mumbai’s gridlocked traffic. It took an hour to reach Colaba and as we pulled to the curb I spotted my cousin and darted from the cab (careful of my scarf), to wrap her up in a huge bear hug. It’d had been a long time since I had last seen family.

After laughing at my ridiculous pants situation, my cousin hauled me off to our hotel and up four flights of narrow, steep stairs. Our room was exceedingly plain, but clean. And claiming near-starvation, I dropped my bags, changed my pants, and pulled her back onto the streets of Colaba in search of food.

Lotus flowers for sale

With my mood balanced by tasty food, I took stock of my first impressions this country I would call home for the next two months. Utter chaos. The noise, people, crowds, smalls — everything rolled into a single assault on my senses. Even my thoughts banged loudly around my head, they seemed to race to keep up with the frenetic energy.

And let’s talk a moment about the smells. Wow this is a smelly place, both good and bad. Like Southeast Asia, street food is popular and small restaurants spill into the street. These scents of fresh food waft through the air. I am giddy at the memory of so many amazing vegetarian foods cooking in every stall.

And yet, the spicy scent of Indian food competes with sun-heated cow dung, ripe sweat, the stringent smell of old urine. And overtop all of that, the heady perfume from incense permeating every open space.

Beyond the scent though, the other sense are assaulted too. I navigated through curtains of Crayola-colored saris. Each one more elaborate than the last, my only thought was: Holy smokes, Indian women are gorgeous! My cousin and I dodged cars, cows, kids, beggars, and fruit vendors on our way to the restaurant we had picked out from our Lonely Planet India.

I am jazzed about the vegetarian food in India. I opted for an ice-cold sweet lassi, and my cousin and I split the south-Indian thali and a masala dosa. In the few weeks since I landed in India, the thali has become my go-to dish. It’s a sample platter of the restaurant’s dishes, and many times it’s free refills! This first one had four different curries and gravy dishes served with a huge piece of chapatti bread. Another favorite part? The huge plate of possible condiments and compliments to the dish: coconut paste, onions and lemon added a bit of pep to each of the meals. It was delicious.

As a vegetarian, there is no other country in the world so suited to my diet. It’s an entire food culture shaped around making vegetarian food flavorful and delicious.

malasa dosa

With few things we wanted to see in Mumbai (I am not a big city person), my cousin and I began our journey north. From the guidebook’s description, we had decided that a few nights in Ahmedabad would break up our journey north, while also allowing us to visit Gandhi’s ashram.

In booking our tickets, I learned the first of many lessons in India — don’t take shortcuts! Instead of journeying across town like our guesthouse recommended, my cousin and I chose a hole-in-the-wall spot that we had passed on our walk. That decision came back to bite us in the ass. But we didn’t yet know the folly of our choice, and we had just one afternoon left in the city. We didn’t have firm plans, and that would become the second lesson: don’t look lost or easy prey. Within a few minutes a pair of charming street hustlers realized that my cousin and I didn’t have our India wits honed. Without that savvy, we followed along and agreed to share a cup of chai and a bit of conversation.

An hour later, we saw the first hints of ulterior motives. It was a soft hustle though, and we sort of went with the flow for a while, gently letting them know that we weren’t interested in buying things. But they led us to a small bazaar and began a hard sell on the saris. Although we both actually wanted saris so we could better blend, we niether wanted these, nor did we appreciate the pressure. The situation spiked my anxiety and I started caving just to make the situation stop. My cousin stayed level-headed, however, and just grabbed my arm and pulled me away. She marched us right out of that situation and wouldn’t acknowledge them calling us back with threats and cajoling.

Top bunk on a packed sleeper train in India!

commuter train in India

We found out our train surprise the next morning when we boarded. After navigating the throngs of locals staring gaped-mouthed at our whiteness, we located our assigned seats on the train. They were in the commuter section of a local train running to Ahmedabad. The good news was, we’d get there. The bad news was, we payed more money for the right to smashed butt-to- face with for nine hours. It was a hilarious introduction to India, and I suppose we could have had much worse lessons than the two we faced.

At the end of it all, we knew that our journey was still heading to Gandhi’s Ashram in Ahmedabad.


Reading: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Listening to: Gorillaz — new to me, I’m thinking I like them!

Thought of the day:  There is a dignified poverty amidst the other begging, scamming, and abject poverty. There are families who don’t want your pity or your money, they simply want to offer you a chai and chat. With so many near-misses on scamming so far, I’m reminding myself that not all people have ulterior motives counter to my own well-being.


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11 Responses to A Little Lesson… Culture Shock & Scams My First Days in Mumbai

  1. ShannonOD November 9, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    I did Mumbai up to McLeod Ganj – Rajasthan, the Taj, Amritsar, Rishikesh and Dehli in between. I didn't make it to South India at all so you can bet I will be back in the next few years. I hear that it's a bit more laid-back in the south :-)

    And nothing to be embarrassed about, it was just one of those things I had to get used to! Once I did, I rolled with the flow and loved nearly every minute of India :-)

  2. ShannonOD November 9, 2009 at 9:15 am #

    I did Mumbai up to McLeod Ganj – Rajasthan, the Taj, Amritsar, Rishikesh and Dehli in between. I didn't make it to South India at all so you can bet I will be back in the next few years. I hear that it's a bit more laid-back in the south :-)

    And nothing to be embarrassed about, it was just one of those things I had to get used to! Once I did, I rolled with the flow and loved nearly every minute of India :-)

  3. Anand November 9, 2009 at 10:11 am #

    Hmm..nice read..Nice that you visited India. Hope you had a great stay..

    By the way, 'thali' means plate – a reference to meal. The South Indian thali you had (the triangular stuff) is called Dosa :)

    • ShannonOD November 9, 2009 at 4:01 pm #

      Thanks for the feedback – I loved the dosas and the thalis – guess I should have better indicated that it's a dosa in the pick, not the thali! :-) I appreciate the correction – and am even now dreaming of good Indian food :-)

      • Anand November 9, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

        Yeah, and you should visit here again. Did you visit the South and the North East? They are all pretty different cultures, especially the North East part of India.

        By the way, I agree with you about the gaze that follows the westerners wherever they go in India. I'm really unsure why many people do it, but you know, we never had too many foreigners visit India until mid 90s and later. So, maybe the 'How come these guys are here' feeling is yet to tire away..

        There are some things embarassing..anyway!

        • ShannonOD November 9, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

          I did Mumbai up to McLeod Ganj – Rajasthan, the Taj, Amritsar, Rishikesh and Dehli in between. I didn't make it to South India at all so you can bet I will be back in the next few years. I hear that it's a bit more laid-back in the south :-)

          And nothing to be embarrassed about, it was just one of those things I had to get used to! Once I did, I rolled with the flow and loved nearly every minute of India :-)

          • Anand November 9, 2009 at 4:21 pm #

            I wouldn't call it laid-back, but yes, it is pretty different. I mean, except for Mumbai and Delhi, no other city is that fast moving. But the crowd is pretty much still there. But you would love Kerala down south with its backwaters and stuff, it is really a serene place.

            By the way, great that you've traveled quite a bit. I'd been to Taj when I was three and I don't even remember the trip now..Need to visit it again, probably when I get married! :)

  4. ShannonOD November 9, 2009 at 9:01 am #

    Thanks for the feedback – I loved the dosas and the thalis – guess I should have better indicated that it's a dosa in the pick, not the thali! :-) I appreciate the correction – and am even now dreaming of good Indian food :-)

  5. Anand November 9, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    I wouldn't call it laid-back, but yes, it is pretty different. I mean, except for Mumbai and Delhi, no other city is that fast moving. But the crowd is pretty much still there. But you would love Kerala down south with its backwaters and stuff, it is really a serene place.

    By the way, great that you've traveled quite a bit. I'd been to Taj when I was three and I don't even remember the trip now..Need to visit it again, probably when I get married! :)

  6. Anand November 9, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    Yeah, and you should visit here again. Did you visit the South and the North East? They are all pretty different cultures, especially the North East part of India.

    By the way, I agree with you about the gaze that follows the westerners wherever they go in India. I'm really unsure why many people do it, but you know, we never had too many foreigners visit India until mid 90s and later. So, maybe the 'How come these guys are here' feeling is yet to tire away..

    There are some things embarassing..anyway!

  7. Anand November 9, 2009 at 3:11 am #

    Hmm..nice read..Nice that you visited India. Hope you had a great stay..

    By the way, 'thali' means plate – a reference to meal. The South Indian thali you had (the triangular stuff) is called Dosa :)

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