Friday, February 13, 2015

India Adventure II: Mumbai (Bombay)

My overnight bus from Bangalore reached the outskirts of Mumbai at 4:30am on Friday, January 30. The woman sitting next to me proactively tried to help me determine when and where to get off of the bus. It was very sweet of her. However, I shortly learned that I could not speak English with anyone on the bus, which made trying to sort out which bus stop I needed a sleepily entertaining project.

In the end - by default, because by this point I had missed all of the other stops - I got off of the bus at the last stop, in the Mumbai neighborhood of Borivali. I then took an approximately 20 minute auto ride from the stop to my friend Kavita’s house. But first the auto driver had to stop to have some repairs done on his vehicle, at a roadside shop just beyond the overpass where I had gotten off of the bus. Leaning against the vehicle to keep an eye on my luggage, I enjoyed watching the sun rise higher over the Mumbai skyline. It was good to have this time to the fact that while I was still in India, I had very little idea of where I was.

I had traveled to Mumbai to visit friends (Kavita, Emily, Audrey, Shubhangi and Suresh), but knew little of the city other than that it is capital of Bollywood. My guide book – and my experiences in Mumbai later confirmed – that Mumbai is actually an island, connected to mainland India by bridges and causeways. The city’s name was changed from Bombay, a name given to the city by the British when India was a British colony, to Mumbai in 1996. However, it is still referred to by both names. Mumbai the wealthiest city in India, generating one third of India’s tax income. The Mumbai port handles half of India’s foreign trade. Mumbai seems to be the center of India’s finance industry. I learned that Delhi is the center of politics in India, and that Mumbai is the center of finance. International companies who have business in India have their offices in Mumbai.

When I arrived at Kavita’s parents’ home that morning, I got to meet some some Kavita’s extended family members. She had relatives in town from Spain, the US (Ohio), and the Indian state of Gujarat. Relatives who live in Singapore hadn’t yet arrived, but would come after I had left Mumbai. It was fun to meet Kavita’s parents and her family.

I felt lucky to get to spend time with Kavita’s family over the next five days, going for walks on the boardwalk, eating home cooked food, and having twice daily tea with cookies. (Indians drink chai. It is available everywhere, and is consumed so often in my presence that it feels like the national beverage. It is made with milk, so I have never had it.)

Kavita's family.

It was also great to spend time catching up with Kavita. She and I became friends in December 2013, when Kavita, my mom, and I were assigned to be roommates during His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s 10 day teaching in Bylakuppe, south India. We then took two Introduction to Buddhism courses together in Bodhgaya and Dharamsala in 2014. Kavita is now living in Mumbai, spending time with her parents.

Kavita and I on a boardwalk in Mumbai.

Their house is in a suburb of Mumbai called Bandra. It is just a few blocks from the coast. On the morning of my first full day in Mumbai – January 31 – Kavita and her aunt from Ohio invited me to go for a walk with them on the nearby boardwalk.

Morning walk on the boardwalk.

Morning walk on the boardwalk.

I was amazed at how many people were up so early, exercising on the boardwalk. We followed the boardwalk to one of Mumbai’s fantastic “jogger parks”. The park was set up purely for exercise. The center of the park was a garden, with benches people could relax on. That central park was surrounded by a wide dirt track that people could run or walk on. Then came a thin paved track, also for running. The outer edge of the park was green space, and had public toilets. The whole area was fenced in and guarded at the gate, by two men who seemed to be checking people into the park. I saw other jogger’s parks while traveling around Mumbai, more in the center of the city, but this particular one by Kavita’s house is set between the boardwalk and the ocean, so walkers and runners have a view of the ocean.

Jogger's Park entrance.

Jogger's Park.

Walking back along the boardwalk towards Kavita’s house, we first passed a woman feeding street dogs.

Street dog on the boardwalk.

Walking on the boardwalk.

We then walked through a part of the boardwalk where young children and their mothers were being tutored by volunteers. I met the leader of this effort, Mira Mamnani. Mira, a retired engineer, began this tutoring program many years ago. She operates the program through her organization, the Navjyot Foundation. She goes to the boardwalk twice each day – in the morning and then later in the afternoon – to help the students. In the middle of the day, she tutors at a library.

Mira with some of her students.

Her students come from impoverished families who live in the Bandra area. Some of their parents are the house help (servants) who work in Bandra homes. I learned from Kavita that some of the servants sleep in the apartment complex’s parking garages, while others live in area slums. Mira said that her own children are well educated and accomplished, and now she wants that for the children that she tutors through her program.

Mira's volunteers tutoring on the boardwalk.
I watched the youngest students, who were working in their notebooks around Mira’s feet as she and I talked. The students were writing out vocabulary words in English. Their lettering was very good, as was their pronunciation and enthusiasm for their studies. In addition to providing them with an education, Mira gives the students clothes and food – “anything they need”. She gestured to two older women who were seated, studying on a nearby bench. Mira explained that she had the students’ mothers coming to be tutored, too. That was part of her requirement, for the children to receive household supplies for their families.

Mira's volunteers tutoring on the boardwalk.

So many good things are happening. All I had to do was go for a morning walk on the boardwalk to find them.

On the way back to Kavita’s house, we stopped off at Kavita’s childhood friend Shara’s parent’s house. Shara, her husband, and their two children live in Dallas. Shara was back in Mumbai for two weeks, helping her family with a project. It was fun to meet her, and see the Arabian ocean from the view in her parent’s apartment.

View of the Arabian Ocean and Mumbai coast.

I also got to visit Kavita’s aunt and uncle’s apartment, which is on the coast in another part of Mumbai, just across a new bridge from Kavita’s house.

Crossing bridge in Mumbai.

We spent time at her aunt and uncle’s apartment both during the day and night, so I got to see the coast from both perspectives.

View from Kavita's aunt and uncle's house during the day.

View from Kavita's aunt and uncle's apartment at night.

It was fun to meet Kavita’s aunt, who was born in Nigeria, and then moved to India in her early 20’s, when she got married. I learned this after complimenting her on her dress, which I then learned had been made in Nigeria. (If you are following my blog then you might remember I met two other Indian women from Nigeria on the train, when going to His Holiness’ teachings in December 2014.)

Kavita showed me other beaches and boardwalks in Mumbai. We usually went walking on the boardwalk during sunset.

Mumbai boardwalk.

Mumbai boardwalk.

Mumbai boardwalk.

Mumbai boardwalk.

After walking on the beach one night we stopped at a nearby Buddhist temple, open directly onto the street, and at a roadside Hindu temple half a block away. I love noting the roadside Hindu temples all over India. This was the first roadside Buddhist temple I had seen, though.

Buddhist roadside temple.

Hindu roadside temple.

While in Bangalore, I met some women who practice a form of Buddhism based on the Lotus Sutra. Through Kavita I learned that this practice is also done in Mumbai. We visited the center where people chant, during a time when the room was half full of people sitting cross legged, chanting. There was a scroll at the front of the room with Japanese lettering on it. This form of Buddhism was founded by a man from Japan. It was interesting.

Kavita and I had lunch at the home of one of Kavita’s friends, who she met through the Lotus Sutra chanting. This friend grew up in Mahwah, New Jersey and her mom used to have a perfume kiosk outside of Victoria’s Secret in the Willowbrook Mall in New Jersey. I am familiar with both places.

I also got to have dinner with two American friends from Nairobi, Emily and Audrey. Audrey and I lived together when I first moved to Nairobi for work in 2013. Emily and I used to work together in Nairobi. They now both work together for Vera Solutions in Vera’s Mumbai office. Coincidentally, the Vera office and their homes are in Bandra, not far from Kavita’s parents’ house. Emily, Audrey and I had a great dinner together at a Bandra Italian restaurant.

Me, Emily, and Audrey across the table from us.
It was so nice to see and catch up with them both, since I had not seen either of them since Nairobi in 2013. Emily, who is from Michigan, had left Nairobi before me, for a job in Senegal. Audrey, who is from New York, left Nairobi after me, and has since spent time in Geneva before moving to Mumbai. I learned from Audrey that another American friend I met in Nairobi is also now living in Mumbai, but it was too late to make plans to see her while I was in town.

I also got to see some other old friends – Suresh and Shubhangi, who live in Pune, the Indian state of Maharashtra’s second biggest city, after Mumbai. I took a three hour bus ride through the beautiful Western Ghat mountains one morning to reach Pune from Mumbai.

Suresh and Shubhangi, a very nice couple I met during His Holiness’ teachings in Bylakuppe, south India in December 2013, have retired and live in Pune. Their two sons live in the US. Suresh picked me up from the bus station in Pune and brought me to their new apartment, which is an apartment complex and suburb of Pune that is booming with new construction.

As we drove, I learned that Pune is an IT hub, with beautiful campuses owned by Accenture and other big international and Indian IT and consulting companies. Workers commute to and from work from other parts of Pune on motorbike with their tell-tale backpack on their backs. On the weekends, they take the bus that I took to Mumbai to visit their families. I then realized that the bus I had taken to Pune that Monday morning was occupied by people who regularly make that trip.

Entering the land of Pune IT land.

You could see all of this construction from Suresh and Shubhangi’s beautiful apartment. When the construction is done, it will be beautiful and peaceful, with a river and walkways that adjoin their community complex. The suburbs are growing.

Suresh and Shubhangi's apartment complex.
It was so nice to spend the afternoon, that evening, and the following morning with Suresh, Shubhangi, and Shubhangi’s mom who is visiting them in Pune. We caught up, ate delicious food, and took a long walk around the complex. I got to hear about their trip to Ladahk last year to see His Holiness, and see photos taken of a monastery in Kathmandu that I had not gotten to visit when the three of us were taking the November course at Kopan last year. They are wonderful people. I had such a nice, peaceful visit to Pune, and an easy ride back on the bus the next morning to Mumbai.

Travel agent sign outside of the bus station in Mumbai. So many potential destinations in India.

On my last morning in Mumbai, Kavita and I went to Juhu Beach, just north of Bandra, and further away from downtown Mumbai. This is a sandy beach without a boardwalk – the first one I had seen in Mumbai. It was fun to walk on the sand and watch the street dogs at play.

Juhu Beach and Mumbai skyline.

Juhu Beach street dogs.

I saw some young men wearing yellow vests, who were collecting trash from the very dirty coastline, but was afraid to take off my socks and shoes for fear of stepping on something dangerous.

The most interesting thing I came across on the beach was this Hindu statue. Kavita told me to leave it there, because someone may have intentionally left it on the beach.


After exiting the beach, Kavita and I crossed the street in search of breakfast, passing through the traffic that crosses the Mumbai of old (architecture) with the Mumbai of new (fancy cars).

People get around Mumbai via car, commuter train (which I took by myself on several occasions), auto rickshaw, bus, and motorbike.

After breakfast Kavita dropped me off at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharah Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. I wound up spending the entire day at the museum, and could have spent even more time there. The building itself is one of Mumbai’s most distinctive buildings from the Raj era in Indian history. The stone building is crowned by a Mughal-style (Taj Mahal) dome, and as my Rough Guide to India says “the epitome of the hybrid Indo-Saracenic style – regarded in its day as an ‘educated’ interpretation of fifteenth and sixteenth century Gujarati architecture, mixing Islamic touches with typically English municipal brickwork.”

The museum has a beautiful and diverse art collection, with rooms dedicated to European paintings, Chinese and Japanese ceramics and glass, Buddhist art from Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Hindu carvings collected from temples, outdoor sculpture gardens with more carved stone temple art, and an Indian miniature painting gallery, a temporary exhibit called “Sahib, Bibi, Nawab – Baluchar Silks of Bengal, 1750 – 1900”, as well as other collections that I did not have time to see.

My favorites were the Indian miniature paintings – I hadseen some in Jodhpur and Delhi last year that sparked my interest in these paintings – and the ancient stone carvings of Buddhas found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India, as well as the collection of art from Tibet and Nepal.
I liked this description that accompanied an image of Avalokitesvara: “Avalokitesvara (called Chenrizig by Tibetans) wanted to help the whole world, but could not do so with only two arms and one head. He therefore burst into a thousand arms and a thousand heads, of which only eleven are shown as a symbolic substitute for one thousand. The upper head is that of Amitabha, of whom he is an emanation.”

I particularly liked and made note of (but did not photograph) a statue of Amoghapasha, which came from Nepal 19th Century AD, from the Sir D.J. Tata Collection, as well as Dipankara Buddha, from Nepal, N.S. 978 – 1858 AD, from the same collection. One of the oldest statues I saw was the Goddess Vasudhara (goddess of wealth and prosperity) – gilded copper alloy inlaid with semiprecious stones, Nepal c. 1400, originally in the Heeramaneck Collection. The museum had some beautiful statues that were crowned by wreaths of flowers and branches made out of the same materials as the statues themselves. I also loved the collection of ceremonial tea pots and musical instruments used in Buddhist ceremonies from Tibet.

The silks special exhibit was fun. I learned the foremost Baluchar silks artist was Dubraj Das, a member of the untouchable leatherworkers caste in India, who died sometime between 1900 and 1903. Many of the woven silk saris on display contained stitching patterns that depicted British men and women in India riding on trains and carriages. One sign accompanying a silk that depicted a European couple on Elephant, mid to late 19th Century, amusingly said “The British appear in the 19th century to have felt most comfortable surveying India from above and at a distance -  from a horse, an elephant, a boat, a carriage, or a train.” I learned from the exhibit that the first steam locomotive appeared in India in the mid 1800’s. Having taken many of these trains around India, I am quite familiar with – and thankful for – the trains brought to India by the British.

I met this family from Aurangabad, an 8-10 hour bus ride from Mumbai, outside of the museum, and posed for photos with them.

Family portrait outside of the museum.

That night I met up with a Lehigh alum who lives in Mumbai. I also invited twelve Lehigh alums – the highest concentration of alums in one city in all of India – to get together while I was in Mumbai. I heard back from a few alumni, including Deval, who was able to meet up. We met up on my last night in Mumbai. Deval graduated with a chemical engineering degree in 2001, and now works in manufacturing. He was born in Mumbai but went to high school in the Indian state of Rajasthan and in the UK, before coming to Lehigh. It was so nice to meet him.

Lehigh alumni gathering with Deval in Mumbai.

After meeting with Deval, Kavita and I collected our luggage at her house, and went to the train station to travel to Bodhgaya in the Indian state of Bihar. Kavita had decided to join me in my journey onwards to Bodhgaya, after we learned that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was also headed to Bodhgaya.

The train ride from Mumbai to Bodhgaya was much less expensive than flying between the two cities, and we would get to see a lot of India along the way. So, we decided to take the train and were fortunately able to get on it, at such short notice with the help of a travel agent Kavita’s father uses.

The train left Mumbai at 9:30pm on Wednesday, February 4, and was supposed to arrive in Gaya, the station nearest Bodhgaya at 3am on Friday, February 6. We boarded the train on time, but as we progressed northeast across India, we began to fall behind schedule, eventually arriving at the Gaya station at 12:30pm on Friday, February 6 (9+ hours overdue). It was a fun ride. Photos in my next post. I am writing from Bodhgaya, the town where Buddha attained enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree. I have been here for a week today.

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