Sunday, March 11, 2007

Culture Shock: Mumbai

“Ladies and gentleman, in accordance with the Indian government, we will be applying a health spray just before the aircraft lands in Mumbai. Please remain in your seats.”

Eh? “Health spray”? They’re gassing us before we enter the country? I haven’t even landed, and already Mumbai is a very different experience. (Later, I heard the spray was a holdover from the days of the SARS outbreak. I never found out what they put in it.)

I have steeled myself for a crush of humanity. When I arrive, it’s not more crowded than Singapore or even New York, during peak hours. But I quickly find out that it’s always “peak hour” in Mumbai. If you need a breather, you’re out of luck. The crowd itself isn’t bothersome at any given time, but after three days I want to come up for air. I wonder if people ever get comfortable with perpetual rush hour, 21 hours a day.

I have readied myself to suffer from gastrointestinal difficulties. Every time I mentioned my upcoming trip to someone in Singapore, the reaction was the same: “You’ll get sick! Be careful!” So while I am sampling wonderful Indian food at high-end restaurants, I take far more precautions than I would at an outdoor Singaporean hawker center. I don’t drink the water. I even remember to avoid the ice. I apply the 30-second hand-washing rule at least five times a day. Still, I count myself lucky: I do not get sick.

I have been expecting to see extreme poverty, so it does not surprise me. Instead, I am shocked by the extreme poverty and ridiculous opulence standing side by side. I walk by a lavishly designed hotel, then see the slum just next door: the nearest tent - housing a whole family - is attached to one of the hotel walls. Walking down the street, I am likely to pass someone who earns no rupees a day, then someone earning 100 rupees a day ($2 US), then someone earning 2 lakh (200,000 rupees, or $400 US) a day.

My biggest - and least expected - culture shock happens when I return to Changi airport in Singapore. When we first flew into Singapore from the US, I thought the airport was very nice but rather ordinary. Arriving from Mumbai, I can’t stop thinking, “Wow. Everything is so clean!” It takes me at least three days to get over how clean it is in Singapore.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a fascinating place. Thanks for sharing your experiences!