Today I got back from a great trip to India. I always love going there because I think it must be the most 'alive' place in the world; everywhere you look there's someone etching out a living. It is a country where everyone is an entrepreneur with dreams of making it to the big time.
I was there to speak at IIT Bombay, one of the country's top universities, at their annual E-Summit event, which attracted something like a thousand students from all over India. As well as giving a talk, I got a chance to spend a few days exploring the very energetic Mumbai, before chilling out at a yoga retreat in Pune.
Every day, millions of items of clothing are taken to Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's gigantic human-powered washing machine. I've never seen anything quite like it, with rows and rows of washed linen drying in the breeze. They claim that nobody's clothes get mixed up in the chaos, God knows how.
One of the 'must see' attractions is the Gateway to India, a giant arch by the waterfront that was built in 1911 to welcome King George V and Queen Mary on their visit to the country, back in the days when countries built massive purposeless arches to say 'hello' to their visiting colonialist rulers.
India is a country that runs on street food dishes, some more appetizing than others. I tried Vada Pav, aparently the working man's favourite meal; a sort of deep fried ball of mashed potato in a bun, with chili sauce. Actually pretty tasty.
On a previous trip to Mumbai, we took a walking tour around Dharavi, which is the biggest slum in Asia, frequently profiled on TV shows back home. For obvious reasons it wouldn't have been appropriate to take pictures there, but it is pretty easy to organize doing a tour and the local residents are remarkably happy to have tourists wander around their tiny little alleyways, with the kids shouting 'hello, how are youuuu?' all along the way.
Dharavi is a pretty mind blowing place - everyone has a job and, even though the place is pretty squalid (think mountains of shitty nappies with kids playing cricket on top with homemade bats), you see them emerging from their cramped homes with a pressed white shirt in the mornings. We walked around a couple of the local factories, which are owned by millionaire slumlords, where children and teenagers melted down bales of plastic drinking staws to make plastic resin; "recycling!". We could barely stand the heat and toxic stench of the place for more than a few minutes - it was hard to image how difficult it would be to work under such conditions seven days a week, and how long you might expect to survive doing so.
Probably the starkest case for women's emancipation i've ever seen was when we walked from one neighbourhood, which was particularly impoverished and squalid, into another which was greener and a lot happier. When the tour-guide asked why we thought there was such a difference between these two neighbourhoods, we just guessed that maybe these were two classes of society or that one just earned more money than the other. No - the poor neighbourhood was Muslim, were the women were forbidden from working (halving families household incomes) and the other was Hindu, where the women could work and the families could afford to better educate their children.
While I was in town, Kala Ghoda, the art district, was throwing a big festival, with lots of traditional dancing and music.
I made a quick stop at the huge Shree Siddhiwinayak Temple, which was built for my favourite Hindu god; Ganesha. Bestowed with an elephant head, the god of intelligence rides around on a mouse. The temple was fun to see but not the most beautiful i've seen (no pictures inside), but it was quite interesting to see all of the stuff that Hindus give as offerings to God; I was quite surprised to see a vending machine for gold inside the temple (which you could buy and hand to a priest who would no doubt make sure to pass it on to Ganesha for you).
I wanted to go to Zaveri Gold Bazaar, which is where they make all of this jewellery - but unfortunately I didn't have time, owing to the city's horrific traffic congestion. I have read that 11% of all of the world's gold is worn by Indian housewives, which means that the jewellery making business in Mumbai is massive - so much gold is processed here that there is even money to be made by clambering into the sewers around these streets, dredging out the wretched sludge and putting it through a painstaking manual filtration process to uncover the tiny specs of gold that escape down the bazaar's drains - it takes tons and tons of sludge to produce just a few grams of gold. Not exactly the best job in the world.
We had a great lunch at Shiv Krishna vegetarian restaurant and I was also taken out for a Thali (above), which is where they constantly serve you about twelve different dishes until you beg them to stop. India in general is probably one of the best countries in the world for vegetarians - meals in restaurants are listed as 'vegetarian' and 'non-vegetarian', with most people going for the delicious veggie options. It reminds me of ordering from Domino's Pizza in Kansas City, where toppings were listed as 'meats' and 'non-meats'!
It turned out that the best place to get a view of the slums, squalid rivers and cows eating plastic bags at eighty miles an hour was from the gap between the trains, where I hung out for a bit, much to the local's amusement (who were only in the gap because they didn't have a seat).
After the journey, I headed off on a 1.5hr drive into the beautiful countryside around Pune to visit the Kare Ayurvedic Retreat (not the type of place i've ever been to before). I spent five days there with my Tie Dye t-shirts on, taking part in their fixed daily routine that included doing four hours of yoga each day, two hours of therapeutic massages, eating all delicious healthy vegan food and abstaining from alcohol, caffeine and, hardest of all, internet.
The yoga classes were held by an eighty-something year old, who could no doubt touch his nose with his toes. We also had some small talks from younger yoga teachers (who of course were glowing, happy and had perfect posture) about Hindu philosophy, Ayurvedic science and how we could find inner peace in the modern world. By the end of the week, I did feel amazing, probably the healthiest i've ever felt. So much meditation and time to think really helped me to focus on what I need to be doing to get where I want to get this year. Thoroughly recommended.