Deserts & Dreams

Before I begin, I thought I would impart some of the wisdom I have learnt here.

How to cross the road in Mumbai:

  • If possible, find other people. Stick closely to them.
  • The best times to cross are either when there are not many vehicles, or when there are a lot and traffic has come to a standstill. You can then weave around the stopped cars, buses, rickshaws and scooters.
  • When you are walking, keep a constant speed, even if you think you’re going to die. Try not to slow down, speed up or stop too suddenly. Above all, do not run. They can sense fear (just kidding, but seriously – the vehicles can anticipate your movements and flow around you more easily if you don’t run). As a pedestrian, you have equal rights to road usage as any other vehicle.
  • You will get beeped that. Do not panic.
  • If you are a short person, try to grow taller. I think this helps.
  • Put your hand out, palm slightly raised, towards oncoming vehicles to slow them down as you cross. This is black magic and they will acknowledge it as such.

How to avoid being scammed in Mumbai:

  • Yeah, can’t help you with this one.
  • All I know is: agree on the price BEFORE you get in the rickshaw. Be assertive, and don’t be afraid to walk away.
  • Act as if you don’t want the thing. Start bartering at a third of the price. Check out the same item at similar shops. Remember the magic phrases “that’s expensive” and “best price?”
  • Comfort yourself that the money you do get scammed out of will at least help one person’s economy.

Trip to Rajasthan

One of the most incredible places I have visited on this trip is the desert near Jaisalmer, a town in the state of Rajasthan. Time starts to feel different there, so it feels most appropriate to capture the experience in glimpses:

  • A landscape that utterly transforms from day to night: hot to cool, orange to grey, exhausting to exciting, endless to hidden
  • Beautiful, endless shimmering dunes, and so hot you feel you’re swimming in the air
  • Soft cool velvety sand that feels like water pooling around your feet; both hard and soft, hot or cool, insubstantial to pick up and yet astounding in its enormity
  • Wild wild ride squashed in the back of a tiny open jeep, going offroad through the back roads and dunes into the middle of nowhere, where a million million stars were waiting in the darkness
  • Sitting on the swings under the fairy lights in the dark
  • Honestly enchanting endless time at the Borda Hotel in the desert
  • Saw a desert fox’s darting shadow
  • Spent the night in the most comfortable bed ever with a pillow and duvet you just melt into, and a view of the sand dunes
  • Musicians playing in the evening courtyard, and the jingle of the dancer’s anklets as she spins
  • Gentle rolling of the camel’s back as we proceed in a long line along the sandy dunes

We spent our second night in the town of Jaisalmer itself – in a palace turned hotel of none other than the Prince himself! (Who was actually incredibly humble and told us some incredible stories of escaping into the desert from his dad.) I really loved the way the town buildings were so ornate and extended with pathways and arches onto their flat roofs – like drawings of Ancient Egypt I used to love as a kid. There are sandstorms a few times a year, but I guess you wouldn’t have to worry much about rain, and it’s fascinating to see architecture that has grown around that.

Fun and games

We had a poi making workshop! Poi is actually quite addictive – I discovered that for myself the other night when I had to do some research! A few of the girls picked it up super fast, and were having heaps of fun. My aunt taught me to make some DIY poi using household items when I was young, so I collected spare plastic bags and showed them how to finger knit wool. It was so fun sharing a part of New Zealand culture, especially after giving them a presentation about our country the week before, and made me re-engage with aspects of this culture I have known all my life more strongly as well, as if I was strengthening my idea of who I am and where I come from. We did a cultural exchange of sorts, because the girls also taught me some Bollywood dance! They are really amazing at it, and the thing I love the most about Bollywood is how purely joyful it is as a style of dance.

I’ve been playing some card games with the girls, because I’ve found that a helpful activity in learning another language in the past. This week I finally taught them Mega Snap, a game I actually learnt from some others on the trip, so it feels like our own PMSA Mumbai culture has come full circle! They also, weirdly, remembered Blackjack from when I taught it in one of the first weeks and wanted to play it, and naturally started calling it Twenty-one, which is amusing since that’s its other name. Hardly anyone I meet ever actually enjoys Blackjack! I think that’s awesome though because it’s a maths game too, both in terms of adding and probability. Similarly, Mega Snap is good for counting in English, although they’re good at that. They’re fascinated by art as well, so we talked about some basic face anatomy, proportions and shading for how to draw. They taught me hand games too, and weirdly they have two that are almost identical Hindi versions of ones I learned as a kid!

My heart is full. I love these kids. I honestly just want to go home and put aside some of my earnings for them. I lost track of time today and could have easily stayed there for hours. Or days. They’ve asked me when I’m coming back and I really want to, but flights are expensive and time-consuming and so much of my life is in NZ. I guess if it’s hard for them to travel then that’s all I can do, though. I wish I could just teleport to visit them in a bubble without having to make the whole trip all the time.

They also make me re-evaluate ways of thinking about my own life. One of the girls looked at an old photo of me where I look a bit chubbier and said that I look healthier there, and that I’m too thin now. I know that’s probably based on a cultural difference, but also maybe a sickness one? Sickness is much closer to the bone for them, and I’m so lucky that I never have to think in terms of that.

I saw in the news that there’s a fifth case of someone who’s been cured of HIV in the world, which is so exciting. I told one of the girls about that news, and she didn’t realise it isn’t normally curable. She said she had thought it was curable for rich people – just not for poor people in developing countries. It was pretty heartbreaking to hear that she was so used to the world being divided like that.

There have already been such great strides in HIV management in the last forty years though, and the news gives me hope that someday there might even be a cure. One of the girls told me they don’t blame their parents for giving them HIV at birth – and these are pretty heavy subjects, but there’s still a remarkable amount of forgiveness, love and hope in the world.

The great escape

My supervisor told me about her grandfather who lived in Pakistan before the separation. The separation was on 15 Oct, and all his children had moved to India by then, and at the last minute he refused to leave his house and his savings in gold buried in the ground. His son had to literally come out and force him to move, or else they would have slit his throat for being Hindu. The Muslim servants helped them, and caught the last train out on the evening of 14 Oct. (Although at the last minute the grandfather couldn’t remember where he had buried his gold!)

Mosque visit

We have been lucky enough to visit so many religious spaces on this trip: a Sikh temple, a Baha’i temple, a Hindu temple, a purple Christian church, and a Muslim mosque. It was really beautiful learning about how the Sikh temple feeds anyone, regardless of caste or creed.

We were also lucky to have a Muslim lady tell us about her religion. I last visited a mosque when I was 12 years old in the Middle East, and at that time, hated the experience of having to wear a niqab because it felt sexist and as though it was dampening my sense of self. So it was very interesting as an adult to hear more about the theory and traditions behind this religion, and to challenge my own perceptions. And, in fact, I heard many things that struck me spiritually as being quite beautiful. I think it makes a big difference engaging with a person rather than just the theory of a religion.

The lady told us that women pray in the section of the mosque behind the men not because of being inferior, but because they are stronger and can focus without distraction more easily. I liked how Islam has no idols or sculptures, and that the Imam also faces forwards together with the people so they are a guide rather than a leader to pray to. Similarly, Muhammed is an example of a good life to lead, not someone to worship. You stand shoulder to shoulder as a family regardless of who you are, put your hands out before praying to surrender to God, and place your forehead on the ground for humility. (…I probably need more of that in my life as I would find it hard or unusual to do!)

The lady also told us a teaching, that if I eat and am full but my neighbour is hungry, I cannot be happy unless I share with my neighbour. I think this is quite a potent teaching for my time in India, as I have seen people from all walks of life, and should perhaps make more of an effort to help my neighbour, even if they are far away and out of sight from my usual life. It also made me think about sharing food in a literal sense, because we often don’t do it in Western work culture. Taking your own private lunchbox and not sharing with others is really such a symbol of individualism – and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t share! Sharing food to me is such a powerful way of connecting and nourishing each other.

The way I see it, the backbones of all religions are the same. It’s just the culture that grows around them that’s different – which is beautiful in its own sense of interwoven history and traditions, but what I love most is uncovering that inner core tenet that says we’re all the same underneath.

Saying goodbye

So much of this trip is about the people. I was nervous at the beginning because I didn’t know the people. And now we are family, and I feel like I could go anywhere with these people. Yes, I love Mumbai, but how big of a percentage of that is the people? Home is where the heart is, and the heart travels with the people you love.

As we pass Marine Drive for one last time on the way to the airport, I look at the crowds gathered along the beachfront, and I think: there are millions of people here sharing the sunset. And that’s so beautiful.

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