Sweat, smoke and sarees

Well, it’s our third day in India and we’ve already experienced a lot: a festival, a temple, an ashram and the gate of India, just to name a few.

Yesterday we accidentally stumbled upon the biggest festival in India. It’s called Ganesh Chaturthi and it’s pure insanity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the streets, but I know I’ve never seen so many people dancing in the streets. Basically, the festival celebrates the Hindu god Ganesha, who according to Wikipedia, “is widely worshipped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune and traditionally invoked at the beginning of any new venture or at the start of travel.” The festival is celebrated in many ways, but one of the practices we were struck by was the fact that several people were carrying Ganesha statues. We also saw a huge statue of the god as part of a parade. All of these statues were taken to the beach and placed into the Arabian sea, an event that we watched from Chowpatty Beach with a few million other people. Before that finale (and the copious amounts of fireworks after), we followed a procession of people wearing orange, who were celebrating very loudly with drums and with a cannon that shot flower petals. They carried a huge statue of Ganesha behind them, and they even asked us to walk with them towards the beach.

Part of the parade we were following

Suddenly, we were covered in a sweet-smelling foam, which apparently people shoot each other with as part of the festivities (it’s either that or you’re covered in red dye, and I think I’d prefer the foam). It’s like silly string but less annoying. Later, we walked ahead of the parade and waited near the beach, and became instant celebrities. People continually came up to us asking whether they could take a picture of us or with us. Clearly, white people do not celebrate Ganesh Chaturhi in Mumbai very often. Throughout our day we endured stares and points, but I just kept telling myself it was because people thought I was Angelina Jolie or something (shush).

Before running into the festivities, we wandered to one of the main tourist attractions in Mumbai, the gate of India. It’s like an Indian version of the Arc de Triomphe and marks the place where King Henry V and Queen Mary came to India. It’s quite ornate and pretty, and we were surprised that we were some of the only non-Indian people there too.

Gate of India

Today we went a little deeper into spiritual India. After quite a long car ride, we got out and got into the ubiquitous “auto rickshaw,” which took use over some of the rockiest terrain I’ve been on. We even drove through a river with water almost up to our knees! At one point, the rickshaw simply could not make it through the deep water of a river, so we got out and walked across. In flip-flops. With water snakes in the water. Clearly, we were slightly terrified, but we made it!

The reason why we had to walk across the river

On our way to our final destination, we stopped off at an ashram, where we were treated to our first cup (actually more of a bowl) of chai. It was sweet and creamy and delicious. After entering the ashram, we bowed to some pictures of Hindu gods and were handed several candies in return. I’m not sure why, but it’s an excellent idea as far as I’m concerned. Our next stop was a Hindu temple, which was louder than any holy place I’ve been to, by far. Several people rang bells hanging from the ceiling and a man beat on a drum, seemingly with all his strength. Everyone in the temple began clapping along to the beat of the drum, and we joined in. After the ringing and drumming, we walked up to a table where a small fire burned bright and a bowl of nuts and candies sat. After watching the people ahead of us who were wafting the smoke from the fire over their face and hair, we did the same. Next to the fire sat some red powder, which we dipped our finger in and wiped on our foreheads. We were then greeted by some men who painted more colours onto our foreheads and wrapped our wrist in yellow and red string.

One of the guys who tricked out my forehead

We then walked up to a platform where we were served more chai, and our hostel manager Raj told us a story of how he slept in that very place one night and woke up to find tiger prints beside him. We then walked farther into the forest and found the homes of some “baba’s”. Apparently, they live on very little food and smoke close to 100 pipes filled with hash a day. There, we sat on some rugs and were served yet another metal cup of chai. We watched as an old baba dressed in a long orange cloth with a long grey beard smoked a funnel-shaped pipe packed with tobacco and hash (I think) like a pro. We then moved on to breakfast near the temple (around the temple there were several buildings and platforms that I assume are all part of the temple in some way or another). We were served small, free plates of curried rice and vegetables, along with chai (of course!). After a rocky, wet and hilarious journey back to the car in the rickshaw, we made our way back to the hostel. It was a great day and I learned a lot about Hindu culture, though there is obviously a lot of it I still don’t quite understand, though I’d love to find out.

Mumbai is quite an interesting place, and I’m glad I visited. While close to 60% of Mumbai residents apparently live in slums, the downtown of the city actually reminded me of Paris at some points. It’s almost like a European city that was forgotten for a few decades then dropped into the jungle. The boardwalk area near the Arabian sea almost felt like how I imagine Miami would be (if it was more populated and dirtier), with it’s wide sidewalks curling down the coast, palm trees and retro-looking buildings.

Overlooking the Arabian Sea

Obviously, the food we have had so far has been absolutely delicious, though we were faced with some samosas that we had to scoop the filling out of because it was so spicy. We have also enjoyed a few Kingfisher beers, though when I tried to get one on festival day, I was turned down because apparently nobody serves alcohol on festival days. Lesson!

I’m excited to delve deeper into India and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid any sickness. I’ve been lucky so far! Next stop: a monsoon-y Goa, which we are reaching by train. While we have some experience on suburban trains so far, it sounds like the long distance ones are a different story. We shall see, though most of our experiences with Indian transit have been quite stressful (note: taxi drivers/rickshaw drivers never know where they’re going, even if they say they do. The will stop at least a few times, get out of the vehicle and ask random people on the street how to get to where you’re staying). Last night we ended up at the wrong accommodation, and weaving throughout the crowd of revellers dancing behind Ganesha statues that were placed in the back of trucks seemingly every few feet was quite a feat. Even though it was quite stressful, I loved how the festival really brought out what India is: sparkly, loud, exciting and colourful. I can’t wait to see more!

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