Saturday, October 10, 2015

Independent clothes, and the reckless blue dress

I don't think I'll ever develop a drug habit. I've already got an addiction that will cost me as much — I am addicted to locally made clothes.

Not even the good kind (established brands like Twig and Hottie, for example). No, I like the clothes made by fresh out of university kids, whose brand mostly exists in the imagination and a dicey/non-existent website. I love the rough design and weird-pattern cloth with string sticking out all over the place. I love the slightly not-straight, wobbly seams where uneasy hands ran fabric through a sewing machine.  I like the sort of "brand" that's like a girl's childhood drawing come to life, rough around the edges, raw, dreamy and beautiful. Completely detached from the cage of pragmatism or cost-benefit analysis.

The last dress I bought this summer was ridiculously sumptuous, and its creator had no internet presence, none, the label is just a gmail address that if you google, will turn up nothing at all. All I know was it was made in Vancouver and it's the only dress that exists to my knowledge. It was a romantic floral gown that should have been well over $500 if the creator was a real "business person" but was sold for much less, because like writers and artists, the creator cared less about making a good buck and more that the artwork is used in the world. The dress is a glorious handmade whimsy, with pretty silk threads and hand-painted flowers, brocaded panels woven from pure imagination.

Today, I met the creator of a lovely dress. It was blue tribal fabric piece with satin lining, understated colours with bold and original cut.

"Where is this made?" I asked the young woman at the counter with brown dyed hair piled up on a bun and the whitest porcelain Asian skin you've ever seen.

Her pale cheeks flushed with pride, and she pointed to herself. "Uhm, here," she said in heavily accented English. "I did. I made it."

I thought about the different clothing options I'd kept a mental note of this month. I wanted to buy one item of clothing that was locally made, and two options made the cut.

 One was a pragmatic, classic grey business shirt I'd tried on earlier this month. The brand had a slick and cool website. I could imagine this company growing, and being an established household name in 10 years. You could pair this shirt with anything, wear it anywhere, and never feel overdressed or underdressed. It would be durable for years and never go out of style. It was safe, practical, dignified, tasteful and timeless.

And then there was this reckless little blue dress. Its creator, a young early twenty-something designer/retailer/marketer/distributor whose sole calling card was the clothes on her hangers and an instagram account. Her brand, I couldn't tell if it would last the season. She might abandon it all, for lack of infrastructure and support. My figure might change, and it might all look desperate and eccentric next year, maybe even next month.

My thoughts drifted back to the business shirt. It was exactly what I needed for work.

And I looked at her designs, bold, youthful, original, outrageous wholly unpragmatic designs of this young woman. I thought what it was like to be that age, in one's early twenties. About all the risks people take both with the clothes they wear and their hearts on their sleeves when they're not thinking about cost-benefit and profit margins. This kind of naive and idealistic time in life is not timeless at all; it whips by in an instant, like an arrow flying by.

The dilemma was resolved. I chose the blue dress.

They both looked nice on me, and surely the grey shirt was the better investment. But the dress encapsulated the spirit of a time in life you want to keep in your soul forever, even as the body ages and the heart hardens, and a grey film of deja vu starts to snuff the shine out of everything you see. Even though this body might age, I'd still like to be the adventurer on the inside, the reckless Fool in the Tarot deck that fears nothing and dreams the most beautiful dreams because she hasn't yet learned her limits.

No, I've never done drugs* (*to be fair, I've tried once, but never got high at all because I'm too anxious and proper to let my senses go), but I don't think I'll ever experience a high like wearing these obscure one of a kind clothes made right here in this city. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Witness: piano duet at Woodwards/W2 building

OK, pardon the drawing's ultra roughness. You know how they say better to move slow than stall.

So a piano mysteriously appeared in the Woodwards building on Hastings street. It is, in my view, the single most lovely object in the entire building, the most brilliant thing to have graced it in years. Every day I see new people approach the piano. Every day, I expect to hear some bullshit atrocious clanging on the keys, but perhaps due to sheer luck and timing, every stranger who approaches the piano is filled the building with the most beautiful music. 

Over the last week or so I've seen African Canadian kids take to the piano, a young woman in yoga clothes, a mother and daughter, an old man. All are trained in piano, all gravitated toward the piano like it was a magnetic force. 

The most lovely scene I've seen so far was an odd duo playing the most haunting duet song. Perhaps they were improvising, but it didn't seem like it: most likely, they both knew the same duet and decided to play it. 

The piano player on the right side was clean-cut, healthy, full of youth and middle-class wholesomeness in a blue jacket. He may have been a university student, maybe something completely different. 

The one on the left was older, scraggly haired, his emaciated, sickly body wrapped in a worn leather jacket. His bony legs hung from the piano chair, encased in baggy jeans.

But my, what music they played together! It was so seamless, so heavenly, I looked around the building and wondered why everyone hadn't gathered to watch.

How do these guys know each other, I wondered. Did they just happen to meet each other through  the piano? Or is the young man actually a resident of the Downtown Eastside? Are they friends? Co-workers?

In the middle of the song, the older man turned around and noticed he had a viewer in me. I was actually supposed to duck into Nesters' to buy groceries, but the minute the man became conscious of my presence, I thought it was better to stay put. Once every few seconds, he turns to me to check if I'm still there, as if I'm a ghost, a figment of his imagination.

I stay put and watch intently. He turns around to check on me again, and as he goes back to the keyboard, there's now a bounce in his fingers, he even starts to sing. With flourish, he drags his fingers across the piano in a brilliant swoop of notes. His feet dance. It's no longer just two guys playing vainly on the piano at Woodwards, now it's a concert, it's a show. All because now there is an audience.  

It may be my vain imagination talking, but I felt as if my staying and watching the music was not only good for me, but also important for the piano player as well. To witness is to acknowledge a human being exists, that their actions have meaning. Witnessing is telling a person: I see you. 

Being seen can be a shattering experience if you're undergoing something you don't want anybody else to see: being bullied, or suffering a drug withdrawal. Being caught in a corruption scandal.

But being witnessed as you do something positive is the most life-affirming experience — it's like being told not only, 'I see you' but 'I see you at your best. Keep going, don't stop now.' 

I wait until the song ends, and the older man stands up from the piano. There is no applause. I still walk up to the man because I feel I must, and tell him: 'That was really good.'

The older man, looking deeply contemplative, looks straight at me and puts two shaky hands together to form a steeple like a prayer. 'Xie xie ni,' he tells me in a soft, tiny voice. 'Duo xie.' 

It doesn't matter that I'm not Chinese. The spirit of trying to connect was there.

Through my simple and wordless act of watching him play the piano, it seems to have sent a vague and intangible message that his music and talent matters, that it's heard. in the world. And his awkward greeting was an acknowledgement that he sees me too. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mumbai: an unexpected encounter with the Snake God

India was filled with odd and unexpected surprises. One of the great things I miss about the country is how deeply spirituality was intertwined with daily life activities. The cabs, the rickshaws, were covered with unique and individual Gods' names, divine sayings. Rudra. God is Great. Allah. All painted on the windows of cars, temples drawing thousands of worshippers from across the country. Worship is not something you do every Sunday, but intertwined with daily life.

At our hotel, my partner, his friend and I were discussing where to visit on a Sunday afternoon. I'd been googling the major worshipping places like the Mahalaxmi temple, the Ganesh temple, and majestic Haji Ali mosque, and urged them to accompany me there.

But my partner's friend shook her head.

"These places would take over an hour to get to," she pointed out. "Why don't we check out something local, and nearby?"

I gritted my teeth and inwardly shook my head, thinking we'd then be stuck with nothing but roadside shrines and makeshift temples like some I'd seen in the slums.  Visiting a temple that wasn't on my guidebook would be pointless and a waste of time, I thought.

Boy, was I about to eat those words. 

When we went to the concierge for advice, he recommended a "snake temple" just down the road. It was a short rickshaw ride there and when he stopped, my heart sank at how tiny it was.

So small! I grunted to myself. This is just a roadside temple, we'll be in and out in 15 minutes, if that.

We went in, and saw a sea of plastic sandals, shoes and slippers on the ground. 

"Guess we'll just take our shoes off here," I said. 

As we slipped our shoes off, a young man approached us and insisted that we not put our shoes there.
"OK, then we'll put them in our bags and carry them around," I said. 

"No. No shoes in the temple allowed," he said firmly, then pointed to an old man in a white shirt and skullcap.

"Go with him. He says you should bring the shoes to him." 

"Oh God," I muttered, remembering the young lady at the Jain temple who aggressively pursued me for 50 rupees after 10 minutes of 'watching' my shoes. "How much will it cost?"

The old man shook his head firmly and said mumbled something.

"Nothing, he says it costs nothing," his translator said.

"I dunno..."

Meanwhile, my partner obediently took his shoes off and passed them to the old man, who was now standing on a raised surface of dirt beside a building. He took my the shoes and placed them on a spot on the dirt. My eyes bulged. Is this what we were going to be charged for?

"Come on, let's do it," my partner urged, standing barefoot now. His friend was now standing barefoot as well, passing her sandals to the old man.

"Fuck," I grumbled, finally taking off my shoes. "We're going to be charged an arm and leg for this."

The old man took my shoes, put them with the other two, and hid them under a red plastic basin, the kind you'd use to wash the floor.

You're kidding, I grimaced.

I stared at my pale feet, which curled as I gingerly walked on the cool wet ground, hoping I would not crunch anything weird underfoot. I knew walking barefoot was nothing unusual in India, and was perfectly common here, but being so isolated to the normal ways of other countries, I cringed and took hesitating baby steps the whole way.

We began by taking photos of the statues and premises. The space seemed small, if well attended, and we aimlessly took photos like this one of the snake Goddess below. With no historical context or knowledge, we were wandering blindly in a holy place. But thankfully, someone watching the scene took pity on us.

A woman with short hair and a friendly, open and kind face showed up beside us, and started translating each God and Goddess in fluent English.

"This is Kali," she smiled broadly, pointing at a fierce looking dark statue of a Goddess with a necklace of severed human heads, covered in garlands. "You need something? Pray to her. She will get it done for you." This is not a deity to be messed around with, she seemed to imply.

She taught us to walk around the Goddess three times, and pray properly.

Then we got led toward the main worshipping hall, where there appeared to be a lot of music -- energetic, frenetic drumming and flute playing happening.  I have videos of it, but don't think such spiritual worship videos should be made public (recitals of Qu'ran and general choir music is fine),  but see the photos below for an idea.

You walk inside, and there are men on the left side, women on the right. In the middle of the passageway, a group of worshippers, and a young man with a head full of curls, magnetic eyes and garlands around his neck, in the middle of a silver-plated room within a temple. You realize he is the Snake God incarnate, as he moves like someone not quite human.

The shorthaired woman ushers me to the women's side, where we are crammed against other women who clasp their hands together in prayer over the holy ceremony.

I have to note the flute is ear splittingly loud. I almost choked with disbelief that the young man was actually listening to the snake music so up close without going deaf.

There is a strange vegetable that keeps being offered up to the Snake God incarnate: he splits it, rubs his face all over it, and tosses it into the altar above the silver room, and into the crowd, where worshippers grab the plant as a symbol of blessing. I can smell the sweet scent of the plant beside me, and I remember that India has profound agricultural traditions, that its ceremonies are often filled with rituals relating to harvest.

The music grows wilder and more intense. The young man widens his eyes and moves like a cobra being seduced by the sound of music. He comes out and blesses the plants, then retreats after about 30 minutes into the silver room, where he sits still, closes his eyes and prays. At some point, the Guru comes out -- a bald, thin man with a long beard and white braid down his back.

His worshippers come out and decorate him with a silver belt, gold snake-motif arm bands and other gold ornaments. This Guru is far more demonstrative of snake qualities than the younger man. He lashes his tongue out like a snake, and writhes around on the ground in circles like a breakdancer.

I stare in awe as he throws strands of the wheat-like plant to the audience. By this point, the crowd is wild with rapture, and I can feel women grabbing my shoulders, pushing and prodding at me. He tosses a plant to me, but an over-eager older woman buts in front and grabs it.

"HEY!" the Guru shouted, as the woman shrank back and dropped her gaze in shame. He then looked straight at me and tossed me a blessed plant. Disclaimer: I'm not familiar with this ceremony/religion; this is only based on my journal entry.

The plant is greenish white and cold, and faintly moist, fresh out of its protective casing.

"Bow to him, on your knees," the woman with short hair's voice said into my ear, suddenly right beside me. I awkwardly fall to my knees and touch my head to the ground at his feet, like others have been doing.

He then looks at me and starts murmuring something. The woman translates:

"You've been crying a lot this year, haven't you?" I think back, and realize there were days when I was at any moment ready to burst into tears, that there were moments of intense despair, mostly over my relationship and murky financial future.

"Don't cry anymore. Stop crying. And don't worry. The Gods are always watching over you."

That voice, when she said it, at the time meant nothing in particular. I flushed a bit with embarrassment, back on my feet, and retreated back into the faceless crowd. But now that I think of it, these were the words my anxious soul needed to hear most. God has given up hope for me, I would often think, and there were times I'd look up in the sky and feel a chill of abandonment, like the spirit I always sensed over me as a child and young teen was suddenly absent.

The ritual continued for another two hours. As it continued, I began to wonder what kind of stamina the guru and the musicians (especially the drummer) had. Their brains must be scraped raw by now from the frenzied sound and dancing. But still, by the time I started wondering if things were coming to an end, we were only just at the halfway point.

It got crazier and more intense, with a lot of coconut smashing over heads and throwing offerings into a burning blaze, but three hours later, the music finally gave way to silence. And my ears were vibrating -- even at a distance, it felt like the songs made my ears go partially deaf.

"Come, come," the woman smiled, and led us through the back. Still barefoot, we followed her through to a space in the back, where people were grabbing metal plates and lining up to be served food. Giant scoops of basmati rice. Lentil dal. Sambar. A paper cup of sweet dessert.

"Come on," she said, and led us to a tiny, oasis-like room of pure quiet and peace. A tiny white dog lay relaxing under a chair. It felt like home, or someone's home. It was most likely the woman's.

The food, which we ate with our hands and fingers, was absolutely delicious. For some strange reason, even though I ate $50CDN meals in Mumbai on one or two occasions, the cheapest meals (this one was totally free) were the most exquisite. The spices were flavourful.

I was slightly surprised that my red-haired, blue-eyed companion, had no qualms about eating with her bare hands. She'd even picked up Hindi phrases much faster than me, and was completely moved by the ceremony, which might turn some other people off.

"You know, Baba (the guru) can do anything," she told us. "Thirteen years ago, I was dying of illness. My family was already arranging my funeral. But then somebody called him, and he healed me completely. Ever since, I've been studying at this temple."

I wondered about the life she'd led, completely committed to religion, but it was clear in her face that she was happy to use her skills to serve, to spread her experience to guests from around the world.

We sat and ate peacefully, exchanging thoughts.

Our greetings finished (we said goodbye to the woman and the snake guru one last time), we went back to the dirt hill where the old man retrieved our shoes. I learned later that my partner and friend offered the temple some money, but they emphatically refused. I thought about the hotel man who insisted to us that Indians only care about money, and how wrong that statement was.

Stepping outside into the busy Mumbai street again was like crossing an invisible wall into another universe.

"Only in India, eh?"

"Yeah. Only in India," I wheezed, my feet still floating on air and excitement.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The ugliest beauty?

So it's official. My partner, who is still in India, does not like the place. It probably has at least something to do with the fact that he works in a cockroach infested office, but these are his words about why.

"Don't get me wrong, India is beautiful. There are many beautiful things about India. But you know whereas most places, there's a beautiful place here (gestures with right hand) and uglier places over there (gestures with left hand, held at arm's length from right), in India, they are right beside each other," he said, bringing his hands side-by-side. "In fact, they are intertwined with each other." 

"Imagine seeing the most beautiful woman in the world. Blindingly beautiful woman. You look a bit at her and realize she has this disgusting skin disease that's eating her away. But that skin disease really brings out this beautiful necklace that she has on. India is that kind of place."

He went on that the proximity of intense ugliness has made it impossible to enjoy the beauty of Mumbai.

"I can't even really go downtown and enjoy it anymore," he said grimly. "Cause you might see something, and think, oh, that's really nice, but literally right beside it, there will be amputees and dead dogs and cockroaches and amputees, and there's no way to unsee it."

I first thought his point of view selfish (even though I totally thought it too), but then I read about his experience walking into a shoe store where people had painstakingly, handcrafted beautiful artisan shoes. He felt the sinking feeling in his gut that these things that people worked so hard to make were going to sell too slowly to make the artisans rich monetarily, and he knew there was a line of beggars and destitute people right outside the door who can never dream of accessing such nice things. This to him was traumatizing, and it would be to me as well, even though it is the world in a nutshell.

The other day I heard three wealthy looking young women with makeup-caked faces talking about a 20% off sale at House of Lashes. Meanwhile, kids starving. It's the kind of reality you can't turn off in a place like India.

I don't agree fully with that assessment, but I do accept that there was something devastating about India that I didn't feel in any other country before.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Happy rats

Nothing to do with anything, but I just have to get it out of my system. I like pet rats. I've never had them, but just the idea of it brings me joy. With all the grim stuff happening I needed to draw something to make me smile.

I regret not flying to Rajasthan to visit the "rat temple" with 21,000 rats. Supposedly if you get touched by one, it's a blessing of good luck. Actually, the photos look a little horrifying, and probably, I didn't  go out of fear that the sight of all those creatures would actually turn me off of rats forever. Anyway. Fantasizing never hurts.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Syrian refugees

Sidebar, a bit off topic. I've been having some difficulty sleeping recently. You hear news about crises all the time. But somehow the refugee crisis has been distressing to read about, and even though I've given to the cause, it still haunts me.

Doubly because I'm conflicted about this issue, even though people would say that's wrong. Many are categorically for, others against, bringing refugees to Canada. I'm mixed. We should because it's the right thing to do — and expect both negative and positive changes.

You hear news about refugees who end up in violent gangs in Canada, or about really religious types who do settle and get citizenship, but end up spending their hard-earned energy protesting sexual diversity or protesting for their religious rights, when tolerance of other lifestyles is precisely what makes multiculturalism work in the first place.

But then I remember the actual refugees -- not the people covered in the news -- who just want to live normal lives, get jobs, practice their religion in a devout but not-imposing-beliefs-on-non-believers way. These are the people, probably the majority, whose views never get heard because it's just not exciting to read about.

It's unfortunate that no one mentions that refugees actually have to pay back the money they owe government. It's not a "free ride" and I remember old Vietnamese refugees friends telling me about finding jobs at 15, 16, to pay back the loans and start life anew as soon as possible.

Some people say Syrians are different from the boat people back then, but fearing them is irrational. Steve Jobs was half-Syrian. Same for Paula Abdul. The people who criticize them for their "fancy clothes and iPhones" are would hate them equally if they were wearing rags and had no money.

I remember the regular Iraqi and Syrian refugees I've met in the past, and how preposterously lucky we are, compared to most people on the planet. When we start talking about how we can't afford to help them, we forget about those who hoard wealth (call it what it is -- beyond a certain measure, it's just plain hoarding), we forget about the billions wasted on wars, influence-buying, ridiculous ads and private jets. People have the freedom to spend their wealth and public funds the way they want, but seeing that we live on the same planet, it's unconscionable to not help while indirectly benefiting from/contributing to misery in other parts of the world.

So, a series of 3am sketches over two days.

What I mean in the above is a response to the "help our own people first" argument. The logic we use to deny refugees (don't have the funds, no budget, and anyway these people have to take responsibility and fix their own situation) is the exact same logic we use to deny our own homeless, sick and poor. So, no, denying refugees aid will not miraculously lead to public funds and resources being used to help Canadians — if there was a political vision of going all out and helping those struggling in our neighbourhoods, our leaders would have done so already. If the mindset of leaders is to help those in need, they will help both refugees and citizens.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Mumbai streets: the rickshaws, the scooters, the street kids

Post in development - updates with stories coming.

OK, so I'm clearly a liar about uploading colour images. I will, but it's so late at night and my eyes burn, so colour finishing later.

This image got cropped funny, and the rickshaw needs some fixing, but it's a scene I saw often: migrant labourers on their way to work, sitting atop giant bags and stopped from falling out only by a thin rope. And, rickshaw drivers. Some old, some young, almost always bare foot on pedal.

Rickshaws absolutely fascinated me. Their drivers had to be hyper-aware of their surroundings, almost to the point of a sixth sense, in order to make a living and exert a level of rapid judgment during their daily jobs that I'd have a lot of trouble coping with. The drivers are almost all barefoot. Some chose to elaborately decorate their richkshaws with cushions and cool paint designs, others couldn't be bothered to fix rust holes in the bottom. One driver in particular kept staring to his bottom right when the cars would stop. I always wondered what he was thinking, lost in thought. Composing a song? A novel? 

There was an old, emaciated man who appeared to be an extreme spiritual practitioner. Every day, on the way back, I'd encounter a skinny man with a bun on his head, sitting in a tunnel with hands under his hips, deeply contemplating the nature of life. He was always in the exact same spot under a bridge at a busy intersection.
The street kid who climbed my car had striking orange hair and orange-red eyes that glowed against his bronze skin. His expression haunted me because the innocent smile felt totally staged; his teeth flashed in what looked like a not 100% genuine grin, and it surprised me that kids could be so adept at faking cute, benign happiness to make a living. How much rather he'd be somewhere else than selling plastic trinkets to random drivers. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mumbai, part 2 (sort of): Colaba and privilege

My first night in Mumbai was a restless one. I was in a too-large room with two massive beds. So much luxury, yet I couldn't drink water from the tap or eat cut fruits or washed lettuce (I think this warning was overkill), so felt strangely fenced in about what I could or couldn't do in the new country.

I awoke frothing over with energy at 4am, and realized I had no phone connection, no computer and no internet. This led to a lot of feverish scribbling down on a notebook my friend (who encouraged my journey to India), the results of which I'll scan and share later today.

As day broke, I opened my window and was shocked by the expanse of what looked like lush green rainforest as far as the eye could see -- trees with deep green foilage bursting forth, surrounding a large lake.

If I sat absolutely still while overlooking this scenery, I could hear bird calls, and the howls of nearby monkeys.

I felt like I'd just stepped into a story book from hundreds of years ago.

Further down, I could see a narrow dirt road, where lean-legged locals carried goods on their heads, in their arms, ready to head home or to work.

What a magical place I'd come to, I thought with a sigh.

Little did I know at the time that right on the other side of the building, the hotel rooms overlooked slums where bony cows and dogs emerged to feed in the middle of a river of motorbikes and scooters, but no sign of that could be witnessed here.

The minute the breakfast lounge opened, I walked in with my ratty, wrinkled shirt and dress slacks and sneakers, and marvelled at the venue. I won't go on, but it made me think of how spoiled the wealthiest expats were in India: it was a "buffet," but unlike any I'd ever seen before, with four sections of the breakfast hall representing different kinds of food -- Croissants, pain-au-chocolat, six different kinds of gem-like danishes, tea cakes, pumpernickel and black forest cherry chocolate muffins on one side, with eight different kinds of fresh-squeezed juices, ranging from mango to beet and carrot. That was just the Western food section. Off to the side was an entire table full of Indian deserts, gold-leaf covered diamonds and silver squares ready for consumption with a steaming hot cup of chai.

In the middle was Chinese food, with congees and who knows what else, I ignored this section entirely, given that Vancouver had boundless Chinese restaurants already. Section three was yet another "Western food" area, with chefs busily working to take orders for specialized omlettes and eggs. Hash browns and sausages were the mainstay of this section (again, I mostly ignored this part).

(NOTE: this is probably commonplace to some travellers, but please mind that in my universe of crowded, cheap hostels, such a set-up is unheard of)

The Indian breakfast area was magnificent, with metal pots filled with Idli, sambar (a red, spiced bean/lentil soup), chutneys of all kinds, mango pickle, fried dough bits and spiced noodles with vegetables. The huge variety of food was staggering, and made me feel a bit ashamed, like some kind of colonial aristocrat from a bygone era.

I ordered a masala dosa and stared out at the scene of mostly foreign businessmen in white shirts, some of them very South Korean or Japanese looking, talking shop. Every food and drink imaginable was in this room, yet I couldn't really enjoy any of it eating alone.

Breakfast over with, I quickly asked my concierge for a ride into Colaba, the tip of South Mumbai where all good touristy sites were concentrated. I had in fact arranged for a stellar tour guide to take me around for a group tour with other travelers, but he was forced to cancel due to the low tourist count during the monsoon season. The things you only learn when going abroad -- August was actually very off-peak for India's tourism industry.

My guide of the day was a middle-aged man named Silveraj. Very early on, he asked me about the immigration process to Canada, and whether there was any demand for drivers like him.

I'd learn that many Mumbai residents are deeply distrustful of the government, and have aspirations to go somewhere else, like Canada (they may have just been making polite chitchat. Many people I encounter love their country and wouldn't dream of going elsewhere -- even a Somali cab driver I met in Canada pined to go back home, saying there was more community there than the friendly but cold indifference of Vancouver). He spoke with a distinct pride about his two college daughters, one pursuing an engineering degree, and another, in business school.

"The schools are very expensive here," he said heavily. "My youngest daughter, she wanted to go to medical school to be a doctor. She had the grades to get in, but my wife and I couldn't is very expensive."

He was quiet for a few moments, his eyes swimming with guilt. I tried to convince him that business was a great field to work in, and that she may well go back to pursue a medical degree if that was the life she was meant for.

Silverage and I were cordial, but there was an invisible wall between us. He didn't seem that interested in me, and like another girl I would meet later, Pranali, looked like he would rather be somewhere else when he was sitting with me. I tried to be as nice as possible, and bought him lunch to boot, but his disinterest was painfully obvious. "Why do I lack charisma?" I scrawled in my journal later that day.

Partially due to the disconnect with my guide, my first day in Mumbai was mostly one of shock. He showed me the great Gate of India, which was impressive, but I was distracted and unsettled by the sights I'd seen along the way.

On our hour-long journey to the Gateway, the roads unveiled to me a universe I'd never seen before, of Mumbai traffic. Cars don't move neatly in their lanes -- they are constantly shifting, like salmon crowding up a stream, changing lanes left, and right, sometimes driving right on the lane for awhile. I saw scooters with elegant young women in the back, their wavy black hair flowing amid the exhaust-filled air, sitting side saddle precariously while casually holding on to their boyfriend/husband with one elbow on his shoulder and texting on the phone with the other. It seemed like she could fall off or be shaken off at any moment with a sharp turn or sudden stop, but somehow this never happened.

Downtown Colaba was not a wealthy, shiny enclave like I'd expected. Everywhere, there were scenes of cows with marigold flowers around their horns and necks, sometimes right in the middle of the road, relaxing as cars and scooters zoomed around them. What shocked me at times was that they appeared to be feeding on piles of garbage.

And so many children, running around barefoot. A side road filled with what could only be human excrement.

Everywhere I looked, there were signs of struggle, hardship. When the car stopped at an intersection, my heart broke to see a tiny young boy with orange hair and bright orange-brown eyes approach, holding tiny plastic helicopter toys in his hand. He demonstrated, standing outside my car window, one of the toys and how it worked, but it landed right on top of the car. To my surprise and horror, he began to climb on the roof of our car to get the toy back, but the red traffic lights were just about to turn green, and I seized up with fear that the driver was going to start the car and drive, shaking the boy off.

But I needn't have been so afraid: like with many things in Mumbai, people seemed to know how to run smoothly through a tough situation. The boy swiftly recovered his merchandise and jumped off the car right as the signal turned green. Nonchalantly and without fear, he meandered through the stream of cars to find another place to wait for the light to turn red.

Looking at people selling trinkets on the road, at young mothers begging for change on the sidewalk while their baby daughters -- one in a tiny pink tutu skirt -- thirstily held out plastic water bottles, needing water to drink, it made something inside me crack up. The voices, the constant "beep!" of cars and trucks, the endless "madame"s addressing me were overwhelming, and made me deafeningly aware of my own privilge.

Even after being told a thousand times that Canadians are so privileged, nothing hit home as much as it did on the first day in Mumbai. No one needs to say a thing: it's something you feel throughout all your bones, and it stays with you for days and weeks, possibly years throughout. Things like clean water, clean air, room to think, quietude, were aspects of my life I'd never even considered before arriving here.

I came back early that day, overwhelmed, and slept on the bed. I couldn't even draw or write that day. It was complete sensory overload, and even though I'd expected it to be in a positive way, I foudnd it impossible to walk through the streets with so many cars, so many hungry children, so much busy chaos, without being tired out. Was it right for me to Mumbai? I wondered.

And I would keep wondering, and hesitating, until my moments when my partner arrived, and everything seemed to snap into place and become infused with meaning.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mumbai shocker

The cuter stray dogs, in day time in Mumbai. They grow up on scraps (see above) and into adults. Some people love them, though: a Bollywood news piece interviewed a director who has taken in four strays to date. Not my photo. 

The journey to Mumbai, like I said in the previous post, was super badly planned out. I was actually losing a day due to flying via Hong Kong. It seemed smart at the time: Cathay Pacific had a great reputation, and hey, flying all the way to Europe and then India is longer distance, right?

Turns out I didn't take time difference into account, and lost a whole day in the travel process.

Flying from Hong Kong to Mumbai, I was an exhausted wreck. Waiting 13 hours in the Hong Kong airport was torture. I felt so much like a real life zombie or ghost, half-dead and rolling my suitcase around in repetitive and mindless circles around the food court, crossing back and forth again and again in the same shops: Relay, Benefit cosmetics, "I love Hong Kong" T-shirt shops. The staff must have thought I was nuts.

But as usual on my travels, God throws me a rope when I'm really on edge. Mine came in the form of a kindly Malaysian dentist who sat beside me and chatted as I recharged my cell phone about the joys of traveling and the importance of dental health. She offloaded a plethora of travel items that she'd brought along and was no longer using: probiotic pills, bandaids, water purifying tablets and painkilling gels for cuts inside one's mouth. Dental floss.

The realization that I was actually going to Mumbai finally sank in at the departure gates, when I was surrounded by a sea of Indian faces boarding the plane. Every negative warning I'd read about Indian men rushed through my mind as I sat in my seat and saw a well-dressed, handsome, middle-aged man smile and sit beside me.

"Hello! Very nice to meet you," he beamed. "My name is Raj. And you are?"

To think back on it is too embarrassing. It was undeniable that I got some mildly bad vibes from him -- he was too friendly, too forward, too eager for physical contact -- but I feel ashamed for making it so blatant that I was not interested in pursuing a relationship with him of any kind.

He was a worldly Mumbai resident who had been to Tokyo and Osaka ten times for business, flew to Italy and all over the world for his textiles business.

"I've been to Paris and Rome many times," he said. "And I can say you're much safer in Mumbai than those places. Especially around the train stations at night. Here, you might encounter some crime, but it's not violent."

"But what about as a woman, walking around at night?"

His eyebrows crinkled in a are-you-joking, do-you-even expression, and he shook his head.

"Pffft! No. Here, it is very safe for women. You can walk around anywhere at night, and nothing will happen to you. In the north, it's different. It's quite conservative. So there, yes, it is dangerous for ladies."

(I would encounter this attitude many times in Mumbai. People would speak of Delhi like the bad streets of Washington, D.C. or Detroit, and insist Mumbaikars were safer.)

Almost without a doubt, he just wanted to get to be friends, but I was too terrified to show the wrong kind of signs, after all the warnings and after terrible experience I had with sexual harassment before. Too often, after these incidents, I'd told myself to be as cold and uninviting as possible, and this was playing out in my first real conversation with a local entering Mumbai.

Raj helped me find my way to the immigration, then politely excused himself, saying his daughter was picking him up. No doubt he was insulted by my aloofness. I looked at his figure grow smaller as he walked on, feeling bad to have offered it so limply and stingily when he asked to shake my hand.

But that was no time to feel bad. I'd asked for a ride from the airport to my Marriott hotel, and had to speed through immigration. There was no phone connection. It was 10:30 pm. I rushed through immigration in a daze, feeling the disconnect between my imagined arrival and the actual arrival. Having been to desolate airport scenes in Paris, in Japan and Greece, I imagined beggars waiting immediately outside the airport, and throngs of shady "tour guides" offering to take me to a hotel.

To my shock, there was nothing of the sort. Just like when I went to Jordan, no one paid any mind to me, and when I exited the airport doors, all I saw was a row full of quiet men -- many with mustasches -- holding up signs in silence, waiting for their guest. "Todd Jones, Sahar Star hotel," "Mr. Qiu", I looked at all the names, and was shocked to see my name on the list. The driver was a smiling, English-speaking man in a brown uniform named Thomas.

The air was hot and muggy. The sight of small motorcycles and scooters reminded me I was now in a foreign country.

The drive at night was among the most shocking experiences I'd ever have. First, it was the dogs --at every food stall, there were street dogs hanging about, their blue-tinged forms emerging from the dark streets.

Dharavi. I could not capture the full photo but the crush of people in this neighbourhood is incredible.

 One eating what looked like a tiny hand or a small paw, illluminated by the van's ghostly headlights in the dark side of the road beside a wire mesh fence. Then there was the piles of garbage -- mounds and mountains of plastic, of discarded packages, heaped on the street.

I saw, like a ghostly mirage, young men cleaning up their business for the night -- in tin shacks with barely enough room to stand, almost all young men, and one woman skinny like a blade of grass, covering her face with a black niqab and dressed in flowing black robes throughout.

As the car's lights shone on the sides of the street, I could see outlines of women lying on the ground, no blankets, no mattress, just lying on the ground sleeping beside her children. Hair stood up on my skin. I'd gotten used to seeing grown men sleeping on the streets of Vancouver, but somehow the sight of these young women and children was harrowing.

I've seen grime and poverty before in Istanbul, in Amman, in Beijing. But somehow the rawness of Mumbai was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. I arrived at the hotel the first night, feeling devastated by the scenes of hardship, and was completely taken by shock when a row of staff in neat brown suits bowed their heads and put their hands together, greeting me: "Namaste, madam.""Namasate," "Namaste, welcome to Mumbai."

I was dirty, sweaty and carrying an ancient backpack with permanent black stains on yellow canvas. Thinking there was no way they were actually talking to me, and had to look back to see if they really meant to address someone else.

But no, it was me. I'd been expecting a modest business hotel, but the opulence of the lodge -- especially compared to the dirt and grime on the drive here -- was shocking. Almost like a hallucinatory dream, a gorgeous young woman with bronze skin and a red dot (tilak) on her forehead, dressed in a sumptuous royal blue and gold sari, smiled a dazzling smile at me and blessed me by putting a dot on my forehead too. Somehow, I remember rows of bright orange marigolds to celebrate a guest's arrival as well.

It was all too luxurious for me, I remember thinking. Pristine clean premises. Beautiful flowers. Business suits, polished suits, high ceilings, artwork on the walls. Air conditioning and bottled water.

This incredible opulence, for me, was like firing a cannonball at a rabbit. It was especially a shock coming from looking at all the poverty on the road here.

I remembered the grimy row of stores just steps away from the opulent hotel, and felt like fainting. But that was my first night in Mumbai.

More adventures in downtown, South Colaba, awaited me the next day.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

India, part one: (almost) everything they told you is wrong

kanheri caves, India, Maharashtra province

"I think it's a very bad idea for you to go," the agent frowned. "A woman alone? That place is like nowhere else. It's very unsafe for you." 

"Have you been to India before?"

"Well no, I haven't. But I've heard stories. It's a very dangerous place for women."

That was my conversation while booking my flight, and the travel agent -- a well-meaning young guy -- was strongly urging me not to go. I looked down at my bitten nails. Only yesterday, my partner was trying to convince me to stay home because it was not safe. 

Once I made it obvious that I was planning to go no matter what (and the words felt false, since in my heart I was probably mildly depressed and wanted nothing more than to retreat to rural Canada for a week), the staffer changed his tune and told me I would have a grand adventure which didn't involve gang rape or robbery at knifepoint. 

Booking the trip was messy. The medication, the typhoid shots, everything was done in a furious frenzy, dashing to the train and sprinting for blocks and blocks to arrive at the medical office in time, bruising up my knees in the process. 

I'd been on a lot of trips before, and this one felt the most disorganized and crazy in a long time. My trip to Shanghai/Beijing/Suzhou was almost as messy, with me having to move out of my apartment on the day of departure, cleaning and packing from 9pm through 4am, sleeping on the floor for a few hours, then meeting with the building manager at 8am, then dumping boxes of donated electronics to the neighbourhood store at 9:30am, then grabbing a train and beelining it to the airport with less than 1 hour until departure (not cool for international flights), carrying everything from an extremely heavy box full of pennies to random business books in my giant backpack. 

But at least even then, I'd arranged hostels. I'd booked guides to show me around. In India, I'd done nothing. Everything except my hotel was a pure blank slate. I made a feverish dash to Chapters and bought the only India travel book they had (sad state of bookstores these days), as well as a pocket language dictionary. But this was undoubtedly the worst planned journey I'd ever taken. And it would be one of the most important. 

Probably due to the summer heat, I'd felt exhausted for weeks and felt like running on empty when I shambled into the Vancouver airport. There was no excitement, even--this was the first time I couldn't even get worked up and thrilled about a new place I was visiting. Everything was too much. A strong part of me felt like I shouldn't even be at this airport at all, that I should be back in my bed, trying to catch up on sleep. 

But as I would discover in the next few days, the trip was absolutely worthwhile, and necessary. 

I would learn that just about everything they told me about the place was wrong. 

It was not dangerous for women (not refuting other people's experiences, this was just how it was for me).

I wasn't even catcalled. 

People did not stare at me because I was a foreigner -- my foreignness fascinated exactly no one. 

No one took advantage of me (I was almost "scammed" by a rickshaw driver for the princely sum of 40 cents once). 

Stuff. Was not. Cheap. No shopping for me. 

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport was a million times nicer than the Charles De Gaulle Paris airport and made YVR look primitive by comparison. 

And yet, I learned we are appallingly, almost offensively privileged in Canada and largely unaware of it.

All that and more I'd find out in the upcoming days, which will be roughly chronicled here.