There are a few things that hit you as you walk out of the Mumbai airport. The first is the hot humid air. It slows down your movement as though you’re walking into the air rather than through it. The second thing you notice is the smell. It’s as if the spices that have been used in Indian cooking for the last thousand years have infused the air. The third thing that strikes you is the sheer amount of people. The first two aspects eventually fade into the background; the third becomes more pronounced as time passes.
We arrived in the middle of the night and only caught a glimpse of the magnitude of Mumbai. As our bus dodged and honked its way through traffic one thing I noticed was that there were a lot of people sleeping anywhere there was a space including on top of structures by the roadside and on the roofs of moving trucks. It struck me as odd that night but later I realized this was only the beginning. On a jet-lag fueled sunrise jog a couple days later, I saw that the sidewalks were crowded with people sleeping on the hard concrete with nothing but a thin blanket as a pad. This scene brought home the fact that 1.2 billion people live in India and at least 12 million people live in Mumbai. There are simply a lot of people in a small space and Mumbai is a bustling city vibrant with live because of it.
But, there are many side effects that result from this many people living in close quarters. For Mumbai, this means a constant layer of smog over the city and a large amount of litter that is difficult to ignore. If you combine the pollution with the ever present signs of poverty and shear number of people, it can be a bit overwhelming. Whenever I let my mind wander from the wonder of everything I am seeing to the practicality of trying to tackle some of these issues, overwhelming quickly turns to discouraging.
I was disheartened until I saw people on the street waking up, stretching and greeting each other and me with a smile. I was discouraged until we got away from the gauntlet of the Causeway where people have found ever more creative ways to separate overwhelmed tourists from their Rupees. I personally fell prey to the “holy men” who bless tourists for a nominal fee, and to the women working for shop owners who ask you to buy rice for them so they can feed their families. I did not get taken in by the eager men selling drums and giant balloons with no discernible value. However, I did see many parents overpaying for these items as their children wiped away tears and smiled at their new treasure.
Away from this madness, in the Colaba neighborhood, we found the place where the residents of Mumbai go to buy their groceries, get there haircut, and catch up on the latest gossip. We saw a parade of women dancing through the streets and the girls of our group were swallowed up in the current of this parade as if it were a river of smiles and joy. As they danced and laughed down the street, it dawned on me that there is a certain kind of happiness that exists in spite of, and perhaps even because of, the challenges people face. This kind of happiness spreads with a smile and grows exponentially with each person that it touches.
Today, this notion will be challenged as we meet the women we are working to help with our project. We’ll visit the garbage dump where the waste pickers earn their living and we’ll see where they live. As we meet these women who struggle to survive each day, I’ll try to remember that parade enveloping all those in its path and I’ll remember that happiness. I’ll try to remember that while it may be a daunting task to change a country of 1.2 billion people, it’s not so daunting to make one of those people smile.