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I walk out of my new apartment in Pali Hill, Mumbai, and I ask a man near the elevator how to get to a cafe that has free WiFi. He explains that if I don't have an account with an Internet company set up, I cannot simply use WiFi. I will need all sorts of proof of residence and identity to set up an account, he says.
It turns out that he is wrong about the WiFi. Nonetheless, rather than refer me to an Internet shop or wish me luck in my futile attempts, his solution is to have me borrow his laptop. He gives me his computer, his Internet card and a cup of tea before knowing my name.
I arrived in Mumbai five days ago to work for GlobalPost as their correspondent and marketing consultant here. I must say, I chose well. Indians – or at least the ones I have met – are strikingly generous, warm and hospitable.
A month or so ago, when I accepted the position, I did not know a soul in Mumbai. After help from Indians living in America, I now have a spreadsheet filled with more than 100 names and numbers of people living here who have offered to help me get settled.
One such couple, Gopal and Jayshree Shetty, picked me up at the airport on Wednesday — at 3:30 a.m. My own mother, who loves me dearly, would have suggested I take a taxi.
Gopal and Jayshree managed to find me wandering around the arrival area. They loaded up my luggage in their car and then pulled out a thermos. Standing in the airport parking lot, the three of us drank sweet Indian tea and ate cookies together.
They brought me to their friend Neelesh Kottary's home, where I stayed until my apartment was settled. Gopal, Jayshree and Neelesh have spent the past few days telling me about their complex city, feeding me various Indian curries and sweets and showing me the best places to shop and explore.
On the first day, after trying to nap after the long flight from New York but being unable to block out the street's incessantly honking cars and rickshaws, Gopal, Jayshree and Neelesh decided to take me on a driving tour around South Bombay, which is the city's downtown area. They pointed out the beach at Chowpatty, the Haji Ali Mosque that looks like it is floating in the Arabian Sea, a synagogue where I can attend Shabbat services, the hotels that were attacked by terrorists a year ago, and the bullet marks still evident on the attacked Leopold Cafe.
After seeing as many places as we could pack into an afternoon, they pulled the car over. Jayshree took out her thermos, and the four of us drank tea and ate fried vegetable snacks on the side of the road.
Another new friend helped me set up my phone, and my new flatmate — whom I had only met online — sent me spreadsheets before I arrived detailing the pros and cons of each apartment she visited for us. Once I arrived, she took me to Citibank to help me set up a so-called expat bank account. In the space for a permanent address, after street and city, the bank’s form asks for a “landmark.” I looked at the form perplexed. Maybe the stop sign at the corner of Minisink Trail? In the United States, my flatmate said to the bank salesperson, there is no need for a “landmark.” The address actually works.
I am particularly appreciative of my new friends because I suspect Mumbai would be a very difficult city to navigate on one's own. I typically enjoy arriving in a new city and wandering around the streets alone. Without the distractions of another person's conversation, you can focus on the sights and sounds and smells and new faces around you. Yet each time I have gone exploring by myself in Mumbai, I have ended up frustrated and disappointed.
The streets I have visited are not "filthy", like many people told me to expect, but they aren't exactly pleasant to walk along either. The main streets in Bandra, a relatively wealthy suburb where I now live, are packed with people, street sellers and cars. Auto rickshaws — which I keep calling "tuk tuks" like in Thailand -- jet this way and that, trying to zigzag around the traffic while not hitting children in school uniforms running in front of them. Huge manly trucks with pretty designs painted on them roar down the roads. There are technically traffic rules and traffic lights in Mumbai, though few seem to abide by either.
Most frustrating is the noise. After about a half hour walking down busy Linking Road in Bandra, my ears were ringing from all the honking. I was in search of an Internet cafe, which I thought would be easy to find in India's financial capital. When I couldn't find that, I settled on looking for any pleasant cafe where I could take a rest and cool down. When I couldn't find that, I went down side streets looking for a stoop where I could sit and write in my journal.
Couldn't find that either. I eventually found a short stairwell in front of an apartment building, put a plastic bag down to protect me from the grime and sat down. I drew many stares for being the strange white woman sitting on a plastic bag practically in the middle of the dirty sidewalk.
After a short break, I grabbed my belongings and headed back to Neelesh's apartment. I was desperate to get to his home and drink tea and eat cookies with my new friends.
From what I can tell so far, Mumbai is a city bustling with energy and filled with fascinating stories. I am looking forward to my time here. And grateful to have friends who will help me along the way.
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