On how I felt at home, in Mumbai

Tuk-tuk time from Karina Taveras on Vimeo.

If you’ve been following me on Instagram @50Bottles you know that I kicked off the year spending six weeks in Mumbai, India and returned to NYC with a baby girl in arms. My husband and I were pregnant via surrogate and traveled halfway around the world to make our dream of a family a reality.

It was my first time in India and I didn’t know what to expect. Friends who had visited had warned me that it was a country filled with extremes, where sprawling high-rises neighbored makeshift slums, cows and elephants sauntered down traffic lanes, and kids played in dirty water. In reality, what got me most weren’t these observations, which seemed matter of fact once I arrived, but its volume, and especially the human density. With about 13 million inhabitants, to say that Mumbai is a congested city is an obvious understatement and makes NYC’s eight million inhabitants seem paltry by comparison. Everywhere you turned, things came in droves: people, cars, animals, buildings. I had stepped into another dimension, a parallel universe that captured the entire spectrum of humanity in one single place.

Mumbai was much more familiar to me than I could have ever imagined, reminiscent of my native Santo Domingo in so many ways, and not just because of the same tropical landscape rich in purple bougainvillea and leafy palms that shaded my path or the cool breezes that perfumed the night. Mumbai is a third world metropolis plagued by poverty, bureaucracy, and a strict caste system. But it’s also a city of incredible human warmth.

People possess an unbreakable presence and calm, even in the face of adversity. Namaste, the ubiquitous Hindu greeting filtered often into the mundane. In the middle of traffic chaos, yellow and black rickshaws loaded with passengers zipped through cars, buses, people, dogs, and cows, yet every vehicle flowed swiftly and effortlessly like water, often breaking at an inch or two from each another. Even stuck in hour-long traffic jams, everyone around us seemed to be completely at peace, following the motto of “OM Shanti” often scribbled on the back of these tuk-tuks that was a reminder for locals (and visitors) to relax and take it easy. There was none of the yelling or confrontations I was used to in Manhattan, although honking was the norm and often encouraged. People waited patiently until the jam unraveled. It was a marvelous site.

There are things I saw in Mumbai that will stay with me forever. During the first jetlagged mornings, I would wake before dawn and watch the darkness lift and give way to a powdery pink sky that was soon slashed with the cawing of gliding Ceylon crows and the haunting sounds of the Fajr, the first Muslim prayer of the day. Driving through the slums I witnessed a microcosm of activity where every verb was brought to life: a dog sat on the pavement scratching his fleas, a man pressed juice out of peeled sugarcane shoots while another ladled chai from a bubbling pot, and women huddled together in a sea of colorful saris.

Many of the people we met didn’t speak English; however, they did their best to connect. The nurses that looked after Baby Elena those first few days in the hospital knew exactly what she needed even if I had no clue. The young waiters in the hotel that served up a smile with coffee every morning, and surprised my husband with chocolate cake on his birthday. Our local guide Arif,  who helped us navigate the hospital, the bureaucracy of local offices, and then some. And of course, our surrogate Shridevi whom we met the day before we left. As expected, our encounter was sweet and peaceful. It was the first time she had held Elena since the birth and when she saw her she smiled broadly and joyfully. We asked her how she felt and she responded with the Hindi word for “Happy”. When we got together for one last group photo, she held me tight like a sister.

Shadows and light in Powai

Boys and Rice

The Beatles

Saris for the wedding

Saris for the wedding

Cotton candy and pastel skies at Juhu Beach

Balloons on the sand

The meeting

Join me next time as I cover my favorite topic — FOOD! and discover how my humble palate tackled the spices of Mumbai

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