Archived entries for Cities

Rainy Day Bombay

It’s been raining for well over 24 hours now. I’m not sure exactly when it started since my flight landed yesterday in a downpour and it hasn’t let up since. I took the opportunity to have an inside day, the first since I’ve been here that I didn’t leave the house at all. It might also be because this is the first day I’ve lived alone; A. and M. moved to their new apartment and R. doesn’t come for another couple of weeks. In Chicago I’ve gotten very used to living alone. It can be good to stay with other people since everything is so new here, but in such a crowded city it’s also nice to have an option for solitude.

I spent most of the last week in Gurgaon, a suburb just south of New Dehli, which is quite different from Bombay. I’m not a fan of suburbs in the US, and the distaste extends to India. Gurgaon is full of office buildings, hotels, and malls. I was shuttled between the three in a car and never even got a chance to walk the streets. The hotel experience was pleasant enough, but in a global kind of way where I could have been anywhere in the world if it wasn’t for the idlis at the breakfast buffet. It made me feel lucky that the IDEO office is in such an interesting neighborhood.

If I had gone into Delhi I would have most likely seen the giant rallies in support of Anna Hazare, a Gandhian who has been fasting in support of creating a strict anti-corruption law called a Lokpal. Giant crowds have been a constant presence in the city, and smaller marches have been happening all over the country. In Mumbai they were prevalent enough for me to have a small faction pass directly under my apartment last week. Just now, breaking news, the parliament has given in to his demands and he plans to break his fast in the morning. It will have lasted for 12 days, which is amazing considering that Anna is 74 years old.

On Friday we drove to Jaipur, which we thought would take 3.5 hours but ended up taking six. The drive took us through towns and villages, good roads and terrible. Most of it was in Rajasthan, an Indian state I’m thinking about spending more time in when I take a vacation in October. For me, one of the more noticeable and interesting aspects of the drive were the camels. They were being used mainly like horses, pulling carts or equipment. I guess they’re very common in that region, which has large desert on it’s western border with Pakistan.

I just put some new photos up on Flickr, but I’ve accumulated a bit of a backlog that I still need to share. I while ago I switched to shooting only RAW images, which gives me a lot more flexibility in how I can manipulate them after shooting, but requires that I “develop” each one since a RAW image is sort of like a digital negative that needs to be worked with. I’ve always been reluctant to shoot in RAW since the images are 4-5 times the file size and require the extra processing step. I’m a complete convert now though, and I wish I had tried it sooner. It’s amazing what you can do afterwards in Lightroom, rescuing an over- or under-exposed photograph that I would have been scrapped before. It’s also fun to do the developing, to consciously study each photograph and work through the possibilites. It has some of the positive aspects of the traditional darkroom, without worrying about mixing the fixer wrong.

Life on the street

It’s an old adage that in a city, life happens on the street. Never have I witnessed that phrase in such a literal manner as in Mumbai. Commerce of all kinds, socializing, eating, playing, praying, and sleeping happen either in the road or in structures that are as much outside as inside.

There are of course Mumbaikars who live in the exact opposite manner, existing almost entirely inside their apartments, offices, restaurants, or vehicles. They experience the street mainly as congestion as they shuttle between these air conditioned environments.

These are extremes, and most people probably live somewhere in the middle. Still, it’s something I’ve been reflecting on because it’s impossible not to notice the difference between inside and outside space here. I’ve been trying to understand both by choosing to walk whenever I can. The street can be hot, wet, dirty, smelly, and crowded. Inside spaces are often cool, clean, modern, and (relatively) quiet. It’s a frequent commentary on Mumbai that rich and poor are intermingled and on top of each other, but to see firsthand how it plays out through inside and outside has been interesting for me.

As an aside—you can actually find small patches of quiet, clean, and peaceful outdoor spaces in the parks. I’m lucky enough to have one directly next to my apartment. They usually have playground equipment, grassy areas, and a walking path for people to get exercise without the constant stress of avoiding traffic. They accomplish this through a small admission charge, usually Rs.2, which is under 5 cents.

It feels odd, getting used to this urban fabric. To spend an afternoon reading and drinking cappuccino at a coffee shop before walking home amid honking, holes, trash, heat, and mess. To see a man getting a shave while crouched in the dirt next to an upscale bar. To have all of my senses overloaded to a breaking point before slipping into a quiet movie theatre and enjoying a bucket of popcorn in the stadium seats.

Even though some of the adjectives I’m using seem unappealing, I truly enjoy the street here. It’s where things are most different from what I’m used to and where I’m surprised every minute.

One of the disappointments though is the general approach to trash. I’m not in a position to assign blame, so these are simply observations. People of all classes and status litter constantly. From tossing food wrappers into the gutter to throwing the cob of a finished ear of corn into the sea. The problem is compounded, or maybe even encouraged by the lack of public waste bins or a system to empty them. I see garbage trucks scooping heaps of trash into their compactors by hand, but it’s a partial process at best. Chicago has it’s alleys to hide the trash bins, NYC picks it’s sidewalks clean of trash bags every morning, but Mumbai has not yet found a solution that works for its overwhelming scale and complex street life.