Ancient facades of crumbling masonry stood proudly above the midday steam rising from hot sticky tar; not affected by the incessant cacophony of hooters; and unintimidated by the constant parade of almost impossibly bright orange, pink, blue and yellow saris flowing past them.
They had had their heady moments of being stared at, admired, photographed, marvelled at; there was a time when they demanded admiration. But now they are quiet and graceful in their journey towards the dust from which they were born. Silently holding hundreds of years of secrets within their greying walls.
I had arrived in Bombay (Mumbai.)
Armed to the hilt with meds for everything from diarrhea to diphtheria and fuelled by advice from travel guides, blogs, and friends who had been, (how many times can one be told not to drink the water?!) I felt entirely prepared to make the most of the one day and night I had in Bombay before traveling south.
I’d pre-booked a guided city tour at the advice of the wonderful Pippa de Bruyn, who helped me put my bespoke trip together. And so a mere 3 hours after I’d landed I set off on an incredible adventure through India’s most populous city.
No wordsmith, no matter how talented, can truly conjure into life the crushing heat of Bombay in May; the noxious smell of exhaust fumes meeting the sizzle of eye-watering frying chillies in mid-air; the thousands of colourful people pressed onto pavements and spilling out of tuk-tuks; the taste of a handful of chevra shoveled into a hungry mouth before being washed down with a fresh lime soda.
I felt alert, awe-struck, alive and quite enamoured as I gazed out at India from behind my tourist-coloured shades.
And then I met Chetna.
I was sitting on the steps of my hotel in Colaba looking out at the never-still street when she walked up to me. She appeared to be about 5 years old, but when I asked, she confidently confided that she had reached the ripe old age of 10. Sitting down next to me she placed her cool little hand in my bigger sweatier one and began to tell me about her slum-dwelling, street-walking, stamp (colourful henna-like ‘tattoo’ stamps) selling family (of 7) and her dreams of being a teacher. Her eyes beamed hope; mine saw some grossly mismatched puzzle pieces. We spoke for about 10 minutes before she wandered back into the street, instantly swallowed by the crowds.
I wanted so badly to do something or at least promise to do something to help push her dream into reality, but I was rendered mute as the something I wanted to do seemed too big and undefined. I felt vulnerable, helpless and so very very human.
That night I lay awake for a long while, listening to 24 hour Bombay and began thought-asking some big questions about the way I had been navigating through life or rather, how life had been navigating me.
Just one day in and India had already begun to work her magic on me.