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It’s amazing how in Dharavi something as small as a mat can make you feel accepted.

This afternoon I went to the home of a woman who volunteers with the non-profit I am going to be making the film for. She had invited one of the field workers to come and talk to her neighbors about domestic violence.

Her home was approximately fifty square feet (or about seven feet by seven feet). She, her husband and three sons shared one twin-sized bunk bed. They had one stand-alone dresser, a television, a small fridge (that had a built in lock), a television, and a kitchen counter whose space was taken up by a small burner. Washing hung from lines above the bed. The walls were cement and the roof was made of aluminum siding that was held up by wooden beams. If you looked straight up at the ceiling you could see small slivers of light peeking through in various places.

But despite the small venue the home was filled with life. Photos of her parents stared down at us (unsmiling, as all Indian photographs are). Pictures of Hindu gods were interspersed with small posters for Bollywood movies and brightly colored calendars.  And despite the treacherous path filled with garbage and feces that existed outside her home (hard to ignore), you probably could have eaten a meal off the floor.

When I walked in she clapped her hands excitedly and stopped me as I tried to sit on the ground with the rest of the group. She pulled out a small mat and insisted that I sit on it.  I tried to tell her that she should sit on it, but she told me through my translator (who is a budding filmmaker and someone I am very excited to have on board) that she was so glad I was there and that she was very adamant that her guest should be comfortable.

As the women arrived it was explained to me that our host had encouraged her neighbors to come and listen. She had become involved in the non-profit through one of these meetings and she felt very strongly about preventing domestic violence. She shared that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic who had beaten her sister very badly. Ever since then she had wanted to try and affect even the smallest change in her community.

The meeting started when everyone was seated. It was a small group – five women, our host, the field worker, my translator and myself. We all sat on the floor and we could barely fit. It struck me how time consuming it must be to have these meetings in such small venues. But the field worker explained that most of these women wouldn’t come if they had to travel all the way to the non-profit’s office. While you could drive there in 10 minutes, they would have to walk, and it would take too much time out of their day. So having small meetings with the neighbors of volunteers is the only way to effectively spread their message across the crowded maze of Dharavi.

The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves and my translator started by explaining who we were and why we were there. She said her name and then started to say my name but I stopped her.

“Meera naam Ali hai,” I said to the whole group. My translator looked at me. “Its one of the few things I know how to say in Hindi – I wanted to say it myself!” I said, and we both laughed. She translated my second comment to the women who all laughed as well. It had broken the ice a bit and we were ready to start.

As with all these meetings they had to start with general issues. The field worker explained the work their organization did – she said they could help with rations (Indians below the poverty line are entitled to food rations, but the system is very corrupt and its often difficult for people to actually get a ration card), legal services, health services and other basic issues.   She also tried to entice them by saying at one recent event two Bollywood stars had shown up and given presents. My translator explained that sometimes this is the best way to get people involved – even more than free vaccinations or free classes for children.
The field worker asked if there were any questions.  One grey-haired woman in a bright blue sari spoke up – she said in her neighborhood there had been a problem with people stealing electricity, causing everyone’s bills to rise. The field worker then emphatically responded with a story about a similar situation where they had helped put in safeguards and reduce the bills. Apparently this has been a large problem across Dharavi.  She encouraged the woman to come into their office for further help.

She then started to ask about domestic violence. First, she asked, did everyone know what constitutes violence? She said there were four kinds of violence and she started with physical violence – everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging the concept. She then continued by explaining the three other kinds of violence – emotional, financial and sexual.

As she talked about each kind of violence the mood in the room shifted.  The topic of emotional violence was met with some skepticism. Everyone seemed to agree that fighting for financial independence was important. The most uncomfortable reaction came when the field worker explained that even if a couple is married, it doesn’t give a man the right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants.

The woman in the blue sari leaned over and started talking softly to the woman sitting to her right. The field worker asked her to stop talking in general, but (as my translator conveyed), she had also had to ask her to stop talking in Tamil. Apparently these women had originally come from Tamil Nadu and as such they spoke to each other in Tamil.

I tried to break the awkwardness of the moment.  “Tora, tora, Hindi boltay. Tamil, neh!” I had said that I speak only little, little Hindi but no Tamil. Everyone laughed. I can always use my terrible Hindi to amuse people.

The field worker continued. She explained that her organization helped with counseling and legal action as well as awareness. The women listened intently.

The conversation was broken up for a moment when our host’s teenage son walked in.  He stood in his crisp blue school uniform with his Liverpool football club backpack and said hi to the crowd of women taking over his small space. He put the backpack down and waved goodbye- there was nowhere for him to stay. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what on earth it must be like to be a teenage boy and share a bunk bed and room with your parents and siblings.   Every time if I try to look at Dharavi with rose-colored glasses that notice the colorful pictures or the clean floors or the posters on the wall, I have to stop myself from the attempts to glorify. These people are doing the best they can and are trying to improve their community, but this life is incredibly hard. And just seeing the happy but resigned expression on that boy’s face reminded me that every individual in Dharavi is working with a set of cards that gives very little. The poverty here is so much more pervasive and extreme than the poverty we see in America.

I was brought back into the conversation as my translator explained that now we were talking about individual experiences. The field worker obviously had to ask, “Do you know anyone around you who has experienced violence”. By framing it this way women often feel more comfortable raising issues that are happening to them without revealing themselves. They could get questions answered about the available services without feeling embarrassed in front of their friends and neighbors.

Once all their questions had been answered and the conversation about the non-profit was finished, our host served small cups of chai and all the women turned to me. Did I have any questions for them?

I asked (through my translator of course) whether they felt the meeting was useful. The all nodded enthusiastically.

“Will you tell your neighbors about this meeting?”

All of the women started talking – they were telling me how they all gossiped and all the women would definitely share what they’d heard today. The field worker, listening, seemed relieved that they all felt this way.

“Would you feel comfortable if I came back with a camera? Would it be an invasion of the meeting?” Everyone shook their heads adamantly and started talking.

My translator laughed, “No, they say they think it is important to tell this story and speak about these issues, but they admit that they might come very dressed up if you are going to film them.”  I responded that I might have to dress up too, then.

They laughed. One of the women started talking to me and motioned towards her sari. I assumed she was asking if I had a sari.

“Sari, neh. Kurta!” I said, pointing toward the green and gold kurta I was wearing. They all laughed and started talking to each other.

“They’re saying you have to come and they’ll show you how to put on a sari. They are all inviting you to their homes.”

I felt really touched. I asked if they had any questions for me, since they had answered all of mine.

My translator asked and then said, “They say they have no questions, but they want to tell you they are really happy you came here. They are so proud that a foreign white person wants to take the time to tell their story and try to help an organization that is focused on Dharavi.”

I didn’t know what to say. I always feel a little weird that my whiteness always factors in – why should I be more welcome or more exciting just because I am white? It reeks a bit of a bizarre colonial legacy but on the other hand I think most people are just glad to see that their stories and their issues are not lost to the world at large.

Either way, I was glad that they were receptive to the work we wanted to do.  And by the time I left I was invited to four houses for a cup of chai, one Independence Day ceremony this weekend and one woman’s daughter’s wedding.  It was certainly something to feel honored by – even more than a mat to sit on.

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I have to be perfectly blunt and say that I can’t possibly fathom what it is like to live in a 10-foot by 10-foot room with one window and one stove and no bathroom with my entire family.

In fact, I don’t really know how to realistically process and respond to my first foray into residential Dharavi without falling into the trap of minimizing, dramatizing or romanticizing the experience.

All I can really say is that now I have seen with my own eyes the living standards that I have heard so much about since moving to Mumbai. And there are a lot of impressions and thoughts that came with my first visit.

I went back to the hospital to meet up with the supervisor who I had been shadowing. He informed me that today, instead of a group meeting, he and his field workers were going out into the community to distribute information about hygiene. This monsoon is the worst in five years and there has been a serious outbreak of malaria and dengue.

I tried to ask in the most polite way, as I had every day, what this had to do with curtailing domestic violence (since that, ostensibly, is their main mission).

“It has nothing to do with violence. But we give information, which is good. Then some people will come to meetings about health care, which they are interested in. Then, once they are involved, we can talk about ending violence. If we start with violence, nobody cares.”

I followed him out of the hospital wondering how he and his field workers get the energy to go out every day when they can’t even raise the topic that they are interested in. It just seemed so daunting.

He informed me that we had to drive to the area we were going to (Dharavi is, after all, very large. At least a million people live here). As we drove he tried to warn me.

“Just… be aware of your feet.”

“My feet?”

“Yes, your feet. They will get dirty. I hope that’s ok.” He didn’t elaborate, but I got the general gist.

We pulled over once we’d gone as far as we could go – I very quickly realized that walking was going to be difficult, let alone driving.

The method for the day was to go “door to door” (I put that phrase in quotes because most of the homes did not have physical doors beyond a makeshift bed sheet).  We walked in from the street and it immediately felt like we’d entered a maze.

They path between houses

Walking into a residential section of Dharavi is actually kind of reminiscent of walking through the tightest alleyways some small European town – if the town were made of poorly constructed cement structures and if you’d been transported back to a time with little plumbing and amenities.

Each home is directly connected to the home next to it, and you maneuver through the area with only a small 2-foot wide pathway serving as your sidewalk. In the middle of this pathway is a hole running the entire length that serves as both a place to lay small pipes and as a moat of sewage.  This is the part that really gets to you if you’re not used to it – there’s a constant pervasive smell of garbage and sewage, which is only exacerbated by the lack of fresh air making its way in. The lanes are so narrow much of it is covered with tarp, so the smells and the heat combine together throughout.

This also creates a trap for the heat– so even though I hadn’t been too hot before we entered the slum, once I was inside the narrow pathways the stale air, confined quarters and number of people surrounding me ensured that I existed in a permanent sweaty state.  But, on the other hand, it started making me cognizant of the small victories: every time a breeze came through I felt it was the coolest moment of my life. I quickly appreciated every wisp of the wind in a way I never had before.

The scene that was laid out in front of me at each turn of the corner was similar– every home had one room, the structure was made of some combination of cement, brick and wood, the roofs appeared to be made of a kind of sheet metal.  Inside every room there was usually a stove, some mats for beds, and a few personal items. A good number of the rooms had televisions – one of the many contradictions that existed in the slum. When at one point I found myself standing at a vantage point where I could see above the structures, I noticed that every third home appeared to have a television dish.  And for every person watching television there were five more staring down at his or her mobile phone.

Color along another path between houses

There was also color everywhere – walls were painted in bright hues, varying clothes dried on the outside of every single house, and children in school uniforms were always running through, brightening the alleys. I don’t know whether it was purposeful or not, but the constant explosion of color gave the slum a vibrancy that seemed to defy the darkness that pervaded in each of the individual rooms.

I mostly just watched as the field workers approached each home and handed out pamphlets  (which had words and text depicting healthy bathing habits, proper garbage disposal and boiling water properly). Some people would only politely accept the handouts without any discussion. Others would take more time and ask questions.

I asked the supervisor what sorts of questions were most common. He said that some people couldn’t read the pamphlet and so they needed to understand the content. Others wanted to know more about the organization. It was in these instances that the field workers could try to encourage the residents to come to a meeting (and they were going to hold one directly following their leaflet distribution). It was their first stage in getting people involved.

Sometimes the discussions took longer – a few people wanted to share their difficulties with the field workers and they would stop to listen and encourage. One woman got angry. She started yelling and talking very animatedly. I had to ask again what was happening.

“She thinks we are useless,” the supervisor said matter-of-factly, “She says if we really wanted to help we would bring medication and other supplies. She says no one will help her and her family.”

“How do you answer that?” I asked.

“Well, we gave her information on clinics that she could go to and places that do give out medication. I understand why she is angry though.”

I didn’t respond. It was still hard for me to shake my previous thought: how could these people be strong enough and motivated enough to do this work every day? These community workers were standing there being yelled at, and instead of being frustrated they were sympathetic of where the anger came from.  I was constantly struck by their enormous patience.

I felt pretty useless in the whole endeavor, but the women kept nudging me along and helping me find my way. They still seemed to accept me, and I felt sort of flattered that they’d actually let me come along for the task. The Dharavi residents themselves mostly just stared at me. Since the pamphlets we were handing out were from Unicef most asked if that was where I was from. It usually started with pointing towards me and then I’d heard the words “gora” and “unicef” thrown in until the field workers responded with “Ali” and “film”. I could usually tell once the conversation had ended because they’d all stop paying attention to me.
The only people who never stopped staring were the children. Every single one, from toddlers to teenagers, looked at me for however long I was standing in their doorway. At many points children would just appear, clearly after having heard that a white person was in their midst. The ones who were learning English wanted to practice. They’d ask to shake my hand and they all wanted to know my name.   When I tried to respond to them in Hindi (saying what my name was or letting them know that I spoke only a little Hindi) they laughed and tried to repeat what I had said in my clearly very foreign accent. But their laughter filled up the constricted alleyways and brought it to life.

The only difficult point for me came when I almost fell headfirst into the narrow sewage stream in the middle of the pathway. Every time I walked I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other – the pathways were certainly not paved in any standard way and there were often steps or cracked tile or a steep inclines. One turn that looked like a path ended up being mud and I started to slip. But I quickly had at least 10 pairs of hands on me – every field worker and every woman they were talking to had reached out instantly to stop my fall. When I didn’t fall in they all smiled and patted me on the back.

I don’t want to extrapolate too much from one isolated incident, but it certainly made me feel the sense of community that existed there. Maybe that’s my outsider desire to see the good in a dire situation, but it appeared to me that everyone’s instinct was to protect even the visitors. It’s a difficult life and it seems like everyone has accepted that they all need to come together to co-exist.  And maybe it’s from there that the field workers keep the momentum to do the difficult work that they do.

I don’t know if any of these instincts are right. But I’m certainly looking forward to delving in further and trying to tell these women’s stories.   Watching the number of people who showed up for the post-distribution meeting I certainly started to feel more empowered. I sat in a schoolhouse – one room with a broken fan with one chalkboard and no chairs – as the field workers gave an in-depth discussion of disease prevention to the fifteen women who’d showed up. It’s slow work, but little by little they are enacting changes in their community.

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Try to imagine sitting in a meeting where you don’t understand the language that the meeting is being conducted in. You’ll either be really bored or you’ll start to notice the details of a conversation in a way you never could if you were just focused on the words. Perhaps it’ll be a little bit of both.

This is the scenario I found myself in on my second day of observing in Dharavi. I wanted to sit in on one of the afternoon group meetings. The supervisor who was leading the meeting spoke perfect English so he said he could translate the basic agenda throughout the afternoon. Of course I should have guessed that the person leading the group wouldn’t have a lot of time to lean over and translate.

While we walked from the hospital to the field office I asked what today’s meeting was about.

“Today the meeting will be about lots of things. The women who come will get information from us and then they can spread that back among their community. So we’re talking about senior citizen benefits and rations and health care during the monsoon.”

I tried to keep up with him as we walked. I was attempting to maneuver through the streets without stepping in garbage or getting run over while still maintaining a conversation. After sidestepping a tethered sheep, I endeavored to get more clarity, “But what does that have to do with domestic violence?” I asked.

“Nothing today. But we always try to bring it up a little bit and then build trust and stay in their minds as a resource. But today is just about spreading information for daily life.”

I nodded while falling back to accommodate a bus coming by. We turned the corner into the field office and I was relieved to be off the street. I took my shoes off (today I had more wisely chosen waterproof footwear) and walked in among a much larger group than I had seen the previous day. About 30 women of all ages had come to the meeting. I sat down at the front with the supervisor while they all stared at me.

He started talking and gesturing towards me. I could make out a few words- Ali, filming, etc – so I knew he was explaining who this white person was and why she was here. As he talked everyone started nodding and smiling towards me. And with that, the meeting began.

Every once in a while I would get the basics translated (“Now we’re talking about how to set up the benefits if you are a senior citizen” or “Now we are answering questions about taxes”) but mostly I just listened as the words went in one ear and musically drifted out the other without meaning. Every minute or so I’d pick up on a phrase or a number I knew. Or I’d hear a word or phrase in English (for example, Senior Citizen Benefits is just referred to as Senior Citizen Benefits. I suppose they use terms like that when they are the official government term, since the government of India’s official language is English).

So I just watched. And even without understanding the content I got the distinct sense that this was a group of women who wanted to gain every piece of knowledge they could. They hung onto all the words that I couldn’t understand. When a question was posed calling for a show of hands, the hands shot up enthusiastically. All eyes were on the speaker as every woman sat on the ground for over two hours in a hot room with nothing but fans to keep them cool. They all had questions – and when they were called on they spoke animatedly and excitably, as though the entire world depended on the question’s answer.  They clearly were there to better their communities and to use the resource that had been placed in front of them. You don’t need to know the language to feel like you understand the sense of the urgency each person is feeling.

And it was apparently acceptable to them that I was just sitting in. Every time one of them would catch me watching, they didn’t look away – they always smiled and looked me right in the eyes. One child came over to give me a closer look (as one might imagine, the children here have no hesitation to overtly staring at a white person) and when I looked at the mother to see if it was ok, she gave me an approving nod. The child sat down in my lap and took a nap. No one seemed to notice. I guess if I wanted to come be a part of their community no one was going to give me a second thought — even if I couldn’t communicate beyond the most rudimentary basics.

At the end of the meeting a number of women stood around to continue to share their ideas and questions with the supervisor and the field workers. I walked out with the last group and everyone waved and said goodbye to me. I hadn’t understood the words, but I was glad I had come.  I think sometimes its important to see the work and see the excitement. And then perhaps, sometime soon, the translations will come a little bit more quickly.

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I am getting the sense that there’s a theme for me in Mumbai: when I want to do something, India often has other plans. And in the race between me and India, I’m usually not on the winning end.  I wrote last night that Daniel and I were off for vacation.  Unfortunately, we were paid a visit by the notorious Indian bureaucracy. They hadn’t met us yet and they surely wanted a day of our time.

We got to the airport, checked in and then went to exit immigration. I was asked some questions and checked through – a new red 16th of June exit stamp started drying in my passport. But as I prepared for us to continue the immigration officer asked Daniel “Where is both your registration?” We explained that we had been told that we only needed to register for residency once we were going to be here for more than 180 days. Alas, we were wrong.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, immigration has tightened up considerably (similar to the US after 9/11). And niceties that used to fly a year and a half ago are just not so anymore. Instead of falling asleep on Malaysian Air we were taken to Indian customs.

We sat in a room with no windows and nothing on the white walls except constant black scuff marks from years of office chairs leaning against walls. Our captor sat at a desk with only a plain blue Duty Officer sign on the wall to identify him. He made us wait as he thumbed through a worn ledger, uninterested in our plight. When he finally eyed us over his wire rim glasses he said simply, “Sorry, rules are rules. You did not follow the rules.” We tried to reason with him. We were handed a booklet and told, “This pamphlet says you cannot leave until you register.”

Daniel scanned it. “Where does it say that in this pamphlet? I don’t see it.”
“Well, it doesn’t say that directly, but that is the rule.”

We were at a stalemate. Our passports were looked over and discussions were had in Hindi while we sat. One Duty Officer talked on a red phone in the corner. Our officer continued to be disinterested. We tried to reason some more. Surely if we came back and registered it wouldn’t be a problem? Apparently it was.  My passport was taken and a crisp CANCELLED was written across my new red stamp. We were done for the night.

Dejected, we waited by Malaysia Airlines for our bags to come back to us. We sat on the floor like the pathetic losers we had been deemed to be – it was our own fault for believing what we had been told, and that was that.

Our poor driver had had to return to the airport and wait for us to be freed, for our bags to come, and for Daniel to finally be able to rebook our tickets after circling through various parts of the airport with various guides giving us varying instructions.  We got into the car exhausted and hoped to make it back to our guesthouse quickly. Late at night there apparently are no traffic rules in Mumbai and our driver merely honked at red lights as he went through them.

We woke up the next day with a new determination to get our residential permit and so off we went to the Foreign Regional Registration Office. It was a madhouse. Lines were everywhere depending on what your purpose was. Luckily our line was inside the office in air conditioning. Even luckier that we weren’t from Pakistan, where a separate floor altogether awaited nationals from India’s rival who were trying to declare their own detente.

Our room was like a world snapshot. In one corner an Eastern European woman tried to encourage her children to cry louder so there would be an incentive for their name to be called. In another, a woman in a burka searched through her fake Louis Vuitton bag to find her cell phone and start texting. Two older African women, held steady by canes and their feet resting on their bejewelled pink flip flops, kept entertained by whispering to each other and laughing. Daniel immediately made friends initially with some other expats while we waited. I watched a brightly colored 24 hour news channel celebrating its 1 year anniversary while breaking news banners played constantly at the bottom.

Our names were called and I was asked to sign forms. “What is your occupation ma’am?” I was asked. I tried to explain that for my time in India my visa wouldn’t allow me to earn money so I didn’t really have an official occupation at the moment.  “Housewife, then. You should have written housewife!”. And so it was done.

We cut out passport photos and pasted them into various documents- arts and crafts immigration. Every page of our passport was examined. Other documents were needed and sent for. We went in and out, hours spent re-watching the news channel and observing the new people who walked in, wondering why each had come to India to make their life for the time being.

Finally, we were given our Registration Report and Residential Permit. It was official – no turning back now. We are residents of India, perhaps because we have now been given our bureaucracy baptism by fire.  And as residents I would dare say we are now allowed to go on vacation. But I won’t bet on it until I’m out of the country and sure that India has no other imminent plans for me yet.

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Today I felt my first hard dose of disappointment and frustration, Indian-style.

We had settled on the apartment I loved. Daniel was convinced and I was starting to feel like moving forward in India would be easier than anticipated. But when the broker called just to see if we could look at it one more time, we found out someone had put in an offer this morning. Just like that and my dreams of sitting on the balcony watching the monsoon hit the sea while drinking a cup of masala chai were dashed.

Instead I sat drinking my masala in a coffee shop while our broker tried to persuade the owner into considering our counter-offer. No luck. I stared into my milky tea trying to not let that overwhelmed feeling creep back in. I didn’t want to get frustrated with India, with all my warnings about everything moving slowly and inefficiently.

We decided to put an offer on our second choice right away so that we wouldn’t face the same problem again. It had been Daniel’s favorite to begin with and I had liked it before I became so singularly focused on the beach.

We drove into La Paloma, the second choice building, and walked in. I knew what I had loved about it at first, so I went straight to it – the terrace. While we might have lost out on a view of the beach we were gaining an outdoor space that is legitimately larger than our old apartment in New York. And in a city like Mumbai where the average family home often consists of a shack in the slums, I decided to stop being a brat and let go of the old apartment.

With a verbal offer in place I took Phoebe for a walk in the neighborhood we’re staying. We had to maneuver around Monsoon puddles on the way out, but once past those we encountered an obstruction of a different kind.

As we walked I heard a shout from behind – a young Indian girl in a red plaid Catholic school uniform and red barrettes was looking at me. “Can I touch?” she asked, motioning towards Phoebe. I nodded, and then remembered that in India, indicating yes actually entails tilting your head from side to side, akin to the Western standard for no.* “Of course,” I said, since I wasn’t sure that my head tilt was going properly yet. She touched Phoebe’s tail and then ran ahead to catch up with her mother.

When we turned the corner I saw what was happening: school was out and all the sudden the street was filled with a color explosion. Mothers in saris of all different hues escorted more girls in red with red barrettes or red bows. Tiny red patent something shoes (could they be made of cow leather for Hindis?) walked next to sandals. Snow White and Hannah Montana backpacks hung over the shoulders of children climbing into three wheeled open-air rickshaws. One of the Muslim mothers, wearing a hijab, held the hand of her child in school regalia, who carried a backpack emblazoned with a photo of Barbie wearing a hijab just like the mother’s. The whole picture was the weirdest intersection of East and West I had yet to see.

(There’s no picture here for this, sadly, because my desire to capture the imagery is often at odds with my desire to be respectful in residential neighborhoods. Respectful won this particular round. But here is a photo of Phoebe in a quieter area – just to show she’s looking happy!)

The reaction to a small furry ball wandering down the street in a red harness and leash was certainly varied. The children parted either to stare at her or shriek in fear or reach out to touch her. She looks like none of the short-haired large street dogs that roam the streets of Mumbai so she must have looked like a zoo animal. In either case, when the tide of little red dresses receded I think both Phoebe and I were relieved.

At the end of the day we settled in to watch some World Cup action- a perfect bookend to a day of cultural learnings. If Cote D’Ivoire can tie Portugal then maybe I too can conquer Mumbai and get past any new hurdles I might face tomorrow.

*(For those wondering about the Indian head bob thing, I found a Youtube video that hilariously encapsulates the issue)

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