A three-year-old girl squats in the gutter along the middle of the alley where she lives to make her motions. Her mother yells at her to go make her motions over the sewer grate like a normal person. Hours later, when everything has dried a bit, a man will come along to poke a stick through the clogged grill to ensure the flow of rainwater and other liquids.

In the early dawn—which in this city means before 8AM—men hang over the seawall and docks to add their own contributions to the pollution of the Arabian Sea. Good motions make for an auspicious start to the day; paltry efforts are a source of concern and conversation.

Laundry is everywhere in this city, much of it beaten by a woman’s hands on the ghats—or stone steps—leading down to the ocean. Touts and hucksters even include the sight in their must-see tours. Carriers, mainly women, distribute loads all over town, finely balanced on their heads as they thread their way through the crowds.

In the early hours, men come out of the alleys in their underwear to soap themselves from head to toe and then allow friends to upend buckets of clean water over them. Afterwards, they line up on the docks and sidewalks for street barbers to trim their hair and shave their beards. You never see the more modest women washing and preening themselves, but they must be doing something, because nearly everyone in this city looks well groomed. 

In fact, after you get used to the general chaos, noise, and litter of Mumbai, the overwhelming impression is of a people obsessed with cleanliness and personal sanitation. Women scrupulously scraping dishes after a morning meal. Sweepers driving the dirt ahead of them, even as more floats in behind. Storekeepers washing down their sidewalks with soap and water. Market stands full of newly washed and peeled fruits and vegetables. Spotless spoons and glasses in a chai stand or a chili-rice stall.

You almost never see the grubby hair and sloppy clothes that are a commonplace in an Anglo-American city. The threadbare blankets that cover a family asleep in a dusty passageway or a dark arcade look as freshly washed as the people they warm. No one touches anything with that lethal left hand. And yes, you will catch an occasional aroma in the air, but not from the humanity who walk through it.

It’s a bit disconcerting for a foreigner, all this frank and public attention to personal habits, but not nearly as intimidating as the thought of Montezuma taking his revenge on us when we find ourselves more than ten minutes away from the hotel. There is a skill and an art to maintaining health and dignity in a city three times as populous as Los Angeles without the institutional coddling a westerner expects, and we are mere novices at it. 

But we watch and learn and follow the examples all around. We break nearly every precautionary rule in the guide books—fresh fruit and vegetables, ice in everything, water for brushing teeth and cleaning utensils, all manner of street food, cooked and uncooked. In the end, the angry Mexican emperor never gets his due, but not without our constant attention to the intricate details of living.

Funny some of the things you can count as accomplishments. But as a local college student puts it when trying to sell us his guide book, there’s more to travel than just seeing stones.

Categories: India

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