• PolishedPages

My Travel Peace

Updated: 5 days ago

A travel memoir by founder and editor, Katrina Tortorici

Protein bars—check. Water bottles—check. Toilet paper, Nutella, money belt, pepper spray, antibiotics, Malaria pills—check.

Eighteen hours later, in May of 2013, my five close friends and I stood outside the Mumbai airport well after dark, beads of sweat dripping from our brows in the 35-degree weather. Our luggage glued to our sides, we searched for a van cab that could accommodate all six of us.

But in Mumbai, no such cab existed. We were reluctant to split up, even if it were just for a 10-minute drive to the hotel; during the past several months, we had heard horror stories about India, from robberies to gang rapes to murders. “Why India?” our families had asked concernedly. “It’s dangerous,” they'd said.

We were adamant all the same. For nearly a year, we educated ourselves on the culture, the customs, the fashion, even the languages. It was a fascination we all shared but couldn't explain.

In any case—our romantic notions aside—once we had suffered the dreaded Indian Visa application process, we felt we had reached a point of no return.

Before we knew it, our baggage was strapped to the hood of two taxis the size of Fiats, and we were off to God-knows-where. It’s true what they say about driving in India—if you’re susceptible to fainting, nausea, or strokes, avoid it at all costs. Forget lanes, stop signs, and signalling. It’s everyone for themselves, and from what I gathered, only one rule: you fit, you go.

And yet, somehow, I felt safe. With each passing day, I grew accustomed to the incessant honking, the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the swerving, the cutting, and the cows—which, FYI, are the only obstacles worth pressing the brakes for. Cows are highly respected in Hindu religion for their gentle nature and are thought to inspire in people the virtues of kindness and connectedness with the earth. In all the traffic madness, my only solace was knowing that whether I understood the road rules or not, the locals seemed to have a firm grasp on them. It took me several days to realize that honking didn’t mean, “Get out of the way!” but was actually a therapeutic technique used for drivers to vent and release stress hormones. So, ironically, the more you honked, the safer a driver you were.

Even for pedestrians, the streets of Mumbai were all kinds of chaos. As we sauntered down the narrow walkways, sidestepping hurried passersby, wandering children, and stray dogs, we were bumped, elbowed, and ogled.

“Everyone is staring,” my friend Riccardo said as a gang of giggling girls walked past us, pointing and whispering. I didn’t understand why. Our shoulders and knees were covered, and our outfits reflected the current fashion trends—or so I thought, until I paid closer attention to the locals’ outfits and noticed that most twenty-somethings like ourselves were dressed, well, modern. My girlfriends and I, sporting our vibrant sari skirts wrapped around our waist (eBay), may have gone a tad too far trying to fit in.

They weren’t the only ones gawking. As we made our way to the Gateway of India, a concrete archway built in 1911 to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary, the swarm of Indian tourists surrounding the monument turned their gaze towards us instead. We were approached by dozens of children, teens, and even adults requesting to take our photo. Some didn’t even bother asking—they snapped away, as though we were celebrities spotted in public. A crowd had begun to form around us, pointing and sniggering. I grew anxious, impatient; my neck, utterly drenched, stiffened, and my fingers, swollen from the heat, were rolled into balls of fury. I had read about Indians’ fascination with white skin, but I would've never imagined it to be to this extent. Should I be frightened? I thought. Are they a threat?

Local Woman India
Photo Credit: Katrina Tortorici

All at once, the attention became overwhelming. I was feeling indignant and exposed (and especially resentful of zookeepers). In a frenzied state, we pushed past the crowd, flagged down a taxi, and offered an extra 100 rupees to squeeze in all six of us and step on it.

“They mean well,” said Pranav, our tour guide the following day. “They will not harm you. On the contrary, they are in awe of you.”

I thought back to the group of girls snickering at our outfits, and I realized that their smirks may have said, “What on earth are they wearing?” but their eyes merely wondered, “Why have they come all this way?” There was nothing menacing or aggressive about the people of Mumbai. They were humble and curious, and as fascinated by us as we were by them.

We reached this moment of clarity after our Grand Mumbai Tour stop: The Hanging Gardens. Known to the locals as Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens, the park was built in 1881 on the Malabar Hills overlooking the Arabian Sea. Together, we walked along the paved pathways, pausing now and again to capture shots of the exotic flowering plants, towering trees, and world-famous animal-formed hedges. Around us, couples strolled leisurely in silence; parents pointed out the giraffe-shaped bushes to their eager children; and a group of at least a dozen people, young and old, ambled together like students on a field trip.

As I stopped to admire a floral arch, I noticed the large group stopping and gazing, as well. “I think you have some fans,” our tour guide muttered to us, nodding towards them.

We smiled in earnest. They beamed in response, nudging one another and whispering urgently, as though contemplating their next move. “Should we ask to take a picture?” Sophie asked in her usual sweet demeanour. She was the tallest and fairest of our group; her big blue eyes and snow-white skin hadn't failed to mesmerize the locals up to now—so, naturally, we blamed the attention on her (again).

We watched as Pranav approached the group and proposed the photo op in rapid Hindi. They nodded excitedly and, to our surprise, the ladies skipped over to our side. The men lingered behind for a moment and then, like a swarm of paparazzi, held up their camera phones and began snapping away.

Hanging Gardens Mumbai, India
The Hanging Gardens in Mumbai, India. May 13, 2013

We couldn’t help but marvel at the sight: teens and young adults—not much older than us—and their parents and grandparents, ecstatic to be in the presence of complete strangers.

“We’re, like, the Spice Girls,” said Jessica excitedly. Riccardo—our only male travel companion—shot her a reproving glance.

But we weren’t. We were no more special than they were. And so I lifted my own camera and began taking photos of them. My friends followed suit. In seconds, the lot of us broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

Hanging Gardens India
The Hanging Gardens in Mumbai, India. May 13, 2013

We headed back to our tour van on a high—the gardens had been a marvellous sight and our experience with the lovely locals would be a great travel anecdote.

“This next stop won’t exactly have the same…vibe,” Pranav said cryptically once we arrived at a nondescript street corner. “Welcome to the Mumbai Dhobi Ghat Laundry District.”

The what?

We stood on the sidewalk and took in our surroundings. Nothing—no monuments, no peculiar buildings, no market, no bustling crowds. I had half a mind to turn on my heel and climb back into the air-conditioned van.

But it seemed our blank facial expressions were enough to satisfy our tour guide’s sense of humour. He beckoned us to follow him across the street (he led, of course, firmly gesturing at oncoming traffic to halt for us helpless foreigners). We trailed after him like ducklings until he stopped at a small nook and leaned over the surrounding low cement wall, overlooking something down on the lower level. We leaned over to peer at the sight.

Hundreds of bed sheets and garments of all sizes, colours, and patterns hung over clothing lines that criss-crossed over an enormous area lined with stone stalls. We were staring at Dhobi Ghat—the largest open air Laundromat in the world.

The washers, locally known as Dhobis, worked at the 700 wash pens fixed inside the original stalls that date back to British rule and spent their days washing clothes from Mumbai's hotels and hospitals. We watched in silence as the men beneath us hand-washed each article of clothing, hung it out to dry, and then repeated.

As I watched the scene before me, my mind jumped to the previous day's events. We had come across a basement boutique, quaint and colourful, covered floor-to-ceiling in oriental rugs, souvenirs, jewellery, handbags, and pashmina scarves (100% silk). We were so drawn to the knick-knacks, the patterns, and scent of sandalwood that we hadn't seen the hour go by. It felt so homely; at one point, the shop owner had disappeared into his back store and emerged with a gleaming silver tray of steaming hot tea. “The best masala chai in all of India!” To this day, I’m convinced that it was.

“That was hilarious! And felt so normal,” Jennifer had said as we left the shop and rounded the corner, where a family of four sat on the edge of the sidewalk in front of a shelter built out of sheets and rags. We sauntered past them, shopping bags in hand, satisfied with our every purchase.

But India was far from normal. As we left the Laundry District, I tried desperately to make sense of it all: how such wealth could be adjacent to such poverty; how the sweet smell of spices could be as potent as the stench of rubbish; how such intelligent people lived under such a corrupt system; why to them, karma was always the answer to misfortune; where the peace was in all the chaos.

Photo Credit: Katrina Tortorici

It was during the last stop of the Grand Mumbai Tour where I discovered the answer to the latter question. Overlooking the Arabian Sea at nearly 1000 feet above sea level stood the ancient Shiva Temple of Lord Babulnath. Sitting on a small hillock near Chowpatty beach in an area called Girgaum, it is one of oldest temples in the city.

Pranav led us inside the intricate sandstone structure, where we were asked to remove our shoes before taking the faithful climb up the 165 steps to obtain blessings from the supreme God Shiva. “Lord Shiva is one of the Trinity deities of Hinduism, known as both ‘the Destroyer’ and ‘the Transformer,’” explained Pranav. We followed our guide up each broad step, the hot stone burning the soles of our bare feet. As we ascended towards the temple, we took in the high ceilings, ornate mouldings, and elaborate images of Hindu mythology carved in the walls and pillars.

Upstairs in each of the chambers, families gathered to worship by chanting, praying, placing down flowers, and pouring water over the base of their deity’s statue. Captivated by the sheer love and serenity that filled the room, we longed for the same spiritual experience. Pranav beckoned us into an open space, where several blankets covered the stone floor, and invited us to sit with our legs crossed and close our eyes.

“Deep breaths. Clear your mind,” he said. Somehow, this had the opposite effect on me. I thought of everything I had witnessed outside the temple walls. My mind was cluttered with images of children begging, of stray dogs roaming, of taxis honking—

“I can’t,” I uttered, my voice ringing across the still room.

Pranav nodded in understanding. “Okay, we’ll try something else. Repeat, ‘Om.’”

It was oddly soothing. His tone was low and steady. Between each breath, we followed his mantra. The vibration felt powerful, as though a cosmic energy enveloped my body. With every lengthy “Om”, I felt closer to something greater. My voice was barely above a whisper when I finally reached it—that blissful inner silence.

And there, nestled in the heart of all the chaos, was the slightest glimmer of peace.

Shiva Temple Mumbai
Babulnath Temple in Mumbai, India. May 13, 2013