Craft beer on three continents

It’s no secret that craft beer is one of my favorite indulgences. But when I planned to spend the summer exploring Mexico, Italy and India, I didn’t think I’d be trying many new brews.

When it comes to alcohol, Mexico is best-known for tequila, Italy for wine, and India for being less than amenable to most forms of intoxication. But it turns out each of these countries has a nascent craft beer scene and at least a few places to sample brews from around the world.

We’re actually drinking pulque here, but shhh. (Mexico City, June 5, 2015)

You can check out most of my summer beer drinking activity on my Untappd profile, but here are a few suggestions for places to check out if you find yourself in the places we went this summer.

Mexico

Our travels took us to Oaxaca, Puebla and Mexico City and involved liberal sampling of mezcal, the agave-based spirit Oaxaca is famous for.

In Oaxaca, we discovered a craft brewery, Cervezería Teufel, after trying their beer at a hotel. I didn’t take detailed beer notes or check our brews in on Untappd, but tasty and a nice break from Corona. I remember wishing we’d been able to try their Portfirio, a mezcal-flavored porter. So if you know how to get your hands on a bottle of that in the States, hit me up.

We weren’t able to set up a brewery tour, but it seems like they’re open to that if you contact them far enough in advance. (I just messaged them on Facebook the day before, which was understandably not enough time to work something out.)

Puebla was home to the delightful Utopia, a hole-in-the-wall beer bistro with an ample selection of Belgian and Mexican beers. We spent an evening here sampling a few brews and would have gladly returned if we’d had another night in town.

The address on Google is correct, but it’s a little hard to spot unless you’re looking carefully – there’s not a big sign outside.

Wall of beer at Utopia.

In Mexico City, we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of bars serving Mexican craft beer in the area around the Zocalo. The crowning jewel, though, was El Deposito, a lovely beer bar chain with a wide assortment from Mexico and Europe (with a few American brews too).

I believe there are multiple locations in Mexico City – we went to the one at Av. Baja California 375, which was easy walking distance from the Patriotismo metro station.

Italy

In Venice, we found a few places with good beer on the menu but didn’t make a concerted effort to seek it out. The Inishark Pub, an Irish pub off of the Plaza Santa Maria, has a few international beers – nothing special, but fine if you just want a quick and reasonably priced drink. We also found, surprisingly, a few tasty beers told at the Banco Rosso in the Jewish Ghetto, under the Ghetto Veneziano label.

Florence was the beer highlight of the trip, with stops at Mostodolce, a brewpub with a good selection and lots of food (we didn’t eat there, but it looked like good pub food) and Archea Brewery.

Archea’s on the south side of the river, but it’s not a long walk from the Duomo area and it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Italy. They had 12 taps, half guest and half their own beers, and an extensive bottle list. We tried everything on tap and liked or loved all of it. And then we noticed they had Westvleteren 12 on the bottle list.

If you’re not a beer nerd, Westvleteren 12 is a Begian trappist beer considered by some people to be the best beer in the world. I first heard about it on this 99 Percent Invisible episode and have wanted to try it ever since. So we shelled out 25 euros for a 12 oz. bottle.

Drinking Westvleteren 12 at Archea Brewing.

It wasn’t the Best Beer Ever, but it was delicious and totally worth it. The bartender told us they don’t always have it in stock, but there’s plenty of other delicious beer to try.

In Rome, we spent an evening at Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa on recommendation from the Archea bartender, and an afternoon at Baguetteria del Fico. Both places could have used more time, and both had excellent selections. The bartender at the Baguetteria had wonderful suggestions for us, and the sandwiches were delicious as well. Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa was just a bar – no food, cash only and mostly full of Italians, though the bartenders spoke English.

India

Most beer in India is the ubiquitous Kingfisher, a mild lager that’s basically flavorless and perfectly inoffensive when cold. Given the variety of mild illnesses we had, Spencer and I were just as happy not drinking for most of our trip. But we figured a big cosmopolitan city like Mumbai might have some craft beer, and by the end of the trip we started Googling around to see what we could find.

Our craft beer adventures in India were less successful, thanks to the government of Maharahstra. Spencer and I had a day to kill in Mumbai between flights and figured we’d finish up a month in India exploring the breweries we’d found. The state government, however, had other plans.

Statewide dry days are the worst.

Yes, on the one day we’d picked to enjoy beer in Mumbai, the state government had banned all alcohol sales statewide. So we didn’t get to check out the two breweries we’d picked out.

If we could go back, we’d try to sample beer from Gateway Brewing at the Woodside Inn, a beer-and-burger place in Colaba recommended by the guy at the company we messaged on Facebook. We had also hoped to check out the Barking Deer Brewpub (they helpfully alerted us to the dry day when we messaged them on Facebook). In the meantime, fellow beer enthusiasts, let us know if you make it to Mumbai and successfully try an Indian microbrew.

India in one month

For all my writing about Mumbai’s history and the challenges of travel, I’ve been rather remiss in writing about where Spencer and I have actually gone and are going. No longer! Here’s the quick and dirty version of our travels thus far.

Our route around India has been rather circuitous. The initial plan was to stick to the south, but you can see for yourself how well that worked out.

The map below shows our route, including what we’ve planned for the next two weeks, though our stop in Agra (southwest of Delhi) isn’t showing up for some reason.

Mumbai, Maharashtra (June 28-July 2)
We started our adventure in Mumbai, the densely packed city of 22 million in central India on the Arabian Sea.

I’d hoped that as a large, cosmopolitan city, Mumbai might be a good way to introduce us to India gradually in a place that still had the many comforts of home. We went on a few guided tours here, which helped make the city seem more manageable, and had a lovely home-cooked meal arranged through Traveling Spoon. The humidity and crowded streets made our first few days much more grueling than I anticipated, though, and both Spencer and I were happy to move on to less chaotic waters.

Nagpur, Gondia and Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra (July 3-6)

Our first experience with the Indian railway system was an overnight train from Mumbai to Nagpur, a city of 8 million with little to offer tourists other than a location in the center of India. India’s rail system is truly incredible, and I loved the feeling of falling asleep on a moving train (though some of the romance was lost when the lurching of the carriage woke me up half a dozen times).

From Nagpur, we hopped in a car to the small town of Gondia, the closest town to many forest reserves in the area. Through a friend of my mom’s, we’d been introduced to the district forest officer, who organized four days of trekking around the land he administers.

cow jam in road
Cowjam: an hourly occurrance on every car trip we took.

Our typical day started with hopping in a car with a driver and forest guide. Some of our guides were outgoing and spoke fairly good English, while others knew some isolated words. (“Madam! Take picture!” was a fairly typical phrase.)

We’d be spirited away for an hour or two of driving to some part of the forest, often with no idea at all where we were headed. Then we’d get out, meet some other forest staff, walk for a bit, take lots of pictures and invariably be invited to have tea in the home or village of almost everyone we spoke to.

It was a lovely and low-hassle way to see what life in rural India is like, though the excitement we caused by getting out of the car took some adjusting to. Spencer and I were briefly concerned on our first day that we’d been mistaken for high-level government officials or partners with some important grant money to award for Indian forestry or something. But nope, we were just foreigners in an area that doesn’t see many tourists.

tibetan flags
Tibetan prayer flags on the road to a small Tibetan community in Gondia district

Our last day took us to Tadoba National Park, about three hours away from Gondia, where we went out in a Jeep in hopes of spotting tigers. We got lucky on our second drive.

tadoba tiger
Yup, that happened.

From Tadoba, we spent an evening back in Gondia at our ridiculously swanky five-star hotel, the Gateway (highly recommended at $45 or so a night, and they actually make a decent mac and cheese).

Grueling trek to the Taj Mahal and back (July 7-10)

The thing about the Taj Mahal is that you kind of should see it if you go to India just in case you never get another chance to go to India in your life. So we decided to exhaust ourselves in an effort to make that happen.

On July 7, we drove to Nagpur from Gondia (3 hours), got on a plane to Delhi (2 hours), took a bus and a metro from the airport to the rail station (1 hour) and then got on a train to Agra (3.5 hours).

Did I mention that north India has somehow discovered how to defy the laws of physics and achieve a remarkable average humidity of 240 percent?

In Agra, we befriended an English-speaking autorickshaw driver, Haseen, who had a guestbook from his previous tourists and won the auction to take us to our hotel for 100 rupees ($1.58). This, of course, was so he could offer us his services as our driver for sightseeing the next day, which we agreed to because his price seemed reasonable and why not? (This actually did work out, though naturally he took us to a few stores selling fancy souvenirs so he could earn a commission, and we did wind up with some marble inlay pieces as a result. But worse things have happened.)

Anyway, we got to our hotel late, went to sleep, and woke up at 6 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal, a short walk from our hotel. The Taj was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan after his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to her fourteenth child. You have to admire a guy who’s so upset that he raids the royal treasury for millions of dollars (in 1600s dollars, so multiply that by a lot) to build the best, coolest tomb ever for his wife. Also, by that standard literally everyone else’s husband is completely slacking off. He was buried in the crypt under the Taj as well following his death.

Everyone has seen pictures of the Taj and its reflecting pool, but here’s one of my favorite pieces of it.

quranic verses taj mahal
Quranic verses written on the Taj Mahal.

There’s beautiful Arabic calligraphy all over the structure that’s really hard to see until you get close. It’s actually designed with the human eye in mind, so the verses at the top are just a bit larger than the ones near the bottom to give the illusion of everything being the same size. The whole thing is designed to evoke the Muslim vision of paradise and there’s a lot of other really neat symbolism and artistry to that effect.

Agra has more than the Taj Mahal – there’s a cool fort that the Mughal emperors ruled from and several other impressive marble mausoleums as well, plus some lovely gardens.

While there, I read a book called “In the Shadow of the Taj: A Portrait of Agra,” which gives some history of the city plus some perspective from locals who often feel that they’re ignored in favor of the monument (for instance, several factories that wanted to locate near Agra and would have provided good jobs have been forced to go elsewhere because of concerns about air pollution hurting the marble).

Having that context was great, but it didn’t really make me like the city at all. Not content to meet north India standards, humidity in Agra actually averages a shocking 300 percent in July, and the constant cries of, “Where are you going, Madam?” by autorickshaw drivers hoping for a job got old quickly.

From Agra, we boarded and evening train back to Delhi and spent the next day on a fast-paced tour focusing on religion and culture. Our guide took us to a Sikh temple, where rich and poor work side by side as volunteers in a massive communal kitchen to feed thousands of people per day. The temple itself is centered on their holy book, which they view as akin to a person. This means the book is put to bed at night so it can rest. (Did I mention Sikhism is kind of an awesome religion?)

old delhi street
Typical street in Old Delhi.

Our guide walked us through the streets of Delhi, and we also visited a large mosque built by the Mughals in the center of the old city. In the afternoon, we went to the Akshardam, a massive Hindu temple founded by follwers of an 18th century guru. The whole place kind of has a Hinduism-themed Disneyland feel, with massive animatronic diorama exhibits explaining the life of their guru and his values.

From there, we went to the airport and took an evening flight to Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka. Arriving at midnight, we bused to the train station and spend 40 minutes walking around, fending off territorial street dogs and autorickshaw drivers before finally finding our hotel shortly before 2 a.m.

Mysore (July 11-14)

For the past three days, we’ve been in Mysore, a city of about a million people in Karnataka. Mysore is a center of sandalwood and silk production and is home to Mysore Palace, which is literally the most beautiful palace I have ever seen in my life (and I’ve been to Versailles). Photos aren’t allowed inside and the outside doesn’t do it justice, but here’s a quick snapshot anyhow.

Mysore Palace
Mysore Palace

Here, we’ve been relaxing at our lovely B&B homestay while planning the rest of our trip. We’ve also been to the local market and seen the Mysore Zoo, a world class place with most of the major mammals from India and Africa, plus a bunch of awesome birds.

Wayanad, Kerala (July 14-17)

Tomorrow, we’ll hop on a bus up to the mountains of Kerala, where we’ll spend a few days relaxing on a tea plantation and hopefully visiting the family of our friend Christine for a day.

Cochin and Alleppey, Kerala (July 17-23)

From Wayanad, we’ll descend to the coast of Kerala, spending time in the city of Cochin and doing a homestay in the backwaters of Alleppey (sometimes called the “Venice of the East,” though our guidebook says that comparison does Venice no favors. I will report back.)

Madurai, Tamil Nadu (July 23-26)

Finally, we’ll spend a few days in Tamil Nadu, the heart of southern India, before flying back to Mumbai in July 26, and to the U.S. on July 28.

Dharavi: the slum that makes capitalism possible

can recycling dharavi
Can recycling in Dharavi. Photo by Reality Tours and Travel.

A fire blazes inside a one-room shed made of wood and corrugated metal. Outside, the day is at its hottest with an unforgiving Indian sun shining down on the narrow maze of streets. Inside the shed, a few men supervise the furnace, where nine paint drums are stacked and glowing in the white-hot fire. The workers are melting off excess paint for recycling; after their work is done, the drums will be repaired and reused. The smoke coming from the shed is acrid and the men sweat profusely.

This is Dharavi, better known as Asia’s largest slum and made famous as the setting for many of the scenes in Slumdog Millionaire. Somewhere between half a million and a million people live on about two square kilometers of land on the central north part of Mumbai’s peninsula, making Dharavi one of the most densely-populated areas on earth.

Fed up with the image of slums as places of despair and suffering, some locals started offering tours to Dharavi to complicate the Hollywood version of the neighborhood. The first thing they tell you: Dharavi is home to thousands of one-room factories and businesses, generating an annual economic output of close to a billion dollars. Even that description doesn’t do the area justice, and by the end of our two hours there, I felt like I’d been given a look under the hood of the machine we call global capitalism.

Slum tourism is controversial, to put it mildly, and I still have mixed feelings about the tour we took. Our trip was run by Reality Tours and Travel, a Mumbai-based group founded by an American do-gooder and now run by an Indian staff. The tour itself was incredibly well-done: informative and well-paced with professional guides.

Photos were strictly prohibited (instead, Reality shares a dozen high-quality photos they’ve taken with you after your tour) and tour guides are Mumbai locals, at least some of whom have ties to Dharavi. Our guide, Jitu, used to work in a factory in Dharavi and gradually learned English through Hollywood movies, eventually learning enough to qualify him to be a tour guide. Eighty percent of tour proceeds support a partner NGO, Reality Gives, which runs educational programs for Dharavi kids. Their stated goal for the tours is to change the pervasive idea that slums are places of nothing but poverty and hopelessness, and by that measure, the tour is certainly doing its job.

On the tour, guides walk you through the slum and explain different local businesses, but you don’t interact with residents or hear them talk about their own lives, which felt odd to me. On the one hand, most of them are busy working and probably don’t want to take time to speak with foreigners about things that I’d imagine seem mundane to them. But I also tend to think asking a community what they need or giving cash to people who can use it in exchange for a service (letting us learn about their lives) is a better (and fairer) way to help them than having a Westerner set up a program to help slum kids, however well-run and well-intentioned it might be.

It’s possible I’m wrong in some tangible, evidence-based way and it’s also possible Dharavi residents feel differently or just don’t care much about the visitors one way or another. At the very least, that means what I write here comes from what I saw while walking around Dharavi and what Jitu told us during the tour, rather than from any people who currently live or work there. So with that long disclaimer, here’s what I learned.

Our first stop was a one-room aluminium recycling factory, where shards of aluminum are melted down into large bricks which are then sold. Because it was Sunday, the furnace wasn’t working, but the setup was similar – a single room shack with a corrugated metal roof. Jitu told us workers don’t wear protective equipment because it’s hot enough in there without extra clothing. Dharavi’s businesses are almost uniformly black market – unregistered, not paying taxes and bribing police when they come to inspect things – so even where labor laws exist, they’re not enforced here.

Many Dharavi businesses handle recyclables, facilitated by the work of trash collectors, who sift through Mumbai’s waste looking for anything that might have value. Plastics are ground down to small pieces, color-sorted, washed and then shredded to make filling for pillow cases and stuffed animals. From a rooftop, you can see colorful cobalt piles that look like pottery dyes or gemstones. One place we walked by had massive bags full of clear plastic cups – waste from McDonalds, no doubt arriving via some maze of subcontractors.

Lanes and streets are small and many are passable only on foot, though the larger ones have enough room for motorcycles and hand-pulled carts. Amidst this chaos, there are pet goats munching on greens hanging from an awning, boys cheering over a makeshift game of cricket in the middle of the street, people buying vegetables in preparation for breaking their Ramadan fast – in short, people doing normal human things squished into the most crowded, dense human settlement I can possibly imagine.

One residential street we walked down was so narrow the buildings above it almost entirely obscured the sun. The footpath was actually just a sewer covered by scattered boards, and we had to duck to avoid the maze of wires over our heads. But even on this street, the homes we passed, mostly one room concrete structures, had numbers painted on the doorway in white. Postal addresses exist, even in the densest part of the slum.

In the middle of all this, there’s a glass door leading to an immaculate air-conditioned room with white tile floors and shelves filled with leather handbags. It’s the headquarters of a leather factory that works chiefly with sheep and goat skins, since the state of Maharashtra, where a Hindu nationalist party won the last election, has recently outlawed the sale of leather and beef. The bags on display are fakes destined for the domestic market, sporting Gucci and Louis Vuitton labels.

Sometimes, these guys make the real things too, Jitu told us. Gucci might visit an Indian contractor who has all the latest machines and a nice-looking factory (plus a legal, registered company). Suitably impressed, they contract with him to make bags, except he doesn’t want to spend the money actually doing the work. So he pockets his share and subcontracts out to the Dharavi folks, with Gucci none the wiser. And this is how things are made the world over.

I’ve always had a vague notion that shadow markets like Dharavi exist, but seeing the machinery of it all left me speechless. The work done in these tiny, illegal factories is absolutely essential to the functioning of the entire global economy. They process electronic waste and recycle Coke bottles and handle contracts for huge multinational corporations who will never know a Dharavi factory was involved at all.

I saw purple water running from a factory into the sewer and men standing in acrid chemical smoke to make this machine function and couldn’t help but wonder how many Superfund sites you’d find in Dharavi’s walls if someone took the time to measure contamination. It’s incredible how many transactions, companies, interests and profits have some connection to one of these one-room factories in some obscure corner of an Indian slum.

With so many people living in such little space, sanitation remains a huge issue in Dharavi. Houses don’t have toilets, and public toilets are woefully inadequate, with about one for every 1,500 people. India as a whole struggles massively with sanitation, with about 600 million people defecating in the open according to the latest report on the Millennium Development Goals.

In Dharavi, open air sewers run through town and are a mix of human waste, cow dung, bath water and runoff from factories. Children ran around freely, in some cases falling in the concrete trenches. Our guide was fond of saying that there are more phones than toilet seats in Dharavi, and he was right – we saw at least a dozen young people, smartphones in hand, watching videos or listening to music as we walked around.

Residents of Dharavi are technically living there illegally, at least in many cases, but most pay rent (often under $10 a month) and the government has no immediate plans to evict them. The current slum “improvement” scheme is a government program run entirely through private enterprises. Real estate companies can raze a neighborhood in the slum with the approval of 70 percent of the residents. They’re required to build a bare bones concrete skyscraper on half that land to house the people they’ve displaced and provide that housing free of charge.

In exchange, the companies get the rest of the land to develop into a more lucrative luxury building to sell at market prices. Many slum residents opt not to relocate – some prefer their current homes for the sense of community they provide, others are concerned that a new development would leave no space for the businesses that are so vital to Dharavi’s economy. With the minimal information we got, I have no idea how routinely that program is used, how democratic the voting process is or what happens to the businesses that are left behind in the process.

That plan has been criticized as a government bid to make Mumbai a world-class city by hiding its poor away, prioritizing the needs of real estate moguls who want to take advantage of skyrocketing rents. I can’t say whether apartments are a good solution for Dharavi’s residents, though it seems to me that putting in more toilets should be a priority. But I have a hard time imagining what might replace these factories that handle so much of the world’s goods at the beginning or end of their lives. I can’t help but think that if you stopped them from working, the entire economy might grind to a halt.

Mumbai: second stop in the new world

mumbai cityscape
The Colaba area of Mumbai, as seen from our apartment window.

We touched down in the Mumbai airport just before midnight five days ago, and didn’t get to our hotel until around 2 a.m. Our driver, clad in loose-fitting white cotton pants and a shirt, spoke very little English and stopped twice along the drive to ask other cabbies hanging out on the side of the road for directions.

Some of the sights on our 40 minute drive were familiar to me. There were shacks of tarps and corrugated metal lined along the side of the road housing various small businesses like you’d see in Mexico or Ghana. But we also saw massive horned cows grazing in gutters and hundreds of people – adults, children and families – sleeping out in the open, under the freeway overpass or in cars and autorickshaws.

Though I’ve traveled a fair bit, India is unlike any other country I’ve been to in more ways than one. It’s the first country I’ve been to in Asia, the first where the predominant religion is not Christianity, and the first where the native language is written in a script other than the Roman alphabet (I’m discounting Greece here because the Greek alphabet is fairly close to the Roman one and thus somewhast discernable).

Ghana, where my dad lives and works, is probably my closest reference point. Like India, it’s a former British colony with an ethnically diverse population speaking dozens (or hundreds) of individual languages. English is nominally the official language in both places, but most working class people in Mumbai, as in Ghana, speak only enough for basic commerce. Hindi is the lingua franca in much of north and central India, and Mumbai has evolved its own Hindi dialect called bambaiya, which is spoken on the streets. India, though, is an entire subcontinent, while Ghana is roughly the size of Oregon. And here, Spencer and I are traveling alone, not in the company of someone who knows the country well.

All of which is to say that since I arrived, I’ve felt like a fish out of water. Today is my fifth morning in Mumbai, India, and I still struggle to describe it, but I’m going to try anyway.

Mumbai, the island city

Home to about 22 million, Mumbai is India’s largest city and one of the world’s 10 largest urban areas. Seven distinct islands were united by backfilling and reclamation projects to create the peninsula, which sticks out into the Arabian Sea and forms the bulk of the city.

map of Mumbai
Map of Mumbai: green areas are swampy, brownish areas are higher elevation.

Originally colonized by the Portugese, Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1996 as part of a larger push to remove colonial names from monuments and roads) was given to Charles II of England as a wedding present when he married Catherine, Princess of Portugal. He quickly leased the islands to the British East India Company, who set up their headquarters here in 1687.

The British were responsible for subsequent projects to merge islands and unite Bombay with the mainland through a series of bridges. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Bombay was perfectly positioned to become a major trading hub – the Gateway to India, as it’s now known.

Today, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city of glaring contradictions. It’s the financial capital of India, home to the Bombay Stock Exchange and India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who has the distinction of owning Antilia, the most expensive residence on earth after Buckingham Palace. (Outfitted with a helipad, the skyscraper is worth about $1 billion and requires a staff of 600 to maintain.) India’s Bollywood film industry is also housed here, with many famous Bollywood actors occupying northern suburbs with beach views where the streets are lined with palm trees.

It’s easy to see this version of Mumbai at night, riding in a speeding taxi along Marine Drive, which has beachfront on one side and high-rise buildings with Western chains on the other. Last night, as we drove back from a wonderful dinner with a family in a north Mumbai suburb, the glitz and glamour of the city showed through for the first time since I’ve been here. I was so enchanted by the rainbow-colored lights on the bridge across the sea that I momentarily forgot my upset stomach. If you’d told me I was in Hollywood, I probably would have believed you.

By day, walking around the city, Mumbai is oppressively humid and packed full of people. Horns blare constantly, sidewalks are narrow and packed, and people dangle out the doors of trains and buses during rush hour. Aldous Huxley famously described the city as “the most appalling of either hemisphere.” I tend to agree more with some Indian-Americans I know, who simply say it’s “crazy.”

The 21st century city

When I was in Mexico City earlier this summer, I read a travelogue by journalist David Lida called First Stop in the New World. He argued that in contrast to the planned metropolises that defined the past two centuries (Paris the 19th, New York the 20th), Mexico’s sprawling city of 20 million was a new type of city – a vast, unplanned, forever-expanding and wildly unequal metropolis – that would define the 21st. After all, half the world now lives in cities, and the majority of them look more like Mexico City or Mumbai than the carefully laid out grid of Manhattan.

I suspect if I knew more about the history of urban planning, I might be able to complicate this argument somewhat. I can’t tell you what New York City or Paris looked like when they were rapidly expanding, nor can I predict whast Mumbai will look like in 10 or 50 years. From the history of Mumbai book I’m reading now, Mumbai has certainly been planned in some capacity (otherwise, it would have remained seven distinct islands). But I think there’s something to this argument that’s more than the white Westerner’s unfamiliarity with cities that look different than the European model.

Whether I’m right about that or not, I’ve spent much of my time here thinking about the evolution and future of cities. Wealth inequality is a fact of life in any major city, and I couldn’t say how Mumbai compares to San Francisco or New York in that regard. Here, it’s much more visible to me, perhaps because I’m less able to block it out in a place that’s unfamiliar.

We’ve made our temporary home here in the rented bedroom of a 29th story apartment building. It’s a modest place belonging to a retired teacher whose globetrotting daughter helps her manage the space on Airbnb. There are two helipads visible from our bedroom windows and dozens of high-ride buildings that house Mumbai’s rich and powerful as far as they can get, vertically, from the bustle of the streets.

Many of Mumbai’s residents sleep, eat and earn their living on the streets, and a majority are engaged in the informal economy. Fruit stalls, street food, people hawking giant balloons at tourist landmarks, cab drivers, beggars and more crowd the sidewalks and make up the bulk of the 22 million who call Mumbai home. The smell of the street changes every few steps from charcoal to pungent fruit to sewage to generic humidity. In a tropical city where so many sleep outside, I found myself wondering how homelessness is conceived of here- whether housing itself is seen as a large challenge, or if policymakers focus more on sanitation and healthcare.

Immigrants from all over India come to Mumbai in search of work, many migrating seasonally and returning home during the monsoons to work on their family farms. The median income here is about $2,000 per year, or about $7,700 adjusted for purchasing power.

Since we’ve been here, Spencer and I have spent the bulk of our time wandering the streets and taking walking tours of monuments and neighborhoods led by young people who want to impart a realistic vision of the city. Yesterday, we took a bus to the central market area, spent an hour or so trying to get Spencer a cell phone, and hopped on another bus to a wealthy suburb for a home-cooked Indian meal. Neither of us has quite taken to the city, and I think we’ll be glad to hop on a train tonight and head to a tiger reserve near Nagpur in centra India. But Mumbai has gotten me thinking about a lot of things that will keep churning in my head long after the lights of Bollywood fade into countryside.