Meeting Friendly Locals in Birmingham

This posting consists of a series of stories that took place over the past few days here in the welcoming city of Birmingham, UK. It also contains personal sharing and personal opinions that I hope you will find interesting. Thanks for visiting PersonalTravelStories.com !
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The Mailbox is a stately-looking structure that stands in Birmingham’s central district. Upon entering the large edifice, which does indeed have resemblance to a British Mailbox, I was unaware that the building is actually an enormous centre and that it opens on to the lovely canal network on the other side. In fact, being built along these waterways is probably the main asset of the building. They have done a lovely job capturing the urban outdoors well-viewed by numerous restaurants and bars.

I may not have ventured into the Mailbox having previously read it’s description on a shopping map of Birmingham. “A premier luxury destination, with designer stores including Harvey Nichols, hotels, waterside restaurants and bars.” It’s not a bad description by any means, it just did not pull my attention since I only took the map for street navigation rather than for shopping. Additionally, I wanted to repair the grammar of the sentence. Correct it so that it does not contain one incongruent list. Here’s a better example of the same grammatical weakness in case you missed it, “I like to eat cheeses including Brie, red wine, and baguettes.” It’s just wrong. Sometimes we do choose imprecise grammar in lieu of brevity though, so it likely was an intentional overlook.

I had found myself early to a meet-up across the street. I don’t like to be late so when venturing to an unknown destination for a scheduled meet I tend to allow too much extra time. This usually has it’s pay-offs though, there is nearly always something to happen upon that will fill the time in an unfamiliar place. So it was that I found myself stood on a street-corner face-to-face with this large, red, windowed box.

I was not feeling interested in dropping large sums of money for designer duds that I have no space for in my luggage, so I was very pleased to come across a “pop-up” shop claiming two temporary spaces. “Birmingham Made Me” is a fantastic collection of all manner of hand-made items created locally. Lots of one-of-a-kind crafts and art works, as well as a bit of manufactured but of original design and using the creators artwork. Unique hats, jewellery, lampshades, paintings, handbags made from records, ceramics, t-shirts printed with original images, pottery, nik-naks, art cards, and more. A really fun set of shops.

As I was exiting the first one I entered, I thanked the hosts. “What do you think of it?” a woman near to my age, friendlily inquired. “It’s fantastic,” I replied, “I especially loved the stuffed animals.”

These little animals have been created with such great care that I found myself paused in front of them, reading their faces like one might a person. I’m not sure why, they had typical-looking eyes and details, but they were put-together in such as way that they conveyed personality. They were really quite impressive.

I could not have guessed that I was talking to their creator, Angela. “Did you pick one up?” Of course not, I think. I used to be an artist myself some years ago, I know not to touch things, to be respectful of people’s creations which are often intended to be looked-upon only. Angela comes over, “Pick one up!” Stunning. These little creatures were life-like to look at, now that I have one in my hands it’s uncanny. She has used some sort of filling that gives them a life-like weight. A baby-sized bear weighs nearly as much as a real baby. It’s actually hard to explain the experience, my senses are being fooled into feeling like I’m holding an animate creature. I’m not a doll collector or an appreciator of stuffed-bears, or anything of the sort, but these are very impressive.

“When I was little, I remember feeling so disappointed every time I picked-up a cuddly toy, that it felt completely unreal. That it didn’t weigh anything. They looked cute, but they felt like nothing.” Even as a little girl, her creative mind saw things in a unique way. Remarkable.

“I saw you noticing (Brooks?) things as well,” Angela adds, gesturing to the bags made from vinyl records (LPs) and lamps made from cassette tapes.

“I did. Those bags look really-well made. It’s a shame that guys have a much stronger attachment to records than do girls. I used to have a shop where we sold clocks made from records, the LPs were definitely more popular with guys. Girls tended to prefer the covers made into clocks, with the imagery. I wonder if guys tend to me more tactile and girls more visual.”

“The ladies really like them though, they’re very popular.”

“That’s great, they should be.”

A few more minutes of conversation and I am on my way, back-tracking to the other location of “Birmingham Made Me” I had earlier passed-by. The time for my meeting comes and I leave the Mailbox leaving more to return for later.

The “Birmingham Made Me” shops located in the Mailbox will only be open until the end of June, so don’t miss your chance to find some unique arts and crafts pieces. Angela has plans to open in another location as a joint venture, so be sure to check-it out.

To see Angela’s fun artistic cuddly creations and find out where you can see them, click on this link:

www.burmanbears.com

Birmingham Made Me has a Facebook sight you can visit, hopefully they’ll be an ongoing concern and perhaps you can find their latest activities by looking up their Facebook page or by clicking on this link:

www.ideabirmingham.co.uk

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The Street side entrance of The Mailbox in Birmingham. Don’t be fooled, this square building is only a small part of the entire structure, fully attached.

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Interior hallways of The Mailbox are open to skylights far above.

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The rear exit of The Mailbox is wonderfully set-up to appreciate Birmingham’s vast canal network.

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Looking back at the restaurants and bars lining the canal as part of The Mailbox.

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The Cube has been built to add to the success of The Mailbox and feels like a continuation of the centre. Completed in 2010, this mixed-use world-class structure is much larger than it looks having 25 floors.

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The Blend is a modern coffee bar with lots of fun drinks. The main feature being coffee martinis, I don’t mind if I do. I order a delicious B and B (Brandy and Benedictine) coffee martini, it is served on ice in a stemmed glass more sizeable and of a different shape than a martini glass. I am the first to arrive to this meet-up, but being at a largish reserved table for 8 I will be easily found.

I am soon joined by a conscientious Brummie who is also early. She had rushed away from attending a Jazz concert at the nearby Symphony Hall. “I love Jazz,” she tells me, “they’re giving free concerts every Friday. If you like Jazz, you should go next week. It’s great.” When it comes to listening to Jazz music I only listen to classics, I’m not a fan of the repetitive free-flowing improv type sometimes found in Jazz bars. But a performance will tend to be of the ilk that I do enjoy. I probably will. Except I leave on Thursday, my hotel is only booked for a week and I arrived last night. Only 24 hours so far in Birmingham and I am already planning to extend my stay.

Four of us have already arrived by the appointed meet-up time. A very polite gentleman from Walsall who reminds me of the accountant in the tv programme Ugly Betty sits beside me. He has come in with a nice girl originally from Stratford. A young lady starting her PHD in Environmental Structures has moved to Birmingham from Sweden. A woman who “has Scotch and Welsh blood” joins behind me, pulling-up a chair to join the then-crowded table. Others have filled-in the rest of the 8 seats but I meet those at the other end by name only, as is generally the case when seated at a large table.

The ladies are talking about something that is sometimes vended out machines in ladies rooms. Maybe one of them is wearing perfume from a sampler, I don’t remember. “The only thing we can buy in a men’s room is condoms,” someone comments. “But they do come in various flavours,” I add, helpfully. “I remember the first time I saw flavoured condoms,” one of the ladies reminisces, “I looked at the shop keeper and asked, “Why is it flavoured?” I had no idea!” “If you like, one of us can show you, luv!” the guy had replied to her great embarrassment. “Just chemicals, aren’t they,” I offer, “not good for you probably.” Lately, I have been given much attention to the fact that more and more edible products are not real food. Edible oil products flavoured by chemicals, highly-processed and manipulated food products altered to such a degree that our digestion systems work overtime processing food items that are not really even food in the strict sense. Genetically modified, chemically-enhanced, structurally-altered items that are being marketed as food but offer little or no nutrition. If it doesn’t nourish, can it really be considered food? Anyway, to this she asks, “Have you tasted one?” I don’t want to answer either way and instead I reflect the question. “You are a dirty girl!” I tease, “I’m going for another drink. How is the wine you’re drinking, what kind did you get?” “Red.” We both laugh at her answer. “Honestly, they have red, white and rose, those are the choices.”

Back at the cash I look at the bottle that contains red wine. Looks like it has been labelled for use in pubs and such, it is from Spain but that essentially is the extent of the information presented. “It’s Spanish Red,” I declare returning with a flute. They must have run-out of generic wine glasses and they have served me red wine in a champagne flute. No apologies for serving in this narrow glass, I only assume the outage but it is actually presented as being normal. I like this complete lack of pretension, it speaks of an unsophistication that is refreshing. I dump my Spanish Red into a tumbler someone did not use for their beer. I like wine in a glass tumbler. Reminds me of Italy.

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“I started to realise that I really enjoy cultural things,” a woman in her thirties explains, “but none of my friends did. I love classical music and looking at artwork and going to live performance. I started this group so I could meet with other people to share those things with.” We sit in the Edwardian Cafe within Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery waiting for others to arrive. It’s a beautiful structure that stands on Chamberlain Square in the city centre. Like all museums in the UK, admission is free.

A varied group assembles to take in the current temporary exhibits, two modern shows. These meet-up groups have really caught-on in Birmingham. Most of the attendees today have come into the downtown from outside the city, including the organiser.

It seems to me that over the past century people have lost their trust in strangers in most places. Meet-up groups are partially reclaiming that lost aspect of society. It wasn’t that we used to trust everyone, but we did trust those who were in our group. Perhaps this meant people of our clan or of our village. More people attended church and there was a feeling that one could trust another in their church, whether they had met or not. I think this still tends to be the case in churches, they provide social communities for their members. Maybe we trusted those of our class, people who had a similar standing to ourselves. “We’re in this together,” strangers or not. There was more kinship, more seeing others as oneself. Would you steal from your brother? Surely not.

I think there was even an innocence that my parents generation had during their early years, growing up in the 50s and 60s in small town Canada. This sociological aspect may have been earlier concluded in more metropolitan areas, I don’t know. There was greater civility, stronger politeness, more adhered-to rules of behaviour, and an assumption of good will. Perhaps one had to be somewhat guarded on the streets in large cities, but they’d create pockets of safety in their own communities. Neighbours were friends or friends not yet met. There was an assumption of goodness of the other rather than mistrust. I’ll happily share with you and I know you would happily share with me. Perhaps some of the trust came from naivety, television destroyed any of that. Now, instead of having a realistic viewpoint of knowing what kinds of terrible things people sometimes do to each other, we have an exaggerated viewpoint of it. The most violent crimes are talked about and repeated and we are taught to be guarded for our own protection. Before we would have heard about something that happened to someone in our circle or in our community, now we can hear about violence on the opposite side of the world nearly at the very same time it happens. Lost innocence of an entire species.

More and more we lead hectic, separate lives. In the West many of us will live entirely on our own, not sharing our living space with anyone. We did not evolve this way. In our separateness we crave connection with our fellow man.

Some of us may have strong groups of friends but as life changes so do we. Sometimes our friends don’t change at the same time and we outgrow them. Or they outgrow us. Perhaps our friends are dear to us but we also need something new. The introduction of new friends can bring new life. Most of us get set-in-our-ways and some of us want to break-out but may not know how. How do I meet someone outside my circle? How do I live my days differently than I do now? Where do I go if I want to go somewhere other than where I do go? It can feel impossibly difficult to break routine. The routines of what I do and where I go and who I talk to and when I talk to them and what we talk about and how we do and how we go and the list goes on and on.

I met two nice ladies standing by the canal. They were sight-seeing. I was sight-seeing. I chatted briefly with them and we had a friendly exchange. But we didn’t go sight-seeing together. It wouldn’t be normal, would it. For them to trust a complete stranger. Even if they thought I seemed friendly and fun, they have been taught caution. There are places where this kind of interchange is possible though, such as when young people stay in hostels. This situation provides the context of sameness, I’m in this hostel and you are in this hostel and we are both traveling so why don’t we go out and wander the streets together rather than separately.

That is what online meet-up groups do. They provide the introduction. The fact that we both signed-up to go to the same place and do the same thing provides just enough sameness for us to be able to trust each other and interact as friends. When I worked in coffee shop at the end of university the aspect I liked most was having permission to be friendly with strangers. My interaction with the customer was defined and in friendly Fredericton the locals welcomed familiar-type conversations while they were collecting their coffees.

If I just went in to the museum surely I would find other people who had the same interest of seeing the museum but it would be socially odd for me to try to join with others to share the experience of the exhibit. It is not the behavioural norm, one is supposed to keep to oneself and respect the autonomy of strangers. By myself I am likely to share a comment with someone looking at the same thing or even strike a conversation with another patron, but the chances that we would end-up going through an entire exhibit together or chatting over a coffee afterwards is very low.

I do meet strangers on my travels in all sorts of situations but having the ability to join online meet-up groups gives me an in with locals that was previously not possible.

Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery has a formidable permanent collection of historical and significant works which I briefly take-on on another occasion. Today we are gathered for the temporary exhibits.

New Art West Midlands is a collection of “The best new art by emerging West Midland graduates.” (New Art West Midlands Brochure as created for the exhibit.) The works have been created by recent graduates from five art schools in the region and the represent a variety of media including paining, installation, ceramics, film, sculpture, and photography. Art comes down to personal preference. When I have to stand and stare at something and wonder why it can be called art, that kind of thing I do not have much appreciation for. Sometimes a creation that displays no skill can still seem artful to me for it’s uniqueness, it’s originality. The famous straight line drawn across a canvas I still think is just stupid, no matter how many high-brow art experts argue differently. Certainly there was a little of that ilk displayed, they want to provide a wide variety and that includes artwork that “pushes the barriers”.

My hands-down favourite collection was created by Rafal Zar. He found his own formula that works for him. Paint something cute in such a way as to be disturbing. His write-up makes his work sound a bit more sophisticated than mine does suggesting that he deals with controversial issues and such. But really it looks like he just uses some cliches in his paintings that are guaranteed to be richly interpreted. A half torso of a nun who has double pupils in each eye stands behind a tree growing in an incubator. A cartoon rabbit hovers over her right shoulder and something comparable hovers over her left. I like it. It’s fun, it’s playful, but it seems to me just silly. The odd cross is thrown in to quite a few of his works and it really does just seem to be for the purpose of adding a religious element rather than some deep thought-out metaphorical statement. The only statement I hear him making is, “Look at me, look at your symbols, pooey on your symbols. They mean nothing to me.”

Speaking of poo, there is quite a substantial collection of faeces sculptures sitting on a table in front of his paintings. I like these too, they’re mostly quite colourful. The majority are rings of poo, round-and-round-and-up-and-cut. Some of them are quite realistic sculptures, others are wool, still others are painted into little characters with cute faces.

His paintings are pretty and ugly at the same time, I quite enjoy them and I would buy one if I lived anywhere. Definitely check-out his blog though, you can see photos of this actual exhibit in the Museum as well as other fun works. This particular exhibit is only on until May 19, 2013, so if you are in or near to Birmingham, don’t wait to go visit!

www.rafalzar.blogspot.co.uk

The second temporary exhibit was “Metropolis: Reflections on the modern city”. This is an international contemporary exhibit that was jointly collected by this gallery as well as The New Art Gallery Walsall, in partnership with Ikon. I found this exhibit generally more appealing in that I appreciated most of what was on offer.

I am definitely biased being a lover of travel and having a preference for cities. The overall feeling I am left with from this exhibit is of it being more a portrait of the people who live in the cities, their struggles and the reality of average everyday lives.

A 6-minute video of an abandoned apartment complex in Frankfurt with the windows being smashed from the inside is oddly mesmerising. You don’t know when and where the next window will smash, one by one until there are no window panes remaining. (Front Windows by Jochem Hendricks, 2009)

Click on following link to view the video. Try to project it onto a large wall and use good speakers to recreate the effect experienced at the museum.

www.jochem-hendricks.de/_englisch/2011_frontwindow/non_index.htm

I appreciated the very large scenes by Semyon Faibisovich who showed us some portraits of real life in a poor district of Moscow. He takes photos on his mobile phone, blows them up to mega proportions, and paints overtop. Two men lean against each other to keep from falling-over drunk, a bottle between them, and in “Take the Weight off Your Feet” a woman sits on the road as if having fallen but with items placed to show that she actually sat down. You can see these images with this link:

http://www.artfund.org/what-we-do/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/11569/1-sick-on-the-way-2-take-the-weight-off-your-feet-3-repose

A video room with a view of Shanghai’s main pedestrian shopping street on on side, a view with sound of a woman blowing, as in blowing out candles on an enormous birthday cake, on the other. Every time she blows the view of the street scene retreats to create the feeling that she is blowing the street away. The view pauses in one spot between her breaths showing the hustle and bustle on the busy street and as she blows the image moves further away from us, as if her breath has propelled the viewer further backwards down the street. I recognise the street, it’s a very unique district for China that looks more like a Western beacon of consumerism with all the familiar Western brands. Perhaps it represents the future of China? It certainly represents only a very tiny segment of Chinese life today, perhaps of the top 1 percent to be generous. I still have Adidas track pants I bought on that street. I had forgotten to bring gym clothes with me.

Another representation of China, a large street scene showing buildings, a construction site, buses on multiple lanes of traffic, and a pedestrian walkway with some people walking. It is a very ordinary scene but it captures my interest for a long time. After looking at it I read the placard which explains that the photographer has created the large scene using multiple images. Not readily apparent until after reading, now I can see how he has manipulated the sizes of objects so that things far away are of similar size to those close-up. The effect is of looking of a model rather than the real thing. Additionally, there is story in the people on the pedestrian walk, they are interesting to look at and stir my curiosity.

Jerry cans linked together on a rod sit on the floor. It really is just a kebab of ordinary gas cans. I learn that portable gas cans with handles were invented by the Germans in 1939 but still this falls into my category of the unimpressive. Nonetheless, here I am writing about it, so there you go.

Really the entire exhibit was quite interesting so I’m not going to write about it further. It will be open until June 23, 2013. Again, if you happen to be in or near Birmingham, I think it deserves your attention.

After taking in the two fun and interesting modern art exhibits with a group of 7, three of us ventured to a pub together to enjoy the afternoon a bit longer before parting ways. I hope to see some of them again while I’m here, but if not, it was still a perfect day.

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The Stately Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery stands in Chamberlain Square by the Paradise Forum and the Town Hall.

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Inside one of the stairwells of the museum.

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This lovely space sits between the gift shop and the Edwardian Cafe inside the Museum.

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The cafe was not open when I went back to take a photo so I could not show the vast open space. But, here is a view through the door, which was open (but a meeting was taking place inside).

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Some of the stained-glass windows located in one of the stairways of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

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At New Street Station I met one of the nicest groups of people I could have imagined. Kind, thoughtful souls, every one. People who have suffered either become hardened or they develop a greater sense of understanding for others.

There are those people who fit comfortably into round holes. They may have an average temperament, a middle-of-the-road upbringing, main-stream tastes and experiences. Some of these people do not have the ability to comprehend that their experience of the world can be different from someone else’s. They will assume that what they have felt and experienced is the very same as how others feel and experience. They will equate someone’s debilitating depression with their own experience of sadness. “Oh, I know how you feel, ” they may be fond of saying, followed by something completely incomparable. They also don’t understand that even without a major life event, without a traumatic experience to point at, people can slip down a spiral. Depression is the most often thought-of spiral, but Social Anxiety is another.

“Why did you join this group?” one of the younger members asks as we walk between venues, “You clearly do not have Social Anxiety.” I do know that how I experience it is invisible to others. I tend to be diplomatic and I am not shy in groups. Naturally a leader, I tend not to appear socially anxious whatsoever. I can fill the role of host without much thought.

I am by no means any kind of expert on Social Anxiety (SA) but being one who experiences it, let me tell you about it from my experience. I have experienced it as a spiral, in that the longer it pervades the stronger it gets. It gets harder and harder to break-out of.

I think that SA can stem from numerous causes. For me, it developed partly from being highly-sensitive in an insensitive world. Too much noise creates anxiety. Too many people. Too much light. Too much activity and commotion. Think of the enjoyment most people get attending a busy party with music and dancing and lots of people. I’m good up to a point, but beyond that point I become overstimulated and that triggers my fight-or-flight response. I panic to escape. I had many such nights during university, I’d reach my threshold for having fun before anyone else. “I’m going now.” “Don’t go, stay, we’re having fun!” Eventually I just realised that when it’s time for me to leave, easiest was to just bolt. “You disappeared last night,” I’d hear the next day. “I guess I got too drunk,” I’d lie, easier than saying I became overwhelmed by the crowds and ran away. Drinking helps though, my tolerance for stimulation is much higher when drinking. It likely is for most people, that’s why average people happily listen to ear-blowing club music for hours, they probably would not withstand it either when completely sober.

Eventually anxiety can be experienced in anticipation of an anxiety-causing event. These events tend to be social. This part of my anxiety is really pre-overstimulation anxiety and it is very explainable from having an oversensitive nervous system. I don’t know if it really has a name, I just made that up, but it is what it is.

Generally I can keep this at bay by being in-control over my situation. When I was a shop owner I often used to work Saturday mornings at a mall kiosk location. I would only work for 2 or 3 hours, very short. I did this shift because the mall on Saturdays was open 9:30-6:00, which was too long for one person but too short to schedule two. It seemed to me unfair to have someone come in for only 2 or 3 hours, so I did it. It was perfectly fair for me because I wasn’t making a wage anyway. But the mall tended to be noisy. Trapped in the middle of the hallway alone at the kiosk, I came to really hate it. Because if it became too much, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t just abandon my kiosk and leave it unmanned in the middle of a busy shopping centre. After many times of having the experience of anxiety caused by the noise, I learned to dread working in the mall. Sometimes I would be completely fine, the more I distracted myself from the commotion the better I was. Or sometimes the mall would be dead-quiet anyway. But once the anxiety became a conditioned response that game was over. Not that I should be complaining, my partner and I had four retail locations and I probably only worked at a location two or three short times in a week, often not at all. I was able to mostly create the job that I needed, which was working from home and visiting from store to store without actually staying at one for any duration.

I tend not to experience SA with strangers or with new people that I am meeting. Clearly this is unusual and makes me look like an interloper when mixing with others who experience SA. I am not socially awkward and I find it easy to start conversations with strangers. I can generally hone-in on something that is interesting for them to talk about. I am not shy, I am an outgoing introvert. This label goes in the face of what most people know about introverts and extraverts. It just means that I do not recharge in the company of others or in social situations, unlike extraverts. I recharge by being alone or by doing solitary activities such as cycling, reading, or writing. Introverts recharge introspectively, extraverts recharge extracurricularly. That’s not exactly the correct usage of those terms, but you know what I mean.

My Social Anxiety holds me back mostly with people I know. I’m fine with people I don’t know, I’m not worried about disappointing strangers or of not living up-to stranger’s expectations of me. In this way, strangers are very safe. It’s probably part of how I thrive on traveling and how I can enjoy doing so for a long time by myself.

I know exactly what this issue stems from but I’m not going to write about it today. I will explain how it plays-out though. When back in Toronto I procrastinate on meeting-up with friends. I’ll reach for the phone to call and put it back down letting anxiety win-out. “How was your trip?” someone will ask. I don’t know how to answer that question apart from it was good or it wasn’t. How do I sum-up the myriad of travel experiences into a conversation? My somewhat scattered-mind does not focus in on travel tales to readily share. I generally come-off as well-spoken, but I often feel tongue-tied. I have very high expectations for myself that I cannot live-up to. I will do the same thing when I visit my parents in my hometown in New Brunswick, Canada. This is a place I have not lived-in, apart from a few summers early on, for 22 years. I will like the idea of catching-up with people before I visit, but once I’m there I may or may not let anxiety cancel plans.

What if I’m not interesting enough. What if they want more from me than I can give. What if they end-up calling me too much and invading my space. What if Im just not good enough. I’ll call them later. I’m tired.

And the dreaded phone. It rings, I panic, I ignore it. The first thought that flashes through my head when my phone rings is, “What have I done bad now.” I do not have memory of a specific telephone call that would explain this reaction, but my main feeling on answering the phone is guilt. I am in trouble for something. I have let someone down. They are calling to tell me that I did something bad, or said something wrong, or made some unfixable mistake. After arriving to the UK last week a UK friend posted on my Facebook, “call”. What did I do? I avoided Facebook for days. Did I call? Not yet. His little message exasperated my issue too though. “Please call, can’t wait to catch-up!” may have put me at ease to pick-up the phone. The one word command had me think, OMG what’s wrong, have I offended him? Is he upset with me?

This phone thing is irritating and I am decided that I will “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Eventually I will answer the phone enough times and have enough pleasant, rewarding conversations that the anxiety will disappear. Call display does help, I nearly always feel completely comfortable answering to my Sister or to my Mother. But that’s it. Most other people I am more likely to miss the call, build-up some courage, and call them back a few moments later.

Separately there is the noise factor, I do not have a good filter for noise. If I answer the phone when walking down the street I cannot hear very well, it makes for an awkward conversation. In my car is fine, the blue teeth connect to each other or something (BTW, bluetooth is a Canadian invention) and the speaker is clear. Also, I’d be embarrassed to be “that guy”, the one who is yelling into his cell phone at the coffee shop.

I am not going to accept my phone limitations anymore, I am just going to answer it. When just doing it, anxiety decreases over time. When avoiding it, anxiety increases over time. But it’s easier said than done. It is a flight or fight response, heart rate increases, some people sweat, for me I feel short of breath. I just want the feeling to disappear and the easiest short-term way to do that is to remove the trigger.

I think a common tie of those to suffer from Social Anxiety often involves a past assault to their self-esteem. This can happen simply from being a square peg trying to fit the round holes and finding it impossible. Our culture does not value uniqueness the way it should. “I’m different from the others. There must be something wrong with me,” is a common, completely false, conclusion. How dull would our planet be without the richness of variety that comes from those who do not fit the norm. Architecture would all be straight and box-like. Clothing would still be grey, beige, and dull. Music would never have evolved the way it has. I cannot imagine what the world would look like if it were not improved by those who didn’t fit-in. These are the trend-setters and the record-breakers when they are adults, but their school years can be tragic.

Another common cause to self esteem issues comes from one’s peers. Bullying and teasing can leave scars that causes an innate fear of others. These abuses are generally tied to the school yard years, but their impact on one’s sense of self cannot be overestimated. Again the square pegs are the most targeted, those who stand out as being unique. Too tall, too thin, too fat, too smart, too slow, too awkward; all these are comparisons against the average. People even become embarrassed by their medical conditions, of which they have little or no control and which should not be cause for embarrassment whatsoever, but they feel judged for nonetheless. Acne, skin discolouration, hair loss, mobility issues, speech impediments, a limp, a hump, even having the need for spectacles; again, anything that sets one apart. “Fatty”, “Four-eyes”, “Skinny git”, “Retard”, the list of hurtful taunts thrown about is endless. Individuals may even attach shame to their condition, which is disgusting. Society has failed them. Shame on society.

Racism, sexism, elitism, homophobia; these are things people should be ashamed of. People should be ashamed of judging others, yet the practice is often reinforced. As arbitrary as these types of characteristics are to the value of a person, they can make the person fell like an outsider, or be an outsider, in certain environments.

I was pretty young when I had this realisation. “If I was born into a Muslim family, I’d be Muslim.” “Yes, but the Bible says that you can only go to heaven through Jesus Christ.” “But what if I had never heard of Jesus Christ?” “That’s what the Bible says, so . . .” I had asked my Mother and she had me ask an inter-denominational minister for these answers. I think part of her must know this doctrine is wrong on a moral level so she hoped a minister would have some special deeper interpretation, but he didn’t.

So it would have been my fault if I had not heard of Jesus Christ and I would not go to heaven. Most other world religions are more inclusive. The Christian Church has also loosened it’s stance to allow it’s members to have more liberal views than was allowed when I was a child 30 years ago. They had to, they’d have almost no membership left if they hadn’t. Many do not take the Bible literally anymore, so, what can you take it for? It can be interpreted in many ways to suit the beliefs of the day, and it has. I still don’t understand how a book that can be ascribed opposite meanings on many topics, can be used as an authority. During slavery, verses were quoted to consider having slaves as biblical. Later, verses were quoted to prove that slavery was unbiblical. If it can be interpreted that loosely, how can it be consulted for truth?

Does it not enforce racism to say that one person will be rewarded with heaven and another won’t? Does that not say to a child that one person is better than another? Is there not an understood implication to the little white Christian child that he deserves good things like heaven and his friend Mohammed doesn’t? Even if Mohammed has heard of Jesus Christ, should he not be rewarded for being faithful to his own beliefs, those of his family and of his community? “Not according to the Bible.”

Fortunately, most Christians today seem to believe that there are many paths to God and no longer strictly adhere to their faith’s elitism. Again, what choice do they have living in a modern, multicultural world. I am happy for people to have their beliefs but I am not up-to having a religious debate. Insofar as one’s beliefs do not hurt others, I think they should be respected.

Shyness tends to also be linked to SA. Behind it may be fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of being judged. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of not being heard. Fear of not sounding smart enough. Fear of rejection. If I don’t speak, nothing will happen. If I do speak, something bad could happen. People will laugh at me, I will be told I am wrong, people will disagree, people won’t care . . . . . I have little doubt we have some dissatisfied teachers to blame for some of these cases.

I was a very distracted confused little boy during my first few years of school. I remember Mrs.Perkins screaming at me in fury, and I never knew what for. It was always about not paying attention. I was diagnosed with ADHD 25 years later. Luckily I was smart enough to get by without having full attention. And I learned to focus over time. In my last year of Uni. I had career testing in the guidance department. The head of guidance was shocked that I had the aptitude for university based on my scores. “You’re tolerance for study is the lowest I have ever seen for a university student. If you were in first year I’d be suggesting that maybe uni is not a good fit for you.” I took a programme that didn’t require much study, Business Administration. It was mostly just understanding concepts which simply made sense to me. Easy-peasy. Science, history, engineering, not a chance.

It didn’t need to be a teacher’s harshness that caused someone’s shyness, it could be anyone. Parents, peers, siblings, nannies. . . Shyness could also be an innate quality, some babies are shyer than others and grow up to be quieter as well. But is it different wiring that causes a baby to be more shy, or is it earlier experiences? I think certain personalities will have a greater propensity to become shy, but I don’t think it’s tried and fast. Given these circumstances vs. those, one is likely to become shy. Combine that with one’s innate characteristics would compound that likeliness. But I don’t think that shyness is fixed for most people who experience it. It definitely feel like it is fixed though.

Shyness is another condition that can spiral. The more you don’t speak-up, the harder it becomes to speak-up. And when you do speak, your anxiety is so high that you cannot properly find the words or think straight. This makes for another bad experience and the shyness is reinforced. It is so much easer to speak when you are feeling calm, or at least secure. I had my years of being shy but something happened that I broke out of it. I’m not going to write about that right now, another time.

So it was I found myself walking towards a pub in Birmingham with a group of people who suffer differing forms of Social Anxiety. Yes, I am one of you. Don’t judge me by my appearance, my struggles may just be more hidden. (Originally I wrote “my flaws”, which is how SA tends to feel, but “my struggles” is more accurate.) This is not a flawed group, this is a gifted group whose struggles have given them extra compassion and empathy. These are people who make the world a better place.

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My next meet was an organised pub quiz at a worn-in neighbourhood pub. This group are in their 20s and 30s, so I am at the very limit of inclusion. The pub is located in the Jewellery District so it’s also a chance to venture into that central district to see if it will be a good place to continue my stay after my hotel. The hotel is fully booked from Monday, May 13th so I will have to make a move whether staying in Birmingham or not. There is a flat-share near to the pub that is on my consideration list.

A fifteen-minute walk from Victoria Square and where I am staying at present, I encounter very few people on the streets. Except for in specific pedestrianised zones, which are plentiful but concentrated in the city centre, this is not a walking city, at least not from what I can see. When going any distance at all, walking is a bit cumbersome. A sidewalk ends and now I need to illegally cross a thoroughfare to continue on the other side. Or I could back-track to use a pedestrian subway or an overpass, but I won’t. Some narrow streets have no pedestrian space whatsoever. Sidewalks are called “pavements” in the UK, but I won’t use that term in my writing because to North Americans it sounds like it would refer to the street surface, which is pavement, rather than the sidewalk, which is cement.

I stand at the full bar counter waiting my turn to order a drink. The crowd moves slowly because this pub offers cocktails that look pain-staking in their preparation. Six or eight pints could be dispensed in the time it takes to prepare an elaborate beverage of 5 or so different measured liquids, shaken with ice, and then strained through a sieve into a glass that was just chilled by first filling it with ice water for a moment. The crowd intently watches the slow progress of each drink in anticipation of their own turn. A tall slender woman approaches the bar from outside. She is clearly scanning the room for a group so I ask her if she is here for the meet-up. She is.

Hana settles at a table so we don’t lose the last one available while I wait for our drink order. Back at the table another fellow arrives, a 20-something guy who is very good at pub quizzes, so it turns out. Four more guys trickle-in and the quiz has commenced. A page of faces we are meant to identify, I do not even recognise the Canadian, Alanis Morissette. A page of word puzzles, name-that-tune from looking at some written Lyrics, name-that-record looking at album cover artwork. “Those three must have been CDs because they are completely unfamiliar to me,” is my only feedback. I saw so very many record albums when my former partner and I would visit record shows and sort through thousands while buying hundreds for making clocks and melting into bowls that we sold at our stores. Not an interest, I only learned what I needed to so I could recognise our hit-list when sorting through boxes and crates of vinyl. But, there was a different hit-list in Canada so I may have been incorrect in my helpful advice.

The group holds-it’s-own, placing among the top few groups. No thanks to me, I was not key to a single correct answer. Any answer I did know, others also knew. I’m not a fountain of knowledge when it comes to trivia or pop culture. I share with the group that I used to co-own some pop-culture stores. I express my surprise as to how many people bought things like Angry Bird pillows, t-shirts, hats, games, pens. When I finally tried the game on one of my niece’s iPhone, I was shocked. Really? Why do people buy all this crap? Most of the games and such I never did try or see so I can only assume I would have been riveted. No, probably not.

The game ends and we have tied for third. I take my leave and walk out onto the street and make my way home. Back at the hotel I get a message, “Hana has your money.” Apparently after I left there was some sort of re-judgement. People with their smart phones verifying answers and questions using google had found a discrepancy and I guess we were right somewhere previously considered wrong. “I have £15 for you,” Hana enotes to me through the meet-up system. Not really deserved, I’m thinking, I did keep a seat warm at the table but I cannot possibly take any credit for being part of the winning team. If I make it to the next one I can use my winnings to buy a round for the first few people who arrive. That’ll be fun.

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With less than half of my time in Birmingham now completed, this will be continued. My next positing will be much more focused on the sights and will contain less introspection.

Below is a short video of some pics I took around Birmingham. If you receive this posting by email, click on the image and it should open the story in a browser where you can see it play.


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Thanks for reading!
Darren

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My Daily Adventures in Mumbai, India

This posting is related to my other Mumbai postings. In this writing I tell some stories of my time spent in Mumbai, the city where I kicked-off my 2013 India Adventures. Hope you like it!

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I walk-out of the apartment complex to the active street below to procure an auto rickshaw. Suddenly I remember that I have no small bills, only 500s and 1000s. My ride, if legitimately charged, will come to less than 100 INR. ($2) Drivers never seem to have any change for tourists. They may have a bit, but never enough to fairly settle a bill. I always tip, but I try not to pay 400% or 1000% or the like, amounts which seem to often be expected. They don’t cheat a little bit, they aim high. This has happened so many times that I can imagine what they must be thinking, “You rich, white person, why not let me have $20 for $2 ride? What difference does it make to you?” I ask a middle-aged gentleman who is smoking at the front gate his opinion. “You definitely will need correct change, Sir,” he agrees, motioning to someone nearby. “Give him 500 and he will change it for you. Don’t worry, Sir, he is with our building.” A young man near to my height but nearly as thin as a fluorescent tube takes the bill and scampers from shop to shop. A moment later he returns with my money broken down into smaller denominations.

My neighbour now even helps me further. He hails me an auto rickshaw, explains my destination to the driver, and ensures that the metre is properly engaged so that I pay an honest fee. Even when metres are engaged, I have learned that one still needs to check that the starting balance is reasonable. If you’ve called or reserved a drive, starting with a sizeable balance could be legitimate if they have charged you for the drive that it took to get to you. But when you hail one from the street, which is nearly always the case, it should always have a starting fee of less than 20 or so. I’ve jumped in a street-side rickshaw whose driver initiated a starting balance as if he drove for an hour to come collect me. “Reset your metre.” “Sorry no English.” “Metre,” I gesture. Of course he knows what I’m talking about, language is not required when I acknowledge that he is cheating me, he knows full well that he is but is hoping for my ignorance as a tourist. I reach for the metre to reset it myself. “NO TOUCH!” he yells, slapping my hand. (To reset the meter you just put the lever down and then up again. Up is the engaged position.) “Stop, I’m getting out.” I often have this kind of issue when trying to get a ride on my own, so his assistance is much appreciated. Sometimes they will refuse the metre and quote me a ridiculous price. I never accept not using the metre. Other times I will get quite a long tour to cover a short distance. It’s the same games as many places in the world.

My first foray this time in India after having arrived last night. I suddenly realise that I forgot to observe the details of my building. In the plethora of stimulation – colours, lights, commotion, shops, rubbish, people, traffic, dogs – I had been much distracted by all the details and had not made any mental notes as to the arrangement of my building within the context of the street and nearby landmarks. Oh well, too late now.

We pull into the area of Kandivili Station and my 60 INR paid, I disembark in search of a restaurant called Sarovar, the meeting place my friend has designated. The station area is very busy with comings and goings. As I pass a McDonalds I think this would have been a more suitable landmark to meet in front of, recognisable from a distance and familiar to everyone. I find the restaurant having not seen a sign for it, fortunately I notice “Sarovar” embroidered on a blue uniform blazer of an attendant in an open-air section of the restaurant as I pass. (The signage I notice was around the corner on a side street and I never would have noticed it unless I had been walking from the station.)

A pleasant 27 Celsius, I find a spot in the shade and wait to meet my new friend, someone I corresponded with online and am now meeting for the first time in-person.

Profile photos are often not a useful tool when it comes to meeting. Sometimes they are pictures from a bygone era, usually the era during-which the subject was at their physical prime. A younger age, or when they were their fittest, after their best-ever haircut, or dressed up and groomed to the nines for a formal occasion. A caption could be, “Here is a photo of me from a time when I looked completely different than I do now, ” or , “This is a photo showing what I no longer look like.”

I am 20 minutes early. Still on Western time, which in India would be considered hyper-conscious, I don’t even start looking for him until the appointed time. I know that the chances of him also being early are very low.

Today I am wearing blue. Blue trousers, a blue checkered Ted Baker shirt, and a blue Fedora. People-watching as I wait, I realise how well I blend in. I attract continual curious looks and stares. I wonder how I appear to the locals in this completely non-touristy place. What would passers-by think of me, imagine about my life, assume about my origins. Would they assume me to be British? American?

Our meeting time comes and goes by 5 minutes, 10 minutes. Several people cross my radar as being my potential friend but they don’t approach me. I’m at a visual disadvantage for recognising him, all young men have dark hair, brown eyes, tanned to dark skin. He will need to find me, if being the only white guy in the neighbourhood isn’t enough, he knows I’m wearing blue and this kind of hyper-coordination I have not seen on anyone else.

Fifteen minutes after the appointed meeting time a little Mumbiker runs up to me sweaty and with a big smile. “Sorry I’m late, I went to the wrong place,” he admits, even though he had designated the meeting place.

After brief introductions we hire an auto rickshaw to take us to a nearby shopping mall, his idea for where we should go for lunch. There are countless restaurants here but I don’t know how to choose anyway, his idea sounds dull but I am happy to accept any suggestion.

After putting our bags through x-ray machines, walking through a metal detector, and having a pat-down, we are inside a middle-class haven of materialism. An impressive mall of 5 levels centrally open to the skylights above, the one design flaw that is readily apparent to me is complete lack of attention to acoustics. Even now while the mall is nearly vacant of shoppers, the noise level is shocking to me. Not of music, just a loud echoey din created by the noises endlessly reverberating. Alone, I would reach for my ear plugs.

Given a selection of Western-style fast food, I choose a restaurant outside of the food court hoping to escape the disturbing noise levels of the open spaces. Somehow the noise is welcomed into the restaurant with partial glass walls not reaching the ceiling. The food is mediocre at best and priced internationally. Over the coming weeks locals in different cities will often suggest we go to a mall to eat or to wander around after I express my preference to go exploring. They continually want to show me what they think will be impressive to me, clean, modern, international chain stores. “I hate shopping malls, ” I eventually highlight when making plans with anyone. There are some interesting ones, but never the ones they would take me to. “This is a local place, lots of people shop here.” I will be told. “What do you shop here for?” “Oh, nothing, it’s too expensive.”

“While we’re in a mall, could you help me to get SIM cards for my iPad and cell phone?” Absolutely, he is happy to help. Surprisingly, in this large mall, it is not a possibility. But he knows where we can go. Mobile phones are everywhere in India, so I am surprised that this mall that probably has 200 stores cannot furnish me with SIM cards. Rickshaw drivers have them, young people and old people use them, “Even homeless people have cell phones in India” one of my hosts exclaims, and it seems to be true. They are very affordable, the minimum payment I can later make on my prepaid account is 2 INR (4 cents).

After lunch we hit the street. After some difficulty hiring a rickshaw one is finally willing to take us to Hypercity. This is an everyday-type of department store that also has food, here it is referred to as a supermarket. There is also the main branch of a cell phone company within.

If someone had told me the process of setting-up a phone number in India, I may not have believed them. In the US I can go to a corner store, get a SIM card, and prepay what amount I like. In the UK, there are stores to expedite this process, visual in any location where there are shops. You go in, choose a plan, pay, and you are good to go. In India, the process seems more comparable to purchasing a home.

After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, we are told at the service counter to go to a different service counter. Despite there being no signs in Hindi nor in English, this counter is for payments only.

“Passport Please.” Two copies of my face page and two copies of my Indian Visa are required to get SIM cards. “Do you have identity photos?” I am asked. I hand over my extra Indian Visa photo. “You need two photos, Sir. We can take them for you.” A photographer arrives on the scene ready to shoot. “Am I allowed to smile for my SIM card application photos?” I ask, finding the lengthy process nearly comedic in it’s thoroughness. “Oh yes Sir. In India, you can smile for your photo. Not like in your country, is it Sir.” “Well, we don’t actually don’t need identity photos to use a cell phone in Canada. . . . ”

The application form, rather than copied, you fill out twice. Perhaps this is to capture you in any discrepancies? It contains all the usual questions regarding your life history that one would expect when opening a cellular phone pay-as-you-go plan.

“You missed your father’s details, Sir,” he points out after I thought I was finished. I suppose my brain had not allowed me to acknowledge this section, surprised as it was to discover that such information was required.

A few more moments and the documents are ready for signing. “Just sign here, and here, and here,” turn page, “and here”. “Now again, Sir, here, here and here,” ” and here.”

“That’s all there is, Sir. Now please, you can wait in the payment line. After you make payment, you will get the SIM cards. Then you will just need to wait for your identity check. After that, you can call 117 so they can again verify your information and activate your mobile. You have to call a separate time from your reference’s phone number to activate your tablet’s SIM card Sir, and they will also need to verify your Indian Referee’s home address.”

Wow. I guess cell phones in India must be really, really safe. Incredible checks and balances. In fact, it was okay activating my cell phone a few days later, but activating my iPad internet was a lot more work and a lot more hassles both for me and my referee. A week later, both my cell phone and my iPad were fully functional.se

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Riders bulge from every opening of the approaching train and start disembarking before it comes to a stop. There is a burst of activity as passengers push through each other in both directions at the same time. In an instant I learn that it takes some force to board an Indian commuter train.

This is not rush hour, but the train seems still filled to capacity. The door-less thresholds serve as overflows with peoples entire bodies outside of the train apart from their feet and hands. They hold on to the ledge above their heads where a door would close.

The Indian Railway is one of the largest employers in the world, with 1.6 million employees. 55,000 trains carry 25 million passengers every day. Today is my first time to be one of those passengers.

Crammed into the rail car and being told this is a “quiet time”, the posted rules seem a tad comedic to me. Here are some excerpts, “DO NOT throw lighted match stick and cigarette/bidi ends. . . .DO NOT carry explosives and dangerous goods . . . .DO NOT light up stove or sigri. . .” Punishment up to 2 years imprisonment and fine up to 3000R (nearly $60).

We arrive to Juhu beach early in the evening. Mumbai beaches seem not to be for swimming or lounging. They are for taking a stroll and enjoying the breeze. We pass some women walking along separately together. (Keeping within visible vicinity of each other but not close enough to chat or interact.) I’m told they are prostitutes, I would not have recognised them myself. There are small men who give massage, legitimate massage, on the beach. At the end of the beach we come upon a “street food” bazaar, a grouping of a few dozen food stalls set-up beach-side.

Following our stroll we hop into a taxi and our host guides us to his friend’s home. Enroute, we stop to get house-warming items such as beer.

Hassan is a medium-sized guy around 50 years old who prides himself on giving a sturdy handshake. I have been taught that a medium-firm handshake is appropriate and shows integrity and sincerity. But a handshake should also be reciprocal, meeting the other person’s intensity. To be honest, his handshake is actually rudely strong, like one you might receive when being physically threatened in a covert way or when the giver is showing anger. In his case, I am sure it’s not his intent, he has simply been misinformed that stronger is better regardless the situation. He has also passed this teaching on to his 16 year-old daughter who also puts all her might into shaking hands. I guess he is proud of his grip, and hers, because he brings it up in conversation.

Hassan is a writer, as am I, and as is my German roommate for the week, so our host figured we’d make fast friends. Hassan does all kinds of writing, philosophical ideas, fiction, hindi films, and television scripts. Such a wide range, I think, he must have an agent to sell his various works? “Oh no, I’m waiting for my break,” he admits. All of his writings are sitting in his notebooks. In the bedroom. For no one to see.

He clearly does not understand how “breaks” happen. Without creating any possibility of discovery, he hopes his works will be discovered.

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I have still not adapted to India’s sense of time. One can explain it coming from the crowds and the amount of time it can take getting places. But, it takes me a long time getting places too, which is why I leave extra time so that I’m not late. The relaxed approach to time is simply a different way of thinking, perhaps a lesser appreciation of respect of other’s time. This morning I am meeting people at 8:30 at a McDonalds or at 9:00 in front of an orphanage. To make sure I am not late, I am out the door to the train station at 7:30 on this Sunday morning.

Waiting on the train platform, a woman and her grown son are parading up and down the captive audience. His legs folded underneath him, he drags himself about on his bottom, his Mother guiding him along on a leash. This man of about 20 years is tethered to his mother. My guess is that he was born with such great brain damage that he was never able to learn how to walk. Or crawl. He scuttles about crab-like as his mother beseeches all who are present to help with donations. I give some bills but enough is never enough from the foreigner and they want more from me. I have to retreat into the crowd to get away. The train finally arrives, after about two long minutes.

“Foreigners are recommended to avoid the trains except on Sundays,” I have read somewhere. It’s true. I enjoy embarking without push and shove, this, the quietest time of the week, feels about the same as what we call rush hour on the Toronto subway. There is space enough between those standing that with leaning, we are able to make way so that people are actually able to pass. Mobility is possible.

In an instant, a very energetic figure in a flashy red sari enters the car and goes about rapidly touching heads and repeating a phrase again and again, upon each touch. Many dig into their pockets to dig out coins handing them to her/him. This is my second such experience so that now I understand the curiosity that is taking place.

Hermaphrodites are born in every culture, but typically a doctor decides with sex is most suitable at birth and the appropriate surgeries are carried out to create a single-gendered person. Very often, this situation leads to gender identification issues such as a man feeling trapped in a woman’s body or a woman trapped in a man’s. But when they leave both sets of organs there are definitely gender identity issues because humans are a gender-specific species.

A few days ago while my friend and I rode a rickshaw, a Hijra charged towards us at a stop light, put her hand out, and said, “Money please!” Stunned, I replied, “You don’t look like you need it, ” which my friend translated. It’s true, she was the best-dressed person I’d seen all day, glamourously so. She sighed, exasperated, and kept her hand out. “Do you know what this is?” my friend asked. “A man wearing fancy woman’s clothing is asking me for money?” Wearing a beautiful light blue and gold sari, bangles, make-up, dolled-up with all the pride of a drag queen ready to take the stage, she blurted, “No man!”

The Hijras live between the genders in India, not man, not woman, they are considered their own 3rd gender. Life can be hard for them, employers would not hire a Hijra so regular jobs are not available. The main modes they have for making a living seem to be begging, performing, and prostitution. “We believe that it is good luck to give them money, my Mother always does, ” I am advised by my friend, “But also, if you don’t give them money they might give you a curse.”

I hand her 100INR ($2) and she’s off. “You gave her too much.” I’m sure I didn’t, maybe too much were I Indian but foreigners are held to a completely different expectation. Had I been alone, she would have stood there demanding more, as is so often the case with street people.

On reaching the station it’s only 8:20 so I go in search of breakfast. An average looking woman with two children (perhaps about 3 and 5 years old) approaches me. The kids have been taught to beg when they see a foreigner and they crowd me with their open palms as I continue walking. “For the children,” the mother begs as I hand her a 20 INR note. (Most people give 1 or 2 INR to beggars.) “What about for the other one?”
“Sorry, that’s all I have.” I have no small notes left, and anyway, she could break it into 2 – 10 INR notes herself if it were really for the children. I have not stopped walking during this little transaction, but now I walk more quickly and try to ignore her continued pleading. Now the three or them are running alongside me and grabbing at my arms.

I spot a Cafe Coffee Day and high-line to it. They won’t come inside, I know this. They do, however, press against the glass and bang for my attention even as I find the seat furthest from the window and sit with my back to them. They do not relent until being shooed away by a worker of the cafe.

After a few minutes I take my place on the nicer patio. Surprisingly, on this private commercial patio, next to me sleeps a young man inside a mosquito tent. After I snap a photo of this arrangement, he really is right beside me, I see a little head poke around the corner. I grab my coffee and sandwich and retreat back inside as quickly as I can while Mother and children are running towards me. “No! I already gave you money! Enough is never enough and there are too many people!”

I decide not to give any more money today, since each time I give they only want more and more. If I give, they assume I will give more. If I don’t give, maybe they’ll leave me alone sooner? It is a lose-lose scenario with those in need all encompassing.

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I arrive at the gate of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity at the appointed time of 9AM. Fifty two people have signed-up to come visit and play with the children at this orphanage, so far we are 3.

The organiser, a dark tall stocky guy, bumbles out and informs us that we will wait for everyone to arrive so that we go in as one group. Sounds reasonable. Nearly an hour passes and we are up to 9 of the 52. “I guess this is it, ” he says and we wander in.

Inside, we stand around the small office and are soon greeted by a Sister who explains that since visitor hours are between 4 and 5PM, the children have a programme at this time so the most we can do is to gawk at the infants through windows and the children in classes through doorways. The organiser had not even made the effort to call and find out the visitor hours, he just assumed Sunday would be an open house. Additionally, after he did discover this at 9AM, he didn’t want to be the one to tell us of his laziness so he waited for the Sister to inform us at 10:30. We, as attendees, had assumed this to be an organised reservation, not a large group randomly showing up to an orphanage, which it was.

We peered through the screened nursery windows for some minutes watching babies sleeping, resting, and a few watching us watch them. Then we were led to doorways where we huddled and watched for a moment as children sat quietly doing work at their desks. Finally we were led to the office for donations.

I signed-in the toy I had brought, a battery-operated hamster inside a ball.

I donated at the table where you were supposed to donate, in the way that I was supposed to do it, but I guess the amount, even in this group of middle-class professionals, made me a show-off. I folded the 1000 INR note (less than $20) and handed it to the Sister so it wouldn’t be noticed, but then I had to write my name and the amount given in their log book. As soon as the next person saw my entry it was if I had ruined it for the rest of them to give 20 or 50 or maybe 100 INR. The group, who were formally curious and friendly, were suddenly stand-offish and distant apart from three younger 20-something guys who thought nothing of it. There are lots of stores where these middle-class Indian folks can spend $60 on Ralph Lauren T-Shirts and $400 on Coach handbags so I’m not really sure why $20 would be considered a showy amount to give as donation when visiting an orphanage.

I just can’t seem to get the right balance of charity in India. If I don’t give to a beggar they may follow me down the street hassling me. If I do give to a beggar they may follow me down the street hassling me for more. Sometimes I give and suddenly find myself crowded with new outreached hands. Now I’ve discovered that if I give too much to a legitimate charity I may hurt the feelings of the locals who can’t give as much. I do my best to keep small bills tucked into all my pockets so I never have to pull out my wallet. It’s a lot of work getting small bills, even my hotels begrudge giving them to me. I feel panicked when I run out, nothing to pacify the beggars and without small change it is difficult to make transactions. Even a major coffee chain shop will claim not to be able to change a 500 INR for a 120 INR purchase. How annoyed was I at a Cafe Coffee Day a few minutes after being told they had no change to witness the cashier change over. Counting the cash back to a float, they counted a pile of 10s that was several inches high. They had hundreds of tens but claimed to have none. I guess it’s just what they say, whether they have change or not, they cringe their face and apologise, “Sorry, we have no change, you have smaller bills?”

Realising that this is a lose-lose situation for me, in many neighbourhoods it is simply too difficult to interact with locals. There is such a mass of poverty that as much as I can give is less than a drip in the ocean. It is overwhelming and often I need to keep my eyes straight ahead because sometimes when I acknowledge someones interaction it escalates to harassment. Pulling, grabbing, blocking my way. I will wear my headphones and feel sad that I am blocking out what I have come to India for, to interact with locals.

Leaving the gates of the orphanage, people are talking about continuing with lunch. I voice my interest in joining anyone and the three young guys agree, but suddenly the talk of going for lunch has now wained as the others have reasons not too join us. The four of us head out looking for somewhere and after circling the block we end-up just going to the McDonalds that’s near the station. Inside we walk past a table of 6. The other 6 people from the meet-up. It is rare to find myself having been so offensive.

Without serving beef, McDonalds India does still retain it’s charm as a purveyor of white sugar, white flour, buckets of sodium, and factory-farmed meats and vegetables all dripping with delicious trans-fats served in a nearly nutrition-free presentation. World-wide this company supports and endorses the means of food production that are slowly poisoning humans.

Sadly, this is sometimes the most healthful option for me when spending time outside of the tourist districts. The standard of hygiene in an Indian McDonalds is pretty much the pinnacle for restaurants in India. A nutritious salad will very possibly bring me to my knees for two days of agony because it was washed in water I cannot drink or because it wasn’t washed so it contains chemicals or faeces (manure), or because the implements used when making it were not sanitary, or because the cook went from working with raw chicken to pulling apart lettuce without washing their hands, or because from the open market the veggies and meat were thrown into the same carry bag, whatever the case, uncooked food is to be avoided outside of 5-star restaurants and hotels that have their own means of food production. (High-end places will sometimes have their own farms so they can completely control their food supply.) A sandwich made with sticky, unwashed hands, or a curry that contains left-overs from yesterday – which had left-overs from the day before – which had left-overs from the day before that, a hygienic meal served on dishes washed by being rinsed in a bucket of dirty, parasite-ridden water, the causes of food poisoning are countless and I have found my system to be weak in it’s resistance. Due to these factors, “safe” ends-up carrying a much heavier weight than, “healthful”.

My three companions become two after lunch. Both are recent newcomers who are hoping to make some local friends today.

Gokul is 27, a bright-faced IT guy temporarily relocated to Mumbai from Chennai for work. “You don’t need to visit my city,” he informs me, “there is nothing special about it.” I had already crossed Chennai off my list of possible destinations after having previous feedback.

Arand, 36, is a tiny, divorced man from Kerala. (Kerala is a popular destination for tourists in the South of India.) Arand may have overlooked my vulgarity because he is presently working on plans to immigrate to Canada and I later realise that he thought meeting a Canadian was a jackpot.

I suggest we visit nearby Juhu beach to find an open-air pub on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. Neither of them have been there, so I’m the guide for this one. Our auto rickshaw takes us to the central part of the beach where the food bazaar is located. Gokul is used to considering McDonalds a place to have a snack (it’s treated like a coffee shop by young Indian people, those who can afford it will meet friends there after school or work, or during breaks) so that even though he’s had a highly calorific meal, he feels like he has not yet had lunch. Gokul has a quick plate of street-food before we continue to wander in search of a patio.

Using his android phone, Gokul is doing his best to find something nearby but it uncovers nothing. It seems a strange lack, most of the beach is lined with the back-sides of buildings whose construction completely ignores the existence of the water and the cleaner fresh air. Finally we encounter a raised garden with an open-air lounge as part of a chain hotel. Arand calls to a security guard asks whether non-guests are welcome and how to get in. (There is no visible way up to the area, which sits about 8 feet above the beach.)

As we enter the airport-type security that is the entrance of this basic-seeming hotel, bags x-rayed, pockets emptied, and bodies frisked, I realise that this may not be the kind of place where local young professionals will feel at-home. But, it did look nice from the beach and we are all enthusiastic after having found what seems to be the only open-air bar on the entire beach.

We find a table that we are able to push into the shade and I notice the placards on every table read, “Min 1000 INR per person”. $18 is a lot of money here, so was reiterated to me this morning. “Let me treat, it will be the same as if I bough the drinks in Canada!” I suggest to ease any tension before it develops. The rickshaw ride, the wandering to finally find this place, it took well more than an hour to find a patio and it would be very awkward to leave. “What do you mean?” Gokul asks, why would buying a drink above a beach in Mumbai be like buying a drink in a country that is now full of snow? “The prices here, they might be foreigner prices, so let me treat this time because they are what I am used to anyway.”

Their eyes widen as they open the drinks menus. 597 INR for drinks that they would expect to pay between 70 to 110 for. Clever pricing, minimum of 1000 immediately becomes minimum of nearly 1200 or a 2-drink minimum. The drinks are of a higher quality than cheaper ones would be, but not 6 times better. We are in the domain of the international tourist and the Indian elite.

They both accept my offer with some relief. To spend several days wages on having 2 drinks would have been ridiculous.

As we chat about India and Canada and about their hometowns and new life situations I can’t help but notice that of the 30 or so Indian folk around us, not one is darker than beige apart from my two new friends. Indian skin colours differ considerable person-to-person so a sea of the lightest variety is very noticeable to me.

We call it an evening at around 6 o’clock. For me, it’s just the beginning of my next adventure. Trying to get home relying on the notoriously-ignorant auto rickshaw wallah.

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In most countries I have travelled, providing an accurate, detailed address that includes the neighbourhood, proximity to major landmarks, and even general roads required to get there would guarantee your arrival to that designated destination. Not so in India.

In addition to not using maps, not having GPS, and often being unable to even read any information even in their own language, the drivers also don’t like to leave their areas. Given this fact, you’d think that they’d know their own areas better than they do. When naming the region of the city where you are trying to get to, if that region is not within or directly next to the region of your departure point then it will be difficult to secure a ride. I think there may be restrictions as to how far an auto rickshaw can venture as well so perhaps they are not allowed to venture outside of their own area.

One of my new friends is going to an address that is half way to mine, so we agree to share an auto up to that point. From there I can catch another one for my 2nd leg. Even with this much closer destination, it was the 5th driver who finally accepted our fare.

At the end of this first drive, it was not too difficult for Arand to help me find another auto who would agree to take me to my neighbourhood. After much instruction, written, on the map, and explained by Arand, we depart for Kandivili on the now dark streets of Mumbai.

Auto rickshaws in India are not designed for the foreign tall person. My head is entirely within the confines of the non-transparent tarp that constitutes the roof and body panels. The deep slouch required to have any vision beyond the immediate traffic is something that I can only retain for a few minutes. So I am not fully able to see where we are going or where we are coming from when riding in the back of this kind of vehicle.

My address is in Kandivili West, Charkop Sector 8, behind MTNL (a large landmark building of the Mumbai Telephone exchange, this description is even in the official post office mailing address). My driver was thoroughly explained all the directional information at great length but has chosen to ignore the part about being in Kandivili West and the part of being in Charkop Sector 8.

In the darkness I jump out at the large MTNL building. He was given and explained my actual address but I know how to make my way from here. As soon as he has pulled away I recognise my situation is not what I had expected. He has taken me to a different MTNL building that is not in Kandivili West, not in Charkop Sector 8. I have no idea where I am.

Thus commenced the ugly dance all over again. Hailing down autos and begging them to take me to the region I need to get to, eventually finding a taker on offer of double fare. Then providing written and vocal instruction numerous times. The driver pulling over to ask for directions after each turn, me putting the driver on my cell phone with a friend who lives near my home stay and knows the area well. Three times.

Finally home, I am too late to join my host family for dinner so my neighbour friend who has talked my auto driver to finding home, joins me for a visit. He helps me find the best food option in the neighbourhood, I have tomato and cheese on dry white bread. It’s a street-side stall and we wait a moment as the young man slices the tomato and makes the sandwich. It’s not a clean place but it is the best of what’s walkable. A few hours later I am sitting on the toilet in the middle of the night with burning cramps while my insides are trying to escape. Really? I guess his hands and the counter were that dirty?

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The Gateway of India stands in the heart of Mumbai near the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. It is from there that we catch the last ferry of the day going to Elephanta Island.

Formerly known as Gharapuri, Elephanta was renamed as such in the 17th Century by Portuguese explorers who found a large, ancient elephant sculpture near the entrance of 7 very impressive caves on the island. They tried to take the sculpture back to Portugal but their chains were inadequate and the giant sculpture fell into the sea. Later the British cut the sculpture into several pieces and relocated it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Mumbai.

The path leading from the dock to the caves is strewn with Monkeys and vendors. A light-rail miniature train can replace the short, 600 metre walk although waiting for it takes as long as the walk itself unless it is there and ready to leave on your arrival.

It is estimated that the caves were carved into the rocks sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. Perhaps the most impressive remaining example of Hindu Cave culture, these caves comprise the abode of Lord Shiva. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre due to it’s significance to Indian history.

My favourite part of the visit was actually the ferry ride that took less than an hour to take us 10 km from Mumbai in the Arabian Sea. For much of the journey, Seagulls hovered very closely to us as Indian tourists tossed them snacks, mostly potato chips and Doritos that were available for purchase on board. Hovering within arms reach, when looking directly into the flock it seemed like we were flying with them.

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A large park situated between the Eastern and Western suburbs of North Mumbai is also the “lung of the city”. For some reason there seems to only be one entrance, from the North West area of the park. The park would be far more utilised were there more entrances, but perhaps that is not desired. I am staying very near to the park geographically, but being on it’s East side I need to completely circumnavigate the park to gain entrance. This journey takes about 90 minutes by auto rickshaw or 2 hours by air-con bus.

The entrance for Sanjay Gandhi National Park is located approximately 1km from Borivali Station. Located within the park are the Kanheri Caves. Kanheri means “black mountain” and it is a large outcropping of basalt rock. 109 caves of various dimensions have been carved into the rocks ranging in age from 1BC to 10AD. By the 3rd Century these caves had become an important Buddhist Settlement.

The caves are located at the top of an incline that extends 6km from the entrance. Bicycle hire is available in the park to make this journey more manageable for those who are not visiting by bus or car. Small, pre-adult sized mountain bicycles that were obviously acquired a generation ago, are kept in near-working order with the additions of extra bolts and screws, clamps, tape, metal wire, and various other small handies in a MacGuyver chest of tools.

My seat is raised to it’s max so that my knees don’t come to my face when pedalling. My brakes are made to work to some degree, and we’re off. My one-speed cycle is missing half of one of it’s pedals, and turning the wheel to the right (and back again) involves considerable effort, but it’s doable.

The pavement consists of the variety of road surfaces I have come to anticipate in India, from smooth, to rutted, to to nearly impassable. The ground vegetation is dried-up and crispy brown. The trees look as though they are used to hanging-on to life. I spend much of the ride jumping to my feet off the bike, saving myself from sudden bumps and hoping that what’s left of my pedals won’t snap off one of these times.

My host is not good with reality. Despite taking this ride many times, when he descries it to me he says, “20 minutes cycle”. He is not a strong cycler and I have to stop and wait for him to catch-up often. It takes perhaps an hour. “When were you here last?” “A week ago.” I don’t think his stamina would have changed that much in a week.

We both push our bikes up the last steeper stretch and abandon our cycles at the side of a car park. A busload of white middle-aged tourists have already taken in the caves and are waiting to leave. Such a different experience, I think, I cycled here with a local and they just came out of their bus right at the destination. I think back to my last trip to India when we too would have arrived by vehicle (two of us with our car and driver, we had the same driver for 21 days). We would have gotten out of the car with our local guide, he would have shown us around, and off we would go again to the next sight. On this trip, one sight can easily take a full day and it is a much more local-feeling experience.

Like in many parks, monkeys are a part of the amusement. They hover closely as we drink water and one growls with impatience each time I take a biscuit. It’s actually really cute, but cookies are not good for monkeys. They’re terrible for me too, but we haven’t had lunch and this is the only think actually available at the hillside “cafe”. That in mind, I do end up sharing. Better than nothing I suppose.

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