Snapshots in my mind… My visit to India, 10 months later


by Marty Wollner





My good cousin Larry decided to have gastric bypass surgery in India, where he got the procedure done for half the American price. I tagged along to watch over him, and to see the city of Mumbai, India. The plan was the fly there over the 2009 Christmas break along with Natalie, Larry’s niece. A huge snowstorm hit us on the way out, and last-minute rescheduling resulted in Natalie not being able to go, leaving me alone to roam the city while Larry recovered.


This memo lists snapshots in my mind… those images that pop-up, prioritized by how often they pop-up after 10 months…


A note before starting about the people of India:


I have been around the world, but other than a few visits to Mexico, this was my first trip to a genuine third-world nation. What I saw shocked me, and unfortunately, those shocking images left some of the strongest impressions. My point is that much of what I remember casts a negative light on India.


But I want to make it clear that I also saw hope and improvement. And although there isn’t any image of that popping up in my mind, none the less, it was there and it was real. Nobody can fault the people of India for the situation they’re in. They deal with the daily horrors of hunger, overcrowding and disease with honor, diligence and goodness that obviously comes directly from their warm hearts. I doubt that many of our American counterparts could stand up to even a few of the tests these brave people pass every day of their lives.



Mumbai is a city with a dense population of 10 million people. India is the largest democracy in the world with over a Billion people. The official language of India is English, although not many people actually speak it well. Shortly before our arrival a set of terrorist attacks took place at a few of the very best hotels around Mumbai, targeting Americans and Jews.




Ready? Lets go!


1 : The Street Dogs   4

2 : The Sewers and Gutters   5

3 : The Burning Smell   6

4 : Cluttered and Blocked Sidewalks, Squatters and Vendors   7

5 : Traffic Jams and Rickshaw rides   8

6 : The Hotel   9

7 : The Hospital   11

8 : Sun and Sands Restaurant   11

9 : Crowded train stations   11

10 : Larry’s doctors and nurses   11

11 : Malls and banks with armed guards   11

12 : Our 10 second glance at the Indian Ocean   11

13 : Getting out through the storm   11

14 : Dealing with Natalie   11

15 : The flights   11

16 : Swine flu   11

17 : Re-infection in hospital room   11

18 : My physical exams   11

19 : My letter to president Obama about the costs of health care   12

20 : Larry’s surgery   12

21 : Larry’s recovery   12

22 : Larry’s results   12

23 : First day long walk in shorts   12

24 : Dehydration   12

25 : Hospital food and service   12

26 : Men pissing and shitting in the streets   12

27 : Beautiful dresses worn by all of the women   12

28 : Propaganda   12

29 : The rat   12

30 : The language barriers   12

31 : The guys at the shop in the hotel   12





1 : The Street Dogs


Everywhere I looked, packs wild dogs roamed the streets and gutters. They were mostly all the same breed, resembling a lightweight mix of Greyhound and Labrador. They were mostly quiet and unexpectedly well behaved when interacting with people, passively taking opportunities rather than aggressively making them. But every one of them was covered in mange and fleas, and all of them were constantly itching, scratching, rolling around and rubbing themselves in an agonizing display that brought tears to my eyes.



Seeing dogs like this gives new meaning to the term “a dog’s life”. I KNOW I should’ve been worried more about the (very often) starving people and overcrowded conditions, but for some reason, this ranks #1 in my mind. These millions and millions of dogs all live out lives of misery and despair, NOBODY IS DOING ANYTHING TO STOP IT, and that really bothers me.


2 : The Sewers and Gutters


All sewerage and drainage was simply channeled into large gutters that run along every street. These aren’t like the little rain gutters you see in front of curbs in Birmingham, Mi. These are very deep and often very wide, usually running underneath the cluttered sidewalks.



Unmarked, very dangerous holes in the sidewalks were everywhere, and falling in could (and very often does) mean death.





Mostly all of the gutters were filled to the brim with and raw sewerage and packed with trash, garbage, dead dogs (yes, true), or whatever anyone discarded without the slightest bit of guilt.

The smell emanating from these was so disgusting it has left a permanence in my brain.


Seeing gutters like this gives new meaning to the term “in the gutter”. It was so hard to believe, for someone like me who never saw these before, that these images rank #2 as those that pop-up in my mind when I think of India.


3 : The Burning Smell

A musty, smoky odor, like burnt bushes and leaves prevailed everywhere. When I visited the countryside, I saw many families that had squatted down in rural spots, claiming a small bit of land as theirs, and each of these usually had a small fire burning whatever local shrubs and branches they could find. Similar fires are used throughout the city for cooking. The result of compounding thousands of constantly burning fires gives the entire area a distinct, strong and permanent odor.





I understand that smells make very lasting impressions, perhaps that’s why this is ranked so high, just behind the stinking sewers.




4 : Cluttered and Blocked Sidewalks, Squatters and Vendors

These also often pop-up in my mind along with the sewers and gutters mentioned above. When trying to walk down most of the streets, it’s impossible to stay on a sidewalk for too long because of all the clutter. This includes small families and street vendors who freely claim sidewalk spots without regard to the needs of pedestrians.



Often times the only apparent possessions a squatting family had at all, was the small pile of rocks left by the previous occupant. I was truly amazed to see the daily activity of these families; moving these rocks back and fourth, around and around, using them as markers to stake their claimed sidewalk spots in a never ending task of relocation from place to place to place.




In addition to the squatting families and vendor stands, and to the treacherous holes in the sidewalks, there were often power cables strung around that had to be stepped over. And many of these were live wires downed by energy thieves, making it extremely risky to walk anywhere at all!




All of these sidewalk obstructions force the masses of pedestrians to have to walk out in the street, creating even more crowing and congestion, and turning the already horrible traffic into a nightmare of grid-lock.



5 : Traffic Jams and Rickshaw rides

Mumbai is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, housing over 10 million people, and rapidly growing. Traffic was a nightmare, as can be imagined. During rush hour, it often took an hour to travel a mile. Of course, only about 10% of the people get to travel in vehicles at all, and most of these vehicles are busses, taxis, and rickshaws. A lot of bicycles are used as well. Private cars are a true luxury and relatively rare. Everyone else walks locally, and everyone in the country travels by train over wider distances.


If you can imagine the masses of people trying to get around, then compound this because of the cluttered and dangerous sidewalks forcing even more pedestrians into the busy streets.


A rickshaw is a small motorized vehicle, often a tricycle design, with a driver and up to 3 passengers. In Mumbai, there were by far more Rickshaws than any other type of vehicle, all powered by propane.




I constantly took rickshaws everywhere I traveled, and I really liked them…. what great fun!! Most of the drivers were honest and really cool. And trust me on this, everyone drives like total maniacs!! Imagine zooming through the traffic and around crowds, zipping past bicyclists, and constantly cutting each other off to gain inches in the sea of gridlock.




It took a few rides to build up enough courage to get used to it, but after a while, it was like taking a thrill ride every time I took the 15 mile trip between the hotel and the hospital. I took that ride at least 30 times, and I know the way in my sleep; making these rides rank very high as a memory that pops up whenever I think about India.

6 : The Hotel


Because of the departure screw-ups, I arrived there alone and stayed there alone for all but the very last day of the trip when Larry was finally released from his 10 days of recovery.


You might be wondering why the memories of the stupid hotel rank this high for me; maybe because I spent a lot of time there, more than I had planned, for sure. Perhaps because I was alone, so it became my private little haven. Maybe because I was very, very sick with flu (swine, I think) and spent a lot of time sleeping, coughing and being miserable there.


I know the reason why. I know exactly why. I wish I would have bothered to take a camera with me, I can’t explain why I didn’t. I would have taken a photo of the view from my 11th floor hotel room. That view is the picture that always pops up; that view is engrained in my brain forever.


I got picked up at night from the Mumbai airport by a special courier sent from the hotel. Upon arrival, we passed through two sets of steel gates and intercepted by a team of 6 heavily (shotguns, machine guns) armed guards. The car was driven over a set of mirrors and searched for bombs inside and out.


The Ramada Powai Hotel had a great set of restaurants and my first meal was great, served by 4 guys in constant attention for me, all alone at 4:00 in the morning. My room was really cool, with personalized tutorials on everything from the walk-under shower to the master control panels.


The next morning, I couldn’t wait to look out the window and get my first look at India! I was really excited. I drew the curtain back, and there it was. That picture. The one I cant get out of my mind. The one that represents what India appears to be to me, then and now.


It would have been a beautiful clear day. It would have had blue skies. But the haze from the air pollution made it hard to see. Off in the distance I saw some beautiful hills and what looked like villages along a wining road that ran along a river bed. I couldn’t see the local streets from my side of the hotel because it too was along the river bed.





But when I looked closer at the river bed, I was horrified to see it completely filled with plastic garbage bags and trash.









Looking closer, I also saw some ghettos crowded with (apparently starving, as I later found out) families.







I could also see some large buildings off in the distance and some of these were under construction.


So there I sat, in a 4-star hotel, built right next to a riverbed filled with ten thousand tons of garbage: my introduction to the sights of India. In hindsight, that view summarizes my perception of India; polluted, with the masses of poor struggling, yet with hope shown in new construction visible from a fancy, although heavily fortified hotel.




The buffet there was also great and I ate there at least 12 times during my stay. Great variety and great food, specializing in both Northern and Southern Indian dishes. No red meat, though, not for the ENTIRE TRIP! I wound up having a burger craving so strong I had to stop at McDonalds immediately after touchdown in the USA!!


7 : The Hospital


“Wookhart!”. That was all I had to say to the rickshaw drivers, and they knew where to take me. I got to know the ride from the hotel to Wookhart  Hospital like the back of my hand.


Because his flight was cancelled, Larry had to take a last-minute fight at an extra cost of $3,000. But he made it only one day late and IndiCare, the company that coordinated the procedure for Americans, was only too happy to accommodate him.


His doctor arrived and they took him in to get cut. They told me the procedure would take 2 hours. But as we soon found out, in India, they take their time to do anything, and usually twice as long as promised. So after 4 hours, I started to get a little concerned.


They told me everything was just fine. After 6 hours under the knife, I knew something was wrong, but they kept telling me he would be out soon. After 8 ½ hours they finally rolled him out, and I have to say, I thought he had died on the table… he was stone cold blue, on a ventilator, and the first thing I heard them order for him was “2 amps of sodium bicarbonate”. I know about these things… they only give that much if he was half dead.


We found out later that indeed, the surgery had gone bad… the staple in his stomach didn’t hold and he had to be rushed back into surgery to try to patch it up. Strike 1 against Wookhart. During his long recovery, the workers at the hospital failed a whole bunch of stuff, enough to make me never want to seek critical medical treatment in India.


But, overall, the procedure was successful, Larry recovered in the 10 days they gave him, and I must say, he was a good patient the whole time.


The hospital also treated me well, feeding me 3 meals/day and accommodating my needs, well, trying to accommodate my needs. The room was one of the best suites in the hospital and it had a bed for visitors, but a cold air duct constantly blew freezing air directly the bed, and this triggered a second wave of my swine flu, and I was sick as a dog for the entire trip because of it.



8 : Sun and Sands Restaurant


About 2 miles from Wookhart, I found a little restaurant called the “Sun and Sands”. It was above average for the area, but I would guess nobody from the US would ever eat there, given the unsanitary conditions. But I didn’t let that stuff bother me, and bravely ate and drank whatever I wanted.


The first time there, I looked through the menu and found a dish called “Prawns Kowalawalla”; deep fried prawns with chopped cilantro. I normally don’t like cilantro, but for some reason it really made the dish stand up and sing. They served it on a small plate, and it came with rice for 300 rupees… about 80 cents! You can’t beat prices like that.


I wound up eating there nearly every day, and I always ordered the same exact dish. The staffers in the restaurant were cool and fascinated to see me re-appear every day. After a while, I didn’t even have to order, they just started serving me the prawns when I walked in the door and sat down.


One day, I decided to try another restaurant… this was a Muslim place down the street. I walked in, ordered my Prawns Kowalawalla, and while waiting, a big rat ran right over my feet and out the door. Everyone saw it, and I made some remarks about it, but I didn’t get up and walk out, I sat there and waited for my meal and ate it. I hope what they served me wasn’t the rat, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. Not that they had any possible bad intentions, its just that Rat is a popular dish and it was fresh, unlike the rest of the food I saw served there.





9 : Crowded train stations


10 : Larry’s doctors and nurses


11 : Malls and banks with armed guards


12 : Our 10 second glance at the Indian Ocean


13 : Getting out through the storm


14 : Dealing with Natalie


15 : The flights


16 : Swine flu


17 : Re-infection in hospital room


18 : My physical exams


19 : My letter to president Obama about the costs of health care


20 : Larry’s surgery


21 : Larry’s recovery


22 : Larry’s results


23 : First day long walk in shorts


24 : Dehydration


25 : Hospital food and service


26 : Men pissing and shitting in the streets


27 : Beautiful dresses worn by all of the women


28 : Propaganda


29 : The language barriers


30 : The guys at the shop in the hotel