Welcome to Bombay

The India Vitamin Express, Part One

View of Bombay.
Matt Kettmann

Unlike almost every other major city in the world, airplanes touch down in the middle of bustling Bombay, just meters away from the sprawling slums and crumbling buildings of the Andheri neighborhood. It would be quite a sight to see coming in from the air, I imagine, but the Bombayite air is so suffocated with smog that it’s amazing enough a jumbo jet can cut through it. It’s like landing in a soupy, brownish gray cloud city, and your breathing adjusts accordingly. Even as the winds kick up here in the early afternoon on Sunday, February 24 – and bring a slight relief from the muggy heat – the smog persists as stubbornly as the endless honking of rickshaws and taxicabs, which provide a constant soundtrack audible even from the fifth floor of my hotel.

View of Bombay from hotel.
Matt Kettmann

But the smoggy air and stifling noise fit perfectly in this island metropolis, where some 20 million people or so live on top of each other, in some places packing more the one million fearless souls onto an acre. In the half hour drive from the airport-everything in Bombay, I’m told, is no more than a half-hour away-I peered out the window at Asia’s largest slum, a labyrinth of two-story shanties located atop some of the most valuable real estate in the world; witnessed a violent, vibrant dance party erupt on the sidewalk, arms waving in the air, men pushing each other to get a look; watched droves huddle for a wedding near the entrance to a temple, which sits literally a soccer ball’s kick from three other temples; and saw more than a few pedestrians and bicyclists nearly lose their lives on the maddening highways and ridiculous roundabouts. It’s a happening town, to say the least – or as author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Suketu Mehta puts it best his must-read book for any Bombay visitor, it’s indeed a Maximum City.

I am here to work with the Santa Barbara-based Vitamin Angels, the world’s only nonprofit solely focused on the distribution of vitamins. I first learned of the organization when its founder Howard Schiffer was named a Local Hero by The Independent a couple years ago, and have been wanting to travel with him and his team ever since. While they respond quickly to disasters around the world – and we’ve had quite a few of those since the nonprofit was founded in 1994, from tsunamis and earthquakes abroad to hurricanes on American soil – Vitamin Angels’ most important work is sponsoring long-term distribution programs. They run a number of those in India, and in a short 10 days, we’ll be visiting quite a few, from the Bombay slums to various programs and populations in Ahmadebad, Calcutta, and Chennai.

Although I just landed a couple hours ago, Schiffer and his associates have already been in India for a few days now, spending their time in the holy city of Varanasi. They’ll be arriving in Bombay – which was renamed Mumbai in the 1990s by politicians, though most seem to prefer its original name – later this evening. Then I will know a little more about what to expect over the next few days, because right now I have no clue, save for an itinerary that merely mentions which slums will be visiting. If all goes as I plan, I hope to be reporting on our vitamin-laced adventures over the coming 10 days, so tune into Independent.com – and specifically Independent.com/india – for regular updates.

In the meantime, it’s probably time to see some Bombay highlights, chow some street food, and sample the hometown brews.

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