Dazed in the Mumbai Maze

Life in Mumbai has been a lot like a board game for me. The past month has gone something like this:


Head to Mumbai for ten months of service with AIF! Before you start, make sure you know a one thing: Mumbai is a Maximum City in every sense. If you can live here, you really can live anywhere. Chalo! Let’s get started.

1.) Welcome to Mumbai! Soak up the freezing air conditioning and views of the very modern airport that overlook massive slums stacked to the walls of the runway. Please exit straight outside to the thick, muggy, trash-scented air to a taxi that is looking to rip you off.

  • IF you didn’t get charged triple the amount for being a foreigner, please advance straight through the muggy air that reeks of trash to your new home.


  • IF you did get ripped off, please argue with the taxi driver in crappy Hindi and American English until he understands. Collect your money back and RUN FAST with all of your bags away to the next space as he yells at you in public!

2.) COOL OFF with some hot chai! Drink your first Maharashtran chai with a spicy hot samosa and smile as you advance to the next space already drenched in sweat and bliss. Make conversation with the friendly locals sitting next to you.

3.) AUTO RICKSHAW RUN AROUND!! The moment after dropping your bags off, take an auto rickshaw to meet a random broker on the back of a random motorcycle on a random street corner.

  • THINK FAST! There is an auto bundh! You will have to walk!

4.) SUCCESS. Take 4 steps forward and collect 30,000 Rupees as you visit 8 different apartments on your first day in Mumbai and receive your first month’s stipend!

5.) SNEAK ATTACK!!! Take 5 steps backwards and pay 3,000 Rupees when you realize that none of the places are livable, except for the first one – which is way out of your budget! Stay on track. . .

  • GO FORWARD 1 space for every three apartments you look at as you continue your search! GO BACKWARDS 3 spaces for every place that is completely out of your budget!


  • Dance Garba for Navrati as you are reborn into the next activity


  • Engage in pooja to Durga and eat Bengali bhog beneath her pandal as you are blessed with tika and advance forward

7.) JUMP ON THE FAST TRAIN to Churchgate and check out the Gateway to India! Enjoy the beautiful views and peaceful atmosphere as you sit amongst families and friends in front of Mumbai’s proudest monument.

  • ‘TREAT YOURSELF’ to extremely overpriced souvenirs and food in the most touristic neighborhood in India! If you speak Hindi, take off ¾ of the price.


  • Avoid the stalls and sneak into a bar for a drink and some of the funniest locals you can meet on this side of the Arabian Sea!

8.) SLLLLLOOOOOOWWW DOWN on a slow train! Take the Mumbai “local” Western Rail to Lower Parel as you head to work.

  • FREE SHOVES! Fight your way on the train every single day as you get elbowed, stepped on, pushed over, scratched at and spat at while at least twenty-five other very sweaty and anxious people try to get past you. For every two people you push and every one person you elbow, you arrive at work 2 minutes earlier.
  • Take a step backwards if you get pushed out of a moving train at Dadar Station or stand on the wrong side and miss your stop! If you can jump back on the moving train, you may only be 30 minutes late!

9.) NOT YET SUCKER! Just when you think it is time to start work, go back 10 spaces to apartment hunting!!

  • Deal with crazy landlords and shady brokers as you fight your way into an apartment! Bargain hard for a decent deposit, then pay way too much money to get out of the hassle and into your own place that is completely unfurnished. PLUS SIDE: Enjoy amazing new roommates.

10.) MAGIC CARD! Take a stroll along Carter Road with new Mumbai friends and check out the peaceful Ganesha beach temple. Soak in the Mumbai skyline and take one step forward as you realize your dreams have come true. Head to a friends house for dinner to hang with inspiring and talented people of this country.

11.) BONDING TIME! You finally begin work. Interview some of the most underprivileged people in the world during community visits to Dharavi, BPT and Thane to see some of the most complex slum-communities in South Asia. Interact with amazing people whose resilience lifts you forward 5 more spaces.

  • *Move backwards 5 spaces if you feel pity for these people or disgusted with these places. The only thing they need is advocacy, not critics.

12.) JUMP UP AND DOWN and forward 5 spaces as you finally get a cell phone and make a few friends! If you actually get network, keep moving forward another space!

13.) CAUTION TAPE! You are not welcome to the communities you work with because you are white. Please start over and figure out why you are playing this game!

14.) NEW BEGINNING! Revise your role in your NGO and what project you can with only 8 months remaining! Convince people that not all white people are bad, even though a lot are. Finish this all in 5….4….3….2….1….

15.) TILT-A-WHIRL!! Spin around really fast to imitate the pressures of Mumbai!

  • Feel the pressure as dozens of auto drivers drive past you and ignore you, the trains get fuller everyday, an old homeless man pees on you, you witness babies crawling around in trash heaps with rats and insects, your landlord gets more demanding, your Hindi gets worse, people do not trust you, rabid decomposing dogs chase you home and a child cries at the sight of your face!

16.) SIT BACK AND RELAX on a rickety old merry go-round that is manually operated by three small boys on Chowpatty Beach.

  • INDULGE and enjoy the best chaat in Maharashtra. Treat yourself to fresh pani puri, dahi puri, pav bhaji and a mango milkshake. Sit still for this round and calm yourself from the all the spinning fun and stress.
  • *Despite the craziness, remember how calm and challenging last summer was in Eastern rural India for the opposite reasons. Embrace the madness of Mumbai for the sake of keeping yourself entertained and think hard about your role at your NGO, Magic Bus. What meaningful project can you do there?

17.) EXPAT TRAP! Looking for friends? Take the Sea Link to Bandra West! Get trapped with foreigners (and really rich Indians who want to be foreigners) that are complaining about India all the time, recreating a USA party-all-the-time culture and spending waaaayyy too much money! Remember, most foreigners really are rich and have more money than you!

  • Either hang with them and blow your stipend, sending you right back to START as well as diminishing any attempt to understand India


  • Drop them and deal with your solitude as you focus on work and figure out how to make genuine friends as well as a great project.

18.) BONUS! For feeding a street child lunch one afternoon, someone will be a little nicer to you on the train and not push you.

  • REALITY CHECK: After he tells you that both of his parents died of a fever last month, you feel even worse and more powerless in this living machine that is Mumbai. This child is one of almost a million in Mumbai. Take one step back.

19.) HOMESICK REMEDY! After missing your family, distract yourself with Diwali! Cover your apartment in bright, tacky, colorful lights! For Dhanteras, purchase dipas and enjoy the light show at night as the five-day festival of lights commences!

  • POW!! Random fireworks outside your window and around your office resemble the gunshots from back home in the US. Jump out of your skin and scream like a girl as you head backwards three spaces! Exchange sweets with friends in order to feel better.

20.) STARVE YOURSELF! Since you spend all day on trains, trying to find auto-rickshaws and wasting time trying to connect to the internet – you have no time or energy to make food and you don’t have enough money to eat out!

  • Give in and pay a bai to make you lunch and dinner everyday. Fill your belly with ghee, and move forward two spaces. Realize your privilege!

21.) MOSEY AROUND TOWN until you wind up in South Bombay. Sit and marvel at Haji Ali – a sacred and beautiful example of Indian Islamic Architecture that reminds you of the struggle Muslims continue to fight in this country and across the world. Feel good about today and go forward to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel where you can pretend you are rich guest just to use their niiiice bathroom.

22.) LUCKY YOU!!! A bird defecates on your head for the 12th time since you arrived! This is considered good luck in India, so you can take those feces and run ahead five spaces!

  • SORRY! A monsoon hits and washes away your good luck, and in the mean time also soaks your laptop bag and all of your clothes! Go back wards five spaces, then take the train all the way home soaking wet!

23.) WAKE UP AND SMELL THE FUMES! You get stuck in traffic and nearly suffocated by gas fumes for 2 hours from Andheri to Bandra during rush hour, a distance of only 13 km! But you still arrive to your destination before anyone else! Go forward one space!

24.) DANCE IT OFF after a long week of quantitative data collection in slum communities at a Mumbai club where you score free entrance! Get sweaty and step outside to get even more sweaty from the thick October heat as you look out into the contradictory landscape that is Mumbai, where even you are a part of the massive contradiction that houses over 20 million people.

25.) HAND STANDS IN BANDSTAND! Have fun with street kids and do handstands in your neighborhood as snooty onlookers judge you with their eyes. Embrace a light attitude about life and feel good about a new beginning in this crazy huge city!


Yeah right! Keep your chin up and don’t run into any more cows while walking or offend your Indian coworkers with your ignorant foreignness!

The journey continues. . . only 20,461 more spaces to go!

(for a more graphic version of the game, check out www.ryanrballard.blogspot.com)

Ryan is back for a second year with the Fellowship to build on work done during the previous year as a Fellow. Having long been dedicated to service and advocacy for the marginalized, Ryan has found himself working on various social projects spread across four continents. Being abroad has given him the opportunity to balance theory with practical understanding of the complex realities of working in development. Themes of human rights, empowerment, racial subordination, gender discrimination, sustainable community development, poverty reduction, health as a right and ethical representation of the poor have created a passion for this line of work. South Asia has become a new frontier in his life. In 2009, he found himself in India for the first time observing and learning from a student-led coalition for water and sanitation in slum neighborhoods of Mumbai. In 2010, he was awarded as a Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme Fellow and lived in Jharkhand, India researching strategies to improve maternal/infant health and sexual health in rural communities. While at Berkeley, he devoted himself to a part-time job as a College Advisor and Program Coordinator for under-served students from Oakland, CA with the non-profit College Track. In Spring 2011 he completed a youth photography project in Accra, Ghana with street children. When he's not working he loves dancing, art and just enjoying the good things in life.

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One thought on “Dazed in the Mumbai Maze

  1. Love it. That is Maximum City for you. Few around the world compare with it. Do not know why you say 20,461 spaces- the last three add up to 11 so it just covers 2011. You have part of 2012 to go as well. So step lively and keep sharing.

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