India - Weekend Outing: Crawford Market

If the Brady Bunch textile scheme below doesn't give it away, I'm now on my way to Crawford Market in a local taxi. All by myself. Oh, Baby's First Cab Ride!

A little background on Crawford Market. This site is one of Mumbai’s oldest and it is enormous. The main building was constructed during the English reign and is (or was?) stunning in its detailed ornamentation, particularly for a building meant to serve the lower classes. The immediate surroundings are so full of people, vendors, billboards, and traffic that it reminded me much of Piccadilly Circus in London when it came to noise and activity levels. Here's where I tell you that my day's agenda was partially strategic in that I went to places built by the Brits. I was in search of some Western surroundings to get a quick feeling of "home" and architecture has a nice way of mentally transporting you.

My cab driver had dropped me on the opposite side of the traffic circle, or chowk, and so I wandered my way through the crowds toward the hulking building. Here was where I developed my street crossing strategy. I stand around for a traffic light cycle or two (this is about 15 seconds) and wait until a critical mass of people builds. Then, I pull a switcheroo when it comes to personal space standards and I hover super closely next to a couple of people. We cross the street together, practically holding hands. I always position myself as the one farthest from oncoming traffic. I figure there is safety in numbers and local drivers will likely be more willing to stop, or slow down at least, for local pedestrians. As a bonus, I am approximately 6-9 inches taller than 90% of the population so I can still get a decent view of vehicular predators while walking within a crossing crowd.

I’ve crossed the street successfully! Major exhale. Seriously, the first few times I did this my heart was racing with Darwinian adrenalin. I entered the market proper through a back door of sorts. It’s dark and cool and immediately chaotic. Cleveland folk, imagine the West Side Market on the day before Thanksgiving. Now multiply the stall and people count by four and you’re getting close to the density of this place.

The first hall is full of dry goods and looks like a very primitive Target. Curiously, everyone is selling the exact same stuff. I guess buyers have their favorite sellers and that’s what allows this lack of product differentiation to last.

I’m not in the market for diapers (infant or adult) so I snake my way around and come upon a more open-air zone. There is paper everywhere. The smell of waste intensifies. What could possibly be up for sale here? Newspaper-wrapped melons, that’s what.

Pressing on I get into a full open-air section and the bright sunlight knocks out one of my senses. No worries, the nose is working overtime! Behind me are the paper-wrapped melons. In front of me is a circular stand with more fruit and frankly, a lot more flies. I have my first feeling of sorrow. This is the supermarket for so many and it is so painfully, obviously rife with bad sanitary practices. Yes, Americans are crazy when it comes to antiseptic behavior but this is the other extreme.
The surprise factor elevates. Just past the fruit stand is one of many pet shops. Yes, pet shops. There are hundreds of animals in tiny cages. You can buy a dog, a cat, a parakeet, strange reptiles, and probably any other animal if you look hard enough. I could not bring myself to look harder or take a picture. I felt like I was watching that Sarah McLachlan commercial for the SPCA. I missed my dogs as it was and this broke my heart.
At this point I’m feeling rather uncomfortable. I wouldn’t classify it as feeling unsafe but the sights, sounds, and smells are a true assault on my brain. I begin looking for the way out of this place and ahead of me looms another dark building. Perhaps that’s closer to the storied textile division. Aside from general curiosity, my main reason for coming to the market alone was to find the fabric stalls and indulge in a little independent, leisurely window shopping.

Within a few steps I’m close enough to recognize there is no fabric here but instead giant slabs of meat. Lamb legs, chickens galore, and anything other than cow was in this huge hall. This proved to be the straw the broke the camel’s back. I love a good steak so I don’t think it was the hanging meat that did me in. To be totally honest, my first thought in seeing the building, before I even noticed the hanging slabs, was that this place looked like a slave auction house. And within this context of extreme poverty it was too much. I raised the white flag, thanked God profusely for my good fortune in life, and left.

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