finding my home in mumbai

words & images amy beth schoenecker

It was the winter of 2014 in Chicago, one of the worst on record, and I was preparing for nine months of dissertation field work in Mumbai. I could already imagine the tropical breezes and endless, warm summer nights because I had been to the country twice before, in order to study Hindi. During those trips, which were two and four months long each, I had made the difficult, yet inevitable, choice to give up my love. Not my boyfriend, best friends, or family (though I was certainly sad to leave them), but one my other loves: climbing.

The type of climbing that I did is a no-ropes variety called bouldering. It essentially only requires shoes and rock, although chalk (to help increase friction and reduce sweat) and a crash pad (for a slightly cushioned landing) are helpful. Since no ropes are involved, bouldering routes (known as problems) are much shorter, usually between ten and twenty feet. Getting cleanly—without falling—to the top of a problem is called sending, and it’s a goal that keeps climbers coming back for more.

I had been climbing rather steadily for four years, letting it take over my life, body, and free time. The last two times that I was in India, I had taken climbing breaks, but refused to do so again. Thus, before leaving for India, I researched climbing in Mumbai in addition to preparing for my fieldwork. While the sport encompasses physicality and mental awareness, it is also surprisingly social. Climbing gyms have sprung up in major cities across the globe, serving as training facilities to simulate climbing on natural rock. Were there gyms in Mumbai that I could go to? Was there any natural rock to climb located in or near the city? What was the climbing community like? Were there many women climbers in Mumbai?

Two weeks after arriving in Mumbai, and getting somewhat settled into an apartment, I ventured out to find a climbing wall. The only information I had found was a Facebook page, which contained an address and timings. It said that the wall was open in the evenings, from five to nine o'clock, which was the same as my home gym. So I hailed a taxi, and gave the driver rudimentary directions on how to get there.

When I arrived, there were already a couple of guys climbing. I walked over and introduced myself. We shook hands, and they immediately gave me a quick tour of the wall. The wall was located in a college, and consisted of three walls under one roof, but it was still in the open air. This was a huge difference from climbing in the United States, where gyms were anywhere between ten and thirty times the size of this wall.

The second thing I noticed was that there were no fixed routes or problems. Usually, boulder problems in gyms are taped. This means that holds are placed on the wall and a piece of colored tape accompanies the hold in a series, from bottom to top. The tape marks where your hands and feet are allowed to go. Commenting on this, I asked about what to climb. One of the men, who ran the wall, pointed out a route that they had made up. Given the small climbing space, they opted not to tape problems, he explained. I immediately climbed their route and jumped down. My new friend gave me a fist bump and said, “Nice!” in the climber lexicon.

After about thirty minutes of climbing that first night, another woman showed up. We introduced ourselves and realized that we climbed at about the same level of difficulty. The night kept filling up with more regular climbers arriving to hang out and train. It wasn’t long before I was trying harder moves and hearing everyone cheer me on: “C’mon Amy, get it, stay strong!” Nearly a year later, I can still remember that first night at the wall and can easily recall the contentment I felt. As an outsider in India, especially one with light skin and hair, you’re constantly reminded of your foreignness, or as one friend said, my ferunginess. That night, for a couple of moments, I forgot that feeling.

I slowly fell into a routine on the nights that I climbed. Five o'clock would come, and I would change into my climbing clothes, gather my things, and set out into the hot and wild city to snag a rickshaw to the train. Open air auto rickshaws were easily one of my favorite things about India. They’re cheap, easy to flag down, and can navigate the horrendous Mumbai traffic much better than a regular car. Twenty rupees later, I’d be deposited at the Bandra terminus where I could catch a local train to the climbing wall.

Like the rickshaws, the trains are open air, allowing as many people as humanly possible to squeeze onto the overcrowded cars during rush hour. The first time that I rode a local train, I had one hand inside the women’s only car, clutched to a railing, but feet still on the platform when the train started to pull away. I squealed, and the women in the car laughed, pulling me up and directing me safely to the middle of the car. It was only two stops to my destination, and then a ten minute walk from the station to the wall, which took me through typical Indian terrain. After navigating a busy vegetable market, I’d walk through the narrow and cramped street (as people rarely walked on the footpath), dodging cars, taxis, buses, bicyclists, cattle, and other pedestrians. In a city of 18 million people, I felt that large, swelling population every time I left my apartment.

As the weeks progressed, the climbing group became my family, my home, and my community. When I had a bad day, I’d go to the wall, vent to my friends, and then we’d climb. We’d make fun of one another, and cheer each other on when someone was trying a hard move or problem. We’d steal each other's chalk, dance to real or imagined music, and fist bump when someone sent. At any time, one could hear a mixture of Hindi, Marathi, and English being used to work on problems, give congratulations, and talk about our next outdoor trips.

India was not the easiest place to go as a foreigner. Despite the continual outsider status, there was seemingly little to remind me of home. But India taught me how to be humble, grateful, open, and kind. More than this, the city of Mumbai gave me a home. During the nights at the climbing wall, I was the American sometimes, or the only female at other times, but most of the time, I was just friend, another climber.

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