September 23 and 24, 2008
Tuesday was a pretty mellow day, all things considered. I got up, packed all my luggage (not easy) and grabbed a masala dosa and cold coffee at Indian Coffee House (I just love that place) while I wrote some postcards. I then checked out of my hotel and left my luggage there for the day. I went back to Java City, hopped on the internet, and spent a ton of time just getting updates and photos posted to the blog. While I was there, I enjoyed a filter coffee (essentially, an Americano with lots of milk and sugar) and a can of Coke (with real sugar – then I found out that Coca-Cola has been the focal point of all kinds of controversy here in India, including using unsafe water in its products and then dumping nasty chemicals into the water near its plants – awesome!) while I wrote and posted.
I had one last Bengaluru sight I really wanted to see, so I hoofed it across Cubbon Park (a lovely walk, actually) to the Vidhana Soudha, home of the Karnataka state legislature. After snapping some pics, I began walking back the long way to get my bags. On the way, I encountered an incredibly imposing building that turned out to be the main post office building for Bengaluru. Funny how it wasn’t mentioned at all in my guidebook, at least not at this location. I went in and mailed my postcards (I had already bought postage at another post office that I stumbled upon on Museum Road) and marveled at the swarm of people trying to get visas and passports. Before I got to the hotel, I slipped into Higginbothams again and bought a couple of small south Indian cookbooks. I’m determined to get better at preparing this stuff at home.
Ravi Kumar had told me the best way to get to the airport was to take an auto to a particular city bus stand, and then take the bus. I didn’t relish the idea of taking a bus, so I figured I’d just take an auto all the way. To keep from getting screwed on the fare, though, I went to the pre-paid auto stand on MG Road. This is a police-run kiosk where you tell a traffic cop where you want to go, they tell you the fare, and they give you a receipt to show to the driver, which guarantees that you only have to pay that fare. It’s sort of like the fare controls at NYC airports. So I told the cop I wanted to go to the airport.
“No, you don’t want to take auto to the airport,” he told me. “Take auto to the airport bus, then take airport bus. Auto to Mekhri Circle is 49 rupees.” Who was I to argue? I took my receipt and hopped in the nearest auto with my driver, Akbar. The drive out to Mekhri Circle, which is pretty far north of the city center, took about 20 minutes. Akbar tried to make small talk along the way, but our mutual language deficits made it tricky. Finally, we reached a bus stand that was clearly marked with an airplane, but was still more than 30km from the airport. I had plenty of time, so I wasn’t too worried.
As soon as I got my luggage out of the auto, a tiny white Indicab pulled up behind it. Most hired cars are marked with a government permit, but this one was plain. An older man hopped out and asked if I was going to the airport. I immediately tensed. “I’ll take you for 100 rupees,” he said, “same as the bus.” I didn’t believe him.
“100 rupees?” I asked with a thickly skeptical tone.
“Yes, no problem,” he said.
“100 rupees?” I repeated. “You’re sure?”
“Yes,” he said. This is exactly the kind of scenario that guidebooks warn you about. If a strange man with no credentials and unmarked car offers to take you somewhere for a price that is too good to be true, it probably is. Politely refuse and scurry away like a frightened mouse. But for some reason, I trusted this guy, and I really liked the idea of not hassling with the overcrowded bus. So I got in his car.
As soon as we were off on the road, my mind started playing out a variety of possible outcomes of this bad decision. He could drive me to some remote place and leave me there. He could take me to his lair and: (a) enlist me into slavery, (b) force me to do unspeakable acts with wild dogs, or (c) serve me for dinner to his band of thieves. To short circuit this, I started to make friendly chit-chat with him. After all, it’s much harder to kill, enslave or sodomize someone with whom you’ve discussed the new airport, right? Sure! The kms ticked away and the signs still indicated we were headed for the airport, so I just kept up the banter and the unfounded optimism. Within about 40 minutes, we arrived at the airport and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. He hopped out of the car and grabbed a trolley for my luggage. I pulled out two hundred-rupee notes and handed them to my driver. “Thank you for being a good and honest man,” I said, somewhat melodramatically. He shrugged his shoulders, hopped back in his tiny car, and drove away.
I had tons of time to wait at the airport for my flight, so what could I do but eat? I got paneer butter masala, rice and a strange, vaguely fruity cola called Thums Up (no “b”), which was absolutely delicious. My palate is not refined enough to tell the difference, however, between really good Indian food and mediocre Indian food. Since this was the airport, I suspect it was mediocre, but it tasted great to me.
While I waited and ate, I decided I’d better make sure that everything was set in Mumbai. I had spoken to my stateside friend who was coordinating since I’d left Denver. I sent him a text, asking if our colleague, Rahul, was still planning to pick me up at BOM. He replied quickly, saying he was glad that I’d reached out, and that Rahul couldn’t meet me because his wife was hospitalized with malaria (I later found out she was very near death). I told him I could take care of myself, but before I could hit “send,” he sent me another text to say that someone from the hotel would be there waiting for me. I admit, I was relieved. On the other hand, I felt perfectly comfortable with having to find a ride once I go there. It’s amazing how far I’ve come since those early, helpless, dizzy days a week ago!
The airport, by the way, is nothing like the train station. In fact, while waiting at the Bengaluru International Airport, you could imagine yourself in any cosmopolitan airport in the world. It’s pretty small, but it’s well appointed and there is no one sleeping on the floor. Can’t really say that for Frankfurt, can you?
My flight on Jet Airways was similarly delightful. I sat in coach, but, thanks to a relative of Rahul’s, had a window seat in the first row, so was very comfortable. It’s only an hour and a half total plane time, so I had pretty low expectations. In the US, when you fly that kind of distance, you’re lucky if they don’t make you sit in an overhead bin. On Jet, however, they provided drinks on takeoff, a full meal in flight (your choice of veg or chicken biryani) and coffee or tea. It was pretty posh. Arrival in Mumbai was right on time, my bag showed up perfectly, and I headed out to meet my ride from the hotel.
My hotel in Andheri West (a suburb in North Mumbai) is called Karl Residency, and it’s a step up from the budget living at Curzon Court, without venturing into luxury territory. I arrived in time to unpack, iron some clothes for Wednesday, and go to bed. However, in light of what I’d just learned about Rahul’s wife, all the tiny, gnat-like bugs that seemed to have made themselves comfortable in my room unnerved me. In order to get to sleep, here are the ridiculous precautions I took:
• I sprayed industrial-strength-pollute-the-earth-mutate-your-great-grandchildren Off! all over my body
• I put on jeans and a long-sleeved shirt
• I put the bedspreads from both single beds onto one bed and slept on top of them
I’ve since noticed that these little buggers are everywhere, and can only assume that they’re harmless, though I haven’t asked anyone.
Though I wasn’t expecting my ride (Rahul) until 9:30, I was awakened Wednesday morning by a phone call at 7:45. The person on the other end of the line said something I couldn’t understand at all. In my sleepy stupor, I admitted that I didn’t understand and asked him to repeat himself. I still didn’t understand, but I said, “Oh, OK,” like a simpleton and hung up the phone. A few minutes later, someone rang the weird little bell at the door of my room. I opened the door to find a man from housekeeping.
“The ironing board, sir,” he said.
“Oh!” I smiled. I might as well have slapped my forehead like they used to in the V-8 commercials. He came in, grabbed the iron and ironing board that I’d borrowed the night before, and slipped away. About 10 minutes later, my doorbell rang again.
“Sir, you have any laundry for washing?” the man at the door asked. Man, it’s a good thing I wasn’t trying to sleep in.
After a good shower and a couple of room-made cups of instant tea and coffee (both very white), I went downstairs for the breakfast buffet. There, I found idlis and fried idlis with chutney, sambhar, parathas, toast and some other things I can’t recall. They even offered to make me an omelet. I ate heartily and went out to the lobby to wait for Rahul.
Rahul and I have spoken on the phone several times over the years, and I’ve seen his photo, but we’ve never met. However, when he walked into the lobby of the Karl, I recognized him immediately. We wove through the Mumbai streets (about as chaotic as Bengaluru’s), took a peek at Amitabh Bachchan’s house (big Bollywood action hero) in Juhu (nearby neighborhood where the Bollywood biggies hang), got my first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, and finally made it to the office.
It was wonderful to meet this group of five people whom I’d only known previously through phone conversations. I even got to have one-on-one chats with Gurunath, Rajul, Asmita, Amruta and Rahul. I felt very fortunate and it kind of felt good to have some work to do, if only for an hour or so. We then went to an amazing lunch at a high-quality chain restaurant whose name I’m forgetting. Urban Something. I also can’t really say what we ate. I let Rahul order everything, and everything was amazing. I was particularly delighted with dessert, which usually doesn’t do much for me. This was little deep-fried rice flour spirals, coated in sugar, and then drizzled with a kind of condensed milk. I’ll have to ask Rajul (the resident food expert) to email the name of the dish, and then I’ll be sure to update here.
After lunch, most of the gang had to go back to work, and Rahul and I drove around North Mumbai for a while, checking out the shopping district in Bandra, the sea bridge that will soon connect Bandra and Worli and various streets, overcrowded with stalls and people. I haven’t seen any cows yet, but there are still a lot of dogs on the streets here. The weather is also much warmer and much more humid here than it was in Bengaluru.
Rahul dropped me off at my hotel this evening at a little after 5. After much difficulty, I was finally able to get online (using the paid wireless from the hotel next door) and had a video chat with Sophia, who kept wanting me to show her things (I showed her Indian currency, mostly). My huge lunch left in no need of dinner, so I’ve just hung out here at the hotel, resting up for a big day of sightseeing tomorrow. I’m being provided with a car and a driver who knows the sights, so that should be nice. It’s not the kind of thing I’d normally do, but since I don’t have a lot of time here, I figured it would be silly to refuse it.
This area (or maybe just this hotel) seems quite prone to intermittent power failures. This morning, the power went out three times while I was getting dressed. Tonight, I decided to take the elevator downstairs to ask a question at reception (oh, here’s another purposeless job: a man sits on a stool in the elevator all day and pushes the buttons for you – thanks, man! What would I do without you? Oh, that’s right. I’d push a button.). On the way down, the power went out. It was one of my worst nightmares. There were two other passengers, but no one said anything.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, breaking the silence and making my mounting panic known to my companions, who were sure to be the last living people I’d ever see. The elevator “operator” didn’t say a word, but continued to sit on his stool, mute. Actually, for all I know, he was dancing a little jig – it was pitch black in that little car. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably less than a minute, the power came back on and the elevator resumed its course. That just might have been the last elevator I take in India.