September 26, 2008 – Mumbai and leaving India

October 8, 2008

September 26, 2008 – Elephanta and leaving India

 

I awoke on Friday morning with a vision for a very long last day in India. I had asked my driver to pick me up at 11, so that I could sleep in, get packed and enjoy breakfast before checking out of the hotel and heading out for a last sightseeing adventure with Selvam the Reticent. After another delicious breakfast, which included a spicy treat called “chilly idli” (I think they meant “chile”), I met Selvam out at the car and began the long journey down toward Mumbai Harbour. I wasn’t really in the mood to make pained small talk with him, so I sat quietly in the back and made notes about my trip in my notebook (I’ll post those shortly).

 

As we were stuck in traffic near the Haij Ali Durgha, a breathtaking mosque that appears to float on the water, Selvam’s phone rang. He answered, then handed it to me. It was Gurunath, who works in my client’s Mumbai office. He just wanted to make sure I was ok and see if I needed anything. When I told him that I was planning to go to Elephanta Island, he asked if I’d like some company.

 

“If you’d like to come, I’d love to have you come along,” I said.

 

“I’ll meet you at the launch,” he replied.

 

When we finally reached the Colaba area, Selvam pulled up in front of a different shop and again told me that he could park for free if I popped into the shop for a few minutes. I told him I didn’t want to do that, but complied anyway. Once inside the shop, I immediately regretted it. They had absolutely beautiful stuff, and the salesman was very congenial, but I was just tired of dealing with salesmen. However, he pulled out something that I hadn’t yet seen – some painstakingly crafted and painted enamel elephants. They were tiny, but beautifully detailed. I was captivated by them, but tried not to show it.

 

“How much are they?” I asked.

 

“4000 rupees,” the salesman responded with a sphinx-like expression on his face. I laughed out loud.

 

“4000 rupees?” I asked, incredulous.

 

“How much would you like to spend?” he asked, ever the enigma. I told him that I would think about it, but that I was late to meet a friend. As I hurried out of his shop, he followed me, still asking how much I’d like to pay. I could still hear him talking to me as I stepped onto the street and wove aggressively through traffic, a skill I’d picked up by then.

 

I got down to the boat launch and saw no sign of Guru among the hucksters and tourists. Not wanting to miss him, and knowing that he was a man of his word, I finally decided to suck up the $2-per-minute charge and call him on my cell phone, and good thing. Guru was waiting for me at the kiosk where one buys tickets for the Elephanta Island ferries, about a block away from where I was. I quickly found him, we bought our tickets (he insisted on paying), and headed back to the launch, where men were hustling people onto the next ferry. By this time, it was after 1 p.m.

 

Of course, few things (other than the trains, I’m told) run on a strict timetable in India, so Guru and I sat on the deck of the ferry for nearly 30 minutes before it finally pulled away from the dock and began its 10-kilometer journey out to Elephanta Island. The ferry ride was beautiful, giving perspective on how the Gateway of India was meant to be seen (from the sea) and affording glimpses of Mumbai’s skyline that many tourists and residents never see. In fact, Guru had lived most of his life in Mumbai and never ventured out into the harbour. The journey took about an hour, enough time for Guru – famously economical in his speech – and I to get to know each other a bit better. Unfortunately, we had to struggle to be heard at times because a young man sitting across from us kept playing contemporary Indian pop music loudly on his cell phone.

 

When we finally arrived at Elephanta Island, Mumbai was no longer visible on the horizon. The ferry pulled up to a long jetty and we scurried off. We chose walking the jetty over the narrow gauge train that runs about a quarter mile. As we walked, we were approached by various hucksters, trying to sell books about the island or their services as guides. When we reached the end of the jetty, we were surprised to find another ticket window, charging a few rupees to continue on. Guru paid (he paid for everything) and we proceeded up a seemingly interminable flight of stairs that led us deeper into the jungle.

 

Lining both sides of the stairs were vendors hawking all manner of souvenirs and goods, from beautiful jewelry and ornate sculptures to tacky t-shirts and embarrassing geegaws. As we panted our way up the stairs – Guru and I are both in good shape, but were winded long before the stairs came to an end – I thought about the temples to Shiva that we were about to see, and a sentence kept repeating through my head: “I came for Shiva, not for shopping.”

 

When we finally reached the end of the cramp-inducing stairs, we were greeted by more vendors, this time selling palanquin rides up the trail to the cave temples themselves. We were also welcomed to the island proper by a posse of wild monkeys. This is the first time in my life that I have seen monkeys running around, loose and free to indulge their every whim. To be honest, I was both frightened and fascinated. But this was nothing compared to the awe and amazement I experienced when we spotted the main temple.

 

As near (or as far) as anyone can tell, the cave temples of Elephanta Island (named by the Portuguese for a crumbling elephant statue they found there) were dug out of the island’s basalt and granite hills during the 7th Century C.E. They’re scale and solemnity is positively breathtaking. Not only are the caves themselves impressive, but the pillars and larger-than-life sculptures of Hindu gods are, in the purest sense of the world, incredible. One can only imagine, given the limited tools available and the shorter lifespan of people at the time, that it must have taken entire lifetimes for the creators to complete this stunningly holy and wholly man-made wonder.

 

As we strolled through the various chambers – all the while dodging bats, monkeys and gigantic puddles – I couldn’t believe that Guru, a lifelong Mumbai resident and Hindu, had never been to this magical place, and neither could he. For him, it was an even more spiritual and meaningful experience than it was for me. He kept thanking me and telling me that I’d made his day by bringing him along. He’s such a sincere and earnest guy. I was delighted to have someone with me who could appreciate the experience as much as I did.

 

We climbed up above the temples, following a steep trail that led to Cannon Hill, a place high atop the island where a gigantic cannon rests. I don’t really know the story, and we didn’t make it because we were both worn out from the endless stairs. We paused for a breath near a vendor of cold drinks. As we stood and decided whether to keep climbing or to head back down, we watched an Indian woman purchase a cold juice from the vendor. The moment the plastic bottle was in her hand, a monkey pounced on her, grabbed the bottle, and scurried away. Her startled scream was still echoing as the monkey sunk his teeth into the bottom of the bottle and began greedily sucking out the sweet, cold liquid. At no point did the monkey have any interest in harming the woman. In fact, I just imagined that he (or she – but doesn’t a monkey always seem like a he?) stakes out that same juice stand every day and takes advantage of unsuspecting tourists.

 

Not surprisingly, Guru and I decided that we’d rather start descending. After the transcendent beauty of the cave temples, the prospect of climbing higher to see something as terrestrial and mundane as a cannon was rather uninspiring, so we walked back down to the ferry and began the long, soothing sail back to Mumbai. On the way, Guru spoke with Rahul and arranged to have him meet us back at my hotel. Upon arriving back in the city, however, we first strolled over to Delhi Darbar for a bit of a snack, in anticipation of a very long rush-hour journey back to the northern part of the city. We enjoyed chicken samosas and a spicy, Chinese-style chicken-and-chile dish. Well, they call it Chinese, but it’s definitely an Indian take on what Chinese cuisine might be like. Either way, delicious.

 

Once we were done with our snack, Selvam met us out in front of the restaurant and we began the long, slow crawl to the north. By the time we reached the hotel, Rahul was already there waiting for us. We bid a final, unceremonious adieu to Selvam, loaded my luggage into the back of Rahul’s car, and set off in search of dinner. Yes, we were ready to eat again. We went to a beautiful Juhu restaurant called On Toes (I have no idea why it’s called that) and ate several courses of Rahul’s choosing. After I told Rahul that I never eat any animal that lives in the water because it tastes like poison to me, he insisted that I try tandoori-style pomfret. I’m always willing to try, and it turned out this was actually remarkably good. For the most part, it tastes like tandoori spices, and it didn’t taste like poison (or poisson) at all. I was amazed, and he was pleased.

 

We still had some time before I needed to get to the airport, so Rahul drove us over to a nearby roadside paan stall, where men were rolling various tasty, digestive fillings into betel leaves. It’s quite common to eat these after meals in India, to freshen the breath and ensure proper digestion of the food. The men were seated on the ground with a shared work surface in front of them, and the walls around them were covered in jars of various unidentified substances. Rahul gave very specific orders to the guy who appeared to be in charge. In a few minutes, we each held a conical leaf, filled with, well, I really have no idea. We popped the packets into our mouths all at once and chewed. I was a bit squeamish about it, especially because I hadn’t eaten any food from a street stall in my entire visit and didn’t want to get sick during my 27-hour trip back to the States. However, it was absolutely delicious, freshened my breath, and left my gut feeling perfectly healthy. In some ways, it was the perfect last moment with my friends in India.

 

As Rahul dropped me off at the airport at 11 p.m., there were throngs of people in the departures area, apparently bidding farewell to some revered religious leader. I had to push my way through the crowds with my bag. When I neared a doorway, a man with a badge around his neck asked if I was traveling business class. I told him yes, though it wasn’t quite true, and he led me past the waiting crowds and directly to the guard who was checking tickets and passports at the door. He ushered me through quickly and, once we were in the terminal, told me we needed to tip the guy at the door for expediting. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a 100-rupee bill. “200,” the man said. I was now beginning to doubt his value to me and told him that was all I had, though it wasn’t true. He brusquely shoved the bill into his own pocket and led me to the check-in area for my airline. Yeah, I pretty much gave away 100 rupees. This also seemed fitting for my final few hours in India.

 

I got through security with relative ease and had hours before my plane departed, so I browsed through the airport shops, flirted with sales clerks and drank coffee from tiny cups, trying to remember what it all felt like. The airport was teeming with people, even though it was after two in the morning when my fully-booked plane to London finally departed. Crowded, like everywhere else I’d been in India.

 


Mumbai – September 25, 2008

October 3, 2008

September 25, 2008

Thursday was a massive day of sightseeing. After buffet breakfast at my weird little hotel (idly, paratha, sambhar, coffee), my car and driver showed up a bit before 10. I was expecting an English-fluent, tourism-wise companion. In my imagination, he would look at my wish list of sights to see, provide feedback on what was good and what was bad, and then suggest some fantastic hidden treasures. Instead, I got Selvam, a rather intense, somewhat aggressive Tamil with limited English, little to offer as a tour guide and even less interest in my comfort (he kept burping and, at one point, even pulled over on a busy roadway to take a leak – “my oor-in,” he said, meaning, “Dude, wait here. I gotta take a squirt.”)

Don’t get me wrong – he wasn’t all bad. He took me everywhere I wished to go (with only one exception, Banganga Tank, which he didn’t seem to have heard of, though that could have been my shitty pronunciation), he was very flexible in waiting for me, and he made phone calls for me to arrange to meet up with my college friend, Tina. Part of the issue is that I’m just not at all accustomed to using an Indian driver. Basically, they’ll drive you wherever you want to go and wait for you as long as you’d like until you’re ready to hit the next destination. It’s crazy, really. They’ll just sit in their cars, nap, read the paper and talk to other drivers for hours. At first, I couldn’t believe he’d just wait for me and felt like I had to make specific arrangements to meet him, but I soon realized that, no matter what time I returned to our meeting place, he’d be there, doing basically nothing.

Traffic in Mumbai is about as bad as it is in Bangalore, but perhaps slightly more orderly and containing significantly fewer cows. In fact, I never once saw a free-roaming cow while I was in Mumbai – though I did see several goats. And monkeys. But we’ll get to that. Anyway, getting from my hotel, which is in the North Mumbai suburb of Andheri West down to the southern tip of Mumbai, where the much-touristed Colaba district is, takes for-freaken-ever. Before heading that way, however, the driver took me for a spin through Juhu, the Beverly Hills of Mumbai. He, too, pointed out Amitabh Bachchan’s house (impressively huge, by India standards, and a shack by American) and took me by Juhu Beach. I had him stop in a no parking zone near Juhu Beach, hopped out of the car, and froggered my way across six busy lanes of traffic to, as the Fixx once said, reach the beach. It’s an absolutely beautiful beach, well-maintained and with absolutely zero hustlers. There was a gang of guys cavorting in the water, which told me that it must be safe, so I took off my shoes and waded into the Arabian Sea (which I think is not a sea at all since it is part of the Indian Ocean, but I never quite mastered that fine distinction). It felt like slipping back into the warmth, safety and exquisite comfort of the womb. I’m just kidding, of course. It felt like an ocean. Still, it’s no small feat (in spite of my small feet) to add a new continent visited and a new ocean touched to my world travel log.

After the beach, we started slowly heading south. Selvam’s less-than-helpful narration included phrases like, “This is a famous church,” and “That’s a mosque.” Still, I loved the drive through the city and was very happy to be able to ride in comfort for a while.

The first place we stopped was Mani Bhavan, a house cum museum that was actually the place where Gandhi stayed while he was in Mumbai. It’s a really informative exhibit, telling the story of his life and it made me very much want to watch the movie Gandhi, which I sort of can’t believe I’ve never seen. There’s a definite feel to the place – tranquility, wisdom and a sense of unity runs through the whole place. They’ve preserved Gandhi’s bedroom/study exactly as it was, and you can feel what it must have been like for him there. I learned things about him that I never knew, like that he corresponded with Tolstoy and once wrote a letter to Hitler. And he was big fan of Emerson and Thoreau, who I’m sure would have been big fans of his as well. The museum was totally free and there were even guides available in nearly every language. I actually eavesdropped on an Italian guide as he led a couple through, and was able to understand him well enough to benefit.

After Mani Bhavan, we cruised over to Malbar Hill and the Hanging Garden (so named because it sits on top of an enormous water supply). On the way, I spoke to Selvam as clearly as I could about my plans to meet up with an old Vassar friend, Tina, later that evening at the club/record label/recording studio where she works. He seemed really taken aback and almost giggly about the fact that my friend was a woman. Still, he took down her information and agreed to call her to find out exactly how to get to the club and when we should meet up with her.

Save for a few interesting topiaries, the gardens are neither remarkable nor particularly well-kept. A gregarious kid – probably 13 or 14 – approached me as I entered, trying to convince me, in flawless English, to buy a peacock feather fan for a dollar. I politely declined, but told him I might be back. I zig-zagged through the gardens and was approached by a man selling books of postcards. They were actually quite nice and had pictures of places I hadn’t gotten good photographs of, so I bought them, probably for too much money. He then asked me what the exchange rate was for US dollars. After we agreed on what it was, he produced eight dollars from his pocket and asked if I could change it. He must accept any currency people will give him, and then deal with exchange later.

After getting enough of the gardens, I decided to slip out through a side entrance to avoid detection by the peacock feather kid. Across the street was Kemala Nehru Park, another garden, but more kid-oriented. I wandered around there for a bit and found an amazing overlook that took in Chowpatty Beach and Colaba. Several other tourists were there. An English-speaking kid offered to take my photo, and I took his in return. After handing his camera back to him, I turned around to find the peacock feather kid standing before me. He started chatting me up again and walked me over to a display of bonsais.

“You said you’d be back,” he said, not accusingly, but just as a friendly reminder.

“Yes, well…” I’ve observed in this culture that anything other than an absolute commitment to a future action isn’t a commitment at all. He gave me his pitch about the fan again, and was very engaging. He then gave me the pitch in German. Then in French. Then in Farsi. Then in Japanese.

“How about Italian?” I asked. He did it. “What about Russian?” He did it. And so on. I couldn’t stump him, and with every challenge I issued, he one-upped me, spitting his slang in yet another language, and, assumedly, converting the currency as he went. Finally, he did the spiel in Arabic and broke into an Arabic song. I couldn’t help but clap along. Finally, I agreed to buy one from him, just because he had been so damned entertaining. “Where did you learn all of that?” I asked.

“Here, in the gardens,” he replied. “We get people from all over the world.” That doesn’t really explain how he was able to rattle it off so fluently.

“You’re a very smart kid,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“It’s Ravi,” he said. “Look for me on Orkut. There’s a video of me.” I will.

Here it is:

I got back in the car and we headed up the peninsula and back toward Colaba.

“I call your friend and she said no come tonight,” Selvam said to me as he drove.

“She said not to come?” I tried to clarify. He nodded. “Let’s call her again.” He dialed her number, greeted her when she answered, and then handed the phone to me.

“Oh, Eryc!” Tina exclaimed. “It’s you! The driver was so weird. The first thing he asked me was whether I was a woman or a man!” Once we got things straightened out, Tina said she absolutely wanted me to come by around 8:30, and I handed the phone back to Selvam to get directions.

“You want to stop for some lunch?” Selvam asked after he hung up the phone. I agreed and started thumbing through my guidebook to give him the name of a place. I remembered that Guru had recommended Delhi Darbar. Just as I was about to suggest that, Selvam stopped the car and said, “How about this place?” It was Delhi Darbar. Huh.

I was taken to the upstairs dining room (it’s quite common for restaurants here to have two stories), where I ordered mutton samosas, murgh kadai (a spicy, saucy chicken dish with the long, skinny jalapenos that they call capsicum), kulcha and a coke. Since it seems like a somewhat touristy restaurant (though Guru assured me that locals, including him, eat there), I expected to the prices to be insane, but I ended up getting out of there for about six dollars, and the quality was absolutely top drawer.

After enjoying my meal, I decided to take advantage of a semi-fancy restaurant’s toilet. I relieved myself and then looked blankly at the toilet. There was a toilet roll to the right and a gooseneck sprayer on the left. “Ah,” I thought, “they’re covering Western and Eastern needs.” But how to actually flush the toilet? There was another valve on the wall that appeared to be connected to the toilet, so I decided to depress it. Immediately, a stream of water shot out of a tube at the back of the commode and directly into my knees, with impressive pressure. I checked to make sure I wasn’t too soaked, closed the lid of the toilet, and walked out.

As I stepped out of the restaurant and onto Colaba Causeway, Selvam immediately flagged me down. He drove me a few measly blocks down to the Gateway of India, where I asked him to drop me off for a few hours of wandering. Once we were in the neighborhood, he said that parking was very expensive here (makes sense, right?), but that he could park for free if I walked into this mall and just browsed for five to ten minutes. This seemed suspect, but I didn’t really want to make a big deal of it, so I stepped out of his car and into an upscale souvenir and handicraft store. They immediately wanted to start showing me rugs. “Shipped to your country, free of charge!” the salesman assured me. Yeah, whatever. I told him I wasn’t shopping and didn’t have much money, but wanted a little something (again, I don’t want to reveal what it is for fear of ruining someone’s surprise). I bought that little something and high-tailed it out of the shop so I could start doing what I came to do.

I stepped out of the shop and into the Apollo Bunder, home to the Gateway of India. It’s an impressive victory arch, erected in 1906 in honor of a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, the whole area around the arch – which used to be a carpark before the 2006 bombings – is swarming with hucksters and predators. There are people trying to sell you postcards, take your picture (for money), feed you unwrapped popsicles, hawk lame souvenirs, etc. At one point, a guy asked me if I wanted to buy a giant balloon, and when I politely turned him down, he said, “How about grass? Hash? Indian pussy? I have it right now.”

In an effort to see more of the Colaba area and get away from the hucksters, I began trekking up Chhatrapati Shivaji Marg, which becomes MG Road (yes, another one of those), one of the main drags, pausing a moment to take in the garish opulence of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, the over-the-top hotel originally constructed in 1903 by over-the-top industrialist JN Tata. The narrow sidewalk was made even narrower by a seemingly never-ending strip of stalls on the streetside, selling everything from cheesy t-shirts to tacky tourist crap to underwear.

By the time I reached the Flora Fountain, the hucksters and hustlers were far behind me and I could finally breathe easier. I sat down, tightened the laces on my Doc Martens, and took a moment to orient myself. The architecture of this part of Mumbai is a heady mixture of styles, periods and ethnicities, owing to the fact that the city has passed through so many hands throughout history.

I took a little detour over to Horniman Circle, which sounds like a place for lonely bachelors, but is actually a beautifully kept gardens that provides a secluded refuge from the city. Pocket parks like this are one of the great joys of urban life. It’s also right next to the 17th/18th century St. Thomas’ Cathedral, which is the oldest English building in Mumbai, and it sorta shows.

After a little Horniman breather, I retraced my steps and made my way over to the University of Mumbai and Oval Maidan area. The university buildings were absolutely striking, and the Oval Maidan was full of lunchtime cricketers.

By this time, it was time to meet back up with my driver. I wandered down Colaba Causeway until I heard Selvam call out to me. He drove me the short drive to the entrance to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, which used to be called the Prince of Wales Museum.

CSMVS (I want to adopt the Indian custom of abbreviating everything, even when it makes things completely incomprehensible) is an absolutely beautiful museum. In addition to being a stunning piece of architecture in its own right, it houses an impressive collection of largely Hindu and Buddhist scultpures, miniature paintings, artifacts and all sorts of stuff. It manages to be a natural history and art museum all at once. I learned a ton from the free English language audio guide (you could also get them in about 10 other languages). I got happily lost in the museum and accidentally learned the story of the origins of Ganesh, which I’d always wondered about. He’s one of the most revered gods of the Hindu pantheon. You’d recognize him as the Buddha-esque human with an elephant’s head.

My better-educated and/or Hindu friends should feel free to skip this, but I think it’s worth retelling for folks like me who might not know. I’ll probably get some of the facts wrong, but this is the gist of the story. It seems that one day, while Shiva (the preserver) was out doing whatever it is Shiva does, his wife, Parvati, got bored and lonely. She decided she wanted a son, so she scraped sweat and grime off her body and created a boy, whom she named Ganesh. Apparently, she was spent (and still a bit dirty) from this act of creation, so she decided to go take a bath. She asked her new son to stand guard and let no one in. Well, wouldn’t you know it? Shiva came back to the house and little Ganesh, taking his duties seriously, refused to let him enter. Of course, Shiva had no idea who this impudent punk was, so he sliced off his head. When Parvati emerged and saw what had happened, she was understandably distraught and explained the whole thing to Shiva, who was absolutely mortified and contrite about decapitating his son. He ordered his men to go out and find a head for his son. They found a dead elephant on the roadside, cut off its head, and brought it back to their master. Shiva attached the new head to his son’s body, breathed in some life, and then made him the foremost of the gods, as a way to make up for the whole beheading incident.

Anyway, I loved the museum, but knew I had to get outside to meet Selvam at 6 p.m. I went outside and was, again, accosted by hucksters. One offered me fresh juice, then changed his offer to pot when I turned him down. There are dozens of guys in both Bengaluru and Mumbai hawking hand drums of all sorts. They strike up friendly conversations, as if they actually want to get to know you, and as soon as you’re feeling comfortable with them, they appeal to you to buy a drum, almost as if you’d be insulting them by not buying. It’s downright aggravating.

It took an hour and a half to get from the museum to the area of central Mumbai where Tina works. The club, called Blue Frog, is one of very few club-like live music venues in the city. It is located in an up-and-coming part of town, which used to be textile mills, and now houses all sorts of hip hangouts.

Though I was half an hour early, Tina was very gracious and welcomed me to her workplace, immediately buying me a Kingfisher. We probably saw each other briefly at our college reunion five years ago, but we really hardly knew each other, but that didn’t stop us from having a great time. Tina was born in Mumbai, but has lived in the States and in Singapore, but she now can’t imagine living anywhere other than Mumbai.

“There are certain creature comforts you just can’t get anywhere else,” she said. By this, she meant things like drivers and housekeepers and the like that come very inexpensively here. “I know it seems silly,” she said, “but I can’t even imagine doing my own laundry.” I actually totally understood what she meant. Even though Mumbai seems to me like a very difficult place to live, I can see how a native – especially one of even middle class means – could see it as an easier place to live than elsewhere.

Tina and I also discussed what it’s like to be a single woman in India, as she treated me to beers and appetizers (which everyone insists on calling “snacks”). I told her that I’d observed very few women out and about in Bengaluru. She said she’s traveled throughout India, and that Mumbai is the only city in which she feels comfortable going out alone. She doesn’t feel endangered (except in Delhi, though she admits there’s an element of Mumbai/Delhi rivalry inherent in her judgements of that place), but just feels stared at and unwelcome when she goes out in other cities.

After a couple hours, I felt downright guilty about the fact that Selvam was just waiting in the car out there someplace. I knew he’d get paid for his extra time, but I also knew the pay would be a pittance, and it all just felt a bit exploitative to me, so I said my goodbyes and went outside. I found Selvam fast asleep in the car, woke him up and headed home for a good night’s sleep after a very full day of being a tourist.