The Beginning of my Indian Adventures of 2013

Going to India 2013

The flight departing from London at 21:05 was packed-full. I passed through the first-class pods with a touch of dread; a relaxing, comfortable slumber would not be mine tonight. Window-seated, I was confined by two seat-mates separating me from the freedom of mobility that only first-class or an aisle seat can offer.

Having an aisle seat didn’t help me on my previous Indian flight though, leaving India after a month touring Northern areas last winter. On that flight a couple from Delhi became my torturers. They were not among the sophisticated, educated city-types one meets on International flights, they were a backward-seeming police official and his wife.

On introduction, Mrs.Kumar showed me her husband’s badge, of which she was very proud. A licence to print money, so it seemed. They spoke very little English but somehow they communicated that her husband was a very successful police officer and they were now starting out on a 6-month tour of the USA and Canada. Two weeks in NYC, a week in Banff, a month in Miami, a few weeks in Hollywood, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington. . . .with countless flights all over the continent. They did have family in two of the cities they would be visiting. The cost of a 6-month tour as they described would be out-of-reach to most Westerners. But this kind of success from someone in the Indian Police force, a fixed-income government job, highlights the kind of success for which one should feel ashamed. The corruption of Indian Police officers is notorious, it is assumed that most take bribes as part of their income, but he must have really been a high-achiever when it came to cheating the public.

It soon became apparent that this couple had never flown before. They were also not accustomed to being told what to do. Before take-off the flight attendant had to tell them 3 separate times to hang-up and turn off their cell phone. The first two times they completely ignored her clear instructions gesturing at the phone and showing them to put it away. The third time she threatened that she would need them to deplane if they continued to refuse her instruction.

An hour into the flight I deal with being kicked over and over, she has reclined onto her husband’s lap and her feet extend into mine. It would have been less irritating had she removed her dirty shoes. Food comes and she’s up again. They apparently have servants at home because they seem to think the fight attendants are there solely for their comfort. The fourth time they ring for more drink during the meal the flight attendants finally tell them no. I feel embarrassed just to be near them. Every time I heard a ding I’d look up to see our light being lit, peanuts, another blanket, another pillow, more water, do they have more of the dessert that was part of the dinner tray. . . .

The lights finally off I put on my own eye mask and settle in to sleep. There’s someone in my lap. She’s straddling me, climbing over my lap. I’m 6’1″ and I fully take my space, she’s a little more than 5 feet tall, not nearly tall enough to climb over me. Well, it’s possible, but not without all her weight sliding over my lap, her feet losing touch with the floor. I’ll stay awake until she returns, I think, rather than start to fall-off again just when she’s returning. I don’t know where she went because she was gone a long time, perhaps 30 minutes.

Settled, I am woken next by her husband tapping me on the shoulder. He needs out. Then he needs back in. Then she’s climbing over again before I can wake to stand out of her way. Ding. They need a snack. Ding. Do they have another, different newspaper? Out she goes again. Out he goes again. Making the most of having free drinks that they continually consume, mostly tea, water and soda, they frequent the toilet again and again. She sleeps for another hour, restless leg syndrome or too much tea, the kicking resumes.

Morning comes and I have a strong resentment towards my evil seat-mates. I could not have imagined a less considerate, more self-absorbed, ignorant couple if I tried. I wonder if they will grow-up a bit during their North American travels, I cannot imagine anyone putting-up with their demanding, selfish behaviour. Not restaurant servers, not chamber maids, not hotel concierge, not taxi drivers, in North America we consider ourselves to be more equal and expect respect in our various different roles.

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Mumbai, India – Arriving
Written Sat Jan 12, 2013

I hired a pre-paid taxi inside the airport, which one should always do if disputes over the fare want to be avoided. After long deliberation between my driver and various other drivers as to how to get to the destination (the general direction anyway), we set out.

Streets are a cacophony of movement in India. Various forms of mobility weave and mingle forming a mass of random-looking motion. Three lanes become five, as cars, auto rickshaws, buses, ox-carts, trucks, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles weave in and out, crowd in together, and entirely disregard the notion or existence of lanes. The vehicles don’t drive one-behind-another, instead the moving mass fits together like a large, ever-changing jigsaw puzzle moving its way slowly forward. The noise created is deafening, engine noises of all sorts and incessant horn blowing in a range of pitches and volumes. Bollywood music blares here and there, both from vehicles as well as from little vending shacks. The louder the better.

This is the beginning of my second trip to India and my first visit to Mumbai. From the airport to my first destination involves more than an hour of intense navigation. After we leave the heaving mass of movement that seems to be a highway, we enter smaller roads that meander through endless neighbourhoods, some ordinary, others maze-like. These smaller roads are still messes of confused congestion, on a smaller scale. There is more stimulation from the roadside now, with mostly shack-businesses lining the side streets. Rubbish is strewn anywhere, laundry hangs from string and if available on roadside fencing. Vendors sit on the ground surrounded by their wares, usually produce. Cows linger with dogs. People are everywhere, walking on the streets, sitting on the streets, selling, buying, waiting, going. Smells emanate continually, it smells like farm, now fish, now burning rubbish, now open sewer, now just traffic pollution. Heaps of rotting discards, hot from the sun, smell earthy. Cows pick through. So do people.

I feel myself becoming entirely engulfed by the chaotic humanity. Going deeper and deeper into the urban jungle; there is no quick escape from this place. This realisation makes me feel claustrophobic. I am absolutely surrounded by high-density life for miles in every direction. This city will be my home for the next three weeks, from four different vantage points.

My first situation is a home stay in Charkop Sector 8, a North-West suburb. As we approach the general region the driver stops for directions. Not that we’re lost, this is actually the modus operandi of taxi drivers. I have found that addresses are of little interest to drivers, they just want to know the nearby landmarks. In fact, addresses very often include landmarks, officially as part of the address. (Whenever possible) My address here includes “behind MTNL”, a large telephone exchange. So it will be this, and not the actual address, that the driver asks for each time we stop. After three such stops and one U-turn, we have found the landmark. At this stage we phone my host, who now guides us in like an air traffic controller.

Well, nearly. Now behind the telephone exchange with street-side locals scratching their heads, we connect with the host one last time using the mobile. Another u-turn and a bit more searching and I am finally introduced to my new friend and host who is flagging us down from the sidewalk.

“I will never find my way home,” I think as he helps me into the building. During my first trip to India I stayed in hotels that were the landmarks of directions. Also, I was not travelling alone and our driver was always with us.

I am in for quite a local adventure.

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I definitely have a nervous anticipation of the situation I will find myself arriving to for my first home stay in India. I have never been inside an Indian home before and I’m not sure what to expect regarding daily routines. I did choose a home stay that had numerous references from previous foreign guests so that I do have assurance as to the cleanliness of the flat and the positive character of my hosts.

Being an introvert, I tent to avoid situations that will possibly cause me too much distress. I’m not shy and I do enjoy meeting people, but having too much stimulation, having too-long of a day, or not having adequate personal space can cause me a great discomfort and mental exhaustion. When pressed beyond my endurance, my socialisation threshold, the felling of panic and agitation that ensues can cloud a whole experience.

I arrive from the airport early afternoon and my host, Aman, meets me outside He is warm and friendly, a big guy by Indian standards, similar in size to me. He had been on the phone with the taxi driver several times to negotiate my arrival and he came down to the street during the last call of arrival.

A little security hut with a little security guard sits at the now open gate of this typical middle-income Indian apartment block. The gate opens onto a small alleyway that links to the open main floor of the building where cars park and kids throw balls and families sometimes play badminton. We chat introductions while waiting for the little freight elevator that had a regular wooden hinged door over top of a black metal accordion gate. The elevator box has a tendency to stop a few inches off the mark, usually too high. It also makes a lot of noise, like the warning of a truck reversing, all the time that the doors are open. I guess that a microchip that could give us a few seconds of grace from the alarm would be a bit of an upgrade.

Upstairs, Aman’s Mother’s full name appears on a metal plaque on the door, like at a doctor’s office. I am greeted by a very pleasant host Mother who immediately offers coffee.

Isha is 50 years old with 2 sons, Aman who is 30, and his older brother. They moved here from Hyderabad 5 years ago. Separated from her husband who remains in their hometown, Isha is a devoted member of her “cult”. I flinch at their use of this word to describe her spiritual devotion. It has negative connotations in North America, but perhaps that stems from Christian’s monolithic belief that theirs is the only true way. By Christianity’s doctrine, any cult would be the wrong way because it is not Christianity. Here in India, there are many ways to honour God(s) through your dedication and the word “cult” is a neutral word.

Host Mother’s cult devotions benefit her guests as it pertains to daily life. She gets up daily at 4AM to meditate. Later, she visits her cult and coming home she buys fresh food for the day. Mid morning she meets her “bai” (literally “woman”, what they call the female domestic servant) who helps her clean the entire home every day. She hovers over the girl for several hours as they attend to the all the details that can be found in a 2-room plus kitchen and double bathroom apartment. The thorough cleaning of everything everyday is part of her cult’s mandates for living a pure life.

When it comes to food, as a guest in her home, Isha’s cult followings serve me well too. All food should be freshly made, vegetarian, but with no garlic and no onions. This differs from the Jains who do not use any root vegetables whatsoever. She buys fresh milk every morning and makes fresh yoghurt from it every day. We enjoy fresh juices made directly from the fruit at the time of drinking. Watermelon and orange seems to be the most common. The healthy meals here are a fantastic highlight of my home stay. Finding food on the streets, particularly off the beaten tourist path where I tend to gravitate, is hugely challenging. Being able to come home to clean, safe, highly nutritious food is a bonus of huge magnitude. Even a beautiful, clean restaurant can have a kitchen behind-the-scenes that looks like a scene of a slum. The front can be palatial and gleaming while the back is feted and filthy. Levels of bacteria and parasites that have no impact on Indians whatsoever often leave the foreigner begging for mercy.

The final way I benefit from Isha’s cult following is in her constant state of relaxed kindness. She just seems like a happy, satisfied person. Her easy, straightforward friendliness is contagious and it gives the home a warm and comfortable feel. It is a place I want to be, with her and her son.

Aman is my designated host who is taking a break from the IT industry. His last job was working for a call centre that serviced North America. His English is fluent and eloquent. The politeness of his indirect speech I find a bit humorous.

“Have you been to Goa?”
“Not really.”
“So, just a little bit?”
“No.”

“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“As of now, I have an older brother.”
“As of now? Is your Mother thinking of having more children?”
“No.”
I explain that “as of now” implies that a situation could be different in the future. “As of now, I have been to 9 Indian cities,” is a statement of fact that is likely to change in the future.

“Drunkards in India have not yet turned to wine,” he tells me, “it’s probably too expensive.” I know that he really means that most drinkers, those who do drink alcohol while many do not, are not in the habit of choosing wine as their drink of choice.

I went to a wine bar in Bandra with a new Mumbiker friend. It had at most 25 choices on the menu, and considerably fewer in reality. A “local” spot for Indians with money, it was definitely 2 to 4 times overpriced, very expensive here. It was all Indian apart from a few Chilean wines. I set out to try a few small glasses, ordering a different kind each time and asking for suggestions. My friend, however, refused the sampling game and stayed with the same mediocre taste over and over, three times.

The prevailing taste was of someone’s home-made wine kit gone a bit wrong. My standards thoroughly lowered after my last India trip, “drinkable” now has a meaning closer to, “does not taste like ethyl alcohol”, or “does not taste like it must have been opened 3 months ago and allowed to re-ferment in a rotting fruit sort of way,” or “does not make me gag.”

An English couple had told me there were some lovely Indian wines. I didn’t actually believe them after having suffered my previous trials last year, but they did put a shadow of doubt in my curiosity . . .if I could find a nice wine to enjoy sometimes that would be great. This night I do not have one I would ever want to repeat, but I do later have a few decent ones.

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Aman makes a wonderfully kind and engaging host. For the moment the is enjoying the role of host to foreign visitors. I suspect that the small daily tariff we pay to join their household exceeds the income he could earn working as an “executive” at a call centre. This must make the drudgery of work seem pointless unless following a passion. His brother is working on benefiting from this foreign economy as well, he is organising the rental of a flat what will also allow him to host foreign visitors which his current one does not.

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The flat itself consists of two rooms, a kitchen, and a double bathroom. (It seems like one bathroom split down the middle into two narrow ones. The spaces don’t need to be large because the shower is not designated a separate space from the toilet, the entire floor is basically a draining shower floor. It’s similar to the set-up we had in our motorhome when I was a kid. A small water-heating device hangs on the wall to heat the shower water as needed, the kind often found in Europe. In India these are called “geysers”.

This set-up meant that when you needed to use the toilet, you had to put on sandals because the floor was rarely dry. Oddly, they do not keep sandals here for this purpose so I bought my own the first time I left the house. The bathroom “slipper” tradition continues in Japan despite the fact that their washrooms have evolved to be highly modern and hygienic rendering the need for footwear completely unnecessary. But the idea of providing bathroom slippers, this is probably the set-up that idea came from.

The washroom sink taps are cold-water only, as is the kitchen sink tap. There is a galley kitchen that contains all metal cutlery, cookery, and dishes. Isha spends hours in this space cooking everything from scratch. After-use, the metal dishes are put into a large, wide bucket and accumulated for the “bai” to clean in the morning. This she does squatting on the floor in the bathroom.

I’m not sure of the dish-cleaning process, but I do know that the first time I heard it I sat bolt upright in bed with eyes wide open. There is so much metal clanging noise at one time that it sounds like a class of preschoolers armed with great metal pots and spoons. Fighting, they all then fall down a flight of stairs together. Repeatedly. For half an hour.

The main rooms of the flat aren’t really designated with a specific purpose, it’s not like the West where bedrooms are generally designated as private sleeping quarters and the living room is a lounge area. These rooms are more-or-less equal, the room closest to the entrance is more public.

In the more public room is a single trundle-bed against the wall facing a double wardrobe. A small, rolling coffee table and plastic stools serve as food holders when dining while sitting on the bed. There is a computer on a small desk in the corner beside the wall of sliding doors which open to an exterior laundry-hanging area. At night, the trundle pulls out from under the bed making two single beds.

In the 2nd, smaller room, two single beds and one wardrobe take up the entire space. This room also has sliding doors to the outside where more laundry is hung and where several large tanks of cooking gas are stored. The sliding doors do not have screens, nor have they been fit with precision. Fully closed, there’s a gap where each door meets allowing mosquitos to come and go freely through the night leaving me nearly bloodless by morning. These are little, tiny, dwarf mosquitoes. They don’t look capable of malice, but I wake-up several times during the night slapping myself in the face trying to obliterate the miniature beasts that are capable of so much harm. After a week, I am covered in red, puffy welts some of which actually enlarge by localised bruising.

In addition to improving the quality of life for the local mosquitos, every day the air passing through the openings brings in the smell of morning. Somewhere around 6AM when neighbours start rising and start taking their morning showers, using the toilet and otherwise getting ready for a new day, the level of the sewers rise causing the stink of rotting faeces to to waft into the room and kick you in the face. At least, it kicks the foreigner in the face. “What smell?” Aman asks.

It’s like when you work in a coffee shop all day, you get used to the smell of coffee and don’t notice it but newcomers coming in have a heightened awareness of the coffee aromas. Crossing town in mixed company when we passed an open sewer I mention, “Wow, it smells like a farm but worse!” “I know,” responds the other Westerner. “What are you talking about?” asks the Indian. “The stink!” “What stink?” So this auditory feature is perhaps limited to visitors who are not there long enough to develop an immunity.

At 2AM one morning I dash to the toilet. An explosion of chunky liquid brings some relief momentarily but I feel like my insides are being twisted and knotted. I spend the entire night finding it difficult to breathe and I take in deep breaths which I hold and then release very slowly.

My host, in the bed 12 inches from mine, gets up at 11AM and I continue to lay there aching, nauseated, and weak. At 1:30 he tells me the time and I explain to him my condition, which he doesn’t believe. “You probably overdid it yesterday,” he suggests, “maybe you need some rest.” I spend the rest of the day fending-off food offerings during toilet breaks. In the end, I do have an apple.

I am still unwell the next day, again to my hosts disbelief. I am aching everywhere, I’m running out of medicine, and I’m drinking my rehydration liquids that I brought from Canada. I try some rice and yoghurt and somehow within minutes it has cycled through my disabled digestion tract and explodes out the other side. “Should have used a dish, could have given that to the cow,” I chuckle when I see the barely adulterated recognisable food. Host Mother always feeds me to beyond capacity, it is not possible to finish with an empty plate because it is disallowed. An empty plate gets more food, so I always end with left-overs. “Give to my cow,” she cheerfully states as she clears away the dishes. It’s one of her few English phrases. She doesn’t have a cow per se, but there is a cow that she passes everyday and feeds left-overs to like any good Hindu should.

I return to bed and take-off my day clothes since my trial lunch was not a success. I ache all over. Partly from the food poisoning, partly from the super-hard 2″ thick mattress on wood that I have spent far too many hours on. I still feel too weak to sit-up, to tired to read, I’m hot, sore, crampy, and nauseated. (I hang my head over my bedside pail now and again, but in the end I don’t end up using it. This time.)

My host, who has never himself experienced food poisoning, continues to remain suspicious of my condition. “Are you sure you have diarrhoea?” he asks, his head tilted and eyes narrowed as if to uncover some deep, hidden secret. I feel a tinge of momentary hatred as I look up at my lovely, kind host who has been attempting to force-feed me now for 2 days. “You’re weak because you’re not eating enough, ” he declares. I don’t feel like defending my condition anymore so I don’t. I just look and then close my eyes.

The next morning I feel completely well. I have been in Mumbai for one week and today is my first moving day.

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“Explore Cultured Mumbai Home stay” listed the following as amenities: air conditioning, tv, internet, elevator, washer, dryer, pool.

I arrive to the very local suburb of Mulund after the usual taxi conundrums – stopping for directions, calling my host several times, and making the occasional u-turn. I did give very clear and concise directions which were disregarded for the usual routine of spending much of the drive seeming lost.

Standing at about 5’2″, my little host meets us roadside and we complete the journey with him pointing the way. A tiny “temple”, a miniature square building about 7’x7′ sits awkwardly at the roadside against the front of a 15 or so storey building built 2 years ago. “We cannot destroy temples and it was here first,” he informs me when I ask about this little structure that interrupts the sidewalk and looks so out-of-place. “Can’t they move it though?” “No.”

“Have you hosted a Canadian before?” I ask my new host.
“Yes, I had a guy from Michigan.”
“That’s not Canada,” I offer.
“But it’s the same, isn’t it?”
“No.”
“Oh, and I had a girl from Seattle.”
“That’s not in Canada either.”
He tilts his head back and forth, not sure whether to believe me? It seems something like, “We’ll just agree to disagree.”

We roll my suitcases around the large structure on broken cobble to the back where we find the middle-aged, typical 6-storey apartment complex that is supposed to be my home for the next 7 nights. Somewhat dingy and with electrical wires bulging form wall panels on every floor, we have a tour of floors through the metal gate of the lift as we approach the 4th floor.

Already apparent is the lack of a pool. There is no possible space, inside or out, where one could possibly be.

The door to the flat is large and is covered with a paper sticker that gives the impression of being a wood-panelled door. Well, it doesn’t actually give me that impression, it just looks comedic, cartoon-like. My host, Babu, removes the padlock and slides the bolt to unlock the door. I’m not overly fond of having a door, in a foreign country, where any passer-by can lock me inside by simply sliding a bolt. Fourth floor, no fire escape, barred windows. . . . .

He opens the door to a one-room plus kitchen and bathroom apartment. Readily apparent is the lack of family one normally associates with a home stay. This is just a bleak, faceless, worn-out space and the complete lack of character suggests that no one lives here.

“People used to stay with my family, but I decided it is more comfortable for the foreigner to have their own space.”

“But if a foreigner chooses to have a home stay, they have decided they would be more comfortable to share a space. This is not a home stay,” I suggest.

He tilts his head. “But it is, because you can visit my family anytime. My guest from Finland said that I lied about the place because he wanted to stay with a family, but this is better.”

“But this is not a home stay,” I reason again. He should advertise it for what it is, a flat rental. That way, people who want to have the situation that he has decided is better for them, can. But clearly he understands that this is not the situation many foreigners are looking for, otherwise he would not have misadvertised. His parents probably don’t like having constant house guests so he rented this apartment rather than lose this, his only, income.

Other missing amenities come immediately to view. For tv, I am welcome to visit the family home any time, less than 15 minutes away. Well, the 2 times I did happen by the family home (a 3 room apartment) his mother was glued to her Hindi soaps. I don’t speak Hindi so my interest in these would be very short. How likely would it be for me to go into their home, commandeer the television and watch English programs when both her and her husband don’t speak English. Not likely. Television is not an amenity of this “home stay”.

Internet too was a false promise. I had already learned this from comments of previous visitors though, so I knew to expect that. If I had not been able to internet-enable my iPad with a SIM card, not having internet, without phone or tv especially, would have been a deal-breaker.

The tour of the small apartment just got better and better. There is no air conditioning. “But I can visit the family home to cool down, can I? Very handy especially at night if I can’t sleep because of being too hot.”

“No, we don’t have ac either. I hope to put it in someday, after I make lots of money renting the flat to foreigners.” So in his hopes to get air conditioning some day, he lists it as a benefit now for this “home stay”.

The kitchen is a cluttered mess in that due to having no shelves, drawers, or cupboards whatsoever, the counter is a pile of condiments, dishes, and useless items. A sink at one end and a 2 burner stove at the other, and a large empty jug as from a water cooler laying on it’s side with a spout attached to it’s mouth.

Absent from the kitchen, making it a completely useless room to me because I can’t even make tea with milk, is a fridge. Restaurant left-overs will have to go ” to the cow” and I cannot stock-up on any fresh food or have chilled water in this hot, stuffy apartment. The kitchen does come in handy later for brushing my teeth. Later I discover that there are no window screens in the bathroom but I can avoid the mosquito attacks somewhat by leaving the bathroom door closed and using it as little as possible.

Speaking of the bathroom, the next thing I notice is the absence of a toilet. This apartment has the more traditional squat-hole. Lovely. Another missing element, although I don’t notice until the next morning, is a water heater. Usually called a geyser, this little point-of-use appliance that provides warm showers does not exist. It doesn’t seem like anyone ever lived in this apartment, that it was never quite finished. Yet, it is in a rather dirty, worn-out condition. What there is, however, is a big plastic tank full of fetid water overhead. It’s like a huge, plastic toilet tank that keeps itself full for when the water is not working, your own private stash. In case the water was not bacteria-laden and parasitical enough, you can turn a valve to bypass the regular supply with this one.

Looking around, I enquire where I do laundry, which I had accumulated until now since a washer and dryer were listed as amenities. “I can show you how to wash it in the sink, ” he cheerfully offers. “Not necessary, I can figure that out myself.” No dryer, no washer. The ONLY truth in his profile listing this accommodation was the elevator. WOW.

So it was that I took an immediate dislike for my host who lied so thoroughly to fool foreigners into pre-paying for his “home stay”. I did not trust him whatsoever. I didn’t hide it either, this liar would be no friend of mine.

There was a complete in-congruency between his lying and his friendly, gentle nature in-person. I guess he got away with his false listing because other foreigners newly arrived to India staying off the map in this local area would be dependent on his assistance to do anything. Even getting a taxi here requires much local help and intervention. In my case, however, I had already made some friends in Mumbai, I already knew how to navigate the insane train system, and I did not require his assistance to get by.

My refusal to be friendly to this little man who lies and tricks foreigners into renting his nasty apartment did not sit well with Babu. He kept coming by offering to take me to a temple, go here or go there. My first day I did take a day trip with him, but his continued lies bugged me so much that I couldn’t stand him any longer. He interpreted my coldness as disappointment in the flat and arrived with drinking water and a plant.

In fact, the apartment was okay, I could deal with it; I just really begrudged his lies and his refusal to acknowledge them as such. On day three I responded to his texts offering to do things together with, “The apartment is fine. It is you I don’t like. Because you are a liar, I do not want to be your friend.”

Thirty minutes later he showed up to the door. “What do you mean? I am not a liar.”

I looked down at him in complete disbelief. I cannot believe he needs this reiteration again. “Okay then, show me the air conditioner.”

He tilts his head back and forth, “I explained to you that I want to have that in the future.”

“But it’s a lie to list it as a benefit now.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“No it isn’t, it’s just a fact!” I am completely exasperated. “And where’s the tv? Internet? Washer? Dryer? Pool?”
“I told you about those things, you can visit my parents home. And i can take you to the pool, it’s only 30 minutes away. . . ”

His continual refusal to even see his own deceptions infuriates me so much that I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Just leave me alone until I leave, I do not want to know you.”
“But I’m not a liar!”
“Yes you are – now just leave me alone.”
“No I’m not, it’s just your opinion!”
With that I push him out the door. He is actually fighting against me to stay inside. Him weighing all of about 140 lbs, it’s no trouble to close the door with him on the outside.

He kicks the door. “You don’t like my room, then get out of my house! I’m calling Airbnb!”

I feel very fortunate to have my own internet with me, otherwise finding alternate accommodation on the spot would have been impossible. Airbnb calls. “Your host is very upset. He said you called him a liar.”
“He is a liar, and you need to make him change his profile.” I explain how the listing does not remotely reflect that actual accommodation.
“Oh, now I see the issue. I will talk to your host and explain to him the misunderstanding.”
“It’s not a misunderstanding! I understood his profile entirely, it’s a bunch of lies to attract more foreigners to come!”

As soon as I was packed, I started the long process to transfer myself by taxi to a hotel in Bandra.

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“Your country?”

“Canada.” I look of non-recognition, I show with my hands, my left is the USA, I place my right hand, Canada, above it.

Anil, who looks to be in his late 50’s, seems to have woken-up to drink this Sunday afternoon. Around 3PM he is rather sloshed and I bet that tomorrow he will ask his friends, “Was I hanging-out with a white guy yesterday?”

I have not found it that easy to interact with locals on the street, but this time I have to my advantage that in this non-tourist area people are curious without their hands held out, and that I have an understandable reason to linger, sitting with my suitcases waiting for a taxi. I called for the taxi from outside so that I could implore the assistance of a neighbour to talk to the taxi company. A full, clear address never seems to be enough. Unless your location is itself a famous landmark, it takes a lot of work to get to your destination. I can never assume that a driver knows where he is going because he rarely does.

A little man who runs the cigarette and betel nut stand for our building comes over and stands looking at me at very close proximity. “Do you speak English?”

Head tilting, “No.”

By this point Anil has ascertained that I am friendly, like a dog he cuddles up against me, sitting next to me on a low cement wall. “Cigarette?” I offer and he readily accepts. I had purchased this pack her last night and smoked one here in an attempt to meet locals then. But, I guess it seemed too threatening and suspicious and perhaps I didn’t linger long enough. Today, it took about 20 minutes before I seemed approachable.

“He’s my friend,” Anil tells me, pointing to Manoj, the guy who helped me on the phone. “Peter Francis, he’s Christian.” In fact, he’s the only guy of many about who is wearing a head covering so I am surprised. Anil calls him over. He rolls over on his motorbike that he’s been sitting on and Anil points out a “Jesus” emblem on the front.

“Christians are friendly with Hindus,” I kind of ask, using my iPad translation app, English to Hindi. “Yes. I am a Hindu as well,” Manoj replies. “You are Christian and Hindu?” “Yes, same God.” “So, do Hindus just divide the same God into many Gods, or is the Christian God one of the many?” My question, even translated, is not understood. I am curious as to what the thinking is about this because Hindus may also be Christian but I don’t know any Christians who are also Hindu.

A small crowd is slowly gathering of curious guys who live in the building. This driveway is a hang-out during the weekend, where people smoke and chat and chew betel nut. Guys anyway, no girls hang about. They are probably visiting each other in their apartments while the men have left them to privacy. It’s a very friendly building, most doors seem to be left wide open onto the hallway apart from overnight and when people are out. Neighbours come and go between apartment and the building has a very welcome feel. English is not well-spoken in this neighbourhood though, so despite earlier attempts to meet my neighbours, during my departure is the only time I actually do.

“Is he the party guy?” I point to my new sidekick. The iPad translation app I’m using is fast and easy, and with a click it shows screen-sized translation of each sentence making it easy to communicate with a group. Another benefit of having internet from a SIM card, it only works when connected to the internet. On reading my question the group breaks into laughter. Yes, yes, he parties everyday. My little friend now has his arm over my shoulder and seems quite content to be the centre of attention. Now and again he puts his hand up as if for a high-five, when I meet his with mine he grabs my hand instead. “My friend!” he says every time.

“What is your name?” someone asks. After saying my name several times to looks of confusion, I key it in for them to see. “Full name?” I key my family name. “My family name comes from Scotland,” I key, “people in Canada come from many places.” They tend to read aloud and there is group recognition and agreement with each sentence.

There is a lull and they wait for the foreigner to entertain. “People everywhere are much more the same than they are different,” I key as way of a conversation starter during this cultural exchange.

“Not Pakistan,” one man suggests to nods of agreement.

“In Canada, Pakistani people and Indian people are friends,” I show them on my screen. This statement draws awkward looks as they glance from one to another not sure whether they should believe this crazy statement.

Change topic. “It’s hot today!” I quip. Near to 30 Celsius an da bit humid.

“No, cold, cold!” they tease. Yes, I do realise that it gets much hotter here compared to this, but no one really thinks this is cold.

“At home, now, it might be minus 15 degrees,” I key. Looks of disbelief and shock, wonderment as to how one could survive such a temperature leads to a conversation about winter clothes and how we stay warm.

I man named Rakesh introduces himself. “In high school I knew a guy named Rakesh,” I tell them, “There are many Indian people in Canada and in the U.K. too.” Nods of acknowledgement, they know this, many people emigrate to Canada.

The conversation being more like a discussion of which I am the leader, I keep moving it along. “In Canada, total people only 30 million. That’s only double this city, but Canada is the 2nd largest country in the world.” They seem to find this interesting. A country that only sounds vaguely familiar has very few people but is very large.

“Canada pictures?” someone asks and I show the very few I do have on my iPad. A birthday party, a small wedding, my brief visit to Newfoundland.

“India pictures?” I open the file from my trip to Rajasthan but they are quickly bored. “Mumbai photos?” They’d like to see photos of something familiar to them. The nearby India Gate receives approving nods and “ahhs”. I skip from pic to pic rather than showing a slideshow, I don’t want them to see the pics I find so interesting of local life. Of the neighbouring shacks, stray animals, laundry hanging in the street draped over public fences, rubbish, people going about daily activities.

An hour of interacting and I am grateful when my taxi arrives. It was great, but tiring. Like a performance. I leave Anil my cigarettes, which he had already pocketed anyway.

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Bandra is well-known as the “Queen of the Suburbs” in Mumbai. Actually very central to all the action, I’m not sure why it’s known as a suburb at all. Perhaps they just mean, “residential neighbourhood”. But neither term gives any semblance of understanding to a foreigner because the reality is that Bandra is a hectic, noisy, trendy zone, busier than any neighbourhood in Manhattan it seems to me. The term “suburb” does not adequately capture the chaos, even if it is a chosen domicile for multitudes.

With one of the priciest property rates in Mumbai, Bandra is a desirable neighbourhood and many Bollywood actors choose to call it home. With a long and interesting history, many Christians remain from the era of Portuguese rule when commenced in 1532. During the time of British rule many Bandrites became employees of the East India Company. At that time very few Indians could read or write Roman letters so this gave the Christians a definite career advantage.

Earlier in my stay I had asked a gentlemen what the word is for someone from Mumbai. “Mumbiker, ” he replied, “but I call myself a Bandrite”. Even though Bandra is a neighbourhood within Mumbai, pride of residing in that neighbourhood has coined this even more local handle distinguishing the residents from other Mumbikers.

Bandra has a trendy and fashionable selection of shops, clubs, bars, hotels, and restaurants but it still has it’s problems. Street congestion is compounded by roads narrowed by illegal street hawkers setting up for trade right on the street. The city seems to be aggressively targeting these activities. According to an article I read in the newspaper during my visit, only 8000 of 32,000 vendors are actually legally licensed. There is talk about designating more space and legalising more hawkers so that the government will at least have some control. At present, the illegal vendors pay bribes to the local police and other officials to be overlooked, creating a substantial income for the generally-accepted-to-be-corrupt police force. Since they are there, licensed or not, might as well charge a small tax to pay for the administration and better organisation while reducing corruption. (Legally, a police officer should force the closure and removal of an unlicensed vendor. But honestly, the police officer does not really want to take away someone’s livelihood. But since the vendor is willing to pay a bribe in lieu of removal, the officer accepts. In a way it is a win-win situation, but the government might as well just grant more licences.) Vendors would surely welcome this tax in lieu of bribes. All they want to do is to make a living; whatever taxes they are charged would most likely be far less than the bribes they pay out anyway.

For a prestigious district, Bandra is a surprising disaster. A mess of unplanned construction. A torn-down bungalow replaced by a skyscraper here, a random mega store there, new and old and in between not quite working together. Instead of interesting, it’s just messy.

I check in to my hotel on Hill Road, one of the main original streets renamed by the British. Not a quiet oasis due to it’s location in this very loud, congested neighbourhood, but I felt I would be an interesting base for 3 days of local wanderings. Hotel Metro Palace has 3 restaurants the day I check-in, all of them somewhat party-like serving alcohol and blasting dance music. I knew this to the be the case from customer reviews though, my earplugs are ready to go.

Still shaken from my “home stay” gone wrong in Mulund from which coming here was a sudden unplanned early escape, I do nothing the first evening apart from ordering room service, facebooking, and researching my surrounds.

In the morning the next day, I am somewhat surprised to discover that all three restaurants that had been so alive with loud music and drinking mere hours before were now being literally torn apart. Walls were coming down, metal supports were being sawed through creating that incredibly ear-grating noises of metal teeth cutting metal. Piles of rubble were accumulating, as was dust and dirt.

I hit the fashionable neighbourhood in food and at no place I encounter with actual nourishment do I fee safe to eat. I have had the “runs” for a full week now, and taking chances on food hygiene i snot on my bucket list. I find some white sugar, white flour, and trans fat at a coffee shop chain in the form of a “banana muffin”; basically a greasy ball of white cake with a hint of banana. By 4PM I have circled-back to the hotel now desperate for something edible, surely they can help.

“You may eat on the 1st floor terrace,” I am told at the front desk. Arriving to the spectacle that was once the 1st floor terrace (2nd floor for us North Americans) his misinformation is obvious. “I’m sorry Sir, but you cannot eat here,” I am told by a young, hip-looking manager as he watches his terrace cafe being filled with debris.

“Clearly,” I agree, “but downstairs they do think you’re open.”

“They are mistaken, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

“Our restaurants are combining to make a KFC.”

“Sorry?”

“What country are you?”

“Canada.”

“You don’t have KFC?”

“Yes, I know it. So, could you possibly show me somewhere that I can find food nearby?”

“Yes, I will show you, Sir.”

He leads me downstairs to the street and points to a double-entry with “RUDE” above the doors. “You can eat there, Sir. The food will be good for you there, Sir.”

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I cap-off three weeks in Mumbai with a 5-star hotel stay. I looked into the famous Taj located at Mumbai’s India Gate. It is by far the most famous luxury hotel in the city but they have no rooms available in the original palace wing. I’m not interested in being in that busy location, I’ve already spent time there, to stay in the new wing which has been reviewed as being far less interesting and not that special. Instead I choose a hotel chain that I was very impressed with before, the Leela Kempsinki Hotel.

I previously stayed with this chain last year at the Leela Palace in Udaipur. Our driver deposited us at a small ferry dock where we were greeted by fancily-uniformed guards who helped us onto a small canopy-covered boat which transported us across the lovely lake, for which Udaipur is famous, to our palace hotel Intricately-costumed men holding large elaborate parasols protected us from the 30 seconds of skin-damaging sunshine from the dock to the threshold. Upon our entrance, a Rajasthani band serenaded us as rose petals fell from above. We were greeted directly by name and guided straight-forth to our room without pause, moving through the gorgeous interior replete with antiques and ornamentation suitable for a Maharajah’s palace.

The room itself was sumptuous. I loved the oversized mahogany dressing room and 4-part bathroom. A toilet room, a central double-sink make-up area, a shower room, and across the hall, a separate bathing room.

A lovely large carved desk flanked the headboard of a very comfy bed, with a sofa sitting-area nestled around the view of the lake. The entire room was furnished with antiques and reproductions, vibrant jewel tones, luxurious hand-woven rugs, tasteful paintings, and wall hangings.

There was an open central atrium that featured live dancing and music in the evenings, lit by dozens of receded candles. The exterior terrace was gorgeous, featuring water features, lovely restaurants, and all overlooking the gorgeous views of the Lake Palace.

So ti was with some anticipation that I booked the equally-priced Leela Kempsinki Hotel Mumbai.
______

Keeping in mind that I have no plans to leave this hotel for 5 days, I booked the most exclusive class of room, the “Royal Club”. Located on the top floor, these rooms have an exclusive all-inclusive lounge, private check-in, butler service, and private concierge. This would possibly be a wasteful splash if just using the hotel as a base, but it’s a real asset when calling the hotel “home” for the duration of my visit. It is a little mini-break from my travels in India.

The arrival was promising. Set on 11 acres of gardens, the gated entry is far enough from the hotel that it’s existence from the road is obscured by the trees. The routine of open hood, open trunk, inspect interior, roll mirror under car to check the underside, is no longer surprising to me.

Surprising is the lack of staff at the entrance. I help my driver with my luggage and deposit it myself at the x-ray machine. After going through the metal detection and being thoroughly frisked, I collect my handbag but leave my other bags. I stand waiting for reception and watch other bags trying to come through the x-ray machine, pushing mine into a pile. I am thinking I should overstep boundaries to go save my own luggage when finally someone goes over to attend to them. I don’t mind to carry my own suitcases, but somewhere like this it should creat a stir to see a customer so unattended.

I know that I have priority check-in due to the class of my room, but there is no one available to inquire where I am meant to proceed. I wait for my turn at the understaffed reception counter and two separate Indian guests barge past me to be served first. When I finally get to the counter, I show my hotel voucher. The young man keys into the computer, in that mysterious seeming to be more official or complicated than it actually is sort-of-way, and recognises, “You have private express check-in.” Seems a bit late to be private or to be express with the lack of attention given to new arrivals. Now it just means that even though I was made to wait a long time for the regular check-in process due to there being no staff there to direct me otherwise, instead of now being checked-in, they will make me wait all over again upstairs for my special express check-in. The irony of this “special service” is lost on the Indian staff. The way they have carried-out this service, it’s not better than ordinary check-in, it is twice as bad. But I am supposed to know where to go on entry I suppose, this is a benefit only to those who have already stayed in this hotel, but I never will again. The lobby is shockingly noisy. Despite there being few people about, the marble and hard surfaces reverberate the little commotion there is into being a loud cacophony. There has been no thought whatsoever to the acoustics. A water feature masks the noise with water noise, not the usual relaxing feeling generated by splashing water.

I am now ushered up to to the top floor. I express my annoyance and am disregarded with, “Sorry, Sir, we are fully booked, very busy, Sir.” I think that if they are fully-booked then they can well-afford the very cheap labour to be well-staffed.

The 8th floor is the “Royal Club” top floor with private concierge called, “butler service” and a private lounge that has inclusive snack and drink benefits. I am passed-off to my butler, Gerard, who takes my hotel and pre-paid hotel voucher as well as any requests for coffee, tea, or soft drinks. The “welcome champagne” as described as part of club room benefits is not offered, even though I now could use it given my annoyance checking-in. My coffee takes some time to arrive so that it does not fill my waiting time, it arrives at the same time my passport is returned so I only take a few sips before asking to be shown to my room.

The room is nice, no reason to complain really, but it is disappointingly boring. Stream-lined and traditionally modern, the only interesting touch is the colourful rug on the hardwood floor. The furnishings are nice in a non-offensive anyone-would-be-okay-with-them sort of way. The colours are typically muted, ivory woodwork and beige plain fabric textured wallpaper. There’s a minibar that would be overpriced in Europe let alone in Asia, an oldish flat screen tv (the kind that was 4″ deep rather than the 1″ nowadays), a writing desk and chair, a round table in the bay window with a comfy chair and ottoman. There is a view of the hotel grounds as well as two very large taxi depots, one for the black and yellow regular cabs, another for the blue and white aircon cabs.

A queen bed with – a real mattress. I’ve been on the super-hard, super-thin Indian-style mattresses for the past few weeks, so a real bed is quite a treat.

“May I take breakfast in my room?” I inquire of my butler, who I rarely see again except at the concierge desk. “No Sir, if you want to upgrade to a suite for only . . . .”

I guess they’re not completely full.

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I hope you found this story about the places I stayed in Mumbai to be interesting. If you did, please follow my blog! Click on “Follow” on the bottom right of your screen and enter your email address to receive my posts as emails. You can remove your following at time. To share a link in facebook, click on the facebook button, or share a link on Twitter. Thanks for reading! The next posting will tell some stories of things I did when I stayed in the places you just read about. Cheers! Darren http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com

Cardiff – Story – The Friendly Pubs

Cardiff building front

Cardiff January 2012 Pubs

Cardiff seems to have a rather strong pub culture, with lots of great venues of various different themes and vibes from iconic traditional to modern gastronomic high-design flagships. I know I was attracted to the pub culture during my long week in this city, and no doubt drinking would take a considerable role in my life were I to actually live there. The role of alcohol to one’s enjoyment of Cardiff probably cannot be overstated.

_________________________Cardiff pub start of crawl_____

Not in a rush, I wait patiently at the bar while others are served. I don’t really care how quickly I’m served to join my party of one. A number of patrons cut ahead of me, I do stand out being taller than this crowd and a bit differently dressed, I am noticed but ignored. One could not look up and say, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there, four inches taller than me and wearing a black fedora.” But I don’t mind the queue-jumping as long as I do eventually get a drink.

The barmaid does finally notice my permanent residence directly in front of her and addresses her known-answer question to me and a young woman to my left. “Who’s next then?” As I step forward the young lady, who had just walked up, makes a face and scornfully mutters, “He is,” shooting me an absolute look of death.

Am I inside some sad angry prison? Where have I come that people are so sour? Social interactions in this city are starting to feel like punishments.

_______________________Cardiff's Oldest Pub.________

A gentleman in his 50’s starts to sing-along with muted music, much to the dismay of his formally-dressed wife. A posh group of two couples, they are clearly having a full night on the town as I stand at a nearby counter, jotting down notes from the day. “At least he has a nice singing voice,” I console, I am standing directly next to the two women. Their attention turns to me.

“Are you a writer?” they inquire. “What are you writing about?”

“Wales.”

“Oh!” they lighten, “so what do you think?”

These seem like nice people. Probably not from Cardiff. I have to pause to be diplomatic after 6 days of wandering this town. “Well, last month in New York City I had 30 great days. One week here I’ve had one pleasant evening. So I couldn’t call it a smashing success.” (My pleasant evening was with two girls I met who were visiting Cardiff from a nearby town, Pontypridd.)

“Don’t you feel like we Welsh welcome you with arms wide open?” the man who was singing suggests while he gestures a big open hug.

“Nnnooooo,” I offer tentatively, “I’ve been surprised that the people here have been shockingly harsh.” I feel badly saying this to the nice people, but it’s true.

“Oh, you’ve met the wrong people then, ” posh woman number two states, who lived 3 years in Montreal with her husband.

“Yes, I certainly have.”
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At the Duke of Wellington I meet a homeless alcoholic who talks about his plans to soon visit Ireland. “Where will you stay?” I ask. “I don’t need anywhere to say,” he replies.
Oh right, of course.

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My flat rental came with an unexpected flat owner who assumed I wouldn’t mind if he stayed on the couch. If I had rented a flat-share it would have been far cheaper, less than half the amount I paid for an entire flat rental. Additionally, he didn’t tell me of his changed plans and that he would be staying. After giving me an introduction and showing me around, he just didn’t leave. So a couple days later I finally moved to a far more conveniently-located accommodation, a hotel which cost less money and gave me privacy. For some reason, the 5 minute walk to the city centre kept taking 25 minutes and this misrepresentation of the property I also found annoying. The agency refunded my money because they agreed, flat rentals are meant to come vacant, even if the owner does have time-off from his work which usually takes him out-of-town. “But I bought you fish and chips,” the deluded man argued after I’d left.

Anyway, one day while I was still staying there I decided to grab lunch at the neighbourhood pub near the flat. After finding a nice, amicable seat where I’m able to interact with others at the bar I discover that food is not on today. Since I’m here now, I decide, I might as well have a pint anyway, chat with the locals, maybe do a bit of writing and find lunch afterwards.

Before taking a sip of my just-paid-for pint I am shooed-away. Despite there being no drink, no coat, nothing to suggest this seat was already claimed, I am sent away brusquely as the trespasser I apparently am. There’s nowhere else to go but to a segregated table section that’s entirely empty. I take the nearest seat for a few moments and take another sip. This is pointless, I think, I didn’t want the drink, I wanted the experience of the drink. I walk-out leaving my full pint on the table.

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A social meet-up, four of us made RSVPs indicating our intention to attend a decent little spot in Cardiff’s impressive shopping district. I arrive on-time and find myself alone. I take a table for 4 and contrive a meet-up sign using my tablet, since I am here ahead of the organiser.

A little more than minutes later, a friendly man about my own age appears. A dweller of the countryside not too far outside of Cardiff, he attends organised meet-ups regularly as he enjoys social situations. He may enjoy them but he is not good at them. Socially gifted, he is not.

I am embarrassed to be with him as he holds service staff hostage to his endless pointless ramblings. The staff are fantastically patient. After twenty minutes pouring over the cake menu he still requires lengthy assistance before his final selection can be made. Deciding on the right sweet is a momentous commitment to this fellow, it is not a decision he takes lightly. Imagine going for dinner with him, I couldn’t abide it. Would I fake an emergency phone call and run out the door, leaving cash on the table in excess of my bill? Fake going to the washroom, pay and sneak away? The kind of man who just will not stop talking and does not pick-up on any social cues, it seems like I may end-up going through the payment process and finding myself awkwardly walking away from him still bantering on. I fantasise about escaping, ending this interaction, while he goes on and on and on.

The two other attendees never show and with portable internet I can see that they also never cancelled. Somehow it is 2 hours before I escape this man’s company. I nearly run as we part ways, early in the evening. He suggests he’d be happy to continue on somewhere else. I will continue on somewhere else, but only after he’s out of my line of vision and out of ear-shot. Whatever way he’s going, I go opposite, and in a hurry. “Which way are you going? . . . .Oh, I’m going this way, bye.” “But I thought you said you stayed . . . .” his voice trailing off in the distance as I round a corner and continue on to reclaim my happy-place anywhere he is not.

(Note: I am a nice person, not generally judgemental and I play well with others. He was simply exceptional, as was my landlord who I should have met briefly and never have seen again, according to my rental contract. Actually, thinking about it, there may be quite a few exceptional people in Cardiff.)

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Cardiff is not Wales. When I have fully recovered from my stay in Cardiff I may try to visit other places in that nation to see if I can find the warm, friendly, down-to-earth Wales I had imagined.

If you enjoyed this posting, please share it with your friends! Click on the Facebook or Twitter links below to share the link. Also, you can follow by clicking on the follow button at the bottom right of your screen. New postings will arrive as emails to your inbox and you can remove your following at anytime. Thanks for checking out my blog! Cheers! Darren

Cardiff – Story – Welcome to Cardiff

Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

“Welcome to Cardiff”

It’s always a shame when travelling to happen upon folks who rub you the wrong way. She hands me some brochures while telling me about the local sights. I open one as she continues speaking, waiting to ask a question about St.Fagans. “If you’d rather read the pamphlets than listen to me then I don’t need to help you, do I,” she blurts in an overly-sharp tone. “Sorry,” I say meekly, making eye contact again. She continues her regular spiel regarding all the various sights that are of no interest to me whatsoever before I get to ask my questions. I have done some research, I already know what sights are of interest to me. I am not the ignorant North American she has pegged me to be.

“I’m going to the Big Pit tomorrow, and I’d like to take a general Cardiff Tour as well as visit St.Fagans.”

“You could do the hop-on-hop-off tour tomorrow and go to the Big Pit on Monday,” she suggests.

“But the Pit is only open on Saturdays now, so I have to do that tomorrow or not at all.”

“Oh yes, that is true.” So helpful she was. That would have been really fun making my way out of the city to a closed coal mine made tourist experience. It’s a big attraction, she had to know that it’s only open one day a week this season. Perhaps she wanted to punish me for being a poor listener to her dribble that she didn’t even sound interested in herself.

My next stop is “The Wales Centre” across from the Castle entrance where one books walking tours. Also I am desperate for a loo so I have in mind to ask for that as well.

The gruff man at the first counter to the right of the main entry is defensive about the walking tours. I have shown no frustration or shortness whatsoever regarding their apparent disappearance when he informs me that there are no tours happening at the moment. Not his fault. He hasn’t heard anything from the guides that work out of this location. This he reiterates three times before answering his now-ringing phone.

Still needing the washroom and him being on the phone, I make a move to the counter around the corner where I ask a younger staff member where I might find a WC. The older man puts his hand over the phone receiver and yells over aggressively, “He won’t know any better than I!” Judged by another tourism representative, this time as being someone who would not believe him, so pushy that I would not accept no for an answer and would try his junior for the same information. I am finding Cardiff defensive and harsh.

“Buy your bus tour ticket before you go into the castle so that you can get a discount by showing the ticket” I am told so that I purchase my ticket in advance of needing it. “Sorry, I can only discount after you have taken the bus tour, ” I am told at the Castle Admissions Desk, “they will exchange your original ticket for a different ticket after you board. That other ticket is the one that can get you a discount.” For some reason, the original purchased ticket, a different piece of paper for the very same thing, is not adequate. I sense a fondness of red tape. And the tourism rep outside who convinced me to buy my ticket early so that I could use it for discount now, has he never heard of this rule?

Cardiff Castle 2Cardiff Castle me_______________________________

Set inside the original library of Cardiff built in 1882, the Cardiff Story is an “abbreviated interactive display’ of Cardiff’s long history. Sharing the building with the Tourist Information Centre where I was so happy to leave, I put off going to this exhibit until a few days later. Basically it was after I had completely run out of other things to do.

The area that makes-up modern day Cardiff has known history dating from 2300 BC. The first Roman settlement built here was in 55 AD. In 1081 the Normans occupied Cardiff and by 1307 the population stood at 2000 people.

Some other notable dates and facts include:
-In 1884, The first International Rugby match was held at Cardiff Arms Park, a legacy that continues today with Rugby matches bringing in loads of tourism pounds.
-In 1886, The Cardiff Coal and Shipping Exchanged Opened, which was the beginning of Cardiff’s main industry.
-In 1905, Cardiff became a city.

Cardiff’s inherent success peaked in 1913, that year saw their highest coal exports. Cardiff was the greatest exporter of coal in the world, mined in the Welsh valleys. The first cheque ever written for £1m was written here in 1901 as payment for a 2500 tonne coal shipment to France.

Eventually the price of coal fell below the cost of local production. In 1926 workers faced a pay-cut and additional hours to keep the industry viable. This did not sit well with the unions and strikes ensued. Decades later, the industry entirely collapsed leaving Wales in very poor shape with very little secondary resources to draw upon. Miners were not highly-educated folk and neither were those in the shipping trades adequately prepared to face new careers.

Wales became a dependent of the UK. From 2007 and 2013 Cardiff was very fortunate when buckets of EU money came their way salvaging the city with mega improvements allowing it to become a new centre for shopping and tourism. (Wales received 1,900,000,000 Euros during this period, that’s 950€ per capita.)

Today, Cardiff has the 5th major shopping zone in the UK set in a very small city of only 340,000 residents. This is a very unusual situation given that being the 21st most populous city, nature would suggest it having the 21st largest shopping zone. It is highly international and it’s also a university town, with 42,000 students in 2012, that’s more than 1 in 9 people in Cardiff. With such a plethora of students as well as a vibrant pub culture, Cardiff is definitely a place to come to party. Several streets close to vehicles on weekends for the safety of stumbling revellers and great crews of cleaners descend on the city in the wee hours of the morning to clean-up the night’s mess.

An amusing section of the Cardiff Story to me was a wall display titled, “Cardiff: A view from the Valleys”. Here’s a very brief summary: Unless they love shopping, they don’t like Cardiff. I am unsurprised, Cardiff is nothing like what I expected and I hope to eventually discover that it shares little in common with the rest of Wales when it comes to the feeling on the street. I have met many lovely Welsh people during my travels, but very few in Cardiff.

A series of 6 slideshows with voice-overs provide six perspectives of the city. I press the English and Welsh language buttons for each story, in not one case is the voice the same in both languages. Only 20% of Welsh people can speak the Welsh language, and fewer still use the language for primary communication. This is definitely a subject of contention, do not suggest that signage need not be in Welsh due to the fact that the very few Welsh speakers mostly speak English. This is not a subject that they want broached, their language is a source of pride and many Welsh people seem to feel guilty for not knowing their “native” tongue or they take courses hoping to some day be able to speak it, needed or not. It is fortunate that they can afford the bilingualism that they do enjoy with regards to public services and such. It’s nice that the money needed to support such language protection is not needed for other social services that would benefit Welsh society, I mean that would benefit the more than 80% who don’t benefit from language protection of a language they don’t know.

I wrote down the narration of one of the 6 slideshows, verbatim:

I go to Cardiff on the train. I don’t go a lot ’cause I don’t really like it, it’s so busy. And it’s just not my type of place really. It’s a bit annoying. It’s tiring going to Cardiff. It’s a bit much to travel down there all the time on the train. You get there and it’s just hustle everywhere. You can’t move. There are too many people about. I usually go there with my girlfriend who wants to go clothes shopping as most girls do. We end up going to all the big clothes stores. It’s fun for her because it’s what she wants to do but I end up getting dragged around and I don’t enjoy myself. There’s nothing for me to do. When I go back on the train I have to catch a bus to where I live. I just feel a lot better when I get off the train, feel like I’m home home again, it’s weird.

Cardiff its just not my type of place really

Well good for Cardiff for having such honest opinions given in their “interactive” displays. (Interactive meaning that you push a button, and the display does what it does.) I understood the young man who told us his story, I felt the same way when I left Cardiff. I felt a lot better myself when I went to friendly London before setting out on my next adventure. After a week in Cardiff, London felt warmer and friendlier than it ever had before to this Canadian globe trotter.

 

This photo shows the scene often shown in the tv program "Torchwood".  You can see it in Netflix, I really liked it and that show put Cardiff on my radar of places to visit.

This photo shows the scene often shown in the tv program “Torchwood”. You can see it in Netflix, I really liked it and that show put Cardiff on my radar of places to visit.

If you found this posting interesting, please share it with your friends. Please note that the experiences here are only my experiences from spending one week in Cardiff and may not be representative of the city or the people thereof. These were simply the experiences I had. Thanks for reading! Cheers! Darren http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com

Manhattan – Story – Uptown Tour

Manhattan Story – November 2012 – Uptown Tour

Uptown Tour

“We’re visiting from Hawaii. How about you?”
We’re perched on a bench on the 3rd sightseeing coach I’ve waited for. It’s 1 Celsius, pissing rain outside. Too cold and wet for wandering, I thought, a good day to take a tour.

The first bus had room for 10 or so inside, but the bubble covering half of the double of the decker was full. “You can sit in the open area,” I’m informed, “but it would be better to wait for the next bus in 20 minutes or so.” No kidding. A little more than 20 minutes later the next downtown tour does arrive and I am again faced with the same option. A family of 4 is demanding a refund and I ask my options. “Go around the corner off 8th for the Uptown Tour, they’ll have room.”

“You know you can’t sit there, you’ll have to go upstairs.” we’re told after we’ve been joking about the non-existent view from our hard bench seats. Oh, it’s not a bench, it really is just a ledge. We disembark for the next tour bus to arrive. It’s been well more than an hour that I’ve been trying to board a tour bus now, I’m already wet and cold waiting for lucky number 4.

“In Northern Thailand she tried to pet a baby water musk-ox,” he tells me, “but the mother was not far off. I saw the mother crouch down to charge and I yelled for her to run.” (This story launched from me asking them if they had had any crazy travel adventures after having told them one of mine. I don’t remember what story I told.)

“I looked behind me and he was already far away,” she adds, “so I backed away too. The mother didn’t charge after all, I guess I was lucky.” No kidding. This nice couple, they seem far more sensible than to approach and pet a wild water musk ox.

I suppose our live lives are so safe compared to our evolutionary ancestors that precautionary behaviour needs to be learned. I see this with dogs all the time. People will approach a tied-up stranger dog (a threatening position for the dog, they are tied-up, can’t get away from you and could panic if they misread you as threatening), then they approach the dog from above (an aggressive, threatening stance from the dog’s perspective) and reach right for the dogs face to pet his head. Parents will even sometimes let their kids run up to the dog, which can be frightening and threatening, to the dog it is the same as what an attack looks like and they don’t have time to assess. Most dogs are trusting and kind and will accept this threatening behaviour with a wagging tail and hope for the best, but if a dog is fearful at all this scenario can turn out poorly. It would not be the dog’s fault if he bit the stranger, it would be a predictable outcome. People can be thoughtlessly stupid and very often are.

Tour bus number 4 arrives and we climb the stairs (there are no seats that even exist on the main level of this one, it’s “not open to the public”) The top of this coach is open-covered. A canopy of semi-transparent very-worn plexiglass covers the roof and sides just enough to obscure the view. We all peer out the front, a 20-or-so inch concave opening that creates a wind-tunnel of the elements.

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One block from home we set off through the Theatre District. I learn that a Broadway Show has 500 or more seats, Off Broadway has less than 500. The term does not identify specific location or the type of show.

Passing Columbus Circle we learn that the city stopped celebrating Columbus Day when it was brought to light that Columbus murdered at least 2 dozen indigenous people (Native Americans) in cold blood. (Cold blood meaning without provocation, for no reason.) NYC still has the day off to make it a long weekend, but it is no longer in honour of Columbus since discovering he wasn’t honourable.

We travel alongside Central Park and the guide jokes about any of us wanting off for a wee stroll through Strawberry Fields, the place so famous from the Beatles Song. After being pelted by rain flying straight at us, we’re now enjoying icy winds, accentuated by driving in our wind tunnel, and snow. By this point I am now wearing a plastic bag rain coat over my soaked usually-warm overcoat. I empty my shopping into my satchel and tie the plastic shopping bags over my now-soaked gloves. I am freezing, we all are.

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At the top of the park we head West to Amsterdam Avenue where we pass the Ivy League school of Columbia intermingled, it seems, with student dorms and public housing. A story about Eisenhower, he didn’t teach here but he did research here. There are 79 Nobel laureates in Science alone, from Columbia.

Towards the Hudson River we pass an enormous Cathedral (Riverside church?). Heading more centrally into Harlem we pass the famous Apollo Theatre, home to Jazz greats. We learn that the Clintons have domicile nearby. With this neighbourhood’s short domicile requirement Hillary could more quickly follow her vocation from here than most anywhere else after her husband’s Presidency.

Harlem has been cleaned-up with technology. Camera’s everywhere, one cannot snipe a chocolate bar or graffiti a mailbox without being made famous by cameras. It worked too, this is now a walkable area whereas 20 years ago we would have stayed well-away.

20130413-132721.jpgNot a great photo of the Apollo Theatre, but this was all I could see, the rest of our vision was completely obscured by the weather screen, ineffective as it was, it was also not transparent in this weather.

Returning to Central Park, now on the East Side, we pass the only natural body of water in NYC, the Harlem Reservoir. Now driving along Museum Row, the are of 5th Avenue alongside the park that houses the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others, I now find myself alone on the tour. The others have all jumped-ship for warmth. I would too, but I just want to get home and a taxi would be no quicker, we’re slugging along with the traffic. Fire trucks now behind us take minutes to be able to make any headway, the sirens fill the air for minutes as there is no space for anyone to give way. Eventually they come to an intersection and are able to turn off. Traffic-wise, it’s an odd place for a fire station, but I’m sure they were located here to protect the museums.

I learn that Mark, our mid-forties guide with a strong Jewish accent, is from New Jersey. He has been narrating these tours for a decade now. You’d think after a decade he’d come up with some fun banter that extended beyond the memorised facts. I ask him, as a local, where would he suggest I should go exploring on my bicycle. I guess he’s not a cyclist because he has no interesting suggestions, just the usual, obvious places. It could be that there are no hidden gems, no rocks unturned in this populous city, what you see is what you get. No, I don’t think so. I often stumble upon interesting places off the beaten path; he’s probably just dull.

The weather being what it is and the service being inadequate (not enough buses for tickets sold), I miss the Downtown segment, that I had already attempted twice, during my 24 hour window. Maybe another time.

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Manhattanites – Story – The People make the City

Manhattanites from November, 2012 – Jane, Nick, Marta, Chris, Laurie, Qi

Jane

“SHE SAID – HER BAG – IS UP – SIDE DOWN, ” a large, 6’4″ rough-looking black man with an afro shouted to the workers of the Port Authority Deli as I was wondering out. Apparently a tiny old woman had been trying to communicate this several times without success. They understood him though.

“You should be an English – English translator” I joked with him as we were both walking out. “Happen’s to me a lot!” he claimed enthusiastically. “Could be a career in it,” we chuckle as he continues away. I light a cigarette.

(Cigarettes are highly addictive and they are terrible for your health. I have since successfully quit but it was really hard so just never start.)

“Do you need some help love?” I ask after the elderly woman has emerged onto the sidewalk under a construction girdle seemingly ever-present on 9th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets. (“Love?”, I think to myself, “when have I ever called anyone Love?”)

Jane, who stands all of about 4’10” replies, “Could you help me across the street? I’m fine if I can cross the street.” “Sure!” I take her shopping cart, the kind with two wheels I know so well from Japan, it must have weighed 50 lbs or more. “Can I take your arm?” I ask as we start-off, tiny slow step by tiny slow step in the direction of 41st.

“What happened to your leg?” I ask, clearly she has a disability but is trying to get around. “I’m waiting for my second hip replacement,” she responds, “it was replaced 5 years ago but it doesn’t work anymore. I have 3 more months before I can get my new one, but I think if I checked into the hospital maybe they’d give it to me earlier.”

“Do you have family here?” “Oh yes, but my sister and her husband, they’re busy this weekend. But I just couldn’t wait, my leg is infected and my pants had to be washed. I couldn’t wait to do my laundry.” “Can your insurance send someone to you, to do your laundry and stuff?” “Oh, I’ve never heard of that,” she says.

“Does your HMO cover your hip replacement?” I ask. “Whats an HMO?” “Oh, I thought that’s what health insurance was called in the US, I’m from Canada.” “No, I just have Medicare.” She pauses, “My parents came from Canada, from Nouvelle Ecosse.” (Nova Scotia) “Really? I’m from New Brunswick.” (Which neighbours Nova Scotia on Canada’s East coast. Both Maritime provinces, they share similar qualities.) “Are you on holidays for the weekend?” she asks.

“No, I’ve been really lucky. I’m here for a whole month, I’ve decided to start my writing career here in New York City.” “Oh my, that’s wonderful! What kind of writing, a novel?” “No, non-fiction.” She stops and looks up face-to-face for the first time. “That is the best kind of writing,” she suggests, speaking slowly for emphasis, “what’s your name?” “Darren” “I’m Jane. I’ll look for your book, Darren.” she informs me as I help her into the station never to see her again.

_________________________________________

Nick

“How much for a cut?” “$14” “Alright”
“Same as you have but shorter?” “Sure”

Those long negotiations over with I settle-in to a chair at the barbershop below my flat. (I consider everything on the short block between 41st and 42nd to be below my flat.)

From Russia, nick came to NYC at the age of 21 and has been a barber ever since. Now 39, he seems somewhat older than me, even if I did still keep my white hair, he is far more weathered. I turned 39 last month.

“Where are you from?” he asks in his harsh, macho way he has of speaking. “Toronto. How’d you know I’m not from here?” (I took his question as where I came here from rather than where I grew-up.) “From your accent”, he answers, in his very strong Russian brogue. “People here, they come from all over.” Most likely his question is a conversation starter with most of his walk-ins, perhaps a lucky guess. Everywhere else I’ve been assumed to be a Manhattanite.

“Toronto is good. Colder than here now.” Yes, his no-nonsense observations are both true.

My hair soon chopped somewhat shorter than I had hoped for, I pay with tip and hit the streets again, fresher than a few minutes earlier.

____________________________________

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Marta

“In the beginning, there was darkness. Then God made a good strong pot of coffee and got to work.” I like this sign, just in the entrance of Empire Coffee and Tea Emporium.

Located directly below my flat (2 floors down and facing the street, whereas I’m facing the courtyard) this coffee shop boasts no interior fashion whatsoever. Horrible, uncomfortable seating (2 flat wood benches, 4 folding chairs, and 2 low stools) below a basement drop-ceiling and on a generic tile floor all lit with painful fluorescent tubes. Clearly, this was some other business for which ambiance was no concern (perhaps an exterminator?) and they did not change a thing when they opened it as a coffee emporium.

The coffee is fantastic. There is a steady stream of customers, from the disenfranchised to policemen to retired couples to young and trendy locals. Throughout my month, I will only need to visit the Starbucks around the corner on 9th Ave, twice. (When Empire is not open.)

I sit on the bench facing the window and write with my notebook balanced on the arm. Across from me a bag lady has an animated conversation with herself. She seems to be sorting through 5 bags of rubbish. Dirty papers and plastics, nothing nasty. “How are you, Marta?” someone calls in passing. She doesn’t notice. I take a discrete photo and short video.

I don’t purchase my coffee beans at the moment only because I want to come back sooner than later. (If I buy beans, I have less reason to come for a cup of coffee.) I sip my coffee, write, and wander back upstairs when my bottom hurts too much from sitting on a solid, flat piece of wood for too long.

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________________________________

Chris

“Sorry Sir, this is my first day”, a young, plump, early-20’s kid with huge lips informs me every step of the way as I try to buy a bicycle on 34th street. “That’s okay,” I let him know, ” as long as you make customers feel like you care, they won’t mind that you don’t know anything.” And I do mean, nothing. “So how do I buy this bicycle – I guess we have to get it down.” “I don’t think so,” he replies as I am already pulling the cruiser bicycle out from the display rack.

“The tires are flat. Can I pump them up?” “I don’t know,” he indicates while I am already filling the rear tires with a pump I pulled from the shelf. “This tire needs a new inner tube,” I inform, the air is coming out faster than I can pump it in. “Can it be fixed before I buy it?” Chris has no idea. What’s an inner tube?

Chris calls a fellow staff member. They ascertain that these are the only assembled, ready-to-sell bikes, there are none in the back. We find another men’s bicycle, quite different, but it’s the only other man’s cycle that they have, somehow the assembler has not noticed that mens cycles have sold more than woman’s cycles and just keeps the display area full. Now competent in removal, this time he helps me lift the cycle down to the floor and I again start pumping-up the tires.

“It’s more expensive, but it seems fine. I guess I’ll take this one.” I collect all the necessary accessories and the two of us head to the cash, he with the cycle, me with an arm load of lights, mirror, helmet, bell, basket, and locks.

“That’ll be $297,” the cashier indicates as I swipe my card and happily so. I called all the bicycle rental shops, the best I could find was a rental bicycle for $200 per week or $40 per day. It can be cheaper to rent a car. Crazy. I tell this to the cashier and she shares this astonishment yelling to another nearby cashier as I excitedly walk my bicycle out to the street. “Did you hear that? That white guy said that . . . .”

Feeling liberated from my feet which tie me to the ground, I mount the bicycle and start down the cycle lane, which have become plentiful in Manhattan. At the first light I think, “there are no breaks!” as I try to squeeze the handlebars. I realise quickly that a reverse pedal brings me to a tentative halt.

Excited, I turn on to 8th Avenue, another cycle lane. CLIKKKATTY – SSLLLIIIPP – KKKKHHHKKK – my legs are pedalling but I am not moving. The chain has not slipped. The gear on the rear tire has come apart. There is no forward motion.

“It’s not my fault, ” Chris says as I push the cycle back through the front doors looking as dramatically deflated as possible. The assembly guy is here in morning, I know this already from my hour of trying to ascertain whether it was possible to purchase a bicycle here. “Will you be here tomorrow when I come back for another one?” I ask. “No, it’s my day off.” “You’re a pooh-head,” I tease as he walks with me towards the returns desk.

___________________________________

Laurie

“It’s so nice to meet you! Our waitress won’t let us add any more people to our table.” It is my first time meeting Laurie, 10 days after I started staying in her Midtown Manhattan apartment. She and her partner have come away from their group to visit with me at the bar.

A film producer, Laurie is meeting with the cast and crew of their film, “Girls Who Smoke” which is later this evening to be part of the opening night program of the Big Apple Film Festival being hosted at Tribeca Cinemas.

Outside for a smoke myself, I meet a straight guy lamenting his girl troubles with a girl co-worker. They include me in the conversation as if we’ve known each other.

Two blocks from where we met for drinks we enter the crazy, crowded, chaotic, tiny cinema entrance. I claim my entrance ticket and he, “takes my word for it,” since for some reason he has no list of the pre-purchased. I buy a coke that’s “mostly ice”, my request, and somehow this provides me entrance to behind the bar. (I had stepped out of the crowd to order my drink and now it seems okay that I linger.) I find myself safe from the pressing crowds, leaning against the back counter inside the service area with a gorgeous blue-eyed dancer. (Not a student, this is a 2nd job along with dancing.)

Time to go in, I join my invitees again to slowly join the cattle shuffling into the little auditorium for our programme. “Girls Who Smoke” is the 4th short on the programme.

A slice-of-life film, two woman making a brief deep connection before going back to their separate lives. I love it. It’s my favourite kind of story telling.

The film ended, I sneak out, running off to my next adventure starting in 20 minutes at 11PM. I love this city.

_____________________________________

Qi

“For you, $20,” I am enthusiastically told by a good-looking Chinese man while he Vanna Whites his menu which indicates $80. “I feel SOOO special, why for me do you drop your price so very low? Sure.” I take my seat on a small folding stool on the sidewalk in front of Madame Tussaud’s. They charge about $1 a minute, the basic portrait will take 20 minutes at most, but most of them have these inflated price signs to be able to entice tourists by the bargain. I have also seen the advertised bargain approach, for a cartoonish scribble, only $5.

His name is Qi, from Shanghai. I spent some time there years ago when presenting recruitment seminars along the Eastern coast of China for an ESL college in Toronto. Shanghai is a gorgeous city, very impressive. Many of the unique, highly-designed sky scrapers were designed by New York City architects. It is China’s flagship city.

Qi’s son studies at a University in North Carolina. I could not catch what program he is in nor the name of the school, English was very limited. At home, Qi says that he owns a design business, for T-shirts. He visits his son in the US every year. The total yearly cost of having him study here is $80 thousand.

All this seems very, very odd. We are sitting on the street and he is drawing my picture. Why is he here? To earn extra money. He did drawing as a student, it was his hobby.

Finished my portrait, I give him $40 and he seems pleased. Such an odd story, but why would it not be true.

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Don’t Tell Mama . . . Memories while visiting this bar in NYC.

Manhattan – Re: Don’t Tell Mama Piano Bar visited nov 8, 2012. Written at Empire Coffee, Nov 9, 2012.

A Manhattan Piano Bar

“No Dancing Please. It’s against the law.” Posted over an open floor area to the left of the piano, I couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or a bylaw. Perhaps a terse way to point out that the city would not grant them the appropriate permit to allow customers to sway back and forth to the music, as would sometimes be the case at a sing-along. A convivial little piano bar, “Don’t Tell Mama” attracts a mixed crowd of locals and travelers, gays and straights, singles and couples, old and young. Having failed another attempt to quit smoking, I can tell you that it was less than a cigarette away from my apartment rental.

(Post Note: I did successfully quit smoking in February, 2013.)

I had enjoyed some shopping earlier in the day and I feel like a million bucks walking in wearing my new cashmere/wool blazer-style overcoat (chesterfield) and coordinating felted hat. I quickly scan the bar, as one does when deciding where to perch. It’s a quick-as-possible routine, you have come in alone, you don’t really want to be noticed as an outsider (first-timer), yet you’d like to sit strategically beside someone who also seems to be alone who at the same time looks potentially interesting or companionable.

In an instant I have three such appropriate seat-mates in my viewfinder, but all three are blocked. (Those who are clearly solo, but with no open seats beside them.) I don’t scan the entire bar, the table section appears to be full of groups and with a peripheral glance I discount everywhere apart from the bar counter which runs the depth of the space alongside the tables with a walkway between. The piano and microphones are on the far end wall. Sometimes a performer sings self-accompanied, sometimes not, and often the bar staff join in singing harmonies and such. (As do the customers.)

I choose one of three options, this seat because the cute couple next to me (husband and wife) look kindly and there is also one open seat beside me so another solo could possibly join. The handsome bartender, Jon, bounds about within his space making Martinis and Pear Sizzles. His feisty female counterpart runs drinks to customers at tables, breaking in to harmonies and choruses along the way.

My drink arrives and now the couple to my right are already departing. “Have a good night, boss,” he says as he squeezes my shoulder. He’s a big, strong guy in his mid-twenties with a gorgeous wife. I am surprised to see him walk away with much effort using a cane for support.

A new couple arrives to take their place, a very clean, fresh-faced, wholesome-looking early 20’s couple. I overhear an accent but it’s muffled by the music and the bar noise, maybe from Australia? She, sitting closer, sounds mainstream American herself. As I sit here I am writing about buying lunch for a guy in a wheelchair earlier in the day who, “Had my legs blown off in ____”. That place sounds familiar but I cannot think of where it is. I ask my neighbours if they know. “That’s in Northern Iraq,” he indicates, “what has you ask?” “Just wondering,” I reply to kill the conversation and make them wonder what kind of social oddity they are sitting beside who comes up with completely random questions regarding war-torn towns to strangers at a piano bar. Just kidding! A conversation now opened, I now enjoy their company as he and I happen to sing along to “Monday, Monday”, “California Dreaming”, and the like. (His girlfriend, sitting between us, sadly suffers from tone deafness, my words but apt to describe the condition they indicated.) They are holiday-making from Indiana for 3 days. They cannot explain why she doesn’t share his regional accent.

___________

“Monday Monday, so good to me, Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be,” belted Beth into her microphone as we all swayed singing along on the tiers of the music room at lunch time. Mr.Thomas, the music teacher, had created a music group in our high school that went well beyond just practicing music. It was a time when the school choir was changing from a group that sang pretty music to a group that sang fun music. Kids still learn lots about music even when it’s fun, seemed to be the modus operandi. Especially when it’s fun is more like it, we were all fully engaged and we all loved it. Our engagement created dedication and Mr.T’s enthusiasm was contagious.

To be honest, I would have been happy singing anything. I didn’t consider myself one of the cool kids who had to do cool things and be with cool people. I didn’t listen to pop music at all until high school, I mean the kind of popular music one hears on the radio, the top 40 countdowns and the repetitious favourites of the day. I had discovered various forms of Classical music during Junior High (age11-14) and that’s what I spent money on. I thought “Hooked on Classics”, those tacky remixes of music put to drum beats during the era of the cassette, were the bomb. When personal CD players came out in grade 10 (1988) and I brought mine to school, kids would be surprised, when they asked if they could hear what it sounded like, that I was listening to an opera compilation or my favourite at the time, Handel’s Messiah.

I only started hearing “popular” music when my girlfriend in grade 10 (she was my beard) introduced me to the radio, she only listened to the top hits and had the radio on all the time. I never listened to it on my own though. When it came to singing, I preferred the Classical Folk Music that I sang during voice lessons that used Royal Conservatory repertoire. I took lessons for a few years, through grades 9 to 11 until my voice teacher moved away.

Mr.T’s choir was called the “Blue Tones” and I auditioned to join soon after school commenced at Kennebecasis Valley High in New Brunswick. A largish school of more than 1700 students in grades 10 through 12 and 99 teachers at the time, it had a great selection of extra curricular activities. Primarily a jazz choir, it was Mr.T’s fun and creative flair that made this group a very central experience to many of us throughout high school. He had a love for music from the 60s and 70s and one-by-one worked out vocal and instrumental arrangements for many great numbers for us to learn, practice, and perform. He was probably listening to the Mamas and the Papas one day and thought, “Beth’s voice would be perfect for this one. I’m going to figure it out.” To me he gave, “Blue Moon”.

We learned the requisite jazz numbers that this type of choir should, enough to engage in competition and be able to perform as such. But the level of interest that Mr.Thomas inspired and the amount of dedication he gave us, we were able to have an entirely separate concert-length repertoire of fun, playful tunes. The endless noon hours, after schools, and weekends that man dedicated to his students I would not even realize until I became a teacher myself many years later.

Instead of the usual choir concert at the end of the year, or the occasional choir accompaniment to some other performance, Mr.T set up “gigs” which gave us lots of concerts to work towards and the feeling of purpose that came from rehearsing to perform. Mostly these involved entertaining at shopping malls which had the added benefit of earning some funds so we could purchase better equipment and more music materials and such. In grade 12 Mr.T had to move away with his family. A lot of tears were shed. Luckily, his successor, Ms.Woodford, picked-up the ball and kept it rolling, continuing the experience for us and future KVHS students.

During high school I was not the person I appeared to be. On the outside I probably looked like a smart, popular kid with lots of friends. A kid who drove a Cadillac to school one day, a motorhome the next. (Mother needed her car that day. Later she replaced it with a wheelchair van.) On the inside, among other things, I felt friendless and alone. People may have considered me their friend, but I felt unworthy of friends and I did not trust they would want to know me if they knew my “deep, dark secret”, so to me they were just people I knew. I liked people, some people I liked a lot, but there was a distance within me caused by my own invisible protective walls. Shame and guilt for being gay was bound with my own self-loathing and certainty that others would loath me too if they knew. A good Christian upbringing combined with some family trauma to distract my parents sealed my low self-worth. It was a different time and it seemed like I was the only one.

Perhaps my only friend at that time was our full-time cleaning lady, Myrtle. She was a woman near to her 60s who had 9 children (all then grown) and I knew she would accept me. If I didn’t have anything scheduled after school I’d hang out with her in the laundry room while she folded and ironed at the end of each day. My family sure made a lot of laundry. My vocal coach, another woman near to 60, was nearly another friend, in retrospect, the only other person I trusted not to reject me. But I only saw her weekly at most and it was not social, my lessons were at a conservatory and there were lessons before and after mine so there was no chat time. She was from Vancouver and had big-city open-minded artistic ways. She moved away and Myrtle was eventually fired. (Although not fired for this reason, Myrtle could barely get around by that point anyway, she was a large woman and was waiting for a hip replacement.) We kept in touch but she died before I came out to her or anyone.

Ironically, in my grad class of more than 500 students I was voted, “friendliest boy”. Does that mean I was popular? I don’t know. I did appear to fit-in with a lot of different groups. I kept myself really busy so no one could tell that I was a friendless-loser who hated himself. When I wasn’t busy I always went home alone, I never had someone over or went to someones house after school. When I was 15 I wondered what friends did outside of groups, I had no idea that they might just watch tv or play video games. I didn’t know what people meant by, “hang out”. I was an outsider on the inside for all those developmental years. I nearly had friends right at the end of high school, but it was kind of too late and it was too brief for me to conquer my barricades to be able to trust and feel close at the time. Really nice people though, I felt lucky they included me and we had a few fun times, but I still felt like I wasn’t worthy of the inclusion and it was only temporary.

What a shame I couldn’t feel it, being the friendliest boy I mean. I felt friendly towards others, I just could not feel it coming from them. I could not trust anyone and felt very much alone. Although I trust people now, I have nothing to hide anymore, I tend to fly solo still today. I did not grow-up having normal friendships from about age 10 until age 20 and I’m still not great at them now. People like me and I like them, but I tend to feel apart. The feeling I suffered in high school, of not being good enough to have friends, it still sometimes creeps in. What if I’m not fun enough or interesting enough or if I can’t live-up to whatever it is they expect of me. It causes me to pause or not call someone, to procrastinate meeting-up. Now it’s called social anxiety. I’m working on it.

This is a much longer story, but I just want people who knew me then to know that there was probably nothing they could have done to help me in high school. When I was 12 years old my brother shot himself through his head playing with a gun he found. (My father had a collection from his early-deceased parents and Mark had found the key to the gun cabinet.) A bullet through the brain left him a nearly brainless body that was alive but had no purposeful movement or ability to communicate until he died a few years ago. My Mother decided he had to live at home.

Overnight family life changed forever.

Overnight I suddenly could no longer relate to my peers.

I was in grade 7 and I found myself suddenly an outsider not sharing the experiences of anyone I knew.

By grade 8 home life entirely revolved around my invalid brother as it did for many years after.

I had an unrecognised depression and I struggled to get through the days. From having to pretend all was well when it wasn’t, by high school I was really good at playing the role I was expected to play even though I suffered so much. No one should feel guilty about my experience, by high school with the added issues of sexuality estranging me further, I really was beyond being able to be helped. It was a pain that had to be lived out. But this is another story. Actually, this is a book. But not right now.

Choir and drama made a lot of difference to improving my everyday during high school by keeping me busy with things I enjoyed. I will long be thankful to Mr.Thomas and also to Mrs.Doyle-Yerxa, the English teacher who changed lives through her dedication to students through the Drama Department. But that’s another story. As is Myrtle.

May I remind readers that these events from my past, although they have lingering influence on my life years on, they were then. I refer to high school as the worst time in my life because as a suicidal teenager, it was. However, life became and is much, much better. In fact, now I’m making up for it with some pretty great years and the best is yet to come.

Try not to pity someone who can follow his passions of traveling and writing with the freedom that I have. I don’t want pity, I’m just relating my history. The person I was in high school, definitely, pity him. No one should hate themselves like I did, I really thought I deserved to die. I thought I was evil, and the church at that time, it told me so. We still lose a lot of young people to suicide due to them being gay,lesbian,bi, etc, even with all the characters on tv and celebrities who are out now.

If you are a teacher or you know young people, make sure they believe, that they know, that there should be no guilt and no shame about accepting who they are. No one should think they are evil and discount all that is good about themselves the way I did. Ever.
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The bar is not very busy at the moment so I place myself at a small round table against the wall, midway between the piano on the back wall and the entry at the front. My third visit, I am now more comfortable coming in alone and finding whatever seat. Against the wall has a nice vantage point of seeing the entire bar. There’s couple to my right and another to my left, easier to socialize with than the larger groups who are having birthday nights or hen nights, or just a group from the office getting together. I pull out my notebook. I sip one of my 2 drink minimum, a Bellini, as I set pen to paper and remember events of recent days. A flash pulls my attention to the crowded sit-at bar counter that runs the length of the room opposite the tables.

Two smiling middle-aged women dressed to the nines for a night out in Manhattan have captured me on their iphones and continue to look on. They don’t look like locals, but also not tourists, I figure they probably came from across the river in New Jersey. I smile as they turn back around in their seats and I return to my task at hand. I forget a reference and chat with the male couple to my left who friendlily help me to think of a film’s name.

Another flash in my direction catches my eye and pulls my attention to the next party sat at the bar. This time, further up the bar, I watch covertly without lifting my head. Another photo, another camera. I discretely look behind me to see nondescript wall. The people around me seem ordinary enough, anyway, I’m fairly sure that I was the one on their screens.

After some time on completion of my 2nd drink I put away my writing materials, dawn my coat and scarf, and head towards the door. Friendly greetings from the bar as I pass, “Have a nice evening!”, “Nice to meet you!”, “Nice seeing you!”. I smile and say goodnight each time but without pausing. After crossing the threshold I stop and turn around, amazed.

Who did they think I was?

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The chorus to “Eleanor Rigby” seems ever-so-true sometimes in NYC, as it certainly does in London. “All the lonely people, where do they all come from . . . ” Although generally adept at making my own way, tonight I am not. It’s Friday night and I’m feeling intimidated by the crowds at all the fun-looking places along 9th Avenue. I venture into the restaurant section of “Don’t Tell Mama” as I happen upon it and I want to check the menu. Instead I stand there waiting for attention a few moments too long looking foolish, no just feeling foolish. It is crowded and noisy and jovial and I feel like I should not be coming in alone because it seems like no one else is. I leave with my tail between my legs before I’ve even been noticed by the busy waitstaff.

I make a circle towards home and eventually I pass my corner having failed at attending to dinner. I had set out and walked the periphery of Restaurant Row, past dozens and dozens of restaurants and now I continue in another direction, towards the water on 9th. I come to a very mediocre diner, it’s quiet and seems to be at about a third capacity. Over-lit, it has an uncomfortable, impersonal feel. There are a few couples eating in silence, some young, some old, oddly none in-between. I have low expectations as I start my french onion soup. Poor service, my burger arrives just after my soup, both are items I’d prefer to eat while hot. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon tastes like it’s been open a long time, a bit disgusting; it gives me acid reflux. I won’t drink it, but I also won’t send it back. A decent restaurant might enquire as to why I didn’t drink it, here they won’t care. The burger is lacking in condiments, ketchup only. I don’t put ketchup on my burgers, I prefer steak sauce and some mayonnaise, and maybe a dollop of sharp mustard for punch. The mustard should not be spread all over though, I like the surprising kick it gives to a few bites.

My New York experience would not be fully authentic without some lonely days and nights. Do I retreat now, or should I wander some more looking for another story? No, I’m too vulnerable this evening, I’ll call it a night.

If you find this posting interesting, please share it with your friends! Also, if you like it, let me know by clicking “like”. (If you don’t, please don’t, it’s how I can learn what works and what doesn’t.) Thanks for reading! Darren