This posting is related to my other Mumbai postings. In this writing I tell some stories of my time spent in Mumbai, the city where I kicked-off my 2013 India Adventures. Hope you like it!
I walk-out of the apartment complex to the active street below to procure an auto rickshaw. Suddenly I remember that I have no small bills, only 500s and 1000s. My ride, if legitimately charged, will come to less than 100 INR. ($2) Drivers never seem to have any change for tourists. They may have a bit, but never enough to fairly settle a bill. I always tip, but I try not to pay 400% or 1000% or the like, amounts which seem to often be expected. They don’t cheat a little bit, they aim high. This has happened so many times that I can imagine what they must be thinking, “You rich, white person, why not let me have $20 for $2 ride? What difference does it make to you?” I ask a middle-aged gentleman who is smoking at the front gate his opinion. “You definitely will need correct change, Sir,” he agrees, motioning to someone nearby. “Give him 500 and he will change it for you. Don’t worry, Sir, he is with our building.” A young man near to my height but nearly as thin as a fluorescent tube takes the bill and scampers from shop to shop. A moment later he returns with my money broken down into smaller denominations.
My neighbour now even helps me further. He hails me an auto rickshaw, explains my destination to the driver, and ensures that the metre is properly engaged so that I pay an honest fee. Even when metres are engaged, I have learned that one still needs to check that the starting balance is reasonable. If you’ve called or reserved a drive, starting with a sizeable balance could be legitimate if they have charged you for the drive that it took to get to you. But when you hail one from the street, which is nearly always the case, it should always have a starting fee of less than 20 or so. I’ve jumped in a street-side rickshaw whose driver initiated a starting balance as if he drove for an hour to come collect me. “Reset your metre.” “Sorry no English.” “Metre,” I gesture. Of course he knows what I’m talking about, language is not required when I acknowledge that he is cheating me, he knows full well that he is but is hoping for my ignorance as a tourist. I reach for the metre to reset it myself. “NO TOUCH!” he yells, slapping my hand. (To reset the meter you just put the lever down and then up again. Up is the engaged position.) “Stop, I’m getting out.” I often have this kind of issue when trying to get a ride on my own, so his assistance is much appreciated. Sometimes they will refuse the metre and quote me a ridiculous price. I never accept not using the metre. Other times I will get quite a long tour to cover a short distance. It’s the same games as many places in the world.
My first foray this time in India after having arrived last night. I suddenly realise that I forgot to observe the details of my building. In the plethora of stimulation – colours, lights, commotion, shops, rubbish, people, traffic, dogs – I had been much distracted by all the details and had not made any mental notes as to the arrangement of my building within the context of the street and nearby landmarks. Oh well, too late now.
We pull into the area of Kandivili Station and my 60 INR paid, I disembark in search of a restaurant called Sarovar, the meeting place my friend has designated. The station area is very busy with comings and goings. As I pass a McDonalds I think this would have been a more suitable landmark to meet in front of, recognisable from a distance and familiar to everyone. I find the restaurant having not seen a sign for it, fortunately I notice “Sarovar” embroidered on a blue uniform blazer of an attendant in an open-air section of the restaurant as I pass. (The signage I notice was around the corner on a side street and I never would have noticed it unless I had been walking from the station.)
A pleasant 27 Celsius, I find a spot in the shade and wait to meet my new friend, someone I corresponded with online and am now meeting for the first time in-person.
Profile photos are often not a useful tool when it comes to meeting. Sometimes they are pictures from a bygone era, usually the era during-which the subject was at their physical prime. A younger age, or when they were their fittest, after their best-ever haircut, or dressed up and groomed to the nines for a formal occasion. A caption could be, “Here is a photo of me from a time when I looked completely different than I do now, ” or , “This is a photo showing what I no longer look like.”
I am 20 minutes early. Still on Western time, which in India would be considered hyper-conscious, I don’t even start looking for him until the appointed time. I know that the chances of him also being early are very low.
Today I am wearing blue. Blue trousers, a blue checkered Ted Baker shirt, and a blue Fedora. People-watching as I wait, I realise how well I blend in. I attract continual curious looks and stares. I wonder how I appear to the locals in this completely non-touristy place. What would passers-by think of me, imagine about my life, assume about my origins. Would they assume me to be British? American?
Our meeting time comes and goes by 5 minutes, 10 minutes. Several people cross my radar as being my potential friend but they don’t approach me. I’m at a visual disadvantage for recognising him, all young men have dark hair, brown eyes, tanned to dark skin. He will need to find me, if being the only white guy in the neighbourhood isn’t enough, he knows I’m wearing blue and this kind of hyper-coordination I have not seen on anyone else.
Fifteen minutes after the appointed meeting time a little Mumbiker runs up to me sweaty and with a big smile. “Sorry I’m late, I went to the wrong place,” he admits, even though he had designated the meeting place.
After brief introductions we hire an auto rickshaw to take us to a nearby shopping mall, his idea for where we should go for lunch. There are countless restaurants here but I don’t know how to choose anyway, his idea sounds dull but I am happy to accept any suggestion.
After putting our bags through x-ray machines, walking through a metal detector, and having a pat-down, we are inside a middle-class haven of materialism. An impressive mall of 5 levels centrally open to the skylights above, the one design flaw that is readily apparent to me is complete lack of attention to acoustics. Even now while the mall is nearly vacant of shoppers, the noise level is shocking to me. Not of music, just a loud echoey din created by the noises endlessly reverberating. Alone, I would reach for my ear plugs.
Given a selection of Western-style fast food, I choose a restaurant outside of the food court hoping to escape the disturbing noise levels of the open spaces. Somehow the noise is welcomed into the restaurant with partial glass walls not reaching the ceiling. The food is mediocre at best and priced internationally. Over the coming weeks locals in different cities will often suggest we go to a mall to eat or to wander around after I express my preference to go exploring. They continually want to show me what they think will be impressive to me, clean, modern, international chain stores. “I hate shopping malls, ” I eventually highlight when making plans with anyone. There are some interesting ones, but never the ones they would take me to. “This is a local place, lots of people shop here.” I will be told. “What do you shop here for?” “Oh, nothing, it’s too expensive.”
“While we’re in a mall, could you help me to get SIM cards for my iPad and cell phone?” Absolutely, he is happy to help. Surprisingly, in this large mall, it is not a possibility. But he knows where we can go. Mobile phones are everywhere in India, so I am surprised that this mall that probably has 200 stores cannot furnish me with SIM cards. Rickshaw drivers have them, young people and old people use them, “Even homeless people have cell phones in India” one of my hosts exclaims, and it seems to be true. They are very affordable, the minimum payment I can later make on my prepaid account is 2 INR (4 cents).
After lunch we hit the street. After some difficulty hiring a rickshaw one is finally willing to take us to Hypercity. This is an everyday-type of department store that also has food, here it is referred to as a supermarket. There is also the main branch of a cell phone company within.
If someone had told me the process of setting-up a phone number in India, I may not have believed them. In the US I can go to a corner store, get a SIM card, and prepay what amount I like. In the UK, there are stores to expedite this process, visual in any location where there are shops. You go in, choose a plan, pay, and you are good to go. In India, the process seems more comparable to purchasing a home.
After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, we are told at the service counter to go to a different service counter. Despite there being no signs in Hindi nor in English, this counter is for payments only.
“Passport Please.” Two copies of my face page and two copies of my Indian Visa are required to get SIM cards. “Do you have identity photos?” I am asked. I hand over my extra Indian Visa photo. “You need two photos, Sir. We can take them for you.” A photographer arrives on the scene ready to shoot. “Am I allowed to smile for my SIM card application photos?” I ask, finding the lengthy process nearly comedic in it’s thoroughness. “Oh yes Sir. In India, you can smile for your photo. Not like in your country, is it Sir.” “Well, we don’t actually don’t need identity photos to use a cell phone in Canada. . . . ”
The application form, rather than copied, you fill out twice. Perhaps this is to capture you in any discrepancies? It contains all the usual questions regarding your life history that one would expect when opening a cellular phone pay-as-you-go plan.
“You missed your father’s details, Sir,” he points out after I thought I was finished. I suppose my brain had not allowed me to acknowledge this section, surprised as it was to discover that such information was required.
A few more moments and the documents are ready for signing. “Just sign here, and here, and here,” turn page, “and here”. “Now again, Sir, here, here and here,” ” and here.”
“That’s all there is, Sir. Now please, you can wait in the payment line. After you make payment, you will get the SIM cards. Then you will just need to wait for your identity check. After that, you can call 117 so they can again verify your information and activate your mobile. You have to call a separate time from your reference’s phone number to activate your tablet’s SIM card Sir, and they will also need to verify your Indian Referee’s home address.”
Wow. I guess cell phones in India must be really, really safe. Incredible checks and balances. In fact, it was okay activating my cell phone a few days later, but activating my iPad internet was a lot more work and a lot more hassles both for me and my referee. A week later, both my cell phone and my iPad were fully functional.se
Riders bulge from every opening of the approaching train and start disembarking before it comes to a stop. There is a burst of activity as passengers push through each other in both directions at the same time. In an instant I learn that it takes some force to board an Indian commuter train.
This is not rush hour, but the train seems still filled to capacity. The door-less thresholds serve as overflows with peoples entire bodies outside of the train apart from their feet and hands. They hold on to the ledge above their heads where a door would close.
The Indian Railway is one of the largest employers in the world, with 1.6 million employees. 55,000 trains carry 25 million passengers every day. Today is my first time to be one of those passengers.
Crammed into the rail car and being told this is a “quiet time”, the posted rules seem a tad comedic to me. Here are some excerpts, “DO NOT throw lighted match stick and cigarette/bidi ends. . . .DO NOT carry explosives and dangerous goods . . . .DO NOT light up stove or sigri. . .” Punishment up to 2 years imprisonment and fine up to 3000R (nearly $60).
We arrive to Juhu beach early in the evening. Mumbai beaches seem not to be for swimming or lounging. They are for taking a stroll and enjoying the breeze. We pass some women walking along separately together. (Keeping within visible vicinity of each other but not close enough to chat or interact.) I’m told they are prostitutes, I would not have recognised them myself. There are small men who give massage, legitimate massage, on the beach. At the end of the beach we come upon a “street food” bazaar, a grouping of a few dozen food stalls set-up beach-side.
Following our stroll we hop into a taxi and our host guides us to his friend’s home. Enroute, we stop to get house-warming items such as beer.
Hassan is a medium-sized guy around 50 years old who prides himself on giving a sturdy handshake. I have been taught that a medium-firm handshake is appropriate and shows integrity and sincerity. But a handshake should also be reciprocal, meeting the other person’s intensity. To be honest, his handshake is actually rudely strong, like one you might receive when being physically threatened in a covert way or when the giver is showing anger. In his case, I am sure it’s not his intent, he has simply been misinformed that stronger is better regardless the situation. He has also passed this teaching on to his 16 year-old daughter who also puts all her might into shaking hands. I guess he is proud of his grip, and hers, because he brings it up in conversation.
Hassan is a writer, as am I, and as is my German roommate for the week, so our host figured we’d make fast friends. Hassan does all kinds of writing, philosophical ideas, fiction, hindi films, and television scripts. Such a wide range, I think, he must have an agent to sell his various works? “Oh no, I’m waiting for my break,” he admits. All of his writings are sitting in his notebooks. In the bedroom. For no one to see.
He clearly does not understand how “breaks” happen. Without creating any possibility of discovery, he hopes his works will be discovered.
I have still not adapted to India’s sense of time. One can explain it coming from the crowds and the amount of time it can take getting places. But, it takes me a long time getting places too, which is why I leave extra time so that I’m not late. The relaxed approach to time is simply a different way of thinking, perhaps a lesser appreciation of respect of other’s time. This morning I am meeting people at 8:30 at a McDonalds or at 9:00 in front of an orphanage. To make sure I am not late, I am out the door to the train station at 7:30 on this Sunday morning.
Waiting on the train platform, a woman and her grown son are parading up and down the captive audience. His legs folded underneath him, he drags himself about on his bottom, his Mother guiding him along on a leash. This man of about 20 years is tethered to his mother. My guess is that he was born with such great brain damage that he was never able to learn how to walk. Or crawl. He scuttles about crab-like as his mother beseeches all who are present to help with donations. I give some bills but enough is never enough from the foreigner and they want more from me. I have to retreat into the crowd to get away. The train finally arrives, after about two long minutes.
“Foreigners are recommended to avoid the trains except on Sundays,” I have read somewhere. It’s true. I enjoy embarking without push and shove, this, the quietest time of the week, feels about the same as what we call rush hour on the Toronto subway. There is space enough between those standing that with leaning, we are able to make way so that people are actually able to pass. Mobility is possible.
In an instant, a very energetic figure in a flashy red sari enters the car and goes about rapidly touching heads and repeating a phrase again and again, upon each touch. Many dig into their pockets to dig out coins handing them to her/him. This is my second such experience so that now I understand the curiosity that is taking place.
Hermaphrodites are born in every culture, but typically a doctor decides with sex is most suitable at birth and the appropriate surgeries are carried out to create a single-gendered person. Very often, this situation leads to gender identification issues such as a man feeling trapped in a woman’s body or a woman trapped in a man’s. But when they leave both sets of organs there are definitely gender identity issues because humans are a gender-specific species.
A few days ago while my friend and I rode a rickshaw, a Hijra charged towards us at a stop light, put her hand out, and said, “Money please!” Stunned, I replied, “You don’t look like you need it, ” which my friend translated. It’s true, she was the best-dressed person I’d seen all day, glamourously so. She sighed, exasperated, and kept her hand out. “Do you know what this is?” my friend asked. “A man wearing fancy woman’s clothing is asking me for money?” Wearing a beautiful light blue and gold sari, bangles, make-up, dolled-up with all the pride of a drag queen ready to take the stage, she blurted, “No man!”
The Hijras live between the genders in India, not man, not woman, they are considered their own 3rd gender. Life can be hard for them, employers would not hire a Hijra so regular jobs are not available. The main modes they have for making a living seem to be begging, performing, and prostitution. “We believe that it is good luck to give them money, my Mother always does, ” I am advised by my friend, “But also, if you don’t give them money they might give you a curse.”
I hand her 100INR ($2) and she’s off. “You gave her too much.” I’m sure I didn’t, maybe too much were I Indian but foreigners are held to a completely different expectation. Had I been alone, she would have stood there demanding more, as is so often the case with street people.
On reaching the station it’s only 8:20 so I go in search of breakfast. An average looking woman with two children (perhaps about 3 and 5 years old) approaches me. The kids have been taught to beg when they see a foreigner and they crowd me with their open palms as I continue walking. “For the children,” the mother begs as I hand her a 20 INR note. (Most people give 1 or 2 INR to beggars.) “What about for the other one?”
“Sorry, that’s all I have.” I have no small notes left, and anyway, she could break it into 2 – 10 INR notes herself if it were really for the children. I have not stopped walking during this little transaction, but now I walk more quickly and try to ignore her continued pleading. Now the three or them are running alongside me and grabbing at my arms.
I spot a Cafe Coffee Day and high-line to it. They won’t come inside, I know this. They do, however, press against the glass and bang for my attention even as I find the seat furthest from the window and sit with my back to them. They do not relent until being shooed away by a worker of the cafe.
After a few minutes I take my place on the nicer patio. Surprisingly, on this private commercial patio, next to me sleeps a young man inside a mosquito tent. After I snap a photo of this arrangement, he really is right beside me, I see a little head poke around the corner. I grab my coffee and sandwich and retreat back inside as quickly as I can while Mother and children are running towards me. “No! I already gave you money! Enough is never enough and there are too many people!”
I decide not to give any more money today, since each time I give they only want more and more. If I give, they assume I will give more. If I don’t give, maybe they’ll leave me alone sooner? It is a lose-lose scenario with those in need all encompassing.
I arrive at the gate of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity at the appointed time of 9AM. Fifty two people have signed-up to come visit and play with the children at this orphanage, so far we are 3.
The organiser, a dark tall stocky guy, bumbles out and informs us that we will wait for everyone to arrive so that we go in as one group. Sounds reasonable. Nearly an hour passes and we are up to 9 of the 52. “I guess this is it, ” he says and we wander in.
Inside, we stand around the small office and are soon greeted by a Sister who explains that since visitor hours are between 4 and 5PM, the children have a programme at this time so the most we can do is to gawk at the infants through windows and the children in classes through doorways. The organiser had not even made the effort to call and find out the visitor hours, he just assumed Sunday would be an open house. Additionally, after he did discover this at 9AM, he didn’t want to be the one to tell us of his laziness so he waited for the Sister to inform us at 10:30. We, as attendees, had assumed this to be an organised reservation, not a large group randomly showing up to an orphanage, which it was.
We peered through the screened nursery windows for some minutes watching babies sleeping, resting, and a few watching us watch them. Then we were led to doorways where we huddled and watched for a moment as children sat quietly doing work at their desks. Finally we were led to the office for donations.
I signed-in the toy I had brought, a battery-operated hamster inside a ball.
I donated at the table where you were supposed to donate, in the way that I was supposed to do it, but I guess the amount, even in this group of middle-class professionals, made me a show-off. I folded the 1000 INR note (less than $20) and handed it to the Sister so it wouldn’t be noticed, but then I had to write my name and the amount given in their log book. As soon as the next person saw my entry it was if I had ruined it for the rest of them to give 20 or 50 or maybe 100 INR. The group, who were formally curious and friendly, were suddenly stand-offish and distant apart from three younger 20-something guys who thought nothing of it. There are lots of stores where these middle-class Indian folks can spend $60 on Ralph Lauren T-Shirts and $400 on Coach handbags so I’m not really sure why $20 would be considered a showy amount to give as donation when visiting an orphanage.
I just can’t seem to get the right balance of charity in India. If I don’t give to a beggar they may follow me down the street hassling me. If I do give to a beggar they may follow me down the street hassling me for more. Sometimes I give and suddenly find myself crowded with new outreached hands. Now I’ve discovered that if I give too much to a legitimate charity I may hurt the feelings of the locals who can’t give as much. I do my best to keep small bills tucked into all my pockets so I never have to pull out my wallet. It’s a lot of work getting small bills, even my hotels begrudge giving them to me. I feel panicked when I run out, nothing to pacify the beggars and without small change it is difficult to make transactions. Even a major coffee chain shop will claim not to be able to change a 500 INR for a 120 INR purchase. How annoyed was I at a Cafe Coffee Day a few minutes after being told they had no change to witness the cashier change over. Counting the cash back to a float, they counted a pile of 10s that was several inches high. They had hundreds of tens but claimed to have none. I guess it’s just what they say, whether they have change or not, they cringe their face and apologise, “Sorry, we have no change, you have smaller bills?”
Realising that this is a lose-lose situation for me, in many neighbourhoods it is simply too difficult to interact with locals. There is such a mass of poverty that as much as I can give is less than a drip in the ocean. It is overwhelming and often I need to keep my eyes straight ahead because sometimes when I acknowledge someones interaction it escalates to harassment. Pulling, grabbing, blocking my way. I will wear my headphones and feel sad that I am blocking out what I have come to India for, to interact with locals.
Leaving the gates of the orphanage, people are talking about continuing with lunch. I voice my interest in joining anyone and the three young guys agree, but suddenly the talk of going for lunch has now wained as the others have reasons not too join us. The four of us head out looking for somewhere and after circling the block we end-up just going to the McDonalds that’s near the station. Inside we walk past a table of 6. The other 6 people from the meet-up. It is rare to find myself having been so offensive.
Without serving beef, McDonalds India does still retain it’s charm as a purveyor of white sugar, white flour, buckets of sodium, and factory-farmed meats and vegetables all dripping with delicious trans-fats served in a nearly nutrition-free presentation. World-wide this company supports and endorses the means of food production that are slowly poisoning humans.
Sadly, this is sometimes the most healthful option for me when spending time outside of the tourist districts. The standard of hygiene in an Indian McDonalds is pretty much the pinnacle for restaurants in India. A nutritious salad will very possibly bring me to my knees for two days of agony because it was washed in water I cannot drink or because it wasn’t washed so it contains chemicals or faeces (manure), or because the implements used when making it were not sanitary, or because the cook went from working with raw chicken to pulling apart lettuce without washing their hands, or because from the open market the veggies and meat were thrown into the same carry bag, whatever the case, uncooked food is to be avoided outside of 5-star restaurants and hotels that have their own means of food production. (High-end places will sometimes have their own farms so they can completely control their food supply.) A sandwich made with sticky, unwashed hands, or a curry that contains left-overs from yesterday – which had left-overs from the day before – which had left-overs from the day before that, a hygienic meal served on dishes washed by being rinsed in a bucket of dirty, parasite-ridden water, the causes of food poisoning are countless and I have found my system to be weak in it’s resistance. Due to these factors, “safe” ends-up carrying a much heavier weight than, “healthful”.
My three companions become two after lunch. Both are recent newcomers who are hoping to make some local friends today.
Gokul is 27, a bright-faced IT guy temporarily relocated to Mumbai from Chennai for work. “You don’t need to visit my city,” he informs me, “there is nothing special about it.” I had already crossed Chennai off my list of possible destinations after having previous feedback.
Arand, 36, is a tiny, divorced man from Kerala. (Kerala is a popular destination for tourists in the South of India.) Arand may have overlooked my vulgarity because he is presently working on plans to immigrate to Canada and I later realise that he thought meeting a Canadian was a jackpot.
I suggest we visit nearby Juhu beach to find an open-air pub on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. Neither of them have been there, so I’m the guide for this one. Our auto rickshaw takes us to the central part of the beach where the food bazaar is located. Gokul is used to considering McDonalds a place to have a snack (it’s treated like a coffee shop by young Indian people, those who can afford it will meet friends there after school or work, or during breaks) so that even though he’s had a highly calorific meal, he feels like he has not yet had lunch. Gokul has a quick plate of street-food before we continue to wander in search of a patio.
Using his android phone, Gokul is doing his best to find something nearby but it uncovers nothing. It seems a strange lack, most of the beach is lined with the back-sides of buildings whose construction completely ignores the existence of the water and the cleaner fresh air. Finally we encounter a raised garden with an open-air lounge as part of a chain hotel. Arand calls to a security guard asks whether non-guests are welcome and how to get in. (There is no visible way up to the area, which sits about 8 feet above the beach.)
As we enter the airport-type security that is the entrance of this basic-seeming hotel, bags x-rayed, pockets emptied, and bodies frisked, I realise that this may not be the kind of place where local young professionals will feel at-home. But, it did look nice from the beach and we are all enthusiastic after having found what seems to be the only open-air bar on the entire beach.
We find a table that we are able to push into the shade and I notice the placards on every table read, “Min 1000 INR per person”. $18 is a lot of money here, so was reiterated to me this morning. “Let me treat, it will be the same as if I bough the drinks in Canada!” I suggest to ease any tension before it develops. The rickshaw ride, the wandering to finally find this place, it took well more than an hour to find a patio and it would be very awkward to leave. “What do you mean?” Gokul asks, why would buying a drink above a beach in Mumbai be like buying a drink in a country that is now full of snow? “The prices here, they might be foreigner prices, so let me treat this time because they are what I am used to anyway.”
Their eyes widen as they open the drinks menus. 597 INR for drinks that they would expect to pay between 70 to 110 for. Clever pricing, minimum of 1000 immediately becomes minimum of nearly 1200 or a 2-drink minimum. The drinks are of a higher quality than cheaper ones would be, but not 6 times better. We are in the domain of the international tourist and the Indian elite.
They both accept my offer with some relief. To spend several days wages on having 2 drinks would have been ridiculous.
As we chat about India and Canada and about their hometowns and new life situations I can’t help but notice that of the 30 or so Indian folk around us, not one is darker than beige apart from my two new friends. Indian skin colours differ considerable person-to-person so a sea of the lightest variety is very noticeable to me.
We call it an evening at around 6 o’clock. For me, it’s just the beginning of my next adventure. Trying to get home relying on the notoriously-ignorant auto rickshaw wallah.
In most countries I have travelled, providing an accurate, detailed address that includes the neighbourhood, proximity to major landmarks, and even general roads required to get there would guarantee your arrival to that designated destination. Not so in India.
In addition to not using maps, not having GPS, and often being unable to even read any information even in their own language, the drivers also don’t like to leave their areas. Given this fact, you’d think that they’d know their own areas better than they do. When naming the region of the city where you are trying to get to, if that region is not within or directly next to the region of your departure point then it will be difficult to secure a ride. I think there may be restrictions as to how far an auto rickshaw can venture as well so perhaps they are not allowed to venture outside of their own area.
One of my new friends is going to an address that is half way to mine, so we agree to share an auto up to that point. From there I can catch another one for my 2nd leg. Even with this much closer destination, it was the 5th driver who finally accepted our fare.
At the end of this first drive, it was not too difficult for Arand to help me find another auto who would agree to take me to my neighbourhood. After much instruction, written, on the map, and explained by Arand, we depart for Kandivili on the now dark streets of Mumbai.
Auto rickshaws in India are not designed for the foreign tall person. My head is entirely within the confines of the non-transparent tarp that constitutes the roof and body panels. The deep slouch required to have any vision beyond the immediate traffic is something that I can only retain for a few minutes. So I am not fully able to see where we are going or where we are coming from when riding in the back of this kind of vehicle.
My address is in Kandivili West, Charkop Sector 8, behind MTNL (a large landmark building of the Mumbai Telephone exchange, this description is even in the official post office mailing address). My driver was thoroughly explained all the directional information at great length but has chosen to ignore the part about being in Kandivili West and the part of being in Charkop Sector 8.
In the darkness I jump out at the large MTNL building. He was given and explained my actual address but I know how to make my way from here. As soon as he has pulled away I recognise my situation is not what I had expected. He has taken me to a different MTNL building that is not in Kandivili West, not in Charkop Sector 8. I have no idea where I am.
Thus commenced the ugly dance all over again. Hailing down autos and begging them to take me to the region I need to get to, eventually finding a taker on offer of double fare. Then providing written and vocal instruction numerous times. The driver pulling over to ask for directions after each turn, me putting the driver on my cell phone with a friend who lives near my home stay and knows the area well. Three times.
Finally home, I am too late to join my host family for dinner so my neighbour friend who has talked my auto driver to finding home, joins me for a visit. He helps me find the best food option in the neighbourhood, I have tomato and cheese on dry white bread. It’s a street-side stall and we wait a moment as the young man slices the tomato and makes the sandwich. It’s not a clean place but it is the best of what’s walkable. A few hours later I am sitting on the toilet in the middle of the night with burning cramps while my insides are trying to escape. Really? I guess his hands and the counter were that dirty?
The Gateway of India stands in the heart of Mumbai near the famous Taj Mahal Hotel. It is from there that we catch the last ferry of the day going to Elephanta Island.
Formerly known as Gharapuri, Elephanta was renamed as such in the 17th Century by Portuguese explorers who found a large, ancient elephant sculpture near the entrance of 7 very impressive caves on the island. They tried to take the sculpture back to Portugal but their chains were inadequate and the giant sculpture fell into the sea. Later the British cut the sculpture into several pieces and relocated it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Mumbai.
The path leading from the dock to the caves is strewn with Monkeys and vendors. A light-rail miniature train can replace the short, 600 metre walk although waiting for it takes as long as the walk itself unless it is there and ready to leave on your arrival.
It is estimated that the caves were carved into the rocks sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. Perhaps the most impressive remaining example of Hindu Cave culture, these caves comprise the abode of Lord Shiva. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre due to it’s significance to Indian history.
My favourite part of the visit was actually the ferry ride that took less than an hour to take us 10 km from Mumbai in the Arabian Sea. For much of the journey, Seagulls hovered very closely to us as Indian tourists tossed them snacks, mostly potato chips and Doritos that were available for purchase on board. Hovering within arms reach, when looking directly into the flock it seemed like we were flying with them.
A large park situated between the Eastern and Western suburbs of North Mumbai is also the “lung of the city”. For some reason there seems to only be one entrance, from the North West area of the park. The park would be far more utilised were there more entrances, but perhaps that is not desired. I am staying very near to the park geographically, but being on it’s East side I need to completely circumnavigate the park to gain entrance. This journey takes about 90 minutes by auto rickshaw or 2 hours by air-con bus.
The entrance for Sanjay Gandhi National Park is located approximately 1km from Borivali Station. Located within the park are the Kanheri Caves. Kanheri means “black mountain” and it is a large outcropping of basalt rock. 109 caves of various dimensions have been carved into the rocks ranging in age from 1BC to 10AD. By the 3rd Century these caves had become an important Buddhist Settlement.
The caves are located at the top of an incline that extends 6km from the entrance. Bicycle hire is available in the park to make this journey more manageable for those who are not visiting by bus or car. Small, pre-adult sized mountain bicycles that were obviously acquired a generation ago, are kept in near-working order with the additions of extra bolts and screws, clamps, tape, metal wire, and various other small handies in a MacGuyver chest of tools.
My seat is raised to it’s max so that my knees don’t come to my face when pedalling. My brakes are made to work to some degree, and we’re off. My one-speed cycle is missing half of one of it’s pedals, and turning the wheel to the right (and back again) involves considerable effort, but it’s doable.
The pavement consists of the variety of road surfaces I have come to anticipate in India, from smooth, to rutted, to to nearly impassable. The ground vegetation is dried-up and crispy brown. The trees look as though they are used to hanging-on to life. I spend much of the ride jumping to my feet off the bike, saving myself from sudden bumps and hoping that what’s left of my pedals won’t snap off one of these times.
My host is not good with reality. Despite taking this ride many times, when he descries it to me he says, “20 minutes cycle”. He is not a strong cycler and I have to stop and wait for him to catch-up often. It takes perhaps an hour. “When were you here last?” “A week ago.” I don’t think his stamina would have changed that much in a week.
We both push our bikes up the last steeper stretch and abandon our cycles at the side of a car park. A busload of white middle-aged tourists have already taken in the caves and are waiting to leave. Such a different experience, I think, I cycled here with a local and they just came out of their bus right at the destination. I think back to my last trip to India when we too would have arrived by vehicle (two of us with our car and driver, we had the same driver for 21 days). We would have gotten out of the car with our local guide, he would have shown us around, and off we would go again to the next sight. On this trip, one sight can easily take a full day and it is a much more local-feeling experience.
Like in many parks, monkeys are a part of the amusement. They hover closely as we drink water and one growls with impatience each time I take a biscuit. It’s actually really cute, but cookies are not good for monkeys. They’re terrible for me too, but we haven’t had lunch and this is the only think actually available at the hillside “cafe”. That in mind, I do end up sharing. Better than nothing I suppose.
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