Going for a Ride in Lima

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I would like to say that I did enjoy my visits to Lima and it is a city well worth seeing. That this story unfolded during those visits is probably coincidence. I recommend visiting Peru and I probably will again myself someday.

 

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Mother and I visiting a park in Lima, Peru.

Going for a Ride in Lima

The flight to Lima was uneventful. My second visit and Mother’s fifth, we anticipated our arrival knowingly and with excited anticipation. My family is involved with a charity project a couple of hours North of the city and Mom is the administrator.

We arrived to a summery Autumn day. Now experienced with this destination, we knew that the best exchange rate was not found in Canadian banks or even Peruvian banks, but in the airport. Mom has also become involved in a small community down South in the Sacred Valley where she likes to spend most of her time when visiting Peru because her visits to the charity project are basically constrained to two days. Canadian money goes a long way in Peru and Mother had decided that on this trip she would buy a roof for the church she attends in the Valley. It wasn’t that the roof needed replacement, the church didn’t actually have one. It was thought that having a roof would be handy, especially during rainy season when four brick walls on a patch of mud might not provide the shelter desired. For this purpose and for her own spending, she brought with her a good amount of cash.

Looking back at it, a glass cage in the middle of a busy airport hall was perhaps not the most inconspicuous place to deal with stacks of cash and we could have been more discreet. We both giggled when we saw the stacks of Peruvian nuevo sols that thousands of Canadian dollars had become, it looked silly. It appeared like the amount of money one could retire on, which in Peru I suppose it was. We also filled another small bag after Mother’s purse was full to busting.

Well educated on the perils of hiring just any taxi, we organise our government-controlled taxi ride before leaving the airport. The facility itself is located in one of Peru’s most dangerous neighbourhoods and is not somewhere one should even step onto the street. Too much luggage for us to take a car, we hire a full-sized van to get into the city.

After being directed into the van by our amicable driver, we start out. “I can’t believe how comfortable I have become here!” Mother exclaims, “I used to be nervous arriving to Lima, now it just feels like my other home!” We both beam excited smiles, looking forward to visiting some familiar places in Lima before we head to the charity project in a couple of days. The children will be excited to see us. I’ll get to visit my own sponsored kids again too, quite a rare experience when one sponsors children in the third world.

“Darren!!! Darren!!!”

At the traffic light some blocks away from the airport, a young man has smashed Mom’s window open. He has her bulging handbag out the passenger-side window before we can even register what has happened.

Mother is in the habit of keeping her purse over her left shoulder. The purse catches on her shoulder long enough that I am able to join in the struggle myself before it is too late. The young man and I have a considerable tug-of-war through the window before the assailant realises he won’t win, lets go, and runs off with nothing.

Our driver somehow hadn’t noticed this was happening and only after the man was sprinting away did he turn towards us. “What’s wrong?” as if he didn’t hear the window smashed open directly behind him, me shouting and fighting with someone right there. The driver got out in an act of infuriation that such a thing could possibly happen. But his reaction was impossibly delayed. If he honestly did have that delayed of a reaction, then he should not be allowed near any motor vehicle or even be permitted to walk down the street. A lot could happen to someone who has a 20-second delay in processing stimuli. (Sad. He fell in the bath tub and didn’t notice until after he had drowned that he was under water.)

Can you imagine being behind such a fellow at a coffee shop? “What would you like?” Twenty second pause. “What kind of juice do you have?” “Apple and orange juice.” Twenty second pause. “Is the orange freshly squeezed?” “No.” Twenty second pause. “In that case I guess I’ll just have a coffee, do you have a medium roast?” “Yes.” Twenty second pause. “I’ll have that then.” “How do you take it?” Twenty second pause. “Take what?” “You’re coffee.” Twenty second pause. “Where? I don’t see my coffee.” “Would you like to have a coffee with cream and sugar?” Twenty second pause. “No, just cream.” . . . . I imagine myself tackling him in utter frustration. Back to what actually happened, it wasn’t as though our struggle had been quiet, and we were in the seat directly behind his. He didn’t seem to be hard of hearing nor visually impaired. Oddly nearby is a police officer who our driver mockingly yells at and then tells us that he yelled at the policeman for what happened. Case closed. We were then back on our way with our deflated driver who probably just missed-out on a 6-month holiday. Mother whispers, “Should we still tip him?”

A good question. From my considerable experience, I usually factor-in quite a few scenarios when calculating my tip. How honest was the route taken (if I know, today I do), how helpful was the driver with our bags, was the driver friendly or standoffish, did the driver try to take us places we did not want to go enroute to our destination? Did he try to take us to his friend’s hotel rather than the one we instructed, did he tell us our hotel was out of business trying to persuade us to another destination then feign shock when he was mistaken? Did he refuse to use the metre, or did he start the metre at an extraordinarily high amount? Did he pretend there were ridiculous surcharges not included in the prepaid fare, did he not have any change whatsoever and refuse to take us to get change causing the fare to be six times the agreed rate? Did he try to pick-up an additional passenger (who could be a comrade to make it two-against-one for a mugging, by the way.) Did he run out of gas, did the car break down, did he insist on smoking and with the windows up, did he refuse to turn on the air conditioning without further payment when it was steaming hot and an air conditioned cab was already paid-extra for. Did he agree on one fare before you got in and then present you with a random total four times the agreed amount at the end? Did he then yell to a nearby police officer that YOU were trying to cheat HIM? Was his visa machine broken until you took a photo of his car’s id and then suddenly it was working after all? Did he try to drive away with your luggage still in his trunk? Did he put your suitcase on the roof and not secure it until you refused to depart until it was? “If it doesn’t fall off, someone will just take it when we’re stuck in traffic.” “So? Maybe my brother, I mean the stranger, needs it more than you do.” All of these scenarios I have encountered. I am not kidding. In some places I am now in the habit of taking a photo of the cab information while the driver is watching, I make that gesture obvious on purpose, although many drivers will still attempt a variety of cons even knowing I have the full ability to track and report. Best to use a phone because cameras can be removed from you. “So exciting to be here again! I just texted a picture of your cab to my sister!” NEVER admit to being a first time visitor to a taxi driver. At the very least, first time visitors tend to get the scenic route. The only country where I completely trust taxi drivers is Japan. “Sumimasen. Could you please count the cash in my wallet while I go use the toilet, I didn’t have time to check how much I have. Arigato gozaimasu.”

Today I add to my tipping criteria, “Did he collude with other criminal(s) to look the other way for a share of the takings while we were being violently mugged less than two feet away from him?” If you ask me, it’s definitely grounds for a reduced tip.

We arrive to our usual hotel shaken but thankful. We are still alive and the church will still get it’s roof. “I’m glad you were with me this time!” Mother chirps gratefully. Definitely. Alone her purse would have been gone and she would not have had anyone to calm down with. That would have been a terrible experience. (Unlike the wonderful experience it was due to my presence.) “That poor man, he’s probably addicted to drugs,” my Mother mused throughout the day. “Isn’t that sad, Darren. Did you see how thin he was? Do you think he probably uses crack? That makes people really skinny. He’s someone’s son. He’s probably someone’s brother. Just think of his poor Mother.”

We weren’t so lucky during my first visit. Nearly, but not quite. At the end of those three weeks we had one last day in Lima after covering Cuzco, the Nazca Lines, Machu Picchu and some other main areas. Our guide took the two of us inside St.Francis of Assisi Church in the lovely district that looks more like colonial Spain than South America. This was a church open for tourism, with paid admission. A crowd pressed close to look over a railing down into the catacombs where we could see a large collection of skulls. Turning away Mother suddenly noticed her purse was now open. Someone in the pressing crowd had unzipped it and got away with her wallet.

I had her passport with mine in my waist wallet, strapped under my shirt. Without that, we would have had to extend our stay which we were no longer keen to do. We did, however, spend our last afternoon and evening in Peru on the phone to Canada cancelling her various credit cards and later in Canada she had to go about the process of replacing all of her stolen ID. “Good thing you were with me,” I remember her saying that day too. Yes, thankfully one of us still had access to funds. And it’s much better to share a crisis. Not in the same way that it’s better to share a birthday cake. Or it’s better to share your crayons. This is more like sharing student debt with your parents. Everyone wins. Except your parents. You know what I mean.

Later we discover that the same scenario coming from the airport happened to someone we knew who had arrived to Lima a week before. She had also changed money inside the airport hall. Her window was also smashed open, she thought with a metal gun but wasn’t sure because it happened so fast. Despite being closed, our window was able to be smashed open. Her’s was smashed into pieces in her lap and she had to go for stitches.

At the end of our stay we again flew through Lima where we had an 8-hour layover. Previously, we would have gone into town to enjoy lunch and wander around without a second thought, but this day we stayed-put. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk for such a short duration. The airport suddenly seemed a perfectly cozy place to spend a day.

No matter how experienced one may be there are always new situations that life can bring and new lessons to be learned. I didn’t really feel like learning a new one just yet. I firmly believe that we need to take chances in order to live life fully. But sometimes we need to listen to our experiences and not just move boldly forward. Perhaps there was a reason we weren’t to visit Lima that last day. Maybe our close call was actually a warning. Whatever the case, the expectation that someone might attack us at the first traffic light after leaving the airport was enough to alter our enthusiasm for seeing Lima again.

Visiting my foster kids North of Lima.

Visiting my foster kids North of Lima.

A Street in Cuzco.

A Street in Cuzco.

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Swimming in Paradise

I may update this with some photos from our trip to Turks & Caicos in the near future.

Swimming in Paradise

“Is it an STD?” our brother playfully asks the nurse as we burst into the examination room with camera in hand. Our sister, suffering from burns, sits on a chair in the medical office of our resort while the attending nurse verifies her condition. Barb is not yet finding the hilarity of the situation and presents a finger in response to the intrusive photo taking and general merriment being enjoyed at her expense.

The day had nearly been like any other, on a trip with friends and family at a beach resort in Turks & Caicos. Relaxing breakfast lingering over coffee, wandering through the grounds, reading under a canopy, swimming. Today we sign-out snorkel equipment to be able to better appreciate the beautiful sea life below the surface. “You can snorkel here,” we are told at our resort, “but if you continue down the beach, the area in front of the next resort has a lot more to look at.”

“That’s awesome! Thanks so much for telling us!” Barb replies. We all make our way towards the water pulling on our masks and trying-out making silly noises through the snorkels. We sound like a herd of elephants in confused distress as we listen to our own affected voices manipulated through the air tubes while our feet awkwardly slap the wet sand as we walk with our flippers.

We enter the waves directly, with plans of swimming over to the next resort to behold the more impressive beauty known to reside there. It’s always interesting after swimming somewhere, particularly in salt water where you need to close your eyes tightly, to later swim again but with the added view of what is swimming with you. The beach around our resort was voted by readers of Conde Nast Traveler to be the “best of all island beaches worldwide”. So it was pretty. The main attractions, under the water, were not to be missed.

As a group we playfully drift our way in the direction we were suggested and eventually we encounter a rectangular area a bit away from shore circumferenced by lines of red buoys. “This must be it!” someone calls as we all follow suit and one-by-one duck under the line of buoys to enter the space. “Gold pot!” Barb calls sing-songly as she views her first school of spectacular fluorescent-coloured fish and brightly-coloured vegetation. “Over here, look!”

“This is amazing!” our brother Bryan exclaims, pulling his face out of the water long enough to share his enthusiasm. “Incredible!” calls a friend, “I can’t believe this is real!” We’re all fascinated as we slowly skim along the top of the water, enjoying the views of life and beauty unfolding just underneath us.

“I have to go in,” I swim over to tell someone not very long after we’ve started, “I’m getting burned.” I guess the waterproof sun block is coming off and I’m burning just at the top of my shoulders. I leave the group and the water and make my way to shade. Deciding I’m done with the beach today because of the sun, I go back to my room to clean-up. I’ll find a nice sheltered area where I can read.

An hour or so later Bryan has come to find me. “Do you have burns?” “A little bit, that’s why I got out.” “Let’s see!” I lift my T-shirt to show a bit of redness on my shoulders. “That’s not sunburn, that’s where the buoys touched your shoulders when you ducked-under them! I just have a bit on my arm!” Bryan shows, “You should see Barb, she is covered with great big red spots! She’s in the medical clinic, let’s go!” Starved for adventure at an all inclusive resort, this is quite a breakthrough. I mean, she probably won’t die or become maimed, so no need to worry really.

The first burst of adrenaline in days of lounging and eating at this child-friendly family resort, we excitedly run to the medical office where, when no one answers, we continue through to the private examination room. “This is private!” the nurse shouts on our rude and abrupt entry. “It’s okay, we’re with her!”

“Holy smokes, what is it?” I blurt-out seeing Barb covered in big red blotches and after Bryan has teasingly asked the nurse whether she has been sought on this occasion to treat an STD.

Barb, who was last to leave the water, explains. “We were swimming in fire coral. When I came out there was this older local guy who asked didn’t we know that we could be fined ten thousand dollars each for swimming in a restricted area.”

“What restricted area?”

“The area inside the red buoys wasn’t showing the best area to explore, it was showing where not to swim.”

“But how were we supposed to know?”

The nurse, who most likely fills her days dealing with minor injuries caused by the utter imbecility of resort guests, looks at us with tired eyes and some pity. I suppose she never gets to meet the sensible visitors. The ones who didn’t forget to wear sunblock when seeing sunlight for the first time in three months, or who thought it might not be prudent to try to pet the interesting wild birds that have large, funny beaks. No, she meets the daredevil who was sure he could impress the ladies by going down the enormous water slide standing-up and then sent his now-broken teeth right through his lip when it all went wrong. The girl who had one-too-many bottles of wine before accidentally falling unconscious into the chocolate fountain very nearly drowning herself in front of small children holding up their strawberries and marshmallows on little sticks under the flow of the viral chocolatey liquid. Had it not been for their screams. . . . The man who thought his mother’s medicated hot roll-on ointment for joint pain was his deodorant and burned his armpits. Okay, in his defence he never went for medical treatment and anyway that was months ago and he wasn’t used to having houseguests. They were very similar containers. With the impressive line-up of ailments she must treat, the nurse probably wonders how all of these ridiculous people can even afford travel let-alone how they haven’t accidentally killed themselves already by choking on their own toothbrush or forgetting to chew a large hunk of steak. Life isn’t fair.

“Does red mean “go” in your country?” the nurse asks. “Because in our country it means stop. And caution.” We stare, processing her logic. Interesting.

Barb continues, “He said there was a sign that blew over last week. And then the old man points at my red patches and he says that they are burns from swimming near endangered fire coral and that I will need to see a doctor.”

“Oh my goodness gracious,” I reply, although in less polite terms, as I now suddenly re-visit my own red burns. “So do they put-out burning acid into the water? Is that why they’re called fire coral?”

“They’re actually a type of jelly fish,” informs the kill-joy nurse. Again, we stare with pause. This woman really likes to be the centre of attention, barging-in with her random comments.

“Should we pee on her then?” asks Bryan, helpfully. (Urine can be an antidote to jelly fish stings.)

“You could,” the nurse replies, “but it won’t help.”

“Let’s try anyway,” I offer, “I’ll pee in this jar and bring it back.”

“If it’s not going to f*ing help, I’m not pouring your f*ing piss on me! Thank you!” Barb politely refuses. A tad melodramatic if you ask me. We’re just being silly about her being covered with burns from swimming with poisonous see creatures. I mean, she is in pain and I suppose we don’t yet know if it’s serious or not so I guess she has a point. But she’s probably not going to die or anything.

Cortisol cream dispensed, ten days later it’s like it never even happened. Just another happy travel memory.

Two years pass and we find ourselves on set of a travel show in production. We’re being interviewed for this story and for the story earlier-written that caught the producers attention about our flight to Turks & Caicos. Both stories will be separate segments of “Bad Trip”. http://www.cmjprod.ca/badtrip.html The show will be in editing this winter and aired sometime in 2014. I’ll post a link to it when it’s out.

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If this looks like a photo shoot, it’s because we forgot to take photos while they were interviewing us on cameras. These are pics from the photo shoot afterwards. See here Bryan, Barb, and Me.

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Rather than visit this production company in Montreal, we joined the proceedings at the Royal York Hotel here in Toronto. That’s why it may look like some conference you’ve attended.

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Of course they wanted me to be the one lifted in front but I was too shy.

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Spending a Long Weekend in Leicester, UK

Leicester

I arrived to the Campanile Hotel in Leicester before noon on a Saturday. “Is it possible to check in?” I ask at the front desk. “No, check-in is at 2 o’clock, you’ll have to come back later.”

I knew check-in was not until 2, but most hotels allow early arrivals if they have any empty rooms. Or if they don’t, they at least pretend to. “Sorry, we don’t have any rooms available at the moment,” sits better with me than, “check-in is at 2.” But that is the rule and that is the reason presented.

I head into the streets towards downtown. In the very centre of town is a clock tower from-which emanate pedestrianised streets in every direction. My first impressions of Leicester are bleak. Driving in, the Sat Nav was not well able to navigate the mixed-up combination of twisting one-way streets combined with road construction and diversions. I did a few circles before deciding not to listen to Audi’s GPS system and actually making progress. I may set-up the Tom Tom before I leave this city, I am finding Audi’s Sat Nav to be quite poor indeed.

I chose the hotel because it looked very convenient, just outside the ring road of the downtown. But my area of downtown seems to be rather downtrodden, an industrial area now partially boarded-up. “Where have I taken myself now,” I wonder as I walk in the direction of the clock tower, taking some desolate photos on the way.

This is a bank holiday weekend and the shopping streets are packed. In fact, it’s incredible. For a smallish city of around 300 thousand, it seems like we could not conjure these kinds of numbers in a city of more than 10 times the population, I am thinking of my own city of Toronto. The crowds moving through the extensive pedestrian area make me feel like I am at a carnival, it’s like walking through the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition, an 18-day festival in Toronto).

My first impression of Leicester is of feeling claustrophobic. The buildings crowding the streets, the streets crowded with people. I wander in search of somewhere to linger as I explore, but I don’t feel comfortable.

At the Tourist Information centre I discover that I missed the once-weekly walking tour, it was this morning. The office is of no real use to me whatsoever as I ask what options I have for seeing this city. I pause here staring at the pamphlets for some time, I can’t seem to filter out the interesting from the banal today and nothing catches my attention. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my continuous travel this weekend, I wan’t the ladies hired to work here to tell me what is interesting but they don’t seem to have any opinions, they just try to answer specific questions. Well, they don’t really “try” but they do answer if they know. “Go the the Guild Hall,” one tells me, “they might know if any other walking tour exists.” Or, since this is an information centre and since knowing this kind of thing should be something you would want to know, perhaps you could call over there and find out. Eventually I make my way back to my hotel around dinnertime and I stay in my room until the next morning.

My room at the Campanile is small and basic. Just a bed and a corner table with a chair that pulls up, the table holds a tv and an electric kettle, so there is just enough room to do some writing there as well. So it is surprising to me that there are at least 6 Eastern Europeans in the room next door, how different could their room be? I assume they aren’t actually sharing the same room, they must be just visiting, they’ll separate in to their own rooms when it’s time for bed. Eventually. Clearly having a great time, at first just chatting and later watching some seriously comedic television programs after midnight. I watch Netflix in bed using my headphones so that I can hear, my speakers are not strong enough to compete with the noise emanating from my neighbours.

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Not a lovely view from the perspective of where I was staying. I would choose a different area for sure, there are lovely areas in Leicester, just not this one.

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Another view from near the Campenile hotel.

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You can see how my first impression was marred by the location where I arrived and stayed in Leicester. Walking towards the centre was not pretty, but then the city was actually quite nice.

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I guess this building may be on it’s way for demolition?

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There were a lot of people about on this bank holiday weekend. It’s probably much more pleasant any other time.

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The city centre seemed to emanate from this clock tower.

There is no fitness centre in the Campanile. It really is just a faceless but clean economy hotel, the most boring possible choice really. I had seen them other places before, but now I know to avoid them. I’m glad I’ve tried it for a 3-day stay rather than a week somewhere. It is fine if one does not want any character or sound-proofing.

I’ve not had proper exercise for several weeks, not since my first week in Birmingham, so I prefer to take the stairs over the elevator. I exit my room and enter the nearby stairwell, the door labelled, “Push Bar to Open”. A simple mechanism. If you can read, you probably do not need the aid of this sign to aid you. I open the door and bound down the stairs to the bottom. “Door is alarmed,” a sign on this door only, reads. Oh dear. I retreat. On my way up, I notice that the other doors do not have handles from the stair side. I stand at the door I entered from on the 2nd floor. No handle. The door is engaged from the handle on the other side, effectively locked from this side. Hmmm. I may be here a while. Fortunately there is a window into the hallway so I can see if someone walks by and bang for them to open the door for me. Except this stairwell is at the end of the hallway, there are only two rooms I could even see someone exiting from as it is alongside rather than at the very end.

I wander the stairwell down again and on the other side of one door I can hear the noise of dishes. I pound on the door and the clatter of dishes pauses then starts again. I pound again, the noise pauses again. After a third time the noise stops and I can hear someone fighting with deadbolts. It sounds like they are not often undone, someone is wiggling and jiggling making slow progress in sliding one that sounds to be at the top of the door. The door opens.

“Are you here for breakfast?” a curious little ball of an Indian woman asks me as I stand there with a stupid smile on my face. “I got locked in the hallway,” I admit. Would someone really try to come into the restaurant to get breakfast from the fire escape door?

She guides me through the kitchen to the dining area where I do not pause and finally I am out in the gorgeous air. Sunny and a high of 18 Celsius today, not a rain drop expected. This is a faultless day here in the UK. At home 28C feels like summer, but here 18C does. A beautiful, summery, sunshiny day. Honestly, I prefer these temperatures, comfortably warm rather than hot.

My second impression is better than my first. Not immediately, my hotel is still situated in the most ugly possible area of the city so I do walk through a mess of sad buildings before coming to the more picturesque area. I stop for breakfast at a patio-side cafe where a few minutes after ordering a mother lets her 5 year-old play a portable gaming device at what must be it’s highest volume. Very English, I say nothing but passive-aggressively look over disapprovingly. A family of two seniors and a younger couple arrives, with a 2 year old. This young one doesn’t like to eat and the rest of us have to suffer the battle that ensues. Thankfully the mother takes him for a little walk after he has completely lost his wits in a long screaming fit. It looked like such a peaceful place to sit when I came upon it on this little cobble stone pedestrian lane near the Cathedral and Guild hall.

After dining I happen in to the Guild Hall where there is a very popular exhibition. The remains of King Richard III were found and verified in Leicester just last year (2012) and this exhibition shows the excited public all about it. Well, there is too much public for me here today and I leave more quickly than I arrived. The visiting public completely fill the space as they progress from segment to segment, there is no room to move apart from with the general movement of cattle. The recreation of his head is by the exit, so I saw that. Most of the display seems to be written panels of explanation, it is quite a small room and I can see what’s here from the entry vantage point. I may come back, but probably I’ll just look at it online. Later I notice that I missed seeing the main hall of this 600 year-old building.

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I don’t think the door to the right was properly marked to suggest you are about to lock yourself in a stairwell and had better hope that there is someone in the kitchen to hear you pounding on their back door. At the Campenile in Leicester.

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A slightly different route walking into the centre on day 2.

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This little man’s sign said that he was raising money for cats.

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I really was surprised by how crowded the streets were.

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The Tudor Guild Hall.

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In looking for things to do here, I decide this might be a good place to while away some time having afternoon tea. One place in particular stands out online, the Belmont Hotel. I enjoy a nice walk to the hotel but once there I am informed that they do need 24 hours notice to book their afternoon tea. “I will go ask the chef if it’s possible today but you’ll probably need to come back tomorrow,” I am offered at reception. After some moments we determine that tomorrow it is. What could be so elaborate that it takes 24 hours notice to be able to serve afternoon tea? I’m anticipating tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam, crustless sandwich wedges, and some sweets. This is a sizeable place, it has several drinking and dining venues sharing the kitchen. I will be most curious to discover what cannot be provided on an impromptu basis tomorrow at 3PM. I’ll treat it like a late lunch.

This is a very multicultural town, like Toronto, there is no majority race. Certainly white people make-up the largest demographic, but they are less than 50%. How does it happen, what makes someone in Somalia think, “I’m going to live the dream by moving to Leicester in England.” I think in this that Leicester may share in common with Winnipeg, Canada, the feature of being more affordable than most other cities. Easier to start a new life, easier to buy a first home, easier to get-by. End result? It’s probably a comfortable, mediocre town. Those with big dreams go to more competitive Birmingham or London. I should suggest Leicester and Winnipeg may wish to become twin cities.

My time in Leicester has been diminished by having a sinus cold. I wish I had chosen a more comfortable hotel, but I did not realise upon booking how much time I would end-up spending in it.

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I arrive 15 minutes early for my afternoon tea at the Belmont Hotel on the holiday Monday. I am shown to a dining room where I am the only occupant, although I can hear some young ladies chatting in the hall around the corner. A few minutes later and my food selection has arrived.

I am shocked that they could not have thrown this together yesterday. It was clearly made in advance, in that cold from the fridge just pulled off the cling wrap sort of way. But apart from the sandwich pieces, nothing else would have been prepared especially. A sandwich of four segments, each with different filling. A selection of 5 cakes, each basically a partial dessert piece, but here was the disappointing bit, 3 of the 5 are the very same lemon cake. A small apple tart (mostly crust with a touch of apple slime) and a chocolate browning complete the cakes. The chocolate brownie is wonderfully chocolatey, although I would prefer it wasn’t cold. On the top tier are four little French macaroons.

In all, the cakes all taste like they came from any coffee shop or supermarket. If their macaroons were house made I’d be embarrassed for them, or proud how they so accurately replicated store-bought. The tea is disappointingly the same PG bag (not loose tea) that comes with the free tea service in my hotel room and it’s in a generic metal teapot. The dishes are a motley assortment of white basic catering dishes, each of a different generic maker apart from the triple-level cake plates which are English, Dudson from Stoke-on-Trent. The side salad is meant as garnish only, I eat some for vitamins only to find dirt and wilted leaves.

Were I to ever happen through Leicester again I would probably look to stay in the Belmont Hotel, it is much more the kind of feel that I like in a hotel and I like it’s location, connected to the city centre by a 200 year-old walking path called “New Walk”. But I wouldn’t bother with the afternoon tea, there was nothing special about it whatsoever. For an afternoon snack perhaps the cream tea would be fine. That is tea with a large scone, served with clotted cream, butter, and jam. I didn’t have it here, but it couldn’t be that bad. Unless they serve the scone cold, it should be served warm. Come to think of it, I would ask that before I ordered here. One can’t assume. I would have assumed, but not after having cold cakes and sandwiches here for afternoon tea.

This is a good value afternoon tea, £12.95 ($20) for a lot of dessert, but I would happily have paid more to have better. Or received half the amount to have better. The only difference in the more expensive options were the addition of several price-points of Champagne.

I think Leicester may be a nicer city than I have experienced. I will not know what this city is like during it’s normal days, I was here during the three days of a bank holiday weekend. The city was probably filled with visitors from the surrounding towns and villages on Saturday and Sunday. The information centre was useless to pointing me towards interesting distractions, and I was not entirely well for the duration.

My final night at the Campanile, the hotel is nearly empty except for the room beside me. It’s 2:48 AM when my neighbours finally settle down for the night. I think they may actually work at the hotel too.

Off to Norwich tomorrow.

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Everything’s relative. New walk is 200 years old.

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The area New Walk passes through is lovely.

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More views on and from New Walk.

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The Belmont is in a lovely area, is near the train station, and you can walk to the centre via the lovely New Walk. Next time.

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This bit was disappointing though. They should charge a bit more and get some nice tea services, especially some pots so they can make tea the traditional way rather than using a tea bag.

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The tea room was lovely. Perhaps have a cappuccino here.

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Three of the 5 cakes were the same cake.

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Just some more views around Leicester.

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The building on the left curves with the street. It’s called the Curve and is an arts centre, part of rejuvenation of that area of the downtown.

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I always feel pangs of nostalgia when I encounter one of the remaining Coffee Republics. I was their 2nd ever manager of the first Coffee Republic location which was on South Molten Street in Mayfair, London. Soon after I left to move to Edinburgh, they opened their 2nd and 3rd locations and eventually had over a hundred across the UK. The original location has since closed, as have many others.

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I hope you enjoyed this posting and that you will read other postings on my blog. Thank you for visiting and I hope you’ll follow me, the follow button is on the bottom right of your screen. Cheers! Darren

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The Grumpy Brummie Awards, Because the World Isn’t Perfect

Good and bad experiences happen everywhere. Overall, I have found the people of Birmingham (Brummies) to be exceedingly friendly and polite. But, bad apples are found in every bushel and I decided to separate the few bad apples from the many good. So, here are some stories about rotten apples in Birmingham. To be fair, the main cause of any discontent I experienced in Birmingham came from someone who grew up in a family of another culture that is not necessarily known for it’s warmness.

NOTE: Scroll Down to read about my experience with UK Car Rentals
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The full address was Teensy Street 99, Globe, Birmingham. A black cab pulled-up to my hotel and I loaded my considerable luggage, nearly doubled by traveling with a folding bicycle. The driver knows Teensy Street, as do I. Quite nearby, I only take a taxi for the carriage of my belongings.

The taxi metre is still just at £4 as we make our way along Teensy Street. The numbers on the left of the street ascend and contain both odd and even numbers. The numbers on the right descend. We get to the end of the street and have not found a 99. It’s a one-way street so we reverse, this time focused on the numbers on our right. Still, there is no 99.

“You must have the address wrong,” my driver, a small man in his 40s with a very long beard, suggests. I pull out my iPad to look at the address exactly as given rather than looking at my written-down version. No, it really is number 99. I show the driver. “Globe must mean something,” he comments, “Globe is the key to finding this address. Ask the landlord if it is supposed to be Teensy Street North or Teensy Street South rather than Teensy Street.”

I text the flat owner to ask for clarification.

My text: “Hi, taxi can’t find 99, is it teensy st n or s?” (11:40)

Reply: “It’s apt 99 3 Teensy street and entrance is on Britain street” (11:44)

Well the entrance not being on Teensy seems like a detail that should have been shared before. Why would I have assumed the entry was not on Teensy Street, and if it wasn’t, how would I know where it was? I get out to find the entry on foot, easier than having the driver manoeuvre his cab. Around the corner on Britain, there is no obvious entrance. I pass a beauty salon and see a door, but it doesn’t look like apartments. The driver has also come out of the taxi to look about.

“Is it marked 15?” I text, looking at the only possible door. (11:46)

“No it’s 3” (11:47)

The two of us continue to look about.

“It’s not marked anything I’m confused as to where you are. Taxi takes you to Britain street and the entrance is there where you input the code cheers” (11:50)

With this I continue walking down Britain. Nearly at the corner of the next street there is a large car gate with no markings, beside it is a gate door with two different keypads. I call the flat owner after it doesn’t accept the code. I had followed the instructions written above the pad which tell me to press “b” followed by the number. “Use the keypad on the right, and key in the code exactly as I told you. hash – etc.” Okay, now I understand, the number sign is part of the code. She had texted the code as #1234 (except different numbers). I key in the number pressing “#” first and the door opens so the driver goes back to bring the taxi over. By this time the metre has risen to £10.

Inside the gate there is a car park surrounded by structures with various different entrances. I leave my things in a heap to wander about, the signs are small and I need to approach each door to be able to read which flats it leads to. I find my grouping and enter with my belongings. In the elevator I hit the 9 button.

The doors open onto a worksite, builders renovating the hallway. “Is number 99 on this floor?” “No mate, I don’t know where number 99 is. Is it it this building?”

I press the 8. Nope, but the numbers are high enough that now I can guess what floor it might be on. I find the door that is marked 99. Thank goodness.

“Hi did you get in all ok?” (12:18)
(Note: I of course did change the address details so don’t bother to look for it!)
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I set-out to visit the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter only to discover that it is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Instead, I decide to go for coffee at what has become my daily haunt, Costa on New Street. It is a different walk getting there now and I enjoy taking photos on the way. I am getting used to ignoring the intermittent rain, life must go on.

Approaching the coffee shop it becomes readily apparent that it is undergoing major renovations. A construction crew use power tools in what was the front seating area. I’m disappointed, this was the one place I kept constant and intentionally visited at some point every day. I end-up at my last resort, Starbucks. There I meet a friendly gentleman who is on business from Germany. He is stunned that I have chosen the UK as a travel destination, it is his first time. He’s not interested in sight-seeing, but he does want to visit the Chinatown because he likes Chinese food. He doesn’t catch my love for the UK during our brief discourse. Mostly we chat about cars, I had been researching my car hire possibilities before he sat beside me in the window overlooking New Street. He wouldn’t try to drive on that side of the road, he can’t imagine it. For me it’s only odd for the first day. Traffic is also on the left in Japan, where I spent two years, so I have an accumulated 4 years of interacting with left-driving traffic.

After coffee I head out in search of getting my hair done, it’s getting long and there is too much white showing. “We don’t dye hair,” a large American woman tells me at a nearby drop-in hair salon. “Try Snow Hill.” (Snow Hill is a Station and probably also describes the area of the station’s surrounds.) In the end, I do not get my hair coloured or cut. Another day.

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I was sad to find that the one place I visited everyday, Costa on New Street, was suddenly closed for refurbishment.

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I was even more surprised when only 48 hours later it was completely finished and open for business again!
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First impressions are often correct, often not. After experiencing what felt like a lack of consideration, it seemed like if she cared at all about making my arrival smooth she would have provided adequate information. Of course perhaps she did in her mind, she provided the mailing address, but since that address does not provide useful information for entry and she knew I would not be arriving by post, she should have provided the required information instead. The apartment does look out onto Teensy Street, but that street should not be mentioned since one does actually step foot on Teensy to access the flat. Given this direction, not long but containing the needed information, I would have had no problem at all finding the flat, “North side of Britain road, second entry from Hacker Street.” It’s not the mailing address, but it is the location of the entry. That kind of thought seems so obvious to me, I fear my new host is perhaps not too very thoughtful

I meet Helbi when she returns from work around 6:30. I had invited her to join me to a group dinner but she never replied. Brief hellos and she turns on the tele and props herself in front. I attempt to make some conversation, I hope to be friends with someone I will be sharing a space with for the week, but she is not interested. Her eyes on the tv, it doesn’t seem to be on anything in particular, she occasionally looks my way. That’s fine, she wants some space after work. I get that, but I also think one should make an effort for a few minutes when meeting someone who you have rented your spare bedroom to.

It’s awkward so I decide to depart early for my meet-up at a nearby restaurant. Too early to go in, I go across to a pub to while-away my spare 30 minutes.

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I know one girl at the meet-up from bowling on Saturday. I sit at the end of a table with her on my left and a boorish man on my right. “Can I see the wine that comes with the steak deal?” he asks our server. Everyone at the table had started with red wine as a pre-drink and the server returns momentarily with a bottle of red wine to show what will come free with every two steaks. “Is there not white wine as well?” he asks the server. “Yes, would you like to see that too?” “Yes please.” She returns to the bar and comes back with a bottle of white. “We’ll all have the red,” he informs without bothering to look at the bottle.

“Did you make her get the white wine for no reason?” the girl to my left asks. “Yes, we’re all having steak, aren’t we.”

What a twat, I think. My impression of him strengthens throughout the meal. This is not a high-end steakhouse by any stretch of the imagination but he acts so incredibly pretentiously. “Do you have the cote du boeuf tonight?” No, sorry Sir, that is not one of our specials today. “Can you ask the kitchen anyway?” “Yes, Sir.” She returns with the same answer, which she already knew. “Can you try again?” He is such an idiot, I want to slap him. “Is Tony here tonight?” “No, Sir, he’s off today.” He goes on to tell us that he has eaten here twice before and that Tony is very good. Playing the regular at a run-of-the-mill restaurant after two visits. Such a full life he must have.

The meal completed, I move to the other end of the table just to meet the people when someone goes to the loo. “Could I please have my seat back!” an indignant woman gripes on her return. She is one of the organisers. Apart from thinking that after the meal perhaps she wouldn’t mind chatting to the other end of the table for a moment as well, I am taken aback by her harsh tone. I go back to my seat and give the woman from bowling too much money for my share so that I can just leave. I do not want to speak with that bore a minute longer and now I also also feel embarrassed by how I was just spoken to. In my haste to put the group behind me I leave my fleece behind. I hope the group leaves it there for me to pick-up later.

Back at the flat I talk a few moments to a still unconversant Helbi before going online to un-join that particular meet-up group. I see that the woman who was protective of her seat is the person in charge. An automatic form asks why I am leaving the group. “I’m sure I don’t need to explain why I’m leaving the group,” I key in and press send.

I email the lady that I had known from a previous meet-up. She’s quite nice. “I left my black fleece jacket behind, do you happen to know if it was left there for me to pick-up or if someone took it?” Three days later she has not made the effort to reply. I go to the restaurant. Yes, they remember my group. No, the group did not leave anything behind, someone must have taken it for me. How thoughtful. Too bad they didn’t go the next step and actually let me know who had it. I hate shopping to replace things that were just right already.

Perhaps it’s good I’ve had an off day. No where can be perfect and now my experience in Birmingham has more balance. Lots of great, warm people and a few cold ones. It’s a real place after all. Downside is, I have rented this flat-share for 7 days and it wasn’t cheap. It’s a decent flat and costs about the same to share as a hotel room. Not finding the host to be friendly is not reason enough to cancel for a refund either, although it could be reason enough to walk away from it. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe she just gives poor first impressions. I need to allow myself to have a change of mind.
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The Flapper is a low-end student bar that sits on the lovely Cambrian Wharf. It has nice outdoor seating areas and the view of the quiet canal where domestic barges are moored is pleasant to behold.

“Cocktails £3.50, two for £5,” listed on a chalkboard with Mojitos on offer. I love Mojitos, rum, sugar water, lemon, and lots of muddled mint. The cheapness of the drink has me assume the portion may be lacking. “Can I get a double mojito for £5 rather than two?” I’ve noticed that most people take the offer and carry two cocktails with them to drink one and then the other. “No.” “You can’t just make me a special Mojito and I’ll pay for two?” “You’re better off having both of them, mate. You’re just throwing a drink away.” “Never mind, I’ll just have one then.”

“What do you have for food?” “Pizza.” For a self-appointed “gastro-pub” that is not a lot of gastro on offer at 7PM on a Thursday. I planned to eat before coming, but since I am hungry and will be here from some time joining a group for a pub quiz, I will eat whatever they have. “Okay, I’ll have one of those, please.” “What kind?” “I don’t know, what kind do you have?” He is not pleased with this question, such an annoying customer I am, I should inherently know what they have on offer even though he doesn’t know himself. “Just a minute,” he complains with a sigh, “I’ll go check.” He returns with a list of what he probably scanned the freezer for. When it does arrive it is clear that it was some sort of brand-less frozen cardboardy food-like item for £5.

I watch in dismay as he prepares my cocktail. He puts some ice in a glass into which he dumps a pre-made UHF packet of mojito. It’s coloured a light yellow-green.

I take a sip when I return to our picnic table outside. It tastes like lemon-flavoured toothpaste. The chemical alternative for mint tastes more like spearmint. It is acidic and too sweet and gross. I wish he had explained why he was unable to make a special mojito rather than just being defensive about it, I would have had a pint.

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Cambrian Wharf is lovely to behold. Just make sure you keep walking and save yourself the trouble of visiting The Flapper, pub. There are countless pleasant pubs to visit instead.
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UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE – UK CAR RENTALS – UK CAR HIRE
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I spent considerable amount of time researching how to best organise my rental car. I am well-aware of the insurance scams and I don’t want to be gouged when hiring a car for such a long duration.

I research the idea of buying my own insurance coverage, separate from the car. All I could find was excess insurance. (In North America we call this deductible. This insurance reduces your deductible.) Perhaps it was poorly worded, maybe the deductible covers the value of the car? If your deductible is $35,000 it would cover that? I don’t think it does, anyway this was not presented as a product that would do what I wanted it to. Additionally, not all companies accept this insurance, so check with the company.

I found an insurance website through which one can purchase insured rental cars. The cars come from 3rd parties but include this company’s insurance. Now that I have ascertained that it is not easy for me to travel through Central England without, I’m looking to rent a car for 7 weeks. I’m not a backpacker so it’s awkward to transfer from place to place by train or coach. I can’t sling my bicycle, suitcase, and carry-on onto my back and walk away. Additionally, there seem to be many day trips that are easily accessible by car. Castles, towns, villages, museums located outside of the city centres where public transport is plentiful. Trains and buses mostly go where people live and work.

The initial search using this insurance site looks promising. Cars start at less than £800 ($1200). However, most cars here are manual. I’ve not driven a manual since about age 20 when I occasionally borrowed Shanon’s car at uni, and I am not about to relearn driving on the other side, shifting with my left hand, with all the different road signs and rules and roundabouts on unfamiliar roads. When I click on the filter for automatic, the prices double. Ouch. Automatic cars do cost more but they certainly don’t cost double, so this is clearly how they maintain the ability to gouge the North American who most commonly drives with automatic transmission. I find an economy car and click through to rent it from Argus Car Hire. Reading the fine print, they need an international drivers licence. I call the number to verify. Easy to get, you just take your licence into an issuer and they issue you one, when you’re in Canada. It’s purpose is for countries like Russia and China, when people travel their licences are not readable. I didn’t need it last year when I rented a car in Dover. Regardless, this path to getting a car is over. They do require me to have an English translation of my English-language drivers licence which I don’t, I only have the original.

I continue my search and eventually choose Hertz via Hotwire. This rental is only about £900 ($1431) for a mid-size car and includes insurance. Seems like a great deal, even if I do end-up deciding I need more insurance when I get it, it couldn’t be that bad.

Yes it could.

The only location I can visit to get this deal is at the airport. I’m not sure why the Hertz location downtown cannot do the same, but that is what it says. I make my way to the airport for 10AM on a Friday morning.

“You’re insurance only covers 3rd party, Sir. If anything happens to this vehicle at all, you are fully responsible.”

“So if the car was stolen, I would have to pay the purchase price to Hertz.”

“That’s correct Sir. You can buy theft insurance for £10 ($15) per day, that comes to £490 ($750) but that only covers theft.

“Is theft very likely here?”

“Not really, Sir.”

“So how much is damage insurance then? If I had an accident, what would cover repairs?”

“That is Collision Damage Waiver, it’s a flat rate of about £20 ($30) per day sir. Actually, a bit more than that, for 49 days you would be looking at £1293.60 ($2600).

“Does that insurance also cover the theft?”

“No Sir, you would need the theft insurance separately, Sir. That’s £1783.60 for the insurance.”

OMG. How did I let this happen! I read about it, I researched it, and now I’m falling into it! I can’t believe it, I am just in shock. Rental $1400, Insurance $3500. Total, $4900. It is unbelievable. It doesn’t create such a shock when renting for one week, but renting for 7 this would be $100 per day which is beyond ridiculous.

“Could you tell me those numbers again.” I am writing down the details so I can write about it. He has noticed me taking notes already. “Writing your memoirs are you, Sir?” he says, flippantly. “No, I’m a travel writer.” “For a magazine?” “Yes, I do have a magazine, as well as a blog and I’m working on a book.” “Oh, good for you, Sir.” “Let me just see what I can do, Sir.”

I have never used this card at a hotel or a restaurant, but now I’m going to tell this story anyway so I might as well try to save some money. As it stands, I am ready to walk away without a car and lose my deposit. In fact, all I want to know at this point is how much I am going to lose by having made the reservation because I have no intention of spending that much on a car. For that much, I could probably just take taxis everywhere I go.

When you pay for Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) you are not actually buying insurance in any real sense. What you are doing is buying the car rental company’s agreement that they will not come to you to pay for damage after a certain amount of excess (deductible). So it is not any real cost to the rental company, it is paying them to assume the risk. There are 3rd party insurers for rental insurance, but CDW is not that.

“You’ll have to go to the office at the car bays, love, I’ll be a while at this,” he says to new customers who approach the Hertz desk. I don’t know what he does but it takes a long time and he finally comes back with a new answer.

“I can give you a free upgrade to an Audi A5 with Collision Damage Waiver for a total of £1873. ($3700) Seven weeks. Just more than double the cost of the car I have sitting at home seems almost reasonable, this one being a rental. I never should have leased a car in Canada. But looking back things are often 20/20.

It seems like if he had told me this figure in the beginning, I would probably have walked away then. Insurance cost the same as or equal to the rental cost when it appeared to be included in the price already? It could truly be the same technique used by unscrupulous shop keepers who start ridiculous high and come down to what would already have been high but in the process making the price suddenly seem reasonable compared to the amount they were initially trying to cheat.

I’ve also made much of an effort coming out to the Birmingham International Airport, so I have much invested in leaving with a vehicle. I would have been more likely to leave without a car had I walked to their downtown branch. I don’t know who would do better anyway, nowhere in my research was I able to uncover an honest and fair car hire company in the UK, I was only able to uncover the countless horror stories and bell whistles.

“So what is the excess with this CDW? How much would I have to pay in the event of an accident?”

“You would still have to pay the entire amount of the repair, Sir. Hertz would only pay you back if the insurance claim is later approved. Then they would pay you back everything except £900 ($1400) which is your excess amount.” So even after paying the steep waiver fees, according to him but I’m not sure he’s correct in his understanding of this procedure, they will still try to not approve the paid-for waiver. “And who does this kind of appraisal?” “Hertz does, Sir.” Well, that shouldn’t be legal. Just saying.

I decide to accept his offer, I don’t want to repeat this process again at another company and I do not have reason to believe that it would be any different. UK Car Hire agencies are known for this.

“Do you need to add a Sat Nav (GPS), Sir.”

“Nope.” I had bought one since the charge for renting theirs exceeded the cost of purchase.

In my car I realise that there is a built in Sat Nav anyway, it is present whether or not I pay the rental fee for it. I wasn’t sure if Audi UK would have these as standard. I spend a few minutes learning the buttons before setting my destination and pulling out of the parking lot, turning the wrong way onto the wrong street when the voice guiding me calls the traffic circle a square. “Turn right onto the square,” would have not turned out well, what was she thinking? She should have told me to enter the roundabout and take the 3rd exit. With telling me to turn right I instead enter the roundabout and take the first exit which leads me to a secured personnel zone. My mind didn’t jump fast enough to translate the circle into a square and go round it as if turning right from my starting position, which in fact involves a left turn after coming around.

Oh, this is going to be fun.

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Staying with Helbi has turned out to be not only emotionally voiding but also very expensive. She is pleasant, but it is painfully obvious that she wishes I were not there. I’m a sensitive guy and I am not good at ignoring that kind of thing. Also, in addition to not wanting to share her space, she often works from home. The first two evenings I eat healthy salads from the supermarket in the living room, but after my initial groceries are depleted I never do again. My room only has a bed and I’m not going to sit on my bed and eat. I was happy to bring healthy food back to my hotel room last week, but here I feel the need to avoid going home. It’s a bad feeling.

I sometimes find myself not wanting to go out, but I also don’t want to stay in feeling like I’m crowding Helbi. The unwanted house guest who paid to be there. Not ideal. I go in search of quiet places and find none. I use my ear plugs often. Days of $20 and $30 spent on food have become days of $60 and $80 when I add extra time working in coffee shops rather than being home for occasional breaks during the day. Being at her house is too awkward so I try to leave in the morning and return after dinner at night. This situation has nearly put me off trying another flat-share in the upcoming weeks. I certainly won’t for a bit, and when I do I will first verify their character a bit by emailing back and forth before just sending my rental request. She’s just not normal in her refusal to converse.

She was deceptive on her listing in saying that she works a lot and even on weekends too. That gives the impression that she is often not at home, not that she will be using the computer and talking on the phone in the one and only open-concept living area where you will feel completely in the way when she is working and also when she is on the sofa watching tv.

“I hate Birmingham,” she has told me, “except for where I live.” This in response to, “What other areas of the city do you think I should explore?”

“I don’t recycle, to be honest. I put all my trash with the recycle bins.” If you don’t recycle with all the damage we are doing to our planet, I do not want to know about it. Seriously.

“I haven’t been to New Street in 5 years.” This in response to me asking her if she had a favourite place to eat or drink downtown. A 10 minute walk to the lovely downtown, how has she managed not to go there for so long?

“I hate pubs, you know how people dress. Why can’t you go to a proper bar or restaurant? And at an Irish pub people might start singing. I hate it,” in response to her mother asking her to join something at a pub.

“I don’t meet people, ” in response to me telling her about meet-up groups.

After a week or awkward exchanges, I have to consider the possibility that she may actually have a mental disorder or two. Her disinterest in the world and in interacting makes me wonder if she might be suffering depression. Her blankness and lack of communication skills has me consider ASD. Whatever the case, she does not make an ideal host or flat mate

For this and more, Birmingham-born Helbi receives my Grumpy Brummie Award. Hands Down.

Runner-Up: Hertz Car Rentals UK. Actually UK Car Rental Agencies in general for having methods and procedures that gouge the non-UK resident, customers they must figure are unlikely to be regular anyway so they might as well try to get all they can anyway they can.

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Here are some more photos around Birmingham’s lovely Jewellery District.

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My Daily Adventures in Mumbai, India

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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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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I hope you enjoyed this posting of things to do in and around Mumbai. If you did, please share it with your friends! You can tell them my domain name, http://www.PersonalTravelStories.com, or share a link to this story by clicking on the facebook or twitter button below. Also, don’t miss a story by clicking on the “follow” button on the bottom right of your screen. You will get my new posts as an email and you can unfollow with a click anytime you like. Thanks for reading! Cheers! Darren

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.
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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