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.
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.
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?”
“So, just a little bit?”
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“What country are you?”
“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.”
I cap-off three weeks in Mumbai with a 5-star hotel stay. I looked into the famous Taj located at Mumbai’s India Gate. It is by far the most famous luxury hotel in the city but they have no rooms available in the original palace wing. I’m not interested in being in that busy location, I’ve already spent time there, to stay in the new wing which has been reviewed as being far less interesting and not that special. Instead I choose a hotel chain that I was very impressed with before, the Leela Kempsinki Hotel.
I previously stayed with this chain last year at the Leela Palace in Udaipur. Our driver deposited us at a small ferry dock where we were greeted by fancily-uniformed guards who helped us onto a small canopy-covered boat which transported us across the lovely lake, for which Udaipur is famous, to our palace hotel Intricately-costumed men holding large elaborate parasols protected us from the 30 seconds of skin-damaging sunshine from the dock to the threshold. Upon our entrance, a Rajasthani band serenaded us as rose petals fell from above. We were greeted directly by name and guided straight-forth to our room without pause, moving through the gorgeous interior replete with antiques and ornamentation suitable for a Maharajah’s palace.
The room itself was sumptuous. I loved the oversized mahogany dressing room and 4-part bathroom. A toilet room, a central double-sink make-up area, a shower room, and across the hall, a separate bathing room.
A lovely large carved desk flanked the headboard of a very comfy bed, with a sofa sitting-area nestled around the view of the lake. The entire room was furnished with antiques and reproductions, vibrant jewel tones, luxurious hand-woven rugs, tasteful paintings, and wall hangings.
There was an open central atrium that featured live dancing and music in the evenings, lit by dozens of receded candles. The exterior terrace was gorgeous, featuring water features, lovely restaurants, and all overlooking the gorgeous views of the Lake Palace.
So ti was with some anticipation that I booked the equally-priced Leela Kempsinki Hotel Mumbai.
Keeping in mind that I have no plans to leave this hotel for 5 days, I booked the most exclusive class of room, the “Royal Club”. Located on the top floor, these rooms have an exclusive all-inclusive lounge, private check-in, butler service, and private concierge. This would possibly be a wasteful splash if just using the hotel as a base, but it’s a real asset when calling the hotel “home” for the duration of my visit. It is a little mini-break from my travels in India.
The arrival was promising. Set on 11 acres of gardens, the gated entry is far enough from the hotel that it’s existence from the road is obscured by the trees. The routine of open hood, open trunk, inspect interior, roll mirror under car to check the underside, is no longer surprising to me.
Surprising is the lack of staff at the entrance. I help my driver with my luggage and deposit it myself at the x-ray machine. After going through the metal detection and being thoroughly frisked, I collect my handbag but leave my other bags. I stand waiting for reception and watch other bags trying to come through the x-ray machine, pushing mine into a pile. I am thinking I should overstep boundaries to go save my own luggage when finally someone goes over to attend to them. I don’t mind to carry my own suitcases, but somewhere like this it should creat a stir to see a customer so unattended.
I know that I have priority check-in due to the class of my room, but there is no one available to inquire where I am meant to proceed. I wait for my turn at the understaffed reception counter and two separate Indian guests barge past me to be served first. When I finally get to the counter, I show my hotel voucher. The young man keys into the computer, in that mysterious seeming to be more official or complicated than it actually is sort-of-way, and recognises, “You have private express check-in.” Seems a bit late to be private or to be express with the lack of attention given to new arrivals. Now it just means that even though I was made to wait a long time for the regular check-in process due to there being no staff there to direct me otherwise, instead of now being checked-in, they will make me wait all over again upstairs for my special express check-in. The irony of this “special service” is lost on the Indian staff. The way they have carried-out this service, it’s not better than ordinary check-in, it is twice as bad. But I am supposed to know where to go on entry I suppose, this is a benefit only to those who have already stayed in this hotel, but I never will again. The lobby is shockingly noisy. Despite there being few people about, the marble and hard surfaces reverberate the little commotion there is into being a loud cacophony. There has been no thought whatsoever to the acoustics. A water feature masks the noise with water noise, not the usual relaxing feeling generated by splashing water.
I am now ushered up to to the top floor. I express my annoyance and am disregarded with, “Sorry, Sir, we are fully booked, very busy, Sir.” I think that if they are fully-booked then they can well-afford the very cheap labour to be well-staffed.
The 8th floor is the “Royal Club” top floor with private concierge called, “butler service” and a private lounge that has inclusive snack and drink benefits. I am passed-off to my butler, Gerard, who takes my hotel and pre-paid hotel voucher as well as any requests for coffee, tea, or soft drinks. The “welcome champagne” as described as part of club room benefits is not offered, even though I now could use it given my annoyance checking-in. My coffee takes some time to arrive so that it does not fill my waiting time, it arrives at the same time my passport is returned so I only take a few sips before asking to be shown to my room.
The room is nice, no reason to complain really, but it is disappointingly boring. Stream-lined and traditionally modern, the only interesting touch is the colourful rug on the hardwood floor. The furnishings are nice in a non-offensive anyone-would-be-okay-with-them sort of way. The colours are typically muted, ivory woodwork and beige plain fabric textured wallpaper. There’s a minibar that would be overpriced in Europe let alone in Asia, an oldish flat screen tv (the kind that was 4″ deep rather than the 1″ nowadays), a writing desk and chair, a round table in the bay window with a comfy chair and ottoman. There is a view of the hotel grounds as well as two very large taxi depots, one for the black and yellow regular cabs, another for the blue and white aircon cabs.
A queen bed with – a real mattress. I’ve been on the super-hard, super-thin Indian-style mattresses for the past few weeks, so a real bed is quite a treat.
“May I take breakfast in my room?” I inquire of my butler, who I rarely see again except at the concierge desk. “No Sir, if you want to upgrade to a suite for only . . . .”
I guess they’re not completely full.
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