Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Calling Dr. Bombay

Friday afternoon Shannon and I headed to Bombay on Kingfisher airlines, an all business class airline that gave us a choice of two meals for our one hour flight. It was way better than any short distance airline in America, I think that recently the government has allowed private airlines to compete with the national airlines, so the private airlines are really good.

Bombay evokes everything I imagined about India. It is tropical with a mix of ostentatious European architecture from the height of the British empire mixed in with classically Indian building, surrounded by lush tropical vegetations. There’s a huge mangrove forest by the airport, and the city is mostly on a peninsula in the Arabian sea.

Immediately when you leave the airport the slums are everywhere, but they aren’t like Hyderabad slums. In Hyderabad the slums are migratory, tents that move around following construction sites- mostly people from rural areas who have come to the city for work. In Bombay, the slums are institutionalized. There are rows and rows of moldy concrete and stone buildings with tin roof pieced together that look like they have been there as long as the city. Indeed they may have been there as long as the city, if they didn’t get washed away every 20 years by monsoon floods.

The commuter trains are a nightmare, with people hanging off the sides and arms coming out the barred windows. But everything is relative and when Shannon and I arrived in Bombay, the tropical foliage and nice architecture made us think that it’s a pretty nice city.

We stayed at the Sheraton Grand Central, which was a lifesaver. We had a fancy dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants (all of the really nice restaurants in India are in hotels), and we relaxed and felt like we were in modern civilization. My second bout of Indian Montezuma’s Revenge awakened me in the middle of the night as a reality check that no matter how civilized it seems, I am still in India, where my body is not used to food not being triple sanitized.

I ended up calling down to the front desk who connected me to the hotel doctor, who called in a prescription, the hotel picked it up, and delivered it to my door within an hour (truly amazing)- And 3 prescriptions only cost 300 rupees ($9). I spent the morning rehydrating and then Shannon and I went out for a few hours to see the city.

First we went to the Mahalakshmi temple, where we walked down a long small street of vendors selling flower arrangements. At first we thought they were offerings to buy and give to the temple, but it turned out that people were buying them to have them blessed and then take them home. We took our shoes off and went into the temple and people kept leading us past the lines to the alter. The priests put a mark of orange powder on our foreheads and gave us candy and flowers. The ground was white marble which was really hot, but considering that people walk miles on sharp rocks, I figured we got off pretty easily.

After the temple our driver took us to Gandhi’s house, which was really cool. I hadn’t really made it a top priority, but the driver said it was close to we agreed to go, and I’m glad we did. Down a lush tree-lined street, we might have been in London except for the foliage and hawkers trying to sell us crap because we’re white. Gandhi’s house was full of books, photos, and a whole room full of dioramas illustrating Gandhi’s life. They had copies of two letters he wrote in 1939 to Roosevelt and Hitler, asking them to not go to war which were impressively well-expressed by any standard. Usually when I go to historical places with lots of pictures and history written on walls I read about the first 2 captions before I get bored and stop. Something about tiny figures elaborately decorated illustrating all the important steps of Gandhi’s life was so engaging that Shannon and I ended up walking through all the dioramas. We also saw Gandhi’s bedroom which is in the same condition it was in when he lived there, which was surreal to know that it looked so normal, but was so important.

After Gandhi’s house we went to the Haji Ali mosque which is built out on the water, and you can only get there during low tide. The whole bridge there was covered in mangled beggars and homeless children, some people disfigured so horribly that it was hard to look at them. A group of crippled men were lying in a circle chanting, and more able-bodied people were selling trinkets. Tons of brightly dressed families were walking to the mosque, some muslim women in burkas, others in kurtas without their heads covered. It was as if the contrast that is India was contained on that bridge. On the way back from the mosque we started being followed by the children, and by the time we got off the bridge I gave in and bought some girls a mango juice. I won’t give them money, because they are just being exploited by adults who use them as slave labor and take their money from begging. I wonder how many of those little girls will be prostitutes within the next 5 years. India has a long way to go.

The rest of the day we did R&R, which I needed even after a few hours out because of the heat and humidity. India is so vibrant, but there is so much activity and the heat is so oppressive that I get tired so easily. We got massages and went to ‘tea’ at the hotel in the executive lounge thanks to the Goldenberg platinum status, and we ended up just watching movies and eating room service. The hotel sent up over a dozen roses as a ‘get well’ present, and Shannon took pictures of me holding my flowers and looking as pathetic as possible for my blog ;)

On Sunday we slept in and eventually made our way out to finish our site-seeing and go shopping. We were planning on taking a trip to Elephanta, an island off the coast of Bombay with ancient temples and carvings, and apparently tons of monkeys who steal your food. To get there we had our driver take us to Colaba and the Gateway of India, where the last British troops left from when India gained complete independence. Our driver told us that the boat to Elephanta was 2 hours each way, and we knew when we got to the Gateway of India and everyone was hawking trips on rickety ‘ferries’ that it wasn’t worth it. Apparently all the hawkers in South India are at the Gateway of India, and we were harassed the entire time we were there to buy everything from postcards to ratty wigs to nasty cucumbers sitting in the sun. I was thinking, ‘Dude, you couldn’t pay ME to take that.’

After the Gateway of India, Shannon and I wanted to go shopping in the famous shopping district of Colaba. Our driver of our hotel car kept taking us to random stores selling overpriced trinkets and carpets, where we assume he was getting commission, even though we told him we wanted clothes. We even called Rupa who explained to him in Hindi and in detail where he should take us, and he still tried to dump us at more stores saying ‘just look, just look.’ Eventually after some stern language he took us to the shopping street in Colaba, where all tourists in Bombay had converged.

We shopped around and Shannon unwittingly attracted a drum salesman by inquiring about the price of one of his drums, and he followed us for hours until she finally bought one to make him go away (precisely his plan, I’m sure). He was really creepy and even paced back and fourth outside a coffee shop as we sat inside for an hour. We bought some small silk tapestries with Indian scenes painted on them, and during the bargaining process as we tried to make the overpriced deal more acceptable by adding in more stuff for the same price, Shannon provided the best quote of the weekend, ‘How much for 2 free?’

After shopping our driver took us to the hanging gardens, a weird mix of cropped English gardens, tropical foliage, topiaries, trash cans shaped like penguins, and a ‘cannon ball tree’ with giant balls of something growing off of it. There my childhood imagination vision of India came true as an old man sat with a monkey on a leash and made it do tricks. It was the creepiest monkey ever, with only two teeth and the biggest balls EVER (it was actually sitting on its balls as a chair, as you will see in my photo…). As we were getting in the car, the monkey grabbed the man’s stick and tried to attack the people in the crowd with it as they looked on laughing and clapping. At that point I was really glad that we hadn’t gone to Elephanta because one monkey was enough for me;)

Afterwards we shopped for the rest of the afternoon and drove around Bombay with our bullshit driver. We told him to take us to a ‘nice restaurant at a hotel’ and first he tried to take us to a hole in the wall ice cream shop – ‘No, we want FOOD!’ and then another sketchy restaurant which he claimed was ‘famous’ but it looked really gross. So we told him to take us to the mall, where at least we knew we could get something remotely reliable, and we ended up eating our final meal in Bombay at a food court – I had pizza.

After our food court meal we were ready to just end the day at the airport, where we ended up spending the entire evening as our flight was delayed twice so that we didn’t leave until 11:30pm. Our tickets home were on a discount airline instead of Kingfisher, and that’s the last time I’ll fly on Spicejet, and no one else should either so that they are punished for their untimeliness and my lack of sleep.

Despite Montezuma's Revenge, which for future reference I think I shall call Maharaja's revenge, a bullshit driver, and a late flight home, Bombay is an excellent city which is truly unique and embodies all of the paradox that defines India as it struggles to create and maintain a modern Indian identity.

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