Trip Journal - Bombay




Bombay -- 23 October 1998

It was hard to come to India. We felt the force of it like fluids in a syringe -- the steady and inexorable drawing back of the black plunger as we were sucked through the glass tube. There was nothing to do but flow, yet it felt so tight, so frigthening. We both have been feeling the effects of low resistance. The flight seemed interminable, the process inevitable. We were caught in a state somewhere beyond the reaches of sleep yet we were so tired. We walked docilely through the immigration lines, waiting patiently. Even the appearance of a fairly substantial rat failed to rouse me. The officials working there weren't too concerned either. They were almost playful with it. While Paul was changing money, I had the worst coffee of my life and it put me off it for about a month.

Despite all my efforts, I kept dozing off in the taxi. Our driver didn't know where he was going, and stopped periodically to ask. He wouldn't take the business card of the hotel we were going to, which has a map on it. Traffic stopped periodically for the sacred cattle. I was unprepared for the sheer density of humanity, the piles of garbage, the dwellings made from wood and tin and covered with tarps, the pollution. I tried to focus my attention on the map in the book, but my head still dropped to my chest and I would wake up again, unaware that I had fallen asleep.

The India Guest House was three flights of steep stairs up. Young men demanded baksheesh for showing us the way. The driver, whose voucher says he is not to be tipped (it was a pre-paid taxi), artfully suggested 20 rp. When we gave him ten.

Our room is located back down a flight of uneven, crudely-made wooden stairs, past another room that looked quite appalling. But our space is clean, tiled, with two windows and a noisy ceiling fan. We slept.

Who knows how much later, we woke up. We lay entwined, Paul asleep again, I awake and watching the clouds travel and thinking of David Byrne's "And She Was". The world was moving and we're right there with it. I think I'm going to like it here.

Our room is not in a nice part of town, not by western standards. It cost 420 rp. ($10.50) and there was one window missing, we shared a bath with no hot water and there were no sheets on the bed. Outside, women collected newspaper in huge burlap bags, a man had a barber "shop" set up in the street, three guys lived in an old van, there was a hammock hanging permanently on the stone wall, and dogs and all sorts of people milled about on their way somewhere. Out the other window, we could see the back of a restaurant, where dishes were washed in cold water with no soap. Cats lounged on the roof waiting for scraps. It was truly overwhelming.

Paul woke up and we went out in search of our first food of the day. We looked for a Chinese place listed in the Let's Go, but never found it. The entire time we were hounded by carpet sellers, antique dealers, craftspersons, rickshaw drivers and shaded men who said, "Change money?" and then under their breath whispered, "Hashish?" "No" didn't work. These people were good and we were very green.

We finally ducked into a cafe called Mondegar's, where I really wanted ginger fried rice, but they only had bar food before 7:30. We had Cokes and a little something (I don't remember what). Our waiter was very kind and helpful, a little oasis for an hour or so. We walked to India Gate, a huge stone tower that was built in 1906 to celebrate the arrival of King George I and Queen Mary in 1911. Now it's completely fenced off (presumably so people won't sleep there) and is crowded with tourists (Indians and foreigners alike) who are all bothered to the point of mandess by hawkers selling huge (life sized) balloons, postcards and other souvenirs. The park behind the Gate has a sign forbidding hawkers to enter but unfortunately it was closed.

We went home exhausted and Paul went to sleep early while I read about this strange new country we'd found ourselves in.

Bombay -- 24 October 1998

Diwali, the biggest holiday of the year, kind of like New Year's, had ended just a couple of days ago, but the celebrating hadn't. It was loud all night. People were still reveling and setting off fireworks. Apparently it's a really dangerous as well as festive time of the year, many, many people, especially children, are harmed by the fireworks every year. I saw a public opinion poll that showed that on the whole, people felt this year was safer than last. We saw a lot of young boys doing really foolish things with them though. We picked a place near us for breakfast. It had a few Westerners in it so we figured it was okay. We ordered chai (milk tea with lots of sugar, the national drink), fried eggs and butter naan jam, which was incredibly good. Naan is a flat bread cooked on a griddle, and when it's freshly cooked, it's almost as good as the pita was in Cairo.

We wanted to get out of Bombay as soon as possible, cities, especially polluted one, are just not for us. ever since Cairo, my eyes had been giving me trouble (green yucky discharge) and we were beginning to think that pollution was the culprit. Our plan was to take the train to Delhi, and from there, head North into the cooler and more remote areas.

Trains in India tend to be fully booked weeks in advance, so to ensure that tourists are able to get around, a Foreign Tourist Quota was established. The day before a train is scheduled to leave, a few seats open up that only those with foreign visas are able to get, at a higher price, of course. But if you have a limited amount of time in India, it's the only way to go. If you want to take the train, you have to wait in long lines no matter which option you take, but if you wait in line with locals, you could be there a couple of days. It's insane.

It was really hot and the walk to the F.T.O. Was long and the route confusing. Suddenly all the signs were in English again, which we'd grown unaccustomed to in the last few months. (This is because there are so many regional languages in India, English is the common language. The Indian currency has 15 languages on it plus English.) Because the signs were understandable, we found ourselves feeling compelled to follow them, even though no one else does. We arrived at the Churchgate station, but on the other side of it from the F.T.O. However, there was a sign that said, "No entry on the platform without a valid ticket." we soon learned that the huge proliferation of signs like these was just another aspect of Indian bureaucracy. We ignored it like everyone else and finally found the office. It took a few false starts in the wrong lines (the signs on the ticket windows are impossible to decipher, even in English) during which a young Indian man shamelessly tried to budge and was vigorously upbraided for it, but we finally got into the correct line and were given forms to fill out. The line was long and we got to know all our immediate neighbors. Two guys from Philly (boring and crude), and some students of Indian descent who were all either from the U.K. or the States. One of the guys was from Owings Mills (near Columbia, MD). He said that even though they've spoken Hindi all their lives, the local Indians can tell immediately that they're Westerners, and rip them off mercilessly. THey were hoping in a couple of months they'd be able to fool the locals and live a little more cheaply.

It was finally our turn and the very harassed looking man behind the desk gave us our options while also answering the two phones in front of him and yelling at the people at the end of the line to stay orderly. We picked a train, the Radjhani Express, and then were waved off to the next counter to pay. We had to hand over our passports and you had to pay in dollars (or British Pounds), unless you happened to have your encashment slip from when you changed money, as we had. A guy behind us in line, who was an Indian living in California, was having a terrible time trying to get someone to sell him dollars. That'll teach him to change on the black market.

While Paul waited in line with the Maryland guys, I went downstairs to the G.T.O.I., or Government Tourist Office of India, in search of a map of Bombay and info on Dharamsala and ashrams. There was a sign that said that it was an official holiday so they were short-staffed and apologized for any delay. I sat down in a chair to wait. An impatient guy (Indian surprisingly) tried to jump in front, but the woman behind the counter quietly told him to get in line with everyone else. He started yelling that if they would just have brochures available without having to ask a person for them, there wouldn't be these awful queues. I tended to agree, but for some reason, I was calm. All of a sudden, all the people in the queue started voicing their opinions. The situation got quite tense. Then, without realizing I was going to say anything, I said, "We are all waiting," and it seemed like I was talking about more than just this queue. "It's a good opportunity to practice patience." Me! I said this! Ms. Impatience. Later I guessed that a Hindu God or Goddess must have been speaking through me. But the crowed calmed down and the man resignedly walked to the end of the queue. They didn't have any information about ashrams, but I got some stuff about Dharamsala and a map of Mumbai, which is Bombay's new name as of 1996, and which no one ever uses. The name Bombay comes from the days when the Portuguese held this part of India, and means "Good Harbor." Mumbai is a proper Indian name, celebrating one of the local gods. Lots of street names with foreign associations have been changed as well, but as far as I can tell, everyone still uses the old names.

With rail tickets in hand, we headed toward Marine Drive, which is supposed to be a ritzier section of Colabra, the neighborhood where we were staying. It runs right along the shore of the Arabian Sea and boasts Chowpatty Beach, which is supposed to be an area of many political speeches and uprisings. It wasn't all that ritzy though. People still had their corrugated metal huts on the sidewalk and beggars and lepers were all over. We heard that people had to pay about 500 rp. to the family of the deceased person who used to inhabit that piece of sidewalk in order to have the right to live there. Then they had to pay the police 30 rp. a month so that they could live unharassed. An estimated 50% of Bombay's 15 million residents live in slums or worse. Outdated zoning laws keep former industrial areas from being re-zoned to residential so that new housing could be built. Sadly, we also heard that beggar parents main their own children so that they'll look more pitiful and bring in more money. We did see a lot of children with very cleanly removed forearms, so maybe there's some truth to it. How sad this cycle of poverty is.

We realized while we were walking that we still had to change the dates of our Royal Nepal flights to Kathmandu and Bangkok, because we'd spent so much extra time in Israel. We stopped at a store for a Coke and Limca (a lemon soda made by Coke). You can't just buy a drink and go because you have to give the bottles back. They are refillable. As we stood drinking, a kind-faced, white-bearded sadhu (Hindu ascetic) in a diaper hovered nearby, so quietly that I didn't notice him at first. He waited patiently for us to see him. We gave him some rupees just because he was so decent about it.

We walked to the RNAC office, which was really hard to find, but changing the dates was a snap. It was really hot and we headed back to our room for a nap. On the way, we bought some oranges and bananas. We'd wanted lemons to add to the water, which tasted horrible even after filtering, but couldn't find any. I gave a banana to a beggar woman with a baby and was immediately besieged with requests from all the others. You just can't win. I was sure getting a lot of practice feeling comfortable saying no to beggars.

we rested for a while and then Paul did some laundry, and he wants me to point out that I did not give him a backrub in gratitude. At 7:00, we headed back to Mondegar's because now I had a craving for ginger fried rice. We also had some beer (London Ale I think it was called) that went down quite well. A guy from Australia came in alone and sat next to our table. "How was your day?" he asked agreeably. He had on tie-dyed shorts, which really made him stand out. In India, only little boys and very poor men wear shorts. We got talking and found out that he was meeting a friend from England whom he hadn't seen in a year. He'd been teaching English in Japan and this was his first vacation. We told him we were taking the train to Delhi the next day and he told us this great story by way of warning us to be careful of our packs:

Graham (or Scott, he seemed to have two names) was on a night train. He had just thrown all his gear into his berth up above and was hanging out with a bunch of Indian guys talking. Everyone was having a great time. Then Graham started getting danger signals going off in his head about his pack, but he ignored them because he didn't want his new friends thinking he didn't trust them. But all his money and passport were with his pack and finally he couldn't ignore the danger warnings anymore. He got up and looked into his berth and his stuff was gone. There was a guy lying up there and Graham asked him if he'd seen who took his stuff. The guy pointed in a certain direction and Graham took off. The train hadn't left yet so the thief could be anywhere. But then Graham thought, if this guy saw someone taking my stuff, why didn't he say anything? He turned around and ran back to his berth, reached behind the guy in a moment of pure instinct, and there was all his gear. Graham grabbed his pack, bashed the guy in the face with it, ("It's the only time I've ever hit anyone," he said) and all of the guys in his compartment split. Great story.

Finally, the friend, Sue, showed up, with her friend, Angie, (or maybe Andrea.) There was much kissing and hugging. Sue's great. She loves India and only travels in unreserved, un-air conditioned train cars because otherwise you'd miss all the "action", little boys peddling chai through the windows at midnight stops, etc. She had great stories and would be fun to travel with, I think. She's also a quintessential beard. We left the happy friends to catch up and drink beer, and we "strolled" back to our room, avoiding as much as possible, the merchants, beggars and hash dealers.

Bombay -- 25 October 1998

We woke up about 9:00, I'd slept very well. It's actually quiet on Sunday mornings, which was a very pleasant surprise. We had cold showers but I hardly minded because it was so hot. We went back to the same cafe for breakfast. I think the name was Memran or something like it. We needed more butter naan jam and chai. Then we went back to the guest house to check out and arrange to leave our bags for a few hours. Our train to Delhi didn't leave until 4:45 so we had plenty of time to see some things before we left. We had a little tussle with the guy at the front desk, he had no record that we'd paid for the last night, but we had paid, and weren't about to pay twice. I don't know if it was an attempted scam or not. But I worried about whether our stuff would be safe. Still, it's never too good to be too attached to stuff.

We went first to India Gate, because we wanted to get a picture and the sun was right for a photo in the morning, but it was too overwhelming, and there was no good vantage point because the hawker-less park was in the way. Dozens of people pressured us to take one of the myriad boat rides to Elephanta Island, reputedly a tourist attraction only because it is an island and nearby. We were besieged by competing postcard sellers, beggars, the sellers of the ridiculous balloons, etc. No one seemed to understand "no". One guy offered us two hours of sightseeing in his car for 950 rp. Paul was willing, but I was against it on principle because the guy wouldn't leave us alone. We finally got rid of him and ducked into an authentic locals cafe (called the New York Drink Bar) for Cokes and Limcas. It was a tiny little place, Paul and I barely fit into a wooden booth. The place was packed, little boys scurried around taking away empty plates and glasses, and shoving them under the door to the kitchen, right next to me. But the drinks were cold and we were free of hawkers and rickshaw drivers for a few brief moments.

We considered going to a "Bollywood" movie (Bombay puts out over a thousand feature films a year), but Babe was the only film playing this early in the morning. We consulted our map in front of the movie theater (a bad idea but what can you do?) and decided to check out the hanging gardens. We hopped into a taxi and went. Taxis in India are a whole other form of hassle. The meters are fixed, so they can't be tampered with by the driver, but inflation is so rampant that the true price and what's shown on the meter are always different. There are T-charts that show the most up-to-date multiplication. While we were there, it was about 11 times the stated fare. Your taxi driver naturally doesn't mention the T-chart however. Nor does he do much to prevent you being harassed by beggars at intersections, so it's not like you're just hanging out having a nice ride. Our taxi driver only overcharged us by a little so we were happy.

It's not immediately obvious why the Hanging Gardens have this name. They were built in 1881 to cover the city's reservoir. But why would you need to cover the reservoir? This the G.T.O.I. map failed to tell me. I found out later that it was because of the nearby Parsi Towers of Silence, where right up to the present day the Zoroastrians leave corpses for the vultures to consume. Apparently, body parts were being found in the reservoir, pieces the more careless vultures had dropped as they flew over, and the idea of covering the water supply became quite popular. The gardens are quite nice and hawkers are only allowed at the entrance so that's a real bonus. There are lots of topiaries in the shape of animals and the grass and trees made it a lot cooler than the rest of the city. There's a cool statue fountain (not actually working) in the middle of the garden, all fenced in so you can't get to it, but of course everyone just hops over for photo opps. anyway. While we waited our turn, an Indian guy asked if he could have a photo with me. "Why do you want a picture of me?" I asked. I mean, he doesn't even know me. But I agreed and he stood next to me and with a great show of machismo, put his elbow on my shoulder. Presumably, the next time I'm in Bombay, his buddies will recognize me as his American girlfriend. We fought our way through the hawkers across the street to Kamla Nehru Park, which is really for children (there's the Old Woman's Shoe that kids can play in) but which has great views of Chowpatty Beach. (The water is best viewed from a distance, as it's incredibly polluted, people throw trash in it, and much worse. I can't help thinking of Dukakis and his problems with Boston Harbor. This is so much worse. I get physically ill at the thought of swimming at Chowpatty. Whatever you're imagining, it's a lot worse.) We took a taxi back to India Gate. The taxi driver tried to charge us more than the first, but gave the sideways nod of the head signifying "okay" when we gave him the price we'd paid for the ride over. We needed to get some food for the train, but we hadn't yet seen a grocery store. Before we even left India Gate, we were asked to pose with an entire Indian family for a photo. They even had Paul hold the baby! Are we exotic to Indians? Are they using these photos to prove they have friends in the States so they can acquire visas? Who knows.

We couldn't find a food store, I don't know where they are hiding them. Finally we got the idea to ask Mondegar's to make us some sandwiches, and maybe I could have one last ginger fried rice... Our waiter welcomed us in like old friends and told us there was no problem getting some food to go. Would we like anything while we waited? Some beer? We ordered Cokes and fried rice. As he came back with the Cokes, our waiter whispered that the man sitting over there in the corner was his boss. We weren't sure what we were supposed to do with this information. unfortunately, by the time we were ready to leave and make much of our waiter in front of the boss, the boss had left. But we gave him a good tip. He handed us our veggie sandwiches (wrapped in paper and tied with string) and we said goodbye. We went back to our guest house to pick up our bags. The guy behind the counter very generously offered to let us take showers before we left. I guess he'd confirmed that we had paid for the previous night. I was sweating again before I even left the shower room. Paul carried down the bags and I flagged down a cab. The driver didn't understand when I said "Central Station" and drove around to ask a few people. Apparently it's known as "Bombay Central." Silly me.

We arrived at the station at 3:15, slightly early, but we'd had no idea what traffic would be like. The first glimpse of the station was appalling. People were camped out all over the floor, looking like they'd been waiting days for their train. There were no benches anywhere, I don't know why not. It seems really inhumane to make people sit on the floor. To avoid it, we went into the self service restaurant, ordered Cokes and pulled out our books to wait, but the minute we'd finished our drinks, we were roughly and soundly kicked out. We pushed our way out to the platform to wait for the train. We found the passenger listing and confirmed we had seats. India has a curious custom: they post a list of the passengers and where they are sitting. Foreign tourists are marked with FT. Even ages are listed. Presumably this is to make the conductor's lives easier, but it sure makes it easy for people like Graham's "buddies" to target potential theft victims.

The train arrived early and then we spent a very long time trying to find our car. We couldn't make any sense of the acronyms painted on them. But a porter in his red jacket and armband helped us out. We were still the last ones in our compartment and there was no room for our packs. (Indians aren't known for packing lightly.) The "compartments" are all open, and besides the six usual beds, there were two more on the aisle. Once we got settled, Paul told me that he likes our "system", which consists of him doing all the work, i.e., hefting packs, etc., which means that I can stay relaxed and open to what's going on. (I thought it was nice of him to put it that way.)

An Iranian guy and his mother were sitting next to Paul and an older Hindu couple next to me. The next compartment was filled with seven woman of all ages and one man. All the women commenced singing and the man looked on benevolently and sometimes clapped. It was nice for a while, but it got on my nerves after a couple of hours. (This same group blared the news on their portable radio long after the rest of us had gone to bed.) There were many people working on the train. Haggard-looking men ran around distributing towels (they turned out to be napkins),sheets, pillows and blankets. Then came dinner, while Paul got into a conversation with the Iranian guy. Men ran around with trays asking, "Veg. or Non-Veg.?" and handing us the appropriate trays. There was a samosa-like entree (pastry filled with potatoes, peas and spices), an appetizer of an Indian version of Chex mix (dried peas, lentils, moong, etc. With spices), a green jello dessert with nuts, and to end everything, India's after-dinner mints: anise seed mixed with small red candies. (I love this stuff.) Another man passed out little green thermoses of water, with tea bags. It was quite impressive. I admit I was tempted to "keep" my thermos, as it would be very useful on the trip, but the men were very thorough in re-collecting them. They even scrambled under seats and legs to find missing ones. When the other people in the compartment were finished, they put their trays on the floor and pushed them away with their feet. That was the first time I got a real sense of cast in India. Everybody but us was fine with making the men come back and kneel to pick the trays up off the floor amidst everyone's feet. That was the beginning of my theory that in India, the greatest you can do is to be able to afford to pay people more lowly than you to do every thing for you (and you do nothing), kind of like the nothingness or emptiness of Nirvana.

Apparently what we though was dinner was merely Tea. More men came around and handed out a lovely vegetable soup and bean curd. We were unsure what to do with the curd, but the Hindu woman signalled us to be patient, and we waited, mystified. (The seats on the trains aren't divided with are rests like they are in Europe and the States. Indians sit with their feet up (shoes off) either Indian style (Imagine!) or with one knee up and they just sort of spread out and fill the space. I was a little un-nerved by this at first, but later I found it quite cozy.)

The real dinner came in a little while later. We weren't given any silverware, which is common in India, you eat your food with little pieces of flat naan. The Hindu woman very kindly demonstrated how to eat properly. Dinner was: naan., a kind of falafel, rice (you mixed the bean curd into it), and curry. This was all at about 10:00. I was full but it was so great. Then after that, we had ice cream, either saffron or butterscotch. I got the latter, and the Hindu woman gave me some of her saffron, which was wonderful.

The Hindu man indicated that his wife would like to sleep, so we all brushed our teeth (I forgot to mention that we were also each given our own liter of water) and made up our beds. Everyone helped everyone else. Then the loud group turned on their radio, and a silent but intense fight over the fan began in our compartment. We six were hot and wanted it on (we also had the advantage because the switch was nearest us) but the man on the top aisle berth was too cold. Every time he shut it off and had gotten back into bed, the Iranian guy blithely flipped the switch back on.