Monday, January 4, 2010

Beautiful Bombay

As the plane approaches the runway to land we can see miles and miles of shanty towns flowing in waves right up to the runway. That seems like a security hazard to us.
We’ve arrived after dark, but agree Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) seems much cleaner than Delhi.

The city is very metropolitan. No cows. No auto rickshaws. Women are much more scantily clad here than in Delhi. It’s very much like New York, with an Indian spice for flavor.
Our hotel is posh and the most ‘real’ hotel of our trip. A glass elevator looks down on an interior atrium and the sixth floor holds a pool with a glass bottom; which looks down on the lobby.

It’s a sharp contrast to the poverty that makes up the majority of Mumbai.

We take a cab to Chowpatty Beach. Hundreds of people are milling about, sitting on mats eating, children running around. It’s a carnival stuck in time. There are children's rides operated by hands. A small ferris wheel is turned by two men; one standing on the middle bar and turning from the top while a second man turns from the bottom. A small Viking boat swings back and forth, gaining it’s momentum by a stout man with think forearms. Games are set up in the beach. Melissa steps up to the ring toss but isn't good enough to win one of the prizes: a bar of soap. (Irony is sorely lacking in India)

The real draw here are the food stalls. We stroll through them slowly while men badger us from all sides to have a seat on their mat. We spot two other white people and sidle up to see what they’re eating. I ask the guy what they’ve ordered; he has no idea but says it’s good. We take a chance and aren’t disappointed. We find out that it’s called dola puri and seems to be hardened puffed bread with a hallow inside stuffed with chutney, yogurt, and … ummm… well, we’re not really sure what else. Maybe beans. Maybe some mint. But there is no denying that it’s delicious. Next we try bheri pori, which has potatoes and some of the same ingredients. On the surface it looks the same but as is often the case in India, a little tweaking goes a long way and it ends up tasting very different. We wander over to another stall and order a dosa. These are thin breads spread over a griddle and cooked, much like a crepe, then stuffed with veggies. Yummy!

The next morning we peel back the curtains to see a view of the beach only to be meet with a wall of smog. Not surprising in a country so dirty but disappointing since it promised to be a stunning panorama.

We lost an entire day of sightseeing yesterday due to a 7 hour flight delay into Mumbai. Our plane was originating in Delhi which was literally shut down because of heavy fog. We spent two hours trying to get a straight answer from airport officials, a hard task in any airport in the world but an impossibility in India. Eventually we checked into an airport hotel. Cost: $20. At home that would buy you a crack den room with stained sheets. Here it buys you a hot shower with good water pressure and a pool. We eventually make our flight despite three different people confirming three different departure times.

The lost day has created a packed day of sightseeing which might prove to be a challenge in the moist heat of the day. We tackle Elephanta Caves first since they will take the most time.

These Hindu carvings are located on an island about one hour off shore. Getting on the boat is a bit precarious and involves a walk down slippery stone steps, a lot of pushing and shoving by local school kids and at least a dozen women in burkas. Melissa and I spend a lot of time in low conversation wondering how they can wear such a heavy black cloak over their body and face in such heat. I’ve already sweated through my shirt and the day has barely begun. Our guide is an elderly woman who we have to help onto the boat. She starts talking about how Muslims are infecting the world. And even though the women covered head to toe in black clearly don’t speak English, we find the guide's obvious prejudice a bit unsettling. It’s hard to tell if they are her real convictions or if she’s saying it for our benefit given the attacks here a year ago.

We arrive at the island to discover we have a 120-step climb to reach the temples; always a delight when you’re already sweating! In typical Indian fashion the steps are lined with makeshift stands selling all manner of trinkets. We eyeball a few for consideration on the way back.

The temple is stupendous. The caves are actually man-made, the rock scooped out by hand and primitive tools. It's hard to imagine given how cavernous it is inside and the intricate detail given to the statues and pillars. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, and his form is carved out in several different poses and scenes. It all has a very ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ feel to it, although the entire sight is almost trumped by the platoon of monkeys that live on the island. There are at least a dozens, including some babies, scampering outside the entrance, and they are funny to watch. (Hey, what can I say. City girl + wild life = huge smile)

Back in the city proper we retreat to the famous Taj hotel to escape the heat. Security is tight and we are surprised they even allow tourists inside. If this were New York it would be closed to everybody but guests, probably forever. But here in India the Taj is considered a second home to the citizens of Mumbai; to close it is unthinkable.

Other than the security and a simple memorial there are no signs of the attack a year ago. We wander around the marble lobby and peek out at the pool surrounded by palm trees and patches of grass where people have spread blankets.

We meet a new guide after lunch for a city tour. She's younger than the one from this morning, but no less prejudice. She makes random comments about Muslims. Incidentally, we met a man in the elevator of our hotel who also made a comment about black people. I can't say the prejudice surprises me as much as the willingness to offer it up to strangers.

Our city tour is by car. Not usually my preference but it’s so hot outside that I am grateful for inventions such as air conditioned vehicles. Mumbai has a strange but beautiful mix of British Victorian and Art Deco architecture. The soaring Victoria Train Station is topped with a massive dome and spreads out like a government building with various wings and arches and turrets. From the waterline we view a mosque that sits on a little island. It’s linked to the shore by a narrow sliver of land that is covered during high tide.

Then the driver pulls up to a curb crowded with people and smoke and hawkers. Over a low wall we see a jumble of buildings and worry the guide is taking us to see a slum. Tours of the slums are available in Mumbai but we decided to pass; this country is so poor that we didn’t feel the need to see more of it when it’s out in front of our face every day.

But it wasn’t a slum.

It was the city’s laundromat. Huge stone tubs filled with water spread out below us. Ten thousand men work in this enterprise, slapping clothes against the stone. Brilliant white shirts hang on one line, while across the way dozens of jeans flap in the breeze. There’s an area for sheets, another for saris, one more for socks. Smoke from burning coal is billowing out of one corner, making us wonder how the clothes remain clean. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen and looks completely chaotic. Our guide tells us that everyone in the city -- rich, middle and lower class -- sends their wash to this place. She insists that your clothes are returned sparkling clean and they are never ruined from the constant smacking against stone. Check out the video below -- seeing is believing.

Our last stop is a synagogue. There are about 4,000 Jews living in Mumbai. The man collecting entry fees is about 80 and tells us he’s from Syria. He says most of the Jews that worship here are from Iraq and other Middle East countries. The interior is lovely and cool and painted an eggshell blue. Windows are open to let in the afternoon breeze. The front of the temple is set with a kaleidoscope of stained glass.

Back at the hotel we debate where to eat dinner. There are too many tasty choices to try in our short time here. We decide on Trishna which we’re told is the mecca of seafood in Mumbai.

And we’re not disappointed: The butter garlic crab melts in our mouth and a fish called pomfret that’s been steamed in a banana leaf is light and flaky.

The next day is our last in Mumbai.

We spend our last few hours having high tea at the Taj. As a former British colony this event is no small matter. Melissa chooses masala chai from a thick tea menu; a white Darjeerlang tea for me. Delicious chicken and cucumber salad sandwiches with the crust cut off, mini quiche, tiny samosas and of course an assortment of miniature desserts.

Afterwards we take some final pictures in front of India Gate. A young shoe shine boy tries to drum up some business until he realizes we’re wearing sandals. He has a beautiful face and such a cheerful, sincere smile. And it’s not long before teenage boys start asking for pictures. Melissa agrees… for 50 Rupees. They are shocked at the asking price and try to haggle her down! It’s a delightful reversal of tourist vs. local. The shoe shine boy is her champion and agrees she shouldn’t take less than 30 Rupees. In the end, she takes one for free with the boys that find her so exotic.

I don’t now how we’ll survive at home without such an avid fan club!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Floating on the Back Waters

We boarded our house boat today. The outside looks like a thatched hut although we’re happy to see the inside structure is made of more solid materials. Our room is much nicer than we expect with a big bed, hard food floors and a sizable bathroom (at least for a boat.)

There are three crew members on board: Georgie, Gobi and another man whose name we can’t understand. They alternate between driving the boat and cooking. Georgie is the only one who speaks any semblance of English. He asks us where we’re from three separate times which suggests he speaks English better than he understands. We discuss the possible problems of riding on a boat in the middle of nowhere with three men who speak no English, but decide like most things in India, it will work out.

And it does.

The food is amazing: spicy eggplant in some kind of sauce, naan that we watched them bang out 30 minutes earlier and spicy fried fish.

The scenery is stunning: green rice paddies stretch to the horizon like a florescent green shaggy carpet while palm trees sway on thin stretches of land that separate some of the canals. And there are people living out here in small, brightly colored houses, walking along paths that run close to the water and waving as we ride past. Even though there are dozens of other house boats in the water we still feel like we are alone. It’s amazing to me that people live this way, so simply. They do have electricity but I’m guessing no running water. We pass a school with a gaggle of kids outside making their way home. Some start along the path while others are being picked up in long, narrow boats.

We eventually dock, which really involves just pulling up alongside land and trying up to some trees. Again, we think about how easy it would be for someone to just climb on board in the middle of the night. But out here, that just doesn’t seem to be what people are about. Besides, our room locks from the inside. The sun is a blazing orange-red as it sets behind the palm trees and darkness slowly creeps into the backwaters. The sounds of nature start to come alive with chirping and squawking.

Despite my natural inclination to get sea sick I wear my wristbands the entire time and do ok on the boat. The calm waters also help. Bedtime become quite comical when we turn the AC on and convince ourselves the room smells like fuel. We finally decide that we’ll leave the AC on, turn on the fan, open the window and sleep with the mosquito net down. Yes, we’re wasting energy. But better than gassing ourselves in the middle of the night. I drop off without notice and wake up to a still dark morning.

We get dressed and walk onto the deck to watch the day come alive. The moon is still out and reflects off the water, while the sun also spreads light across the top of palm trees. People are washing clothes along the river edge, which involves a dunk and then repeated slapping of said article of clothing against rock. It has become a familiar sound. People are also bathing and brushing their teeth in water that would certainly give me a unhappy stomach.

Despite all the activity it’s still quiet and peaceful and a small slice of life so different from our own.

Another Day in Paradise

We’re at the Pummunda Resort. It’s located about 2 hours south of Cochin in an area of Kerela state called the backwaters. That makes it sound like a sewer but it’s actually breathtakingly beautiful. The lake is a perfect still mirror reflecting all the palm trees. Canals run throughout the property, creating the need for graceful, arched bridges.

Our villa is designed as a traditional house with a very high door which requires us to take a big step into the room. The bathroom is outdoors. Toilet. Shower. Sink. All outdoors. A bit freaky at first but we quickly warm to the idea.

We spend the entire next day lolling about at the pool which we take frequent advantage of due to the boiling hot temperature.

There is an ayurvada spa here. These are typical medical spas that people come to for a week or more to deal with a variety of problems. They usually offer all sorts of odd procedures, such as pouring warm coconut oil on your forehead for 45 minutes. For the purposes of this resort, they have a much more simple menu. We opt for the general massage which lasts one hour and costs about $20 US.

Now, if you know Melissa and I, you know we both adore cheap massages. The $3 one I had in Vietnam remains the best to this day. I step into a room with a short Indian women who speaks practically no English. She motions for me to get undressed. I’m not modest, but a little privacy please! But it was not to be. She unsnapped my bra from behind! I think “OK. Just go with it. She sees hundreds of naked white girls a day.” She has me sit on a stool and starts pouring this foul smelling oil over my head. It smells like beef stock and I’m trying really hard not to inhale through my noise. She starts giving me a nice head massage, although it’s hard for me to relax completely since I’m sitting in front of her buck naked. After a few minutes she has me move to the table. More beef stock. Then a rapid rub down. It actually feels good, although I prefer the more traditional type where they rub out knots in your neck. Finally, she has me roll over. The massage continues and honestly, I am not sure how I am not suppose to burst out laughing when she starts rubbing my chest. I mean, seriously? I spend most of the massage biting my lip to keep from cracking up, which of course is not the ideal mind set for relaxation. The massage ends with her pouring warm water and washing the beef stock off me like a baby.

Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. Just not my cup of tea.

Melissa’s take? She fell asleep!

New Year’s Eve day we spend being utterly useless. Across from the pool hotel workers are buzzing about getting ready for the festivities. Apparently it’s going to be a big deal. Later we put on some mascara and bug spray and take a giant step out of our door to walk over to the party. We’re seated at a romantic table, lake-side, white table cloth and candle. Too bad we don’t love each other THAT much! A temporary fountain has been built near the shore and lights are strung throughout the trees. Soon a woman takes the makeshift stage that’s been erected. She bubbly and squeaky and happy. And completely annoying. We watch a traditional dance performance. And then another. And then one more. And still it’s not time to eat. It’s time for games! Oh yes, games. Like a bridal shower. We try not to make eye contact with her, hoping she won’t choose us. But this only lasts for so long and eventually we find ourselves on stage with some women from Sweden, and Indian guy and some Australians. We’re playing a kind of musical chairs, except instead of sitting we have to jump onto a piece of cloth. The music stops and all 10 of us jump on, I’m clutching onto Melissa from behind, she’s shoved up against the Swedish lady and the Indian and Australian guy are way too close for comfort. We’re all hysterical. Later, Melissa wins us a giant Cadbury chocolate bar for being the only person to correctly guess the date for Chinese New Year’s. (That’s our trip to Vietnam paying off!)

Finally it’s time to eat. There are at least 30 silver turins filled with every type of Indian food imaginable. There’s also pasta. Seven different salads. A “Live Salad” table, which means they mix up your veggies of choice. One man is grilling fresh shrimp, another is making naan and roti on the spot. The food is all yummy. My favorite is the chocolate ice cream. I don’t know if they make it here or it’s shipped in from another country. But it’s the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot.

As the eating winds down, the cheerful MC tries to get people on the dance floor. The problem is they are only playing Euro trash house music. Even the French people aren’t into it. I ask if they have Michael Jackson? No. Madonna? No. Sigh. It’s going to be a long 30 minutes until the clock strikes 12.

It eventually does, bringing with it fireworks. And while they're no Macy’s Fourth of July, they are more impressive than we expect. Locals have gathered in several boats off our shore to watch the show. Soon it’s all over. And Melissa and I return to our little wood villa to eat the yummy plum cake the hotel gave all the guests for New Year’s while we watch the ‘Sex in the City’ movie. Happy New Year’s!

The Jews of India

The humidity hits us like a wall as we exit the airport in Cochin, a town in southern India. It had recently rained -- a lot -- and there are huge puddles everywhere. The warmth is a welcome relief after the chill of northern India.

The city is having a strike the day we arrive and we’re told all the shops will be closed and we'll have to walk because no cars are allowed until after 6pm. That’s ok with us; we’re tired of being driven everyplace. We tell our guide that we’re New Yorkers -- we like to walk!

The morning starts off just mildly steamy. We have breakfast at the hotel along the water. It reminds me a bit of Bangkok; with small boats ferrying goods back and forth along a liquid highway. Then it’s time to head out. We’re drenched in sweat in 10 minutes -- now we know why the guide looked a bit concerned.

Still, we solider on because we’ve been looking forward to visiting Cochin’s neighborhood called Jew Town. There are about 20 “white” Jews still living here and another 20 “black” Jews living in another neighborhood of Cochin. Our first stop is the synagogue. We have to remove our shoes, not for religious reasons, but to preserve the blue and white tile floor. Hundreds of tiles were shipped from China and no two designs are alike. Pictures are forbidden, but in typical fashion, Melissa and I take a few without flash. There are dozens of glass globe lights hanging from the ceiling and an upper balcony where women sit during service. There’s an eternal light near the front; unfortunately the Torah isn’t available for viewing.

It’s different from any temple I’ve ever seen.

When we leave we covertly check out the girl taking tickets. She’s clearly Jewish and looks like she’s from Bay Ridge. But she doesn’t look like she wants to talk so we don’t approach her. I suspect Jews approach her all the time asking the same questions over and over.

We wander around the narrow lanes of Jew Town, snapping pictures of signs in Hebrew, plaques saying Shalom, street signs. There are shops selling matzoh covers and yarmulkes. One shop is run by a old woman. Sarah Cohen. She looks like she’s from Borough Park. We ask her where she’s from originally. She says Cochin. Even though her English is accented she has the mannerisms of any Jewish person from New York. It’s odd to think that’s she was born here, grew up in India and is Jewish. We never get a chance to ask, but I think they must have to travel to Israel or another country in order to find a Jewish husband or wife since the Jewish population is so small, and they clearly aren’t having interracial marriages.

I’m impressed and a little proud of them, just like I was of the Jews in Cuba. It takes a lot of nerve to carry on in what you believe in when the surrounding community is largely something else. There is a huge population of Muslims in southern India. But strangely we don’t see very many Mosques. What we do see are hundreds of churches. Cochin and Goa (a city to the north) were founded in large part by the Portuguese. As such there is a large Christian population in Cochin and around every corner there’s a church or mini alter to Jesus. It’s a strange sight after seeing so many Hindu temples.

But there is a Hindu temple next to the Synagogue that's preparing for a festival where two elephants are being honored. One of the Hindu gods, Ginesh, has the head of an elephant on a human body and elephants are revered in this country. There are dozens of locals milling about, taking pictures with the elephants.

We take an auto rickshaw back past our hotel to the other side of town. There fishermen catch their daily load with gigantic nets strung up between several wood poles. The entire contraption looks like a huge spider on a web. They are lowered into the water and pulled up when they are full of fish. Fish of all sizes are spread out on tables as people mill about deciding what to buy. Men yell out to us saying we can choose a fish and they will cook them on the spot for us. I’m not that brave, but the idea is intriguing.

Cochin was once a major stop along the spice route to Asia and spices are sold everywhere out of large buckets. The city strike has shut down the wholesalers which is a shame because I imagine that would be exciting to see. But the spice retailers are open and one woman with a beautiful face lets us sniff different kinds of powders and nuggets. In an open courtyard, ginger is being dried out in the open.

It's not just the hot weather that makes southern India so different from the north. They have a 98% literacy rate here, which probably accounts for less people begging on the streets. We do run across young budding entrepreneurs who have set up a Santa Claus and are charging for pictures. Their smiles are captivating and well worth the few rupees we give them. Another boy rides by on a bike and stops to say hello and ask for a pen. We don't have one to give him so we offer a piece of gum. Then he lets Melissa ride his bike while taking pictures of her with my camera. Another moment in travel where laughter breaks through any language barriers.

Men also dress in traditional outfits called lungis, which look like beach sarongs. They wear them long and short. When they're short they look like mini skirts and it's a funny sight that never fails to make us snicker.

We only have a few more hours in Cochin before we have to leave, but it’s midday and the heat is taking it’s toll. We decide to break for lunch at this place that serves chocolate samosas. I am much more excited by the idea of this than Melissa. Southern India is also know for it’s spectacular seafood; I get a mixture of different seafoods while Melissa gets stuffed peppers. Both are delicious. But it’s the dessert I’m here for and I tell the waiter I already know what I want before he brings the dessert menu. The look like little fried ravioli, floating in a mango sauce. I’m a bit disappointed to discover it’s more like chocolate sauce than fudge. But they’re still yummy and the mango sauce is tangy and offsets the sweetness of the chocolate.

Now it’s off to our three days of rest and relaxation!