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!

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