Canï¿½t believe itï¿½s only the start of day two. Yesterday was quite a day. Right now Iï¿½m at the desk in my insanely overpriced room in Bangalore. The room is $220 per night, considerably more than the $150 at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, and so far not quite as nice. The hotels are in the same chain but I guess this is a business hotel ï¿½ the Taj in Mumbai is real touristy and very swank. They did make up for the prices in the coffee bar where I had a snack yesterday afternoon after an exhausting tour. I wasnï¿½t too hungry but at 5pm I thought I should have a wee something to tide me over, not having eaten since breakfast. So I got a coffee, a couple of San Pelligrinos (Pelligrini?) and a dosa: a lentil pancake, which came with a veg curry sauce and a sweetish sauce. It turned out that the dosa was pretty big, with a diameter of around 15ï¿½, and the lentils in it made it very filling so I could only manage just over half. That wee snack came to about $28.
After having had the tour I can safely say that coming from serene and quiet UK/USA, Mumbai is totally mad. Iï¿½m certainly glad I wasnï¿½t driving ï¿½ even walking down the street is exhausting. The tour was quite a good deal actually, and I recommend it highly if youï¿½re ever in Mumbai. The hotel provided a car and driver, the hotel cars all being little wee things, but very comfortable. A little smaller than a Prius but thatï¿½s just fine in a city where itï¿½s every vehicle for itself, the markings are pretty much ignored and you just push through, honking your horn all the way. The guide was excellent, and four hours of tour was around $10.
The first thing I noticed and continued to notice all day is that if youï¿½re a tourist someoneï¿½s always trying to fleece you. I went to the ATM in a bank just round the corner from the hotel and outside a boy tried to sell me a peacock feather wand, and a guy tried to sell me a bizarre five foot long balloon ï¿½ what the hell would I want that for? They were pretty good when I said no though, and left me alone OK. I think you have to just say no up front. Also every time the car stops at traffic lights, if itï¿½s actually paying attention to the traffic lights, someone knocks on the window to ask for money. That was quite distressing as some of those people were clearly very destitute, but to be honest I didnï¿½t know what to do and was kind of paralyzed into doing nothing and ignoring them, which I feel very bad about. What do you do?
What was more pushy was on the way to the airport in the evening. To get there (and more on the journey later) you go through a suburb where I suddenly saw, amidst the sprawl and shanty town storefronts, a couple of smarter looking stores. The driver had been putting pressure on me to go to Saga, a v posh department store. Iï¿½m convinced that he gets a kickback for delivering tourists there, but there we go ï¿½ capitalism for you. So I got in the store and immediately a couple of workers are all over me: ï¿½Hello sir, how are you sir, what will you be looking at sir, just follow me sirï¿½. So I looked at some pretty amazing jewelry, some clothes, all the while with the assistants coming up and asking me how I was, if I wanted to see something else. Then I went past the rugs section and was made to sit down while a guy gave me some Indian tea (very nice) and gave me a demo of how the Kashmiri people make rugs by hand, and how amazing the rugs were. They certainly were, and I must admit I was quite tempted to get one, but didnï¿½t in the end and he seemed kind of mad, even though Iï¿½d said up front that I wasnï¿½t going to. Oh well. I did however get a present for Emma at another part of the store, and a pretty awesome present too though I say it myself.
So the tour. Itï¿½ll maybe make more sense once you can see some photos, and Iï¿½ll try to post them tomorrow once I have an internet connection. At the Taj Mahal hotel youï¿½re very central in the old Fort part of the city. There are lots of English buildings around ï¿½ I mentioned the church-type building I could see from my room, which turns out to be a college. First we saw the train station ï¿½Victoria Terminal. Seriously impressive English/Indian architecture. Then I was taken along the seafront (the Arabian Sea front) through a rather nice part of the city to a Jain temple. Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism and apparently was partly a reaction against the animal sacrifices, and in its strictest form is very self-denying and respectful of all life. For example, they do not eat vegetables from under the ground, no meat of course, and are careful to brush the street in front of them to move ants etc out of the way. In the temple in the holiest areas the people wear cloth over their noses and mouths so as not to breathe in and kill microscopic animals or insects. It certainly is a beautiful temple ï¿½ lots of marble and statues, a lovely smell of incense and a sense of calm. We then went to a very nice park ï¿½ the Hanging Gardens ï¿½ with some interesting topiary, which is near to a Parsi burial place. The Parsis donï¿½t bury or cremate their dead (so Iï¿½m trying to work out how to change that previous sentence to call it something other than a burial place but canï¿½t work it out without making it sound gory or disrespectful) they believe that you give back in death so they have tall towers on top of which they leave the dead for the vultures. There are five towers, two for men, two for women and once for children. We only caught glimpses of the towers through the trees, not anything near close enough to actually see anything happening, which to be honest was kind of a relief. And if youï¿½re not Parsi you canï¿½t go near either.
After that a very moving trip to the Gandhi house ï¿½ a museum in the building where the great man used to stay when he was in Mumbai. The museum is very simple, as you would expect, and features a library of books on Gandhi and the Indian struggle for independence. Never having read enough about him before, or seeing the movie (that sounds kind of crass doesnï¿½t it?) I had no idea quite how bad India had it, so it was a good education for me. And with all his talk and living of peace you just wish that someone would take the same stand today. There was also a simple display on his life, featuring photos and letters and press cuttings, then some representations of important scenes from his life, done with dolls and models. Again thatï¿½ll probably make more sense once you see the photos, and like I said the whole experience was very moving.
The guide next took me to the Prince of Wales museum which contains some very impressive pieces of sculpture and paintings from India. As a foreigner you are herded towards a different admission window from everyone else, and it costs considerably more to get in, but you do get an audio guide included in the price. This was hilarious ï¿½ the narrator was very informative, but also a real smoothy with a kind of Indian thespian voice and an extra-chummy script. Examples include at the start of a clip ï¿½Ah, here we are, in front ofï¿½ï¿½ and at the end, ï¿½Now youï¿½ve heard my prattling please take a look around and weï¿½ll meet again at the next stopï¿½. The museum was very warm even with big fans set up all around, but worth seeing. Again with the guys with their arms around each other, or holding hands. I donï¿½t believe that being gay (at least outwardly) is the done thing here, so I think these guys were all just friends but it was like being in a massive gay hangout or something. Iï¿½m just imagining if a couple of British or American guys were to walk through a museum and one was to start holding the otherï¿½s hand.
Almost forgot ï¿½ a pretty amazing stop on the tour was the washing area. Again itï¿½ll make more sense with the photos, but we stopped on a bridge to look down on a neighborhood where there were hundreds of people washing clothes in open sinks, where I couldnï¿½t see where the water comes from or goes to, and the water looks quite dirty. These people were working like crazy, scrubbing and wringing the clothes and hanging them out to dry, and the clothes looked amazingly clean. My guide said that these folks are dhobis (interestingly the spell checker knows that word) and they have a home pickup and delivery laundry service. Most people donï¿½t have washing machines because they probably donï¿½t have space, so they get their clothes washed very cheaply by the dhobis.
Last stop was right outside the hotel to the Gateway of India, built in commemoration of the King and Queen (probably in their capacity as Emperor and Empress) visiting in 1911. Itï¿½s also where the last British troops left Mumbai (and maybe India, I forgot to ask) so very important to the people of Mumbai. Itï¿½s a pretty impressive building and by that time, around 4:30pm, there were lots of people around as folks started to go out for a Sunday night stroll or whatever.
So after my snack it was off to the airport (and I also had rupees by that point so could actually tip my driver). The journey was crazy, apart from the driving and the other vehicles ï¿½ I saw a guy on his motorbike with one son sitting behind him and two between him and the handlebars, one kid must only have been about two ï¿½ we saw some huge contrasts in neighborhoods and people. You go from the swankiest apartments on the seafront to total tumbledown shacks, some not much more than tarp tents, in minutes. Past a Hindu temple which was packed with people and had a few cows wandering about outside. Past people sleeping on the sidewalk, next to goats eating trash. Past more and more and more storefronts. It was quite bewildering. Then finally to the airport where as soon as I got in this guy who had an official pass helpfully showed me where to go and how to check my bags, which to be honest I could have done myself but thought it was part of how the airport works, to have people to help tourists. I guess it is but wasnï¿½t expecting (although I should have done) him to tail me to the bathroom to ask me for a tip. I only had 20 rupees, about 50 cents, in my pocket and to be honest couldnï¿½t be bothered looking for more so told him that was all I had. What a huckster. Speaking of the bathroom, for some reason while the hand dryer was running it beeped Jingle Bells really loudly, for obvious reasons. By this point I was pretty wiped and felt hot and sticky and generally in need of a shower. However thereï¿½s a fairly pervasive overall body odor here, so I donï¿½t believe I was all that bad in comparison with some guys. The flight was fine, apart from riding right through a thunderstorm which was v bumpy. Cool to see the lightning flashes through the window though, if a little scary. And then to the hotel where again I finally had 100 rupee notes to tip my driver and the bellboy (referred to as a bellperson at the hotel I sayed at in California last week). Had a shower and a beer and called Emma and Toby who are doing really well. Itï¿½s really nice to speak to Tobe on the phone and Iï¿½m missing them a lot. Iï¿½m sure timeï¿½s going to go by a bit more quickly now Iï¿½m here in Bangalore and itï¿½s a bit more of a business trip. Just about to go down for breakfast, summoning up the nerve to be at a table on my own, before the car picks me up to take me to the office, where hopefully Iï¿½ll post this as soon as I get hooked up.
UPDATE: clearly I was brave enough to have breakfast – what a wuss I am sometimes – and I’m now in the office. Where everyone has a newer laptop than me.