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Posts tagged: bazaars

Ladies Compartment

There is so much to say. To begin, you may recall that I specifically requested to be in the “Ladies Compartment” as it was recommended to me as a way to avoid difficult situations in the co-ed sleeper car. It turns out that the “Ladies Compartment” is a sort of cattle car for women, and through some colossal misunderstanding, I thought it was a sleeper car and that I’d reserved a “top bunk.” The “cabin” consisted of hard wood-slatted seats with metal racks above them. I was lucky to get a metal rack, since it meant I didn’t have to sleep on top of one of the other women or on the floor.

In my immediate area, there were about 15 women. If you thought that the Ladies Compartment was going to be genteel and reserved–ha! Don’t let the saris and chador fool you–these women can scrap. You should have heard the screaming and punching and pinching at 2am. As I am not able to understand the language (Urdu, I think), I did not quite understand what they were saying, it was something to do with luggage. With the bodies crammed into the luggage racks, there wasn’t much in the way of room for our bags. I slept with mine under me. One of the scrappers had already been trouble for me, also regarding luggage. She had originally claimed my space with a scarf for her bags, and poked me several times to try to get me down (poking is not uncommon here–but generally it’s beggars and shopkeepers–and the poking is fairly gentle). The other women yelled at her until she stopped (they had told me to get up there). Sleeping on the grate was not pleasant, but the chance to be in such an intimate setting with those other women was something I will never forget.

When it was light, I came down from my grate and we all watched the countryside go by. Many of you know that it was one of the things I wanted to do most–watch India go by through a train window. Ahdhra Pradesh close to Hyderabad has enormous (building-sized) boulders strewn across an agricultural/tropical, flat landscape. The boulders sometimes had auto-sized boulders perched on top of them. The land was dotted with strange concrete-block villages that were fascinating to observe one after another. I even saw one building under construction. There was definitely a sense that these people were in a different place financially and maybe spiritually than those in the slums of Mumbai.

I had been thinking of travel days as “lost,” but I no longer feel that way. My train experience was every bit as rich and stimulating as my trips around Mumbai. I will not, however, be returning to the ladies compartment. “Eve teasing” would probably result in fewer bruises than my night on the grate.

To be fair, the men of India have been nothing but kind and respectful of me. On my way here (to an Internet shop that has already lost power once), a guy in a phone shop notice me looking around and called me over from across the plaza to ask me what I was looking for. Then he gave me detailed and accurate directions. And earlier today, a member of the “Tourist Police,” Nagaraj J. Gould, came over to me at Charminar to tell me there were 26 of his division all looking out for me at the tourist locations. He was so earnest. Those are just a couple of nice examples. It happens all the time. I’m definitely not blending in, though. Today anyway. I think people were speaking to me in Hindi/Urdu because they don’t speak English!

My new hotel room in Hyderabad (pron. Hydrabad) is like a palace and just $11.67/night. I’ve never appreciated towels and sheets before, but it is so difficult to carry a towel with you–and so difficult to dry them along the way. And there is Room Service! There is truly something to be said by traveling somewhere between student/hostel life and group tour life. I was so tired when I got to the hotel after my long train trip (15.5 hours, did I mention?) that I ordered the South Indian Thali, which I’ve had once more now. Little pots of curry and other delicious items. You mix the pots with rice in the middle of a large tray and eat the rice with your fingers. If you are South Indian. I did that today when I ate at a community table with a big family at a restaurant near Charminar, and they were very impressed. And upset that I wouldn’t eat the raita. Yogurt, alas. Golub Jamen turns out to be dairy-free, super-sweet and scrumptious! So fun to have a non-dairy treat. Anyway, I will forever return to the Taj Mahal Hotel (though I’m in the ghetto part–they wouldn’t let me in through the front, I had to go get my room through the Taj Wah! portion–but it was cheaper). I think I was very very dirty after my train ride yesterday.

I’ve seen Charminar, the Mecca Masjid, and the bazaars around today. I tried to walk there (again with the walking), but I think I keep converting km and mi the wrong way (math is hard!). Six miles one way, I think. I was almost there when I gave up and got an autorickshaw. I was really too hot and yucky to enjoy it all properly by the time I got there. I tried to figure out the buses, but they remain a mystery. I know bus 1 goes from Charminar to my hotel. And that bus 66g goes from Charminar to Golconda Fort. But I couldn’t figure out when they might be arriving to take me there. The autorickshaw was only 25ru (50 cents) in the end. I gave up on Golconda Fort for tomorrow. Charminar and Mecca Masjid were relatively unremarkable. I’ve got pictures, but I’m not really an “architecture” person. More of a “shrine-by-the-side-of-the-road,” “boulders-on-boulders,” “sewing-machine-shop-in-the-middle-of-the-road,” “silk-saris-at-a-bazaar” kind of person.

The markets around Charminar, consequently, were acutely interesting. I bought two silk headscarves thinking I’d be able to get into the mosque (no, and I had to take off my shoes and walk on pigeon droppings through the whole thing). There is a wholesale pearl business, and it looks like I could get a double strand (17″/18″, 5-6mm, dark peach) of very high quality Chinese fresh water pearls for $282.56. If I needed pearls. Maybe in Mississippi I will need pearls. Hard to say. Mother was going to give me some for graduation, but I asked for a vacuum cleaner instead. Damn dog hair.

Lost and Found

Against my natural tendency to embrace a city by immediately starting out on foot and getting lost in it–then getting to know it in the untangling–yesterday I hired a driver and guide for seven hours of orientation. I was hoping to hit the high spots and then look for places to return. Today I’m glad I did hire the guide, but I don’t know that it was necessary. Mumbai continues to feel familiar to me–a mix of cities I know.

I saw and/or visited the Hanging Gardens, the outside of the Tower of Silence (the Parsis/Zoroastrians “cemetery”), Malabar hill and its shops, Gateway to India, Chowpatty Beach, Marine Drive, Gandhi’s museum Mani Bhavan (20 tableaux of his life in barbie-like dolls!), a Jain temple where a festival was being held, the Dhobi Ghats municipal laundry–an outside laundry staffed by the very poor who live around it, the fishermen’s village (shacks), Victoria Station (where the guide showed me where to stand for the Hyderabad train), the Government of India Tourist Office (where I got my train ticket for the Ladies Compartment), plus a driveby of every bank, university, stock exchange, etc. on the island. I suspected at one point that they were just driving me in circles because they couldn’t think of anything else to do. We went through an entire tank of petrol.

The guide also brought me to various shops and then left me at the mercy of the shopkeepers. I bought a custom-made shirt at one and nearly bought a handwoven 9×12 silk kashmiri rug. I fell in love with the it–it was like poetry or a beautiful painting. I must have been channeling my uncle Hank (Hansford, my nephew’s namesake)–he collected rugs. It was so hard to tear myself away. But the largest room in my new house is 15×17, so I’d have to line the furniture up against the walls. It would be worth it–the last time I wanted a thing like that was five years ago when I got my red bug with the seat warmers. Still loving the seatwarmers. I did buy a very plain salwar and kameez (tunic and drawstring pants) for travel on Sunday. Sort of a brown.

I’m staying in the Southern end of Mumbai in a neighborhood called Colaba. I spent a lot of time there at the Leopold cafe where I made friends with the waiters and begged them for lunchtime food. I’d gone to sleep at 5pm the day before and didn’t eat dinner. All I got was eggs and toast, but it was wonderful to sit and watch the passing storm. Afterwards I headed toward the bazaars–Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar and Crawford. The stalls were on the street or open to the street and completely crowded together so that the shoppers were forced into the streets where bikes and motorbikes and autorickshaws and cars and buses constantly honked and beeped and buzzed to pass through the people. It was dizzying and overwhelming, but also full of amazing energy. I was the only non-Indian I saw. There were butchers in the streets, wholesale dealers in cloth and imitation jewelry, and street food everywhere. And the most amazing looking produce. I bought a few things, but I don’t think I got much of a deal. I tried to haggle, but I felt so badly for the salesmen. They all look so tired. Anyway, I walked nearly the length of the island–maybe 20km altogether (I have no idea, really). I only got turned around once–the streets are so tortuous I lost my homingbird-like sense of direction altogether. Luckily there are police or military on every corner. Again, some don’t speak English, but there’s always someone else.

Lots of tourists stay in Colaba, and after the bazaars today I realized that it is a strange comfort to see people that seem more like me–at least in appearance. However–at least half of the salesmen in the bazaars I visited today greeted me in Hindi–most not at all! This is only with the hair part and the vague deferential stare at the ground punctuated by a few nods or the head wobble. I wasn’t trying, I swear. The head wobble is contagious. One nicely dressed man in Colaba offered me a part in a Bollywood movie as an extra. It’s hard to explain, but it’s quite a triumph for me to blend in to the background. It’s like minimizing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (corrections if this is wrong–I’m only a pop-sciece fan now). Or, the less I affect the environment, the more accurate my observations of the “real” Mumbai. Plus, ever since I was little, someone has thought I was something else (Mexican, Chinese (I swear–but it was a drunk sailor in Memphis), Lebanese, French, Italian, etc.), and I just think it’s hilarious. Few people other than me could be so “nothing”–especially compared to everyone I meet on the East coast. The only immigrant I know of in living memory is my great-grandmother (or great-great?) Anna, who was Polish. That’s the closest anything other than plain Mississippian or Virginian or just American.

When I returned to Colaba, I gorged myself on chicken biryani, and it was delicious. South Indian food is a new discovery for me (thank you Rao!). It’s so different from the heavy Northern Indian food I always get. Much less dairy, too.

I’ve been talking to people about the flood (or they’ve actually been talking to me about it–everyone seems very eager to go over what happened). Everyone I run into was affected in some fundamental way–a neighbor trapped in his house, a business with no customers and a panicked proprietor, damage to shops and homes. It reminds me so much of the aftermath of a hurricane–but here you can see no damage. It is so impressive that the city and state were able to put Mumbai back on its feet so quickly. The weather here is pleasant–mild but muggy with one or two short rainfalls per day so far. Low 70’s tonight.

Traveling alone, my journal and this blog are a wonderful way to share what I’ve seen without having someone here with me. I hope you are enjoying it half as much as I am.


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