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.