my little friend from the flight had been a foreshadowing. after a fabulous indian buffet breakfast, where i discovered that i do not like idli, we stepped out of the hotel. a group of indian guests was waiting outside for a cab, and one of the women openly stared me in the face. i would look away and glance back to find that she was still gawking. unflinchingly. i was a spectacle. tilda, on the other hand, was a major celebrity. eventually, the woman approached, and i heard the phrase, directed to tilda, that i would quickly grow accustomed to: “one picture?” (not “a picture”—always “one” picture.)
as surprising as it was to me, this scenario, i learned, is common. i didn’t know that white people were rare in india. also, having once been the conquering colonizers of the place, i would have assumed they would not be revered. well, talk about making an “ass” out of “u” and “mption.” apparently there is nowhere in the world where a white woman is not put on a pedestal. meh. photo shoot complete, our cab was soon arranged, and we set out.
coming to india is like being dropped inside an ant farm. never before—not in honduras, mexico, or jamaica—have i experienced a more teeming, streaming, swarming, thronging mass of people. nor such a twisting, winding, tumbled up jumble of a city. the ramshackle-est of shacks are precariously perched among high rise buildings; vending stalls share blocks with vaguely modern shops, stick-and-tarp street dwellings, a 27-story palace built for one, and abandoned building shells. i found it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a well-off part of town and a slum. our posh hotel overlooked slums, in fact (see pic above), and when we passed the notorious dharavi slum, i didn’trecognize much difference between it and anywhere else around. there must be more corrugated tin per square foot in india than anywhere on the planet.
i found the drive to our destination heartbreaking. not because of the poverty but because of the beauty. as i clutched in my hands the finest piece of photography equipment i had personally ever known (a canon rebel t3i–my first grown-up camera), we whizzed along past a sea wall where women sat in glittering saris, gazing out at the water, past tall buildings with colorful garments dangling from windows, dancing in the breeze, past a black tuk-tuk* where a lady’s leg draped under a sparking golden-threaded fuchsia sari sat gracefully just in sight of its open doorway. everything i saw was a photograph. and there was nothing i could do about it.
we eventually arrived at the colaba causeway, a tourist trap where a shirtless man scarily snapped an enormous braided whip about his body and cab drivers urged you to shop (apparently, there are kickbacks involved). beyond this lay, however, the gateway to india, a hundred-year-old monument overlooking the arabian sea but closed to entry due to previous terrorist activity in the area, including two bombings. to get there, though, we first had to cross the street.
traffic in india is a neverending stream of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, and scooters. for the most part, its movement is incomprehensibly self-regulating as lights are few and far between. there are also no lanes, per se, and the vehicles all move about like bumper cars, constantly closer to each other than you would ever believe without seeing. they squeeze into every available opening, nook, and cranny, with barely inches between them. but somehow it works…they merge and forge their way with arm signals, resolve, and an incessant conversation of horns. it is truly masterful.
crossing the street in india is an equally masterful feat. it entails a combination of bravery, timing, skill, and athleticism and is not for the faint of heart. with little regulation by lights, the pedestrian is left to his own devices to cross exactly—exactly—like the character in the video game frogger. you wait and wait for what looks like a potential opening, and then you dart out into the road, sometimes crossing only one lane at a time such that you become part of the traffic. in particularly difficult crossings, people may link hands to form a human wall. the cars include you in their conversation, you merge and forge, and eventually…somehow…it works.
the gateway to india towered above me, the arabian sea opened before me, and the tumult of finding passage across began. boats arrived and departed, people swarmed about, and, just as on the roads, there was little to regulate or inform the traffic. we merged in with what felt like the unfocused yelling, waving, and paper-exchanging frenzy of an old-school stock exchange. we managed to pay for passage, boarded a boat, and were dismayed to be greeted with another toll for entry to the top deck. with that reluctantly paid, we climbed up and found chairs, tables, and even sofas there. the sun was beating down, so we took shelter under the tarp with all the other indians and briefly discussed how dreadfully undesirable indians find it to be brown.
once underway, a vendor came around periodically offering snacks (chataka pataka, anyone?) and beverages while strands of mirror pieces tinkled away to wonderful effect against the railings. after 45 minutes or so, elephanta island was finally in sight. four other boats of equal size were already perched side-by-side against the dock, and our boat made five, such that, to reach land, we had to cross through each previously docked boat.
the land was a long walkway dotted with vendors of snacks, fruit, sun hats, and other items. before long, a set of rail tracks appeared. these were for the small train that could take one up the hillside. for a fee, of course. we walked on, passing the occasional goat, and reached a clearing with a small restaurant, some vending stalls, and an increasingly wild menagerie of roaming animals. goats, dogs, cows, brahman bulls, and–finally–a few [initially adorable] bonnet macaque monkeys. monkeys! free-roaming monkeys! i snapped away in awe.
the previously dotted line of vendors became a solid stripe that edged each side of the long, tarped stairway up the hillside to the centuries old elephanta caves. “miss, please.” “have a look.” “one second.” “best price for you.” by the time we reached the top and stopped to eat, i was in a full sweat and had a mild headache. the bottle of water i had dragged along with me had reached about 98.6 degrees, and even the brand new bottle i bought wasn’t cold enough. as it turns out, both ice and napkins are luxury items that would not be available to me there. i guzzled cool water and ate vegetable biryani that made my lips burn. monkeys swung about and ate in the trees right behind me, but i had adapted to them so quickly that i no longer paid much attention. well, except to the one in a tree eating a wedge of watermelon. what? a monkey eating watermelon?! *SNAP, SNAP*
we made our way to the caves, which contain a few carvings of deities, some sacred ground, and some columns…but mostly just old caves. i was underwhelmed. the monkey activity turned out to be much more interesting. we watched a pair double team some grown men, robbing them of a bag of food and a bottle of water, and later we watched one menace a child of equal size to it. the child, maybe close to three years old, was a few steps away from his family picnic and tossed some food to a monkey. the monkey returned for more, and there was a brief face-off between the child and the monkey. the monkey got closer, and the child, spooked by this, struck out at it. the monkey angered, struck back at the child, and bared its fangs with an evil hiss. i was petrified. the child burst into sobs, and adults chased the monkey away. having at this point seen a few of the monkeys menace in this way, i no longer found them cute and worried slightly for my person, tucking my water bottle out of sight from these macaques that were quite adept both at stealing them and opening them.
we made our way back down the hillside, shopping for souvenirs along the way. i learned that my established companions knew to always get a better price by saying “no, too much,” and setting out to walk away. i felt guilty every time, though, particularly when tilda bargained a lady down from ₹600 for an anklet to 400, and i then sheepishly paid with a 1,000 rupee note. we cleared the way for a lady being bustled along on a litter (such passage being available to anyone who wants it, for a fee), and hopped onto a boat back (extra fee to sit at the top).
this time, the warm setting sun, the breeze from the water, the lengthy excursion, and the gentle rocking of the boat nearly lulled me to sleep. i was kept awake, however, by the children who, unfazed by my difference in appearance, included me in their fun. with all the seats taken, tilda, chris, and i had made do with sitting on a flat metal berth at the back of the boat. a few others joined us, including a small child, maybe three, who enjoyed using me to prop himself up. also, much like a bonnet macaque, he enjoyed stealing the water bottle from my purse. more than these things, though, he enjoyed watching the adults throwing food to the seagulls that trailed along in the air behind our boat and tossing handfuls of confetti’d paper that looked like a flutter of butterflies in the breeze.
after stopping for frozen yogurt (₹60 each), we caught a cab to chor bazaar. also known as “thieves market” (or to me as “so many goats!”). chor bazaar is a web of blocks and side streets organized into vending categories. there’s a strip for auto parts, an area for meats, some blocks for produce, and so on. it was also here that i discovered that my surreptitious photo taking need perhaps not be so surreptitious. i tried to shoot a group of several kids all attempting to ride a bike simultaneously, and when they saw me, i was suddenly swarmed by narcissists. they waved and posed and photo-bombed like…well, like children. unfortunately, i hadn’t yet figured out how to best adjust my camera for the very low light of these back alleys at night. the lighting blessed me, however, when i saw a small girl dressed in green perched on a scooter with her father. i snapped the picture, and when she realized what i had done, she brightened and smiled at me. :-)
as we left chor bazaar, it happened. the traffic in the street we needed to cross was thick, nearly impossible to cleave. as was his nature, chris barreled ahead while tilda and i were still looking for our opportunity. he was about two car widths deep when i saw the moment of quick decision, of too many entities jockeying for the same bit of street at once. there was a sidestepping of one vehicle, and then the loud smack sound of impact from another. a short scream came out of me, like a bark, and i felt it hanging in the air as i lost sight of him behind a bus. when the traffic cleared, i saw that the two guys on the bike that had hit him were stopped and yelling. i also saw chris’s back from the other side of the street.
i made record time crossing after that. sheer adrenaline. when i reached him, he was already at a cab demonstrating to a concerned witness that he could indeed still move his arm and leg on the side where he was hit. once tilda reached and we were all together again inside the [getaway] cab, i learned that chris’s hasty retreat had been based on the knowledge that, in the case of an accident, tempers can rise quickly and mobs have been known to form. chris was totally going to leave us there if we hadn’t made it across in time. guess i can’t say as i blame him.
we coasted along in the cab, passing several inexplicable open fires in the street before arriving at haji ali. there we found ourselves in a well-lit open air market with vendor after vendor selling knickknacks, snacks, and muslim-centric items, including prayer rugs. in many of these stalls, men sat slicing some sort of pale vegetation to resemble a splay of petals. buckets full of these waited to be strung with red roses and mylar ribbons into garlands that hung in the stalls. the market ended in a concrete path that led across the haji ali bay to the little islet on which the actual haji ali mosque sits. along this long dark path, to either side, were poor peddlers and children with scales that, for a few rupees, you could use to weigh yourself. once in the mosque, naturally only chris was allowed to go inside, so i’ve nothing further to report.
we happened across a hindi temple on our way from the haji ali. here there was also an open fire. people were collecting trays that included half a coconut with liquid inside, a bundle of dried herbs (sage?), and a few other things. embers of the fire were scooped with a long-handled tool, the herbs were set afire in hand, heads were bowed, coconut water was splashed. subsequent research shows that this was probably a homa ritual.
our next stop was the intercontinental hotel, where i nearly bathed my entire person in the washroom because i felt so filthy from all the walking about and sweating. i had my first fresh lime soda of the trip and pretended that the fireworks we saw in the distant skyline across the water were in celebration of my long-awaited arrival in india. we finished the day with a dinner at kebabs and kurries in the itc hotel—i had dal bukhara and butter naan and the rare experience of being cold in india. out of curiosity, i asked about dessert availability at the end of our meal in hopes of learning about what other desserts indians like besides gulab jamin and that thin rice pudding that is always served at indian restaurants in the states. dessert offerings at kebabs & kurries? gulab jamin and thin rice pudding (kheer).
upon first arriving in india, every once in a while, i would think i was seeing a black person from the corner of my eye. i was, of course, wrong each time. after my entire first day in mumbai, i ascertained that there was about one white person for every 500 indians and precisely one black person for every 500 thousand. that meant that, upon my arrival, there were about 24 negroes in all of mumbai. i suppose i made number 25.