Sorry for being an absantee blogger. This will be one of those meandering entries that come in no chronological order whatsoever, leap from topic to topic, and probably put most of you to sleep. It comes with staying in budget hotels in India, whose managers stare at you blankly when you ask if their $40 rooms come with Internet. India has plenty of Internet cafes that are pretty cheap, but they’re awful to Blog from – you go into a sweaty, hot room, the keyboards are buried under years of grime, the computers run Windows ’75, and groups of Indians tend to gather around to watch what you’re doing. I've finally found a place where the computers have USB ports, so I am going to paste in stuff I wrote on my laptop. I just spent 45 minutes uploading four pics, only to have IE crash, so there won't be any images yet.
It’s Wednesday night, about 9 pm. I’m in a budget hotel in Mumbai’s Colaba district, the place I moved to after fleeing the pricy Hilton. The Harbour View is an acquired experience. My room (at around $40) backs onto a construction site with scaffolding resting against the shuttered window in my “standard” room. There’s no hot water. And little kids run screaming through the halls until midnight. But it does have a rooftop patio restaurant. I’ve got a table with a great view of Mumbai Harbour. It’s short-sleeves weather, but not muggy or sweaty at all. I just ordered dinner. My starter is Tandori mushroom caps with a hot side sauce. Kingfisher is the drink.
It’s nice to be still for a change. Over the last three days I calculate I’ve spent 15+ hours in cars. I did a lot of driving in China, too. But there you’re in a nice air-conditioned car, rolling along smooth blacktop highways.
A road trip in India is an endurance test. My trip on Monday took me deep into the suburbs. I had an address for a company I was going to see. I went outside and found an Ambassador cab, and gave the driver the address. He wobbled his head from side to side – the Indian nod. I should have known better. We ended up stopping a dozen times for directions. Indians appear not to have any sense of direction. They can be standing right in front of the place you’re looking for, yet they’ll point you down the road without a clue where they’re sending you. It’s happened to me many times.
Here’s my anatomy of an Ambassador. Most cars on the road in Mumbai are Ambassadors. They’re right out of the 50s, based on a Fiat model from that era. Even the meter is out of date. Drivers carry a conversion chart that calculates the proper fare using an every-changing multiple. The car is basically a metal box with wheels. The seats feel like they’re made of wood. Shocks? Forget it.
All Ambassador’s are in some state of severe disrepair. Mine this time was no different. On the return trip it started to rain. When the driver absolutely couldn’t see anything, he reached down beside him for the broken windshield wiper and stretched his arm out the window to sweep the rain away. Nor did his headlights appear to work, even though it was pitch black. All you can do is look out the side window and put your faith in one of the country’s many Gods.
The roads here are more pothole than pavement. I just returned from a four-hour drive from Pune. We traveled all of 160km, including a long stretch on the country’s most modern superhighway. That gives you a sense of how rough the roads are. Once you’re anywhere near urban centres, you run into the usual obstacles – worker repairing roads by hand, broken down autorickshaws blocking traffic, meandering cattle, the list goes on. My ribs are still sore, and I think I permanently destroyed the nerve endings in my butt. Indians seem completely immune to the ills of road travel. They doze off the second they’re in the car and sleep soundly, no matter how many craters send the car hurtling through the air.
Back to my dinner in Mumbai. I’m chowing down on a Hyderabad specialty made with shredded chicken, cottage cheese, and a spicy gravy. I also ordered peas pulaf (a mix of rice and peas) and garlic naan bread. I’m going to paste in some stuff I wrote while I was in Pune yesterday:
It’s Tuesday night and I’m in a city called Pune. I came down here with a company to interview a very wealthy and successful Indian entrepreneur who is one of the ten richest men in the country. Fitting then, that I’m sitting in a $20 budget hotel with a 2 inch thick piece of foam for a mattress. I even had to buy my own toilet paper. That’s a budget hotel.
On the TV a guy just jabbed a foot long metal spike through both his cheeks, and then, with his face, lifted a stack of weights off the ground that were tied to the rod. The crowd went wild. That’s Indian TV.
It’s often difficult to reconcile the extremes of India. The country has such a vibrant science and high tech sector. Yet for days India has been gripped by a series of “miracles” that have enraptured tens of thousands. First, water in Mumbai’s saltwater harbour was reported to taste sweet, so multitudes waded in and started drinking the blessed water. The experts said it’s the result of runoff from the monsoon rains diluting the ocean water. Health officials pleaded with people not to taste it, because the fecal count and poison levels are so high they could get typhoid or other diseases. But the news showed people pouring bottles of the stuff down their throats, all the while claiming they couldn’t get sick because it was miracle water.
Then an idol suddenly started drinking milk from a spoon somewhere near Delhi. (I don’t know how you just discover something like that unless you regularly try to feed your statues.) Soon idols all across India were guzzling dairy products. The cameras captured women weeping at the miracle. Yet when they showed it on TV, you could plainly see the milk dribbling down the idols’ chins. Representatives from India’s rationalist movement took to the airwaves to talk sense into the masses. All of this mystic hodge-podge was treated with only mild skepticism by the TV networks here – they actually seemed to give the idol-feeders the benefit of the doubt.
Ok, back to Mumbai on Wednesday night. This dinner is very good. My taste buds have been well trained to handle the spicy food. That e-coli vaccine I got before I left seems to be working wonders, except for that little episode in China. As a result I’ve been more adventurous in my eating. Still, there are no scorpions on the menu here.
While I was in Pune I went to a restaurant that offered dishes from all across Asia. There was a huge mural of the region painted on the ceiling. I had a spicy chicken soup mixed with mint. It was so hot my ears hurt. I followed it up with an Indonesian mutton dish.
Ok, confession time. I’m desperate to breath the fresh air of Vancouver. I was day dreaming about driving to the Mount Cyprus lookout to lay on the grass and inhale it all in. Here’s something to gross you out – I’ve become a phlegm machine, constantly coughing and snorting. When I blow my nose, the crap that comes out is a grainy, black substance. I’m reading a book at the moment called Maximum City, about Mumbai, in which the author claims a day in Mumbai is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I believe him.
There is a lot of housekeeping I have to do tomorrow. Book a flight to Delhi, book a flight from there to Shanghai, change my Air Canada return ticket to head home a few days early (yes, I aim to be home by Sept. 4 if not sooner), tell my friend Dean in Hong Kong to meet me in Shanghai around the 30 or 31 of August for a few days, and have all the goodies I bought in Beijing shipped down to Shanghai.
I’m also going to sit in Leopold’s bar and read more of Maximum City. It’s a great book, and one that has ticked off a lot of people here. The author is Indian born, but moved to the States with his family when he was young. He longed to return, and the book is about his search for his own Mumbai. It’s funny and brutally honest. Mumbai emerges as a living breathing character, so reading it while I’m here is a great experience.
I had a nice long talk with Donna tonight on my cell phone. Since I don’t have web access for my laptop anymore, I can’t Skype with people. Overseas phone calls are relatively cheap through mobiles here. I told her I’ve been feeling lonely. That’s probably why this post has been dragging on for so long, for those of you who haven’t nodded off. I’m on a Mumbai rooftop talking to my computer for company.
I think I’ll go to Crawford market tomorrow for knick knacks and souvenirs. That always makes me feel better.