I am back from the Internet desert that was Bombay. (More on the name later.) My hotel didn’t have wireless and the Internet cafe wasn’t always open, thus the lack of updates even via Twitter. But you know I’m not letting you down, so here’s a summation of the city as I saw it over the past five days.
- Bombay is hot. Clothes-drenchingly, sensory-multiplyingly hot. The city is plenty to deal with just in terms of smells, sights, sounds and general craziness alone, but throw in 98-degree days with 100 percent humidity every day and you got a recipe for some dry cleaning needs with the quickness. Wearing shorts and a T shirt is tough enough, but I got stuck wearing dress clothes for three days while we did interviews. I think my favorite gray pants could probably walk on their own right now.
- As a white dude, I should probably call it Mumbai. But as someone in India, I would probably be alone in doing that. I have yet to meet a single Indian person here who doesn’t refer to the city by its old British name, and this so confused us that we had a big debate before sending out our interview-request emails as to whether we should mention that we were traveling to “Bombay” or “Mumbai” — if we say “Bombay”, we might sound hip to the game, but we might also sound like old-school imperialist dudes with handlebar mustaches and pith helmets. If we say “Mumbai”, then we sound respectful, but also like we are totally out of the Indian thing. Ultimately we figured we were new to the place, so Mumbai it was.
- Driving is actually a little saner in Mumbai than in Bangalore. It’s still insanity, but people seem to occasionally notice the lane lines on the road.
- I finally learned some Hindi. Now I can tell you “cool” (ah-chai), “OK” (teekay) and “get out of my face” (jao jao! — good for aggressive beggars). Hello Boss, OK no problem!
- Poverty gets depressing after a while. Shocking, I know. What probably surprised me more is that slum dwellings and half-naked children blend unobtrusively into the surroundings pretty quickly, even for a liberal-leaning dude like me. Many of those people have jobs and enough to eat, and the entrepreneurial spirit in India is amazing such that everyone seems to have a niche. But then you see two parents tucking in their kids for a night of sleeping on the sidewalk, and you think, how am I even supposed to process this? I wish I had the answer, but considering all of human history, there probably isn’t one.
- That said, the active beggars are rarely the sympathetic ones. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. I’m probably biased because a wraith-like beggar woman ambushed me on a dark street the first week I was here, latched onto my pocket for three blocks and refused to let go, and then ultimately pickpocketed me for 100 rupees. In the end it was hella annoying, but nothing worse than a $2 reminder to keep my hand in my pocket.
This time in Bombay (I like to switch off) I was ready: I went out and bought some two-rupee mini-packs of Parle-G biscuits to hand out to panhandlers so they wouldn’t bother me for cash. (These cookie-esque biscuits are also quite tasty, and Rajesh and I ate them for breakfast a few times when in a rush.) This didn’t have quite the expected result: instead of being grateful, most recipients looked at the biscuits like I had handed them a Sudoku puzzle to figure out. On the way to the airport today, a girl came up to the open window, stuck in her hand and started singing “Jingle Bells”, which I found funny because the elevator in our hotel inexplicably played “Jingle Bells” every time the door was opened. I remembered I had a last pack of biscuits and gave it to her, after which she proceeded to say “No Parle-G, only rupee” while smiling the whole time and ignoring my response of “No rupee, no rupee.” Sorry homegirl, it’s Parle-G or nothing.
Even better was when a monkey-owning woman followed Brian around until he gave her a Parle-G pack. She insisted she needed rupees “for the baby’s milk powder”, then huffed at him when he walked off. He turned around later and she was feeding the Parle-Gs to the monkey.
- Oh yeah, monkeys. They are some smart dudes, but not cute. Elephanta Island (which has bad-ass caves with stone carvings that are 1,600 years old) is infested with monkeys who have learned to steal people’s food and eat it. Brian saw one monkey steal a bottle of Mazza (mango drink) off of a kid, untwist the cap and chug it down. Another monkey tried to steal Jim’s water bottle while we were walking by, then stood in front of us and barked aggressively until this other Indian guy came by and swung a bag at the monkey. We were trying to figure out whether we should kick the monkey or what would be the best way to divert it, but luckily the Indian dude acted first. Now you know why I keep my windows shut at work.
- End lesson: I think Mumbai would be great fun if you had the ability to buy your way out of the reality of it. As it was, it was a really stimulating and intense place, but after five days I was drained and ready to head back to Bangalore. I ended up at the Taj hotel twice this weekend, the same one that was hit by terrorists in November. It’s fully operational again, which is great to see, and it’s a beautiful hotel. It also represents the reality of Mumbai for maybe .00005% of the population of 16 million, so while it would be amazing to spend all your time there, it would be only partially real. What else is real are haggling cabbies, smelly streets, tasty food, sweaty handkerchiefs and hand-holding families on Chowpatty Beach. But I guess that’s the big reason to visit Mumbai: if nothing else, these dudes keep it extra real.