Mumbai Express III: Letters from a Semester in India

Hey Family,

Good morning. It’s 4pm for me. I wrote some of this message today, some two days ago and some two weeks ago, but at times the server was slow and I couldn’t send my update. Thanks to those of you who replied to my last message.

Monday morning, I survived my first yoga class. It was in a large room with about 75 other people. We had four instructors that took turns leading us. Some of the stuff they did with their bodies was just amazing. Maybe I shall be somewhat more flexible by the time I come home. You’d probably seen most of the exercises we’ve did at some point, lots of stretching. I couldn’t fold my feet inside cross-legged although maybe with time I will be able. Also, it was rather painful to sit on my ankles with my toes touching in a kneel of sorts. We only had a rug on top of a concrete floor. I look forward to continuing yoga on Friday. We listened to music, meditated a bit and even said “Ommmmmmmmmmmmmm” for 30 seconds at a time–well long enough that I was plain out of breathe.

Otherwise, things are as humdrum as they can be in Mumbai. We get our daily 4 packs of cigarettes just by living here. It really isn’t that much worse that Quito but that at least in Quito, if you were inside, you were pretty okay. My room has two French doors that open out on to a balcony. Nothing is very airtight. Our neighborhood crows visit everyday, sit on our air conditioner, which is above the French doors, and poop on the floor of the balcony. If we come out on the balcony, which is on the side of the building, besides delightfully standing in the bird crap, we overlook a small but festering garbage dump that would probably kick up a wonderful odor if it was distinguishable from the surrounding air which is dusty, humid and contains enough carbon monoxide for a lifetime.

I’ll digress for a page or two to let you know about Mumbai-ites fondness for scams. When I arrived in Mumbai on September 2nd at 1 am, I requested to be taken to a hotel in the neighborhood where I would be living so that I could explore in the morning. Instead, the prepaid taxi dispatcher from the airport instead sent me to a hotel in the opposite direction from the neighborhood where I wanted to go. After several experiences including a wild rickshaw ride (think motorcycle with a roof and two seats on the back) and a visit to the Gate of India, which I describe below, I can only conclude that being taken in the wrong direction is but the beginning of a typical Mumbai scam.

On Sunday, September 5th, Kevin, Ben and I had no classes and so we decided to explore some of Mumbai’s most notable attractions. We left the hostel around 10 in the morning and took a taxi to Colaba, the main touristy neighborhood in the south of the city. Its most famous attractions are the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gate of India. The hotel is actually named after a beautiful palace outside of Delhi, India’s capital city. Supposedly, the hotel was built by a rich and smart India businessman who wanted his fellow citizens to have a place to stay since he had been prohibited from using British Hotels. We pulled up in front of the Taj Mahal and immediately walked inside to see what one of the most famous hotels in the world was like.

Maybe when I am rich I will return and spend a night in one of the rooms priced at $325 a night overlooking the harbor. The hotel front room had nice leather furniture and lots of oriental rugs. The main feature that stood out for me, however, was the underlining musty odor, a combination of old tobacco and mildew mixed together.

After purchasing a map in the Taj’s Bookstore and snapping a couple of pictures with the turbaned doorman, we exited the hotel and walked across the street to the Gate of India. Looking back, I got my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal hotel. The building is actually a tall thin building about 30 or 40 stories high, with a rather ugly-ish 1960s style concrete façade. Its two redeeming features are triangle style India awnings above each of the hundreds of windows and a top floor that is bigger than the rest of the building, a crown of sorts offering at least a modicum of dignity which possesses little of the magnificence of the original palace located outside of Delhi.

(Correction: Although I didn’t realize it at the time I wrote this message two weeks ago, above I actually describe the horrendously bad 1960s addition to the Taj Mahal Hotel. The original Taj is a block-long 4 story-building next door, truly a work of art, which I will have to return to visit another day. ha ha… Can you imagine? I was looking at two building and didn’t even know which was the original Taj Mahal hotel–but it’s not as if the place has a sign or anything. My gut feeling about the building was accurate at the very least. The addition is ugly!)

The Gate of India is a two or three story arch next to the waterfront. On the landside of the arch thru which you can see the ocean, there is a large semicircle patio. Boats, ferries in particular, are gathered along a dock area on the ocean side and for several hundred feet on either side. Immediately as we step into the vicinity of the arch we are surrounded by the leeches of the tourist trade, men selling post cards for 5 times what they’re worth and ferry rides. I was beseeched by a Hindu priest to let him pray over and paint me. Then there are little girls and young women handing out bracelets of flowers and begging for money. We ignore all of the commotion and take some pictures of the ferries while crowds of people wait in line to board or gaze at the ocean.

Eventually, we split up a bit. Kevin talks to a guy selling post cards. A Hindu priest walks up to me and starts tying a red and yellow bracelet around my risk and was on the verge of painting a dot on my forehead when another leech told him to get away from me since I was a nonbeliever. Ben gets a beautiful flower bracelet given to him by a young woman about 4 and half feet tall. We all eventually disengage ourselves and walk around the arch. The girl who gave Ben the flower bracelet walks up and starts engaging me in conversation with minimal English. She says, “No business today, no money” but says she doesn’t want any money for her flowers. I give her 3 rupees, about 6 cents, figuring she’s probably just not asking outright for money. Besides, she let me take her picture. Yet, she doesn’t leave, she says that she doesn’t want money; she only wants me to buy milk for her little sister at the store down the street. Well, I figure, I’d rather buy someone food or a drink than give them money and so I tell Kevin and Ben that I want to buy milk for the girl and we walk down the street.

Unfortunately, the store is closed. The girl, however, says that the street vendor has milk. We walk over to a stall of antiques and the vendor has a can of milk in a bag. It is apparently baby formula and costs 300 rupees. I’m aghast, that’s six dollars, nothing like I was planning on spending—it was a 3rd of my budget for the day. The vendor also offers a smaller can of baby formula for 200 rupees. Meanwhile, the girl who told me she was 20 although she looked like she was 10 years old, beseechers me to purchase the milk and give it to her for her baby sister. I dug out 200 rupees and Ben dug out 100 and we purchased the larger canister of baby formula. Laska, the girl thanked us sincerely and we continued on our way. Now, that I’m back at the hostel recalling my day, I can’t help but wondered if I was taken advantage of or not. I was simply stunned at the time at the elaborate length Laska want to put us in a position to purchase milk for her sister and could only think of the numerous horror stories I have heard of mothers who could not afford formula. Well, in retrospect what was a $4 dollar contribution for a little piece of mind, even if I was taken for a ride?

Soon after writing this particular anecdote, I talked to several people that ensured me my little donation was definitely a scam. To my knowledge, I’ve been scammed four times in all thus far for a total of $15. Well, I know my descriptions probably seem drastic but I’m really can’t say I am adversely affected.

I doubt I shall have anything as interesting as mass religious processions or scams to report in the near future as school consumes more and more time. Classes are scheduled in what can only be called a haphazard fashion, postponed and cancelled on a whim. I can’t complain, however, as it seems Welingkar, at Temple’s behest is doing its best to provide us with an overall quality opportunity. In what I can only say is a rather mind boggling move, introductory lessons in Japanese and Hindu have been added to our schedule this week. For those of you who don’t know, I’m going to Japan for a month next summer. I don’t expect to make much progress but I am sure both languages are fascinating.

Mom, you will be happy to know that there are 4 ice cream stores within a block of my school. I had ice cream 3 times the other day and think that I have had some just about everyday for the last five days. Their favorite flavor is butterscotch for which I have a newfound appreciation. While the servings are not American size, at prices ranging from 30 to 70 cents, l I don’t feel bad about splurging. Last night, we found a real America style coffee shop where I got a chocolate sundae with a fudge cake for $1. Besides eating ice cream, much of India food is fried–and I have tried a different dish at just about every meal. There is a slight chance that I will pass my all weight by the time I come home.

All for now,
Mike

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~ by Admin on October 7, 2003.

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