Saturday, July 19, 2008

hampi photos

I took a few photos in Hampi. More then a few in fact. I am not a very photo-prone person and I reserve vast amounts of rage for those people who insist on taking photos of every single thing they see in a foreign country, down to cockroaches and latrines. I especially hate people who like taking photos of me first thing in the morning with no makeup and a hangover. You know who you are.

As a result of this prejudice, my photography skills are 1. underdeveloped and 2. underutilized. However, Hampi is such a magnificent, exotic spectacle that even I used my camera on something other then food. So here you go.

The Indiana Jonesesque Virupaksha Temple sits in the middle of Hampi Village, the rather basic settlement which hosts many dirty hippies and tourists. The town is built around and right up to the monuments, adding a rather vibrant and deeply unsanitary living element to the ruins. This is not history closed off and sanitized for your protection: people still live here and do their thing. The tower itself is part of a Hindu temple that is still very much in use and occupied by a vicious tribe of mugger monkeys: I saw a guy have his puja basket (Hindu offerings) unceremoniously jacked by a particularly brave specimen.

The stroll to Hampi's Royal Center is a quick walk from town, and leads past lots of interesting scenery. I have no idea what this is but I like how it's standing rather singularly on a patch of slick rock.

This interesting temple is almost the first thing you see as you wander out of town. It was completely empty the day I came (everyone was off celebrating Holi by throwing paint at each other) and I got to poke around in peace.

Here's another shot. I like how the platform supports look so delicate compared to the large structure balanced on top of them. The quality of rock-carving on display in Hampi is astonishing: Viyangar's artisans work deserves to be better known.

As you walk into the temple, you're greeted with this view. That could be Shiva on the stupa-like thing in the middle but I am not up on my Hindusim. Hint: there are many many gods and you will never, ever understand anything about them. Start with Ganesh.

This delicate yellow tree grows beside the trail into the Sacred Center. It was really an achingly beautiful scene: I wish my photo did it justice. These yellow trees are all over Hampi and shiver in a very poetic way whenever the wind picks up, blowing tiny cream-colored petals every which way. I am pleased to know that they exist.

This is a small bath. I do not really know what it was used for or what it looked like, but I entertain fantasies of the central island being a pleasant, flower covered refreshment spot, possibly serving mixed drinks Viyangar style. I anticipate an early swim-up bar. As is, it's fun to hop down the oversized stairs and clatter around in this now sadly empty swimming pool.

These rows of columns stand beside one of Hampi's many fabulously geometric tanks.I believe they were used to support a wooden or cloth structure around the perimeter that is now long gone.

I like the artful carvings on these pillars, which used to hold up the supports for various shops and food stalls in the old Hampi bazaar. These reminded me rather pleasantly of Pompeii.

Some more left over structures on the stoll over to the Sacred Center. One of the wonderful things about Hampi is how open it is. Beautiful, historic buildings like these would be regulated, closeted off, and overrun with tourists in many other places, but Hampi's relative isolation has presented this fate. Of course, it would probably be better if access to the ruins were more controlled, as insurance against vandalism or destruction But it sure is amazing to be able to poke around these amazing buildings with complete freedom and solitude.

Another not-so well preserved structure on the way to the Sacred Center. Big plump lizards, hawks, and electric green birds live in the nooks and crannies of Hampi's boulders, adding wildlife sightings to the area's appeal. On the walk up to this temple, I had the unsettling experience of nearly treading on a cobra: I heard a pissed off hiss and saw a big black (and distinctly hooded) snake slither out from under my feet. Yikes.

This is a view of Hampi's Sacred Center, a short walk from the main town in Hampi (you do not need to cross the river.) As evidenced by this photo, Hampi's landscape is a fascinating juxtaposition of imposing granite boulders and lush tropical vegetation: it is unlike anything I have seen before. The ruins span an immense amount of land and appear everywhere, tucked into rock nooks, crumbling quietly away in untouched spaces and corners. This is a lovely area and I spent a lot of time here, enjoying watching pumped up Holi revelers mill around. I climbed to the very top of a big boulder with a nice commanding view (where these photos were taken) and fell asleep in the extremely pleasant shade - a nice change from the already nasty morning heat.

Another shot from atop my boulder. To the left, beyond the palm tree stand, is the trail back to town. The extremely famous Vittala Temple (which I didn't photograph whoops) is to the far left as you follow the path. A drunk guy was lazing in the shade of the temple-like building in the right corner all day long, which was pretty amusing.

Here's another nice shot of the river. It's an absolutely classic Southern Asian scene once you get closer to the water: water buffalos working rice paddies, swaying palms, vibrant tropical birds and flowers.

A huge number of little buildings like this one are wedged into the rocky banks of the river. The river is still much in use by Hampi natives, who make their way across the strong currents using coracles, a kind of perfectly round wicker boat. In the morning, just about everyone hangs out at the river, doing laundry, swimming (while avoiding the Deadly Whirlpools the signs warn about) and generally shooting the shit. It's a lovely and eternal scene.

One more shot from the top of my trusty boulder. You're looking at the Vittala Temple from above: it's encompassed by walls and thus you can't see all that much of it from outside. (You have to pay a whopping 200 rupees to get in: about 5 bucks give or take. Scandalous. And more worth it then almost anywhere else I've been, with the possible exception of the Forbidden City.)

As I am blissfully clueless about Viyangar architecture, I have no clue what this is. As the morning wore on, vacationing families in gorgeous clothing filtered in from all over for Holi celebrations, parking their Land Rovers and motorbikes near the river and having alcohol-soaked barbecues while blasting Shah Rukh Khan's latest. It was very fun to watch: just India's version of the classic American Fourth of July celebration. I can't imagine that kind of thing happening in the remains of Rome's forum (and maybe it shouldn't), but it does add a lot of life to what could be a sad and lonely mausoleum. (If you read about Hampi's fall and the total destruction the population suffered at the hands of Deccan forces, you'll understand the melancholy that hangs about the area.)

This is the King's Balance, which was honest-to-God used to weigh Viyangar kings against gold and other valuables on holidays. The equivalent weight was then distributed to the populace, meaning the average citizen had a vested interest in keeping the ruler in junk food. I thought this sounded rather suspect, but then I found out that even the Mughal rulers performed this kind of ceremony. History is weird.

(Personally, I think I'd find it rather humiliating to be weighed in public against gold and jewelry with everyone watching intently. I don't weigh very much: would I be publicly censored for not eating enough Cheetohs? I guess in Viyangar times it would be kulfi and lamb shanks...)

This is Anjaneya Hill, which stands on the other side of the Sacred Center. The hill is known as the birthplace of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey king, who is remembered by a fetching white stupa at the very top. A challenging and twisty path leads to the top, and I hope to climb it someday: I didn't get a chance to this visit.

A Sacred Center structure with some young stud types bikes parked out front. I like this photo: it highlights Hampi's distinctive "alive" status, which made it more compelling to me then many other ruins I've visited. They were getting tanked on the riverside with their families and having a wonderful time but I was still a little bit too skittish about India at the time to join them. Now I totally would have.

Water buffalo are everywhere in Hampi, used for plowing rice paddies and other farming-related tasks. When not on the job, they wander around by the river and graze. They are also subjected to photography by annoying tourists.

And some more water buffalo. I love how their horns point downwards and look kind of like ears.

Next post: pictures from Hampi's royal center and the Best Restaurant Ever.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island is only accessible by ferry, which must be caught from the begger-and-vendor nightmare that swirls around the Gateway of India. I was determined to make the damn ferry that day - I had had two seperate boat vendors tell me that going in the morning was an awful idea while the other told me it would be terrible, terrible to go in the afternoon, so I decided to go when I damned well pleased.

I had an excellent lunch of bhel puri - puffed rice with lots of chutney and fried things and onions and deliciousness - and tandoori gobi (cauliflower) then walked industriouly over to the ferry area. I bought a 100 rupee ticket, elbowed my way to the front of the line, and found a chair that wasn't covered in gunk to enjoy the boat voyage to Elephanta.

I love boats: they comfort me and sustain me, remind of my early childhood spent motoring around on tarpon fishing expeditions in Florida's gulf. I can sit on a ferry and be transported instantly to a land of happy memories and relaxation: I am well known for falling asleep on aquatic transportation, lulled away by something or another. This time was no different: I nodded off almost immediately, ignoring the soda vendors.

I arrived at Elephants at a decent time. The boats dock at a big cement jetty that extends out rather far into the water: a small train is set up to accomodate the lazy or terminally ft who don't want to walk in the heat and brave the snack vendors. Curiously, Mumbai's miserable tropical ferment disappears on Elephanta: the island really IS a dry heat.

All the shops and restaurants are spread out on the side of the large stairway that leads to the top of the hill and the caves, all of which must be braved before reaching anything of historical interest. I bought a Diet Coke and was sipping it leisurely when a shop keeper waved me over: "Watch out for the monkeys - they'll steal your food." "Even the Diet Coke?" "They steal everything," he said with grim resolution. I took his word for it and chucked the Coke and began the climb up the hill. (The lazy and terminally fat can take palanquin chairs up to the top but as we all know this is for pussies.)

I made it to the top and the entry area for the caves, staffed by a bored looking park manager. A very large school group was there as well, composed of what appeared to be fifth graders. Their malicious teacher had equipped them with cute little autograph books and apparantly entreated them to get foreigner's signatures. The kids were friendly and cute and all but my hand got pretty tired after signing fifty-plus kids books (also no one ever had a pen which meant everyone got to fight over two or three available pens.) Because of course if one girl got a signature from the Glamorous Foreigner then damned well everyone ELSE needed one.

I managed to satisfy the fifth graders whims and entered the park, which was fairly empty - a few foreign tourists with cameras, courting couples, and families defending their picnics from the usual packs of stray dogs. An ambitious looking young guy offered to be my guide and looked crushed when I turned him down (he proceeded to follow me in a not very subtle way the rest of the day, doubtless hoping I'd have a historical question/ask him to inspect my underwear. Preferably the latter.)

This is the entryway to the primary temple structure, accompanied by a lovely tree.

I walked into the first cave, which is accessed through some impressive and not-very-Greek type columns (to hold everything together.)

The primary temple is very large and very impressive, full of images of Shiva, completed between 450 an 750 A.D. I am the last person you should ask about Hinduism (though admittedly many of my Indian friends find it pretty incomprehensible themselves), but I definitely was impressed. The huge temple complex is filled with monolithic and expertly carved images of Shiva, crowing doorways and erupting surprisingly out of rock walls, such as this one:

The archetypical serene images of Shiva were also present. Note the multiple arms.

This is a particularly intricate wall mounted statue display - it's astonishing how much detail has survived. I especially like the voluptuous woman to the right. Someone Who Actually Knows Shit About Hindu Art: is she the feminine incarnation of Shiva?

I was particularly struck by these guys guarding the doorways, who seem vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian sculpture, except they look a lot more blissed out. And less flat. (As you may be able to tell, I am a art history expert.)

This is a neat display of three aspects of Shiva - warlike, calm, and feminine as I recall, going left to right. They are really very large which is not obvious in the photo.

Unfortunately, some of the statue's faces were missing - I'm not entirely sure what the reason was, but I imagine it was one of those usual morality-enforcing ancient art defacement rampages people like to go on.

The main cave complex is rather large and takes a bit to walk through. Once you come out on the other end, you find yourself at the top of a hill with a rather lovely view of the harbor below you and the other islands associated with Mumbai, set in a dry scrub environment that is very strange to encounter after time on the tropical and sweaty mainland.

And again:

The trail leads you around to the other historical sites, which are not much to see after the main cave - a few columns and rather empty abandoned temples and a Shiva lingam or two, and all that jive. The walk itself was very pleasant, and I dragged myself to the very top of the island, which did indeed feature an even more commanding view (and also my stalker, who was really trying very hard to blend into the bushes. I thought it was funny.)

In any case, I wandered back down the hill, successfully avoided the monkeys, and caught the launch back, where I proceeded to fall back asleep again. The rest of the evening passed uneventfully - (maybe i should make up something about hooking up with a bollywood star here but it would be a lie. but more entertaining then reality.)

Monday, May 26, 2008

india traveler tips


I am not an expert. I am not an officially mandated Lonely Planet vagabond, and I do not profess that this is actually good advice. This is, however, what worked for me.

1. Become very good at ignoring people.

India is full of people who want your money. This is natural and to be expected, but you should have a coping technique. Beggers and touts almost always leave me alone, and this is because I completely ignore them.n I look right through them and pretend they do not exist. They will usually follow me for a half hearted couple of steps, realize I am not going to react in any way shape or form, and then they leave and go for an easier mark. This makes my life as a traveler much, much easier.

Is this rude? I have given this advice to a few other friends, and they acknowledge that it works, but also note, "I just couldn't do it. I'd feel so rude." By normal standards, completely ignoring the existence of another human being is rude. However, I find that touts and beggers are being rude by following me, getting up in my face, and aggressively attempting to sell me crap I don't need - and I might as well reciprocate.

Unfortunately, polite refusals do not work. Polite refusals simply indicate to the tout or begger that you 1. speak English and 2. are probably a soft touch, which means they will step up their entreaties even more. If you engage in conversation, you will probably have found yourself an unwanted new friend for the next thirty minutes, attempting to sell you a drum or a taxi ride or an elephant or a hooker (whatever.) Just know what you're in for if you wish to maintain politeness.

Note for women: Ignoring amorous men also works very well. It is especially important never to engage in conversation with men who are hitting on you or attempting to solicit you - this will encourage them and you will probably pick up some very unwelcome and rude followers.

2. Don't give to beggers.

Beggers are a tremendous presence in India. They are everywhere, they are persistent, and they are incredibly desperate looking. Westerners often give to them, and furthermore, they give a lot - and its hard not to. However, you shouldn't give your money to beggars. According to all the Indians I've spoken to, beggers in most areas are organized, which means the rupees you give to the starving mother and cherubic child may not actually benefit them in any way. (Furthermore, the beggers often are not in as dire straits as they may initailly appear.)

If you want to help the poor in India - and who doesn't? - find a big and legitimate charitable organization in the area you are in and make a hefty donation. This will find its way to the right people and projects and do a lot more good then random dollops of money given to random people.

3. Bargain for everything, but not TOO much.

“I have learned that the cost of everything from a royal suite to a bottle of soda water can be halved by the simple expedient of saying it must be halved.”

- Robert Byron

This is sort of complex. In many places, especially tourist areas, rickshaw drivers, shop-keepers and random Purveyors of FIne Crap will overcharge you immensely with a big smile on their face, under the presumption you are incredibly stupid. Do not fall for this. Bargain, do not accept the first price, and do not be cowed or fooled by claims that you are looking at an incredibly nice antique or that you will be taken on the best rickshaw ride of your goddamn life to date. Halve the price and keep moving down from there. Walking away and saying you'll think about is usually an excellent tactic.

In regards to transportation: ask around and figure out what baseline prices for rickshaws and taxis are BEFORE you take one. You will never, ever get local price, but you can at least shoot for decent Stupid Foreigner price. I had a guy at the Delhi airport attempt to charge me 2000 rupees for the 10 minute ride between the domestic and international terminals. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we both burst into raucous laughter because he was full of shit and he knew it.. Do not pay these prices.

HOWEVER. The bargaining thing can be taken entirely too far. The poor woman selling handicrafts in the small village is not trying to screw you and could probably use the money a hell of a lot more then you. Many sellers in Colaba might appear skeezy, but I genuinely felt bad when I read an article in the newspaper where the salesmen lamented foreigners who bargained them down to prices that didn't even cover their expenses - they're trying to make a living like anyone else. If there's a sign on the wall saying BARGAINING NOT ALLOWED, then be a nice polite human being and heed it. You may not want to admit it, but you are indeed a Wealthy and Decadent Westerner and can probably afford to pay a smidgen over the local price. Take a look at the average local salary and perhaps you will appreciate the logic of this.

4. Dress nicely, you damn hippie.

Indians place a big premium on dressing nicely and looking put together. For some reason, many Western tourists decide to completely ignore this, going everywhere in ratty body-odor smelling clothes, while flashing hairy unshorn armpits (women) and bristly five o' clock shadows. (men.) This is not the way to win friends and influence people in India. Many Indians I've spoken with have demonstrated extreme disdain for the omnipresent dirty hippie found wandering in most tourist areas. They also wonder why people who can afford a not-inexpensive plane ticket to a place like India are somehow unable to afford showers.

You are not making a polite gesture of solidarity to the common man by dressing like you are poor yourself - the common man, odds are good, just thinks you are a utter fool for refusing to use your decadent Western wealth on a t-shirt that doesn't have holes in it. People will be polite to you, help you out, and treat you with respect if you show them the respect of looking nice, smelling good, and being put together.

5. Tip, but not too much.

Leave restaurant tips. This is a good thing and makes everyone happy, especially if the food was good, the service was polite, and you enjoyed your meal. I leave big tips at my usual restaurants and the staff are always happy to see me - which makes enjoying dinner a lot more fun. And yet again, you can afford it, you damn Westerner.

HOWEVER, do not tip too much. This can be a problem with rickshaw drivers (who demand tips at times for, uh, existing). It's also common at airports, where porters will do everything in their power to snatch your bag from you then demand money. Just refuse to give them anything if they attempt to charge you 100 rupees for touching your bag for 1 millisecond.

Good rule of thumb: if they ASK for a tip, they probably don't deserve one.

6. Shut up and stop worrying so much about the food .

Yes, India is not exactly known for its hygiene. Yes, odds are good you will get sick while you are in India - intestine-cramping crying for your mommy kill me now sick. HOWEVER, this happens less then you might think. Don't let the potential risk stop you: I may have an unusually steel-plated system but I've eaten just about everything here and have only been ill once. Use common sense - don't eat it if there's flies buzzing around it and no customers in sight - but a busy and fairly clean street stall full of happy customers will probably serve you fine. Try the chaat and the juice and have fun.

One thing that annoys both me and Indians is Westerners who will enter an expensive, classy restaurant and begin obsessing over the hygiene and the water and the forks and.... This is very offensive and you should really knock it off. A five star restaurant in India's major population centers is no more likely to give you food poisoning then a five star restaurant back home. Relax.

7. You will need balls of steel to cross the street.

Westerners are always jarred by the utter chaos that are Asian street crossings. We grow up accustomed to friendly crossing guards, blinking crossing lights, and drivers that stop when they are supposed to for the appointed amount of time. We are also accustomed to the notion of "pedestrian right of way."

None of this exists in India. Crossing the street means you are going to be playing a game of Frogger with your body and there are no extra lives. Watch traffic extremely carefully, be ready to run when there's anything approaching a break in activity, and take especial notice of rickshaws and motorbikes: they can be easy to miss.

Never, ever expect anyone to slow down or wait for you to cross: motorists assume they have the right of way and it is contingent upon you as the lowly pedestrian to get the hell out of the road if they are coming through.

Watch for groups of local people waiting to cross and cross when they do. Alternately, find the toughest looking old lady in the district waiting to cross, and cross with her. Old ladies have survived for a very long time under adverse conditions and generally have street smarts.

Westerners often like to remark in a patrician sort of way that, "You know, traffic looks dismal here, but it must be safe -I never see any accidents or fatalities!" This is a pleasant illusion. The accident and fatality rate is horrific. You just haven't been here very long.

8. You are probably safer here then back home.

For some reason, many people back home seem to believe you are propelling yourself into the jaws of Certain Death by making a visit to India. India has a popular perception of being some sort of squalid, terrifying shithole full of the screaming starving, emaciated villagers in dodhis fighting over a single scrap of cow patty, and vicious throat-slitting urban bandits and terrorists. This is totally untrue. India's recent economic leap forward has turned most of the country, especially the urban centers, into a highly civilized place indeed - and it is is deeply offensive to most Indians when travelers assume all of India is a poverty-ridden nightmare. Most Indians are rather proud of their countries progress and hopeful for the future: you could at least indulge them a bit and go along with it.

Poverty is of course still rife and obvious, especially when you get out of the posh areas and into the backcountry. These are problems that need to be corrected and must be corrected, and it is equally unwise to equate the Lacoste-wearing masses sipping Americanos at Cafe Coffee Day with all of India. Donate your money, your time, or your expertise, and maybe things will improve.

Use common sense: Delhi is indeed not a particularly safe place, but I would still wager you're better off there then in the nasty bits of most modern cities. Places like Bangalore and Mumbai have a well-deserved reputation for safety: travel intelligently, avoid seedy people, and you should be perfectly fine. I have found myself walking back home alone many times here in Bangalore and have felt perfectly at ease - and with good reason. I wouldn't take my chances doing such a thing back home.

9. Indian food is cheaper and tastes better. Eat it.

Many Westerners come to India and are immediately repulsed and disturbed by the food. This usually manifests itself into an almost-crazed reliance on KFC and McDonalds. Do not become one of these people. Indian food is delicious, varied, and inexpensive. (It is rarely healthy and do not let anyone convince you a korma swimming with ghee and butter and cashew is. But good.)

Western food might be available, but it is generally either fast food chain junk or extremely badly interpreted at the lower end of the price range. Of course, this is not true in the major population centers: there are absolutely amazing Western restaurants in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai which are definitely worth a visit for the nostalgic, though you will pay for the privilege.

Try as many different cuisines as you can: Indian food features an incredible variety of specialties that range far beyond the standard Punjabi/Mughali food that seems to dominate most Indian menus outside of the country. Try spicy Andra food from Kerela - served on a banana leaf with lots of coconut leaf and rasam (spiced tamarind broth) - or perhaps some Kalkutta chaat - or maybe Hyderbadi biryani or....

10. Go out to clubs. This is a lot of fun and you will meet people.

Many people are suprised by the Indian club scene - in that there even IS one. I may be biased, but I have had a tremendous amount of fun at nighclubs in Bangalore, Mumbai, and Delhi and you certainly will as well. Many tourists I've spoken to made the false assumption that there was no party scene in India and thus failed to pack their schmany me ladies, bring along your glam stuff, you will certainly need it (and miss it if you don't.)

One more thing: Do not stand in the corner with your other Western buddies. Nightclubs and bars are excellent places to meet young and fun Indian people, who will probably be friendly, intelligent, and willing to hang out with you and have a good time. Meeting locals is half the fun of travel, and you are denying yourself an extremely good time if you stay in the company of your fellow Americans at all time - whether it be out of fear, politeness or (hate to say it) prejudice. Disconnect from your group, head up to the bar, and make some new friends: you may find yourself with invitations to parties or family events that will be infinitely more interesting then the average tourist experience. I have made many amazing Indian friends here who I hope to keep in contact with for a long time to's a good idea.

11. You can always pee in luxury hotels.

One unfair but welcome perk of being a Westerner is that you are always able to pee in luxury hotels. This is an absolute godsend when you are walking through a sweltering Indian street with a full bladder and your other option is a cesspool watched over by a grinning overseer who is almost certain to peek at you. And charge you five rupees for the privilege.

Don't subject yourself to this. Walk into the nearest Taj or Oberoi, give a polite and confident nod to the attendant, and pee in air conditioned and marble-outfitted luxury - the attendant will hand you a jasmine scented towel and a breath mint on your way out. This only works if you are clean and dressed somewhat nicely. We discussed this.

More will come as I think of them. I guess.

mumbai mumbai

Aneesa had some family matters to attend to, so I spent the day faffing around in Colaba. Colaba is one of those places that is rather pleasant to simply spend the day doing not much of anything in. There's always something to see: confused hippies, drunken Arabic louts, beautiful Bollywood types in skintight jeans, drunken louts of all shapes and sizes and colors. Also many, many ravens.

For some reason, the dining area at the Sea Palace insists on playing Bruce Springsteen singing about the SUMMER OF SIXTY-NIIINEEEE while I am trying to eat my cornflakes. This really is most offputting at times.

I have a curious Indian problem: I love bhindi masala. I really, really love it. For the unknowing, bhindi is ladyfinger or okra, that uniquely slimy vegetable loathed by most reasonable human groups other then: Indians, some African groups, and American Southerners. All groups have developed their own ways of preparing it so it becomes delicious and rich instead of slimy and wiry, but this is admittedly a delicate art that should not be trusted to *just* anyone. So I proceeded to spend my time in Mumbai trying bhindi masala pretty much anywhere that offered it. This was fun.

I decided to try a place that was encouragingly called The Food Inn on the main drag of Colaba for lunch. (Determining where I eat lunch takes up a majority of my leisure time on vacation. This pleases me.) I settled in and ordered the usual bhindi masala and a half tandoori chicken: I am always up for some meaty goodness.

The bhindi masala was only okay: they'd left the ladyfinger stalks whole which made them rather difficult to eat - no one ever, ever gives you a knife in an Indian restaurant. The chicken, however, was delicious - juicy and rich in the middle with a nice honey and masala infused exterior. Yum.

I ate that, wandered around a bit, bargained in a half-hearted way with the book stall guy over A Suitable Boy (high way robbery!) then decided to be a reasonable human being and sleep the rest of the day away. And so I did.

Aneesa and her sister were able to meet me briefly for dinner at a place called Rajdhani, which is sort of an upscale Rajhastani fast food joint. I love seeing the incarnations that fast food goes through in different places and cultures. The menu specializes in the kind of light and interesting vegetarian snacks that are rife in that bit of India: lots of curd, dry masalas, street foods and the like, along with plenty of mango specialities since the Alphonoso mangos are finally, finally in.

In any case, we ordered a thali, some puri chaat, and a pav bhaji. (While we waited, the music in the place for some reason turned to extremely creepy vampire horror show type stuff, which was a bit...offputting, epecially in a cheery and brightly lit orange colored sort of place.)

The thali was immense and delicious - I was thrilled with both the bhindi and the palak paneer, but there wasn't a loser on the plate. It even came with a tasty whipped mango dessert and a mini and adorable potato samosa. The pav bhaji was also nice: pav bhaji is a Mumbai speciality composed of buttery vegetable curry served with a rich dinner roll. You dip the roll in the curry and eat at will: hard to beat. The chaat was also nice, full of crisp fried wafers, small strings of potato-based sev and slightly sweet buffalo milk curd, tossed with spices and plenty of tomato and oion. Refreshing and the perfect thing on one of those very very humid Mumbai evenings.

That evening I decided to defy Saleem's solemn command to never ever ever go anywhere without a phalanx of angry looking male bodyguards, and adjourned to the ever-famous Leopold Cafe, usually home to a healthy number of frightened looking pink people eating crisps and drinking beer. I parked myself at a likely looking table, ordered a nice after-dinner fruit salad, and did a few drawings: my hobby of drawing comics has for some reason come back in full force since I've been in India.

They tolerated my occupancy of a single table for a while, but eventually tried to kick me out. I shrugged and decided to head on home and turn in, but as I was leaving, a guy came from downstairs to see me off: apparantly he'd been waiting to buy me a drink and was put out that I was leaving. I'm always open to a conversation when I'm on my lonensome in a foreign country (though I could feel Saleem's head exploding all the way across town in Bandra), so I joined him upstairs at the part of the bar that apparantly fancied itself hip because it was playing that Thumpy Techno Music. Also the interior was all brushed metal.

We chatted: turned out Rich was from Alabama, which meant we immediately got into a discussion about the various merits of barbeque sauces and barbeque preperations. One curious cultural reality about my people (Southerners) is that we will immediately upon meeting one another begin talking about how to cook a pig. There will usually be polite disagreement about correct pig cooking protocol and what should be served witht the pig and what sort of sauce the pig should be doused with: but the consensus is that there is pig and that smoked pig is delicious. It is always so comforting to know what to talk about.

Still, we did talk about more then just pig. I enjoyed hearing about Rich's many experiences in Japan: he did a foreign exchange when he was my age and fell in love, returning for the JET program and many times after for both work and pleasure. He was in fact about to lead a trip to Japan as an adjunct professor for Alabama State University (of snot nosed kids my age!), which sounds pretty cool to me. I warned him that people my age can be exceedingly obnoxious. He seemed unmoved. (But we so are.)

We also shared a nice bitch-fest about the hordes of unwashed hippies who moon around Colaba smoking weed and having dodgy encounters with various drug dealers and ladies of ill repute who hang out in Mumbai. Of course, it seems like everyone is gleefully of ill repute to some extent in Mumbai (which may be one of the things I like about it, though unfortunately I am not nearly as of ill repute as I'd like to be.)

We chatted in this fashion til' one AM, where we were unceremoniously kicked out per Indian regulations. (This translates into someone coming around and saying LEAVE NOW.) I certainly enjoyed meeting him and talking smack about the world around us....I love meeting Americans who travel and help in some small way to rectify the USA's current not-so-hot reputation in the world. And also prove that Southerners are NOT all unwashed banjo-playing hicks thank you very much. Only some of us.

Mumbai More

Aneesa met up with me in the morning and we decided to see if we could make it out to Elephanta Island, an island off the coast of Mumbai proper which features lovely Buddhist caves. The heat was already beginning to rise most unpleasantly off the pavement, but we managed to make it over to the Gateway of India, which was swarming with various brightly dressed tourists and touts (who are convinced I need a giant balloon and aqua bead things and drums and flutes and GO AWAY.)

Unfortunately, it was by then too late to go to Elephanta, so we punted and decided to go for a little boat ride instead. This was very nice: I love boats. Perhaps it's due to y early childhood in Florida and my subsequent time in San Francisco, but a good boatride makes me happy: it offers a different perspective on a place, viewed from a good ways offshore. We paid a little bit extra and sat up top, and I enjoyed watching the mismatched Mumbai skyline drifting off and away, as we weaved between yachts and intimidating looking industrial cruisers.

Aneesa and I are very food oriented, so we imediately headed to find a place to eat. We settled on the Delhi Darbar, an apparantly famous joint in Colaba (it was certainly popular. And air conditioned.) We settled on an interesting looking spicy Parsi dish with mutton, vegetable kohlapuri, and the usual roti and etcetera. (For you must have roti. It is required.)

Parsi's are one of the more interesting ethnic groups to settle in the very diverse city that is Mumbai. Insofar as I am aware, they are Zorostrians of Persian descent, who came to the city a very long time indeed, establishing their own culture and traditions. Aneesa says they generally dress in Western clothes and speak with a certain kind of accent; Sheila simply considers them a hell of a lot of fun. They are renowned for their distinct cooking skill (and business acumen), but their numbers are dwindling rather quickly as one cannot exactly up and decide to become a Parsi. They are also known for their distinct matter of disposing of their dead: as Zoroastrians worship the elements (fire, water, et all), the only acceptable method of taking care of a body is to allow it to be eaten by vultures or decompose in the open air. Along these lines, the Parsi's have set up the Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill, which happens to be smack dab in the middle of a bunch of luxury housing complexes. Apparantly the two institutions seem to interact in relative peace, although there are stories of people stepping out for a bit of fresh air in the morning on their porch and finding a vulture-deposited toe. But they could just be stories.

In any case, Mumbai is experiencing an unfortunate vulture shortage, meaning the Parsi's are being forced to rely on chemical methods to dispose of bodies, since, well, things are just beginning to take a bit too long (and smell a bit.) I read in the paper that some Parsi's are beginning to make signifigant donations to vulture rescue and rehabilation facilities. This seems only prudent.

But enough about Towers of Silence.

The lunch was quite tasty: the spicy pieces of mutton were cooked in a red gravy to a melt-in-the-mouth consistency, although it was rather rich. The vegetables kolhapuri were fairly tasty but too greasy for my taste: unfortunately Indian restauranters sometimes presume that using enough ghee to kill a horse = good.

We headed out and shopped for a bit in Colaba, evading the usual touts and looking at purses and handbags and designer clothes and all the other misceallenous junk that one can obtain in that part of town. We finally got bored and decided to head out to Chowpatty Beach, the famous (or infamous) stretch of sand near Churchgate, where Aneesa's family stays.

We cabbed it out there, going past the rather adorably art-deco section that is Marine Drive (there's even a revolving restaurant!), tracing by the waterfront as the sun went down - which was by now hopping with people in all manner of ethnic attire. (There are many flavors of person in Mumbai.)

We got to the beach and wandered over to the water - swimming in it would probably be a horrendous idea but it certainly is nice to look at. Chowpatty is famed for its snack vendors, who operate their stalls in a sanctioned bit of sand set off a bit from the main drag. Aneesa told me that about ten years ago they were definitely Not Authorized and were forced to run away dragging their blenders and bhel-puri making apparatus behind them down the sand whenever the fuzz rolled up - an amusing mental image, but stationary bhel puri is probably (in the end) superior to the illicit variety.

Chowpatty Beach is suprisingly clean: what i'd read had given me the idea that it was some sort of nuclear waste ground, but it's actually rather clean and pleasant. An old begger woman had befriended and maintained a pack of friendly dogs, who chased each other and fell asleep under the shade of the big pots that local Hindu adherents performed puja in. Unfortunately your standard edition Creepy Indian Guy zeroed in on us, asking Aneesa many very personal questions and (oddly enough) caressing my foot. So we left.

We were going to meet Aneesa's cousins Saleem and (oh shit) at the very posh bar at the International Hotel. We went over there and ascended to the roof in a glittering and very white elevator. The bar was a work of art: a crystal white lounge with a killer view of Mumbai's glittering skyline. Prices were obscene, but that didn't faze the attractive and/or rich clientele, nibbling on tandoori-fusion bar snacks and watching the horizon. I was completely priced out and contented myself with some interesting masala flavored doritos, but Aneesa went so far as to order a Bacardi Breezer. We chatted for a bit util Saleem and appeared.

Saleem fancies himself a slick bastard in the standard Indian 19 year old boy way, down to the flashy cell phone and the half unbuttoned dress shirt. (Saleem, I love you and I kid.) He instantly proved to be a ton of fun, and we made plans to get out of Expensive Land and to somewhere more priced to small humble people like ourselves.

We decided to adjourn to Koyla, a shisha (hookah) bar and restaurant located conviently near the Sea Palace. The place is at the top of an incredibly sketchy apartment building that appears to be run by some sort of Saudi Syndicate: lots of evasive looking people mounting the stairs wearing sunglasses and carrying lumpy packages. (The place really was shut down by the cops for undisclosed reasons a while back but rebuilt: this kind of thing doesn't seem to faze Mumbaites all that much.) We took the creaky old fashioned elevator up to the top as Saleem steadfastly refused the indignity of walking.

It's a pretty swish place: lots of white sand and little benchy things, with another lovely view of the Mumbai skyline. Big elaborate shishas are constantly being carried out to hip groups of Mumbai beautiful people, who nibble on meaty tandoori delicacies and horse-laugh. (The only flaw is no liquor license, but I guess I wouldn't expect that.)

We had some meaty things and some sarson ka saag, which Saleem deemed repulsive (which meant I had to chase him with it.) We then shared a very nice mixed fruit shisha- something about smoking shisha is so deliciously cooling on those muggy kill-yourself tropical climate nights.

Still, Saleem is configured like me and he immediately deemed we needed a drink and we needed one now, and really, I am powerless to resist Old Monk. However, Aneesa and Saleemn's family are somewhat traditional and like to know where they are, and there were exams or something, which meant lots of feverish calls back and forth and Saleem scheming like a little weasel to figure out how he might be permitted to stay out. (I sat back and watched. One of the perks of being an American is permissive parenting once a certain age is attained. Well, least' in my case.)

Saleem hashed out some lie about staying over at a friend's house to watch educational documentaries, and we went over to Woodsides, a likely looking bar I'd spotted earlier. The place turned out to be lovely: woodpaneled, clean, full of interesting photographs, Led Zeppelin playing salubriously over the sound system. We ordered Old Monk all around the table: cheers. Saleem and his cousin were nearly ecstatic about the prospect of being able to get tanked.

We had a few, got pleasantly lit, then decided to head to the Sports Bar nearby. India was currently in the throes of the IPL or International Premier League, some sort of big cricket event that I can't be arsed to find out more about. In any case, that meant the bar was packed with screaming men (and some women) zeroed in like laser beams on the TV, where someone was pitching or bowling or whatever the fuck they do when they play cricket. Saleem and Aneesa got into pitched battle in the little basketball court by the side while they waited for the match to end, and i hung out for a bit and watched them sip beer. I managed to guilt Saleem into buying me an Old Monk one way or another, and sipped it demurely while making eyes at the craggy specimen chilling out over by the dart board. Mumbai is a nice place.

We were beginning to fade by this point, but due to the elaborate lie, Aneesa and her cousins couldn't go home. This meant they needed to find a hotel, which proved to be more difficult then anticipated as Aneesa didn't have her passport (you need your passport to check into most hotels here due to various government regulations.) This meant Saleem got into a protracted argument about something or another with the front desk guy until we managed to drag him away. (Funny.) I was exhausted and crashed in my room......thankfully they managed to find somewhere to stay.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Aneesa came to collect me in the morning. We were going to meet her sisters from the UK at the Lakme Beauty Salon, fairly close to her grandparents place in Churchgate. I love the taxis in Mumbai: they're at least plentiful, fairly reliable, and don't involve vicious bargaining or the potential to fall out like those Bangalore rickshaws.

We found the place and ambled in: Aneesa was going to get a pedicure. Unfortunately they couldn't get me in on such short notice, which was probably a pity since my toe nails are beginning to take on a slightly horror show appearance. I was perfectly content to sit and read trashy magazines, watching Mumbaities have skin treatments.

I met Aneesa's sister, who was quite lovely: we discused India and various nerdy biological topics. She's just attained a PHD in biological science, and she specializes in human gum diseases, which I think is pretty cool. I asked her a few burning questions I've had for a long time about the difference in dirtiness between dog and human drool - apparantly dog drool does have less nasty stuff in it but still smells worse.

Aneesa's other sister emerged, who is ALSO a PHD (talented family, this) and specializes in communicative disease. I was impressed to find she used to work in Atlanta at the Disease Control Center, a fascinating receptacle of ebola and smallpox and polio and other nasty things. She said she "only" works with chickenpox, but I think chickenpox is much more relavant to our daily existence then Ebola anyway. I believe I came to admire her shamelessly when she told me about her visit to the Ebola Room at the headquarters. (They told her not to touch anything. She replies: "Why the hell would I WANT to?")

We were beginning to starve and Aneesa's pedicure was taking a bit, so she implored us to go on and get something and she'd catch up. Aneesa and I are both seafood addicts and we had been dying to try a place called Trishna, which is famous in Mumbai for seafood - especially crabs. Eating crab is one of the primary reasons I live upon this planet, so I was definitely game. I departed Aneesa with her sisters and we went over to the restaurant, which was down a rather slim alley in the Fort area. Still, we found it, and the bell-hop attired door guy ushered us in.

Trishna is a compact but reasonably classy place, full of wealthy looking people lunching on extremely messy seafood dishes on curiously white tableclothes. The service staff is a bit snooty but in the pleasant way that reminds you you are Getting What You Paid For. We settled on a chili garlic crab, squid masala, and some vegetables: bam, done.

Service is eerily fast, and the food lived up to all expectations. The chili garlic crab was sublime: it reminded me of my dad's near perfect rendition and definitely felt like home cooking. (Not as good as dad's though.) The chili sauce was perfectly spiced and had the right amount of kick, and we merrily chewed our way through the poor creature with brutal efficiency.

The squid masala was fine but I'm generally a bit underwhelmed by standard edition masala dishes: some sort of seafood in a coconut milk esque gravy. The vegetable jalfreizi was absolutely delicious and I devoured as much of it as I possibly could.

The bill wasn't cheap by India standards but still a total steal by US standards: 500 rupees or about 13 bucks for a big old crab. Would definitely run you more back home.

Aneesa unfortunately was unable to make it - apparantly her toes were taking quite a long time to dry out - so we met her at the hair saloon, where she and her sisters were having some sort of esoteric and eleaborate thing done to their roots. I accompanied them and sat for a while in the fading morning heat, watching the boats come out of Mumbai's remaining fishing colonies.

They decided to head on back to freshen up, but we determined we'd go out or something that night. Unfortunately, Indian families can get a little bit titchy about UnAttached Girls going out on their own in the evening, so I was on my own. This worked out fine: I found an Iranian restaurant that did chicken and edible hummus, then hung out at Cafe Leopold for a bit until I got sick of dreadlocked, ill looking Germans making eyes at me. Then I headed back to my hotel.
Aneesa had family obligations and couldn't meet me this day, so I decided to perform my usual new city ritual: walk in a new direction until I can't walk anymore.

Tuesday was the hottest and stickiest day of the year so far in Mumbai, and I couldn't bear to think of eating actual food. I was thrilled to discover a gelato place right up the street from my hotel - done. I ate strawberry sorbet and raspberry yogurt gelato in blissful silence in the air conditioned confines of the shop - nothing tastes as good as really quality ice cream when the weather is seething with moisture and prickly heat, all around you. Now I was ready to walk.

I headed down the street into Colaba, one of the older districts of Mumbai, full of pictureqesly rotting English archiecture and aggressive touts. Colaba is known primarily for the Gateway to India (built to celebrate King Charles visiting Mumbai or some such colonial foolishness) and the Taj Mahal hotel, which regally faces it. The Gateway itself is certainly an impressive old granite heap, although it was being restored upon my visit - abroad is, after all, always under construction. What the tourist books and photographs don't tell you is that the Gateway is usually swarming with hyper energetic young touts attempting to sell you everything from jiggly gel beads to extremely large balloons to drums (and they chase you.) Brief cruises and ferries to Elephanta Island (of the Buddhist caves) also leave right in front of the Gateway, ensuring hordes of picnickers milling around and licking interestingly colored ice creams at pretty much all times. There are also incredible quantities of pigeons, which compete with the omnipresent and rather charming ravens for trash and touristic leavings.

The Taj is definitely impressive, all colonial splendor and glistening marble floors and Escada outlets and doormen in silly hats. I like it very much, especially because it is quite large and provides an air conditioned and peaceful corridor through which to get halfway through Colaba and to my hotel. It also has the added value of having impeccably clean bathrooms with a smiling attendant who will hand you a towel, a mint, and some moisturizer after you have availed yourself of the facilities. This is a lifesaver. I enjoyed walking through the place upwards of six times a day and looking wistfully at the oasis-like pool area. I tend to wear fairly nice clothes and the attendants seemed to believe I was staying there, which meant everyone opened doors for me and smiled real nice.

When you walk out of my hotel and to the left, you find yourself going up a delightfully sketchy street that seems to be owned primarily by Gulf expats - the street is lined with Islamic kebab parlors, money changers, and many, many hookah/shisha outlets. One of the stores featured a hookah that had little mechanical fish swimming in the base, which I lusted after but didn't want to pay the shipping fee on. In any case, it's a useful street, although I was forced to walk a daily gauntlet of grinning sales-guys asking me in concerned voices, "Are you okay, ma'am? Are you okay....pashmina you want?" Once you nod and side-step those guys and avoid the cows generally tied out at the corner, you walk down the street into Colaba proper.

The street is lined with crap emporiums, cheap and tasty restaurants, guys selling god knows what out of various stalls and carts and holes in the wall, and bars. I especially enjoyed Woodsides, which is a fairly classy place featuring cheap Old Monk and classic rock and extreme cleanliness. There are of course other, sketchier options. There are also many, many Western hippies in various states of disarray and drug-addlement. Paul Theroux wrote in the Great Railway Bazaar about the curious tribes of Western hippies that seem to roam India in their own, constant, exotic fantasy, and he is entirely correct. I'm not sure what they're looking for - spiritual enlightenment, connection with a mysterious and byootiful culture, excellent drugs - but I seem to sense they're generally disappointed at not finding it. The hippies tend to have this image of India as some sort of backwards land full of sadhus and holy men dispensing the secrets of the universe from the back of a holy cow (far as I can tell) and they are generally horrified to discover that India is not particularly interested in staying that way - like it was ever that way in the first place.

I believe the hippies dress so badly and maintain themselves so badly in some sort of effort to be "like" the locals. I imagine they are surprised to discover your typical Indian dresses as nicely as they can possibly afford and certainly takes showers. And shaves. And brushes their teeth. They can take their false image of some sort of mystic, non-existent India, stagnant in time, but I like modern India just fine, dance clubs and fancy restaurants and all. India does not need to cater to the narcissistic needs of Westerners out to Find Themselves and I am glad it is not particularly interested in doing so.

Colaba seems to attract both the wealthiest Westerners - who tend to huddle in safety inside the majesty and AC of the Taj - and the gungiest, who tend to stay at the cheap guesthouses (like the lovely Sea Shore) and wander around in a constant cheap ganga-and-cocaine induced haze. They also like to hang out at the Leopold Cafe - a famous joint where a writer apparantly used to write once - and talk about their various and exciting international drug experiences. This can be interesting to overhear, though I kept on expecting the FBI to bust in and lock everyone up, including me. (They could probably find some dirt if they really wanted to.)

You walk to the end of the street and once you hit the big white dome of the William and Mary museum, you're pretty much at the end of the tourist district of Colaba. Once you cross the extremely dangerous roadway - this requires skill and bravery - you're pretty much out of dreadlocks and sunburns land and back into the realm of the natives. You also will hit the very large naval base, which encompasses most of the spur of reclaimed land seen to the left of the Taj hotel. So there's my (or your) orientation.

I spent the day wandering up the street and orienting myself. My shoes as previously mentioned had died a horrible death in the fort in Old Delhi, so priority number one was finding a nice pair of Practical (blech) Shoes. Thankfully, I found a shoe vendor and managed to get a rather lovely and comfortable pair of silver walking shoes. So thank goodness for that.

I walked and walked and walked, cutting through the miserable mid-day heat and humidity (but with my usual dogged, perverse need to orient myself.) I found myself skirting the edge of the fort and decided to just keep on walking until I came to, well, the end of it.

This proved to be a bad idea as the fort is very very large. Still, I plugged away and finally found the end, only to discover that instead of a salubrious beach or park I could lounge in, there was just an angry looking man with a machine gun. So I headed back the other way, beneath a luscious stand of banyan trees (with various construction workers lounging beneath them and hurling affable slurs at me in Hindi.) I also found a perfectly severed and peaceful looking pigeon head on the pavement. I don't think I want to know.

By now I was a walking ball of sweat and human misery, and was thrilled to find a garden near the rather majestic Mumbai Library. Unfortunately, everyone else in Mumbai had the exact same idea on this hottest day of the year, which meant everyone in the area was vying viciously for a tiny patch of green space. I managed to nudge some people and found myself a spot on a bench, where I drew for a while and listened to my Ipod, some young day laborers staring at me in drop-jawed astonishment. (Trust me, my fellow palefaces: when you come to India, you will grow accustomed to this. Either that or you will go insane. It's sort of your call.)

I befriended a cat who was hunkered down in the bushes (he was smarter then us.) A curious note on stray animals in India: Bangalore is full of packs of mildly disquieting dogs and cows, Delhi has lots and lots of ravens and hawks, but Mumbai belongs to cats. Yes, there are dogs, but cats are everywhere, shimmying up trees and weaving under your feet and appearing in dark allies - usually affable laid back creatures. Sometimes they travel in families, and it's rather pleasant to be sitting on a Mumbai porch as the sun goes down to see a family of squabbling cats and kittens emerge in single file from a rhodendron bush and slip away again. But I digress.

I managed to stumble back to the Sea Palace and decided to get a snack. I was thrilled to find a place offering my beloved tandoori gobi, so I ordered that and hung out in the air conditioned comfort of the restaurant for a bit. A few young guys at the table by my side took photos of me sneakily (or so they thought) with their cell phone, but I ignored them until one of them slipped into the booth next to me. I said EXCUSE ME and he ran off with his tail between his legs. It was very satisfying.

Then I went back to the Sea Palace and slept. In these kinds of hot and humid climates, all sane and clever animals and humans spend the miserable piss-stain hours of the day indoors, preferably inert and underneath a fan. So I crashed til' the sun came down.

I wandered out for a small dinner of kebab and what not at one of the various Islamic restaurants on the strip, then had some not-half-bad red wine at Cafe Mondegar, one of the tourist infested Colaba bars. Then I slept.