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 shawl...taxi.....cocaine...what 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.