In preparation for the Diwali festival the building our office is located in decided to have a “traditional day”, which means everyone should wear traditional Indian clothing. Everyone.
Before leaving Finland someone said to me: Don’t buy local ethnic clothing, it’ll be just plain wrong and you’ll end up looking ridiculous.
But hey, it’s a festival so I’m ignoring this advice this time, and even though this might go down as “white guy tries to blend in”-day, I went and did some shopping. And since anything that is worth doing, is worth doing right, I got the whole outfit.
So here you go: a long Kurta with pants* and a Dupatta scarf. Now where’s the party?
* – The pants have an exotic design that is not seen when the Kurta is on; when going up towards the waist they widen considerably. And I mean “this could fit two adults”-considerably. When worn they look like harem pants, not unlike the ones MC Hammer used. I tried doing the hammertime but unfortunately there is no documentation to show of that, nor will there be.
I was curious about how a city like Mumbai awakes to a new day, so I got up before daybreak and headed out to Victoria station. People were already trudging about, buying breakfast and chai at the stands before getting on the morning train. Crows were flying around, scavenging the debris left behind by the receding night. A veil of drowsiness rested over the scenery.
I snapped a few shots of the relatively empty streets and headed back to the hotel for a power nap. The time was only 6:30 so I still had a good few hours before checking out. And when I did, I exchanged some pleasantries with Dexter the receptionist. Nice fellow, gave me his number, said we should hang out next time in Mumbai.
Outside the hotel the sun was high and the feeling of a quiet Sunday was noticeable. I began walking South, towards the Gateway again. Kids were playing cricket in the streets. Shops were still closed, most of the restaurants too. I found one that was open and serving breakfast, and grabbed a couple of sandwiches.
The over one kilometer walk to the Gateway wasn’t a long one, but still I managed to make new friends on the way: enter Mahesh, a student travelling from the other side of the country, now in Mumbai specifically to see the historical Gateway. He walked up next to me and started chatting. At first I thought he had a more exploitative agenda, but turns out he genuinely just wanted to talk a bit. He was good company, and by the time we reached the Gateway we exchanged contact infos.
Laxmi was already waiting there, after the hello’s we took a walk around the square. This time I wasn’t approached by people keen on getting me included in their pictures, so I had some peace to actually observe the huge basalt arch that is the Gateway. When the British arrived in 1911 the place was mostly a fishing village. Bombay – as it was called before – started out as a trading post. No-one expected it to become this huge metropolis of over 25 million people.
The sun was beating down again so we decided to head over to Leopold for some refreshments. Before we could get clear of the area I was intercepted by a particularly devout Hindu. Very nicely dressed and awfully pleasant in nature, he swiftly put a red and yellow bracelet on me, thumbed a big red paint dot on my forehead and gave me a blessing.
I said it was a nice gesture and thanked him for it, he said a gift in return would be welcome – to please the gods. For Diwali. I dug out 30 rupees, to which he responded that the minimum donation is 300. I in turn informed him that in my book such a thing as “minimum donation” doesn’t exist, and that I can give him something – but most certainly not 300 for something I didn’t even agree to. In the end he got 100 and everyone was ok with it.
Inside Leopold, after having received that reminder of trickery, I talked with Laxmi and brought up my thoughts about the whole rice and milk deal. However, I stressed that it’s ok regardless of what it was. She just needs to be honest with me if she wants us to keep in touch. No monkey business.
The tourist indicator on my forehead brought up the coming Diwali festival. Laxmi told me she’ll actually be coming to Pune during the festival, and that I was heartily invited to join her and her family in the festivities. Seeing an opportunity to participate in something special, I gratefully accepted the invitation.
A soda and a sandwich later I decided it was time for me to split. I bid Laxmi farewell and started looking for a cab. Immediately I was ambushed by peddlers, tour sellers and flower girls. Must have been that red dot, I knew it would function as a beacon to them. I waded through them and told them, firmly but as politely as I could, that I wasn’t interested. Some gave up quickly, others hanged after me for several blocks.
It can get hectic by the Gateway: prices are initially doubled and since everyone is selling something they try to be louder than the others. In that tumult I managed to negotiate a fair-priced cab to the Indian laundry at Dhobi Ghat. Off we went.
Grateful for a bit of peace I opened up the window, felt the wind breeze and looked at the street scenery swooshing by as we zoomed North. But wait. Aren’t we supposed to head South? That’s what my Google Maps says. After a chat with the driver I learnt that my app was wrong, something that is often true to these parts of the world, I’ve learned. You simply can’t trust exact street addresses indicated by online maps – remember my experience with the two Grands?
Note, however, that the drivers can be wrong too, which makes getting around in a new city an even more exciting experience.
We arrived in Mahalaxmi and, as agreed, the driver would wait for my return. As I stepped down the stone stairs to the open-air laundry area, a scene of a thousand pieces of cloth, laid to hang on lines, opened before my eyes. The area had a discernible scent of detergent. After a few peeks around the place I was met by the supervisor. He kindly recommended that I’d get a guide who would show me around. The cost was 200 rupees and most of that goes into the community. Sounds good, I said.
My guide arrived a moment later. A short, well padded man with a friendly face. He was also working as a washer, but his days were a bit shorter than the others’ – a mere 8 hours compared to the usual 14. He showed the rows of wash pens, with their stone blocks that the wet clothes are slapped against with a deep-seated rhythm. They also have washing machines – huge 300 liter ones – that assist in taking care of the enormous amounts of daily laundry from hotels and hospitals.
The guide also showed me the boiler room, a very dramatic space where breathing was hard due to the thick smoke. Some washers, or dhobis, were having lunch, others were resting, shaving and just taking a break. One interesting item I observed was an old-fashioned flat iron, which was heated by filling the inside with hot coal.
Back out in the somewhat fresher air, we came across a peculiar looking man. He was in his sixties, looked perhaps a bit absentmided and lost. He was carrying a canvas bag that was bulging a bit. Like it contained a bowling ball. He stopped to chat with the guide, and put the bag down. The bowling ball shifted a bit. He glanced down and casually lifted up whatever the bag was concealing. It was certainly not a bowling ball.
It was a severed goat’s head. It was lunch.
Oh, lunch, nice! No thanks – I’m full! I said and smiled while I looked into those dead bovid eyes. It looked quite peaceful actually.
We parted ways with the hungry dhobi and continued the tour. That’s when we ran into one of the most instantly unpleasant Americans I’ve ever come across. Big guy, stocky. Shorts and sleaveless shirt. Sporty sunglasses. He was walking by himself and taking pictures, which would otherwise be fine, except that the deal with the establishment is that visitors pay something to be allowed to visit. The guide was quick to react, walked up to him and said he wasn’t allowed to walk around there without a guide.
This obnoxious American replied in a most self-entitled, dismissive and almost aggressive tone “Whateva’ man, you’re not the boss around here” and continued taking photos. The guide insisted that what he was doing was not ok, and with the same center-of-the-world tone the guy continued “You know what? I don’t need to listen to you. I’ll talk to you later.”
And then he added, as if he hadn’t proven to be enough of an ass already: I’m a photojournalist!
As if that entitles him to do whatever he desires. Seriously, I can’t stress enough the weight he laid on saying that, he was boasting like an 8 year old kid saying his dad is a firefighter. Because he brought it up, I decided to ask him who he was working for, since he wasn’t really representing himself or his employer in the best possible manner. He gave me the same treatment. “I don’t need to talk to you” and stomped off.
We agreed with the guide that the guy had a case of shitty attitude and continued our tour. We stopped by some more dhobis and observed them in their daily routines. Hard work. And it takes it’s toll: the guide showed me his feet – the skin was dry and cracking. Since they have no boots or other protection, the skin really takes a beating from the laundry detergent.
When the tour was done and everyone was happy, I gave the guide a small tip for good service. As I was heading out the gate I saw the American, getting shouted at real good by the supervisor. He left rapidly after that – I swear if he had a tail it would have been sticked neatly between his legs. It made me smile. How’s that for karma?
What do we learn from this? Sometimes it pays off to pay a little sum, because it can give you access to places you wouldn’t normally get to. And because sometimes it simply is the proper thing to do. But still; beware of tricksters!
I met my cab driver up on the bridge and asked to go to Dadar East. That’s where the eastbound Volvo busses leave from. After some looking around and mild negotiating I found myself on the three hour bussride back to Pune. By evening I had returned, eaten dinner and, exhausted from a colorful weekend in Mumbai, crashed in the comfort of my bed, in my home away from home.
The calculator said 2400 rupees and I got the feeling that something wasn’t right. Was I being conned? The quantity was high after all, but the price seemed too steep. What do I do now, just pay up? Ask them if there is some monkey business going on?
Six hours earlier, having finally found the right hotel, I felt a bit peckish so I stepped into Café Model, next door. A charming, old-fashioned establishment with good biryani; a good place to sit down for a moment and plot out the rest of the day.
When asking people what the must-see’s of Mumbai are, most mention the Gateway of India as the first one. And I was going to see it, but it wasn’t topmost on my list; the sights I saw from the overpass earlier, crossing over the bazaar, were still with me and I knew I had to go there. So I told the cabbie let’s go to Bhendi Bazaar, and, a surprising breath of fresh air, no negotiations about fares were had. You see, in Mumbai the cabbies almost always go by meter. Everywhere else in India you have to haggle over the price before the vehicle goes anywhere.
I asked the cabbie to stop a couple of blocks before the center of the bazaar area, as I wanted to approach it from the perimeter, through the side streets. As I stepped out, a chicken was scooting around and we both had to do a bit of dodging in order to not collide. The street was more crowded than the typical ones in Pune, and everything had a little bit more texture; surfaces had a bit more grime and odors packed a bit more punch.
I picked a side street that went at a tangent to the big one I was on and headed in. It was lined with shops, bakeries, fruit stands and other kinds of small businesses. Vibrant and gritty, it was quite a lot to take in. Outside a butcher shop a pile of bloody chicken feathers and miscellaneous leftovers stood one meter high. On the other side a man was sitting in front of a mosque, next to him a few sheep lay and slept, the reason for their presence unknown to me. I got a few curious looks but most didn’t seem that interested in me being there.
The bazaar area sprawled over several blocks, and the next two hours I spent walking around them. But it was getting late, and I wanted to catch the gateway before sundown. There was probably still a lot to see of the bazaar, but at that point I was feeling quite saturated with all the sights and smells – it would be a good thing to get going anyway.
The drive to the gateway went at a defined flat rate. A way to milk tourists for money or not, I don’t know, but 30 minutes later I stood on the gateway square, looking at this colossal basalt monument erected to commemorate the Brits landfall in 1911. Lots of locals selling brochures, trips, photography service and whatnot were wandering around. Other than that the square was filled with people looking lost, peering at the gateway and the Taj hotels close by. The harbor was filled with boats, many of which were bringing back the last tourists from Elephant Island. With the sun inching toward the horizon the golden hour was approaching. I whipped out my camera and was about to take a few photos when the crazyness started.
A couple of guys approached me. Hi, where are you from?
I didn’t see them carrying any brochures so at least they’re not trying to sell me anything. After exchaning a few words their intentions became clear: they wanted me to pose in a photo with them. I’d heard about this, that this is something Indians do – pictures with white people bring good luck or something. So I figured why the hell not. I did a few group photos and wished them a good evening. Right after that the next couple of guys turn up, and I posed with them as well.
Uh oh. As people were noticing that I was willing to pose in pictures with them, many wanted to get one taken.
I shit you not, I actually had a line form up. Easily over 20 photos. Handshakes, brofists, peace signs, group hugs, with sunglasses and without, the works. It was actually a lot of fun, I haven’t felt that randomly and unjustifiably popular in ages.
As the photoshoot came to an end mine had yet to begin; the light orange now, I still had to photographically explore the monument. As I was eyeing it through the viewfinder a couple of flower girls come up. Oh hi, you want photos too? I asked. Nope, they were there just to chat. Oh, cool, I said and continued snapping shots. They sold flowers by the square. One of them introduced herself as Laxmi as she tied a jasmine flower bracelet on my right wrist. I’m not sure if it’s a way to mark tourists that is showing promise to be tricked, but I decided to take it as a nice gesture, nothing more.
I asked them what there was to see in the vicinity, except the gateway and the Taj. Laxmi pointed me to Café Leopold, popular among expats and one of the places targeted in the terrorist attack five years earlier. The best light was gone by now so I figured I might as well head there and check it out. She proposed a deal; she showes me around some places, according to my interests, and in exchange I buy her some food. That sounded fair enough, having a guide can give me access to places I’d otherwise miss. And she seemed trustworthy; even though the square had a lot of swindlers, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. A small leap of faith, if you will.
So she led me to the market street behind the Taj, lined with stands filled with overpriced trinkets. In the middle of that block was Café Leopold. It was charming in it’s own way, but had a touristy vibe which I wasn’t too enthusiastic about. Inside, in a niche in the wall, underneath a Budweiser sign, the bullet holes remain untouched. Meanwhile huge beer pitchers were being served to thirsty patrons, to the sound of loud chatter.
We grabbed a quick bite to eat and had a chat. Turns out Laxmi has been selling flowers for the last ten years, since she was eight. Originally from Chennai, she had a less than ideal childhood, and a problematic relationship with her mother. They don’t keep in touch anymore. She usually helps out tourists close to the gateway, shows them some places and gives a bit of local insight. In exchange they buy her food, like I promised to do.
Back outside we are again greeted by sellers of drums, pan flutes, cloth and leather bracelets. Pushy sellers. No thanks, I don’t need a drum. Thanks but I don’t need a pan flute either. Yes that is nice cloth but I’m not interested in buying.
Laxmi asked me if I’m interested in museums. Not really, I’m more into local stuff, something away from the tourists, I said. So we headed to a bazaar some blocks away. It had a very authentic feel; purely locals doing their everyday grocery shopping. She showed me the fish market, vegetable stands and other sections of the bazaar.
The sun had set long ago and she needed to get going – she lives quite a way North so it takes her about one hour to get there. We stop by a shop which sells miscellaneous food ingredients. I’m unsure if she was familiar with it or not, but this was when I got the sense of being tricked. She selects a bag of rice – five kilos of basmati – and a five litre can of milk. The shopkeeper runs the numbers and punches them into his calculator. 2400 rupees. My initial reaction is that that really is a lot – maybe twice as much as I had expected it to be. Laxmi asked me if I felt it was too much, she could return it if I felt like it. I took a long look at her, and at the shopkeeper, and did a judgement call.
Because here’s the thing: 2400 rupees is not that much for me. Back home it’s something I can put down on food in a single day. For her it was food for a solid two weeks – for her and siblings. Even if the price was steep, it was still food. Unless, of course, she had a deal with the shopkeeper that she could return the food for most of the money, but that might be a bit farfetched.
I need to trust people every now and then, including new acquaintances. If I don’t, I might miss out on something; a location, an event or even friendship. So I let it slide and paid the shopkeeper.
It was getting late and staying around these parts wasn’t recommended, so I headed back to the hotel. Before hopping into the cab I told Laxmi I’d be around the gateway the next day as well, since I didn’t have time to really take it in that day. We agreed to meet at noon.
I had some dinner close to Ballard Estate and walked around in Bora Bazaar. Kids were playing cricket on the less busy streets. At ten I decided to call it a day – I was exhausted.
Hello, I said as I approached the reception desk in the palatial lobby of the five star hotel, I have a reservation to a “Grand Hotel”, but something tells me this isn’t the one. Either that, I added with a smile, or you guys have an all too humble star rating on booking sites. I gave the receptionist my details and he indeed confirmed that this wasn’t the hotel I was looking for. Great.
Four hours earlier, at 9 in the morning, in the cab outside the towers in Pune, the driver Ganesh and I agreed on who knew the way and who didn’t. My hotel is somewhere near the Gateway of India, so if you don’t know the exact address you can take me to the gateway and I’ll help myself from there, I said. Ok ok, no problem, he replied and started the engine.
Good, because this’ll be my first time in Mumbai after all, I laughed and settled in the backseat. The drive wasn’t very far – 150 km – but the duration was lengthy, mainly because of the heavy traffic to be expected once we get into Navi-Mumbai. Ganesh put on the radio, on a channel which seemed to loop the same seven commercials constantly, with one song between every five cycles. A very strange format, who listens to this crap? I wondered while we did for at least the first hour.
The change of scenery as we descended from the hills towards Mumbai presented some sights familiar from my arrival, from what seemed like much more than four weeks ago. The green plateau in Lonavala, overlooking the Khopoli valley, still looked beckoning. A destination for a weekend trip at some point perhaps?
The traffic was slowing down steadily as we came closer to Navi-Mumbai. I took out my phone and studied the destination area in more detail. I was using the TripAdvisor app, in which I had starred the Grand Hotel, where I was going to stay. It was quite a bit south on the Mumbai peninsula, ensuring relative proximity to many key attractions.
By the time we hit the Vashi bridge, connecting Navi-Mumbai to Mumbai, the driver asked me which way to go after the bridge. Look at map on phone, he said. I had to shake off the blank stare saying “are you kidding me?” before taking a look at the best route. I think for a while, not entirely comfortable with being the navigator on that failboat, and describe the general directions: head down to the Eastern Express Highway and then continue straight until we get quite close, I’ll tell you when to turn to sidestreets.
After the bridge the traffic halted down to a crawl. At a big roundabout the driver suddenly decided to take one of the exits that wasn’t actually leading to a road. Off the tarmac, onto uneven gravel – a construction site. The map marker turned South and into a big blank area, my map was now useless.
This is new road! Ganesh said, with a sense of accomplishment, like he had just pulled an ace out of his sleeve.
So we headed up the gravel road, along a ridge, in between big machinery and tired workers. A while later, the cab stopped. Ganesh peered out over the landscape, and at the small valley separating us from the road network leading to the Expressway.
This is wrong side, he said, slightly defeated.
So we do a U-turn and head back down the hill, to the roundabout, and take a proper exit.
The rest of the ride was not the most direct route, but long highways and many crowded streets later we arrived at the place marked by TripAdvisor. I thanked Ganesh, told him I’ll take it from here, and bid him farewell. As he sped off I reviewed the info I had: the Grand Hotel is somewhere close by, within 50 m, and I had a picture of it. An exact address too, but as I’ve learnt, street names carry a secondary importance here. It’s more about landmarks. Get a driver to a landmark and he’ll figure out the exact destination by asking the locals.
Unable to find the hotel by doing a quick sweep, I started asking around. Everyone said there indeed is a grand hotel, but I needed to go down to the end of the block and a few hundred meters onwards. That’s strange, it’d place me off the map marker by a little under a kilometer, but allright.
After more questions and confirmations I arrive at the closed gates of the ITC Grand, a twenty-something floors high tower of what looked like agreeable levels of luxury. Several pleasantly cordial guards and doormen later I step into the air-conditioned lobby and present my dilemma. This was clearly not the same Grand, and the receptionist agreed. He was wonderfully helpful and, after checking out the address details I had, offered to order me a cab that would take me to the right address. It was a 20 minute ride from there. He also asked if I wouldn’t rather have a room in their hotel, I looked around and said, you know what, if I didn’t have a non-cancellable reservation to the other one, I would. The price difference wasn’t even that much. Honestly though, in my plain orange t-shirt and black cargo shorts, I did feel a bit underdressed. Maybe next time, thanks.
Funny coincidence. The hotel info I had in TripAdvisor was right, except that it was marked in the wrong location on the map. However, within a couple of hundred meters of that location there was another Grand Hotel. For someone being the first time in this huge metropolis, on streets that essentially have no names, this can be a very confusing thing. But by now I had the feeling that I had it sorted out.
The local cab took me further South, towards Ballard Estate. On the way the traffic came to a full stop on an overpass next to busy market streets. Shops, lots of people, mosques, colors, dirt and grit. I was drawn to it, and marked it down on my map. Bhendi Bazaar.
We continued down past Chhapravati Shivaji Terminus, also known as Victoria Station, and before I knew it the same humble three-star hotel I had reviewed in TripAdvisor stood in front of me. A charming old establishment, since 1926.
I checked in, took a well-deserved five minute rest, and headed out again.