Daily Archives: October 26, 2013

Mumbai – Part 2: Laxmi The Flower Girl

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mumbai – Part 1: Two Grands

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.