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.