Calling Dr. Bombay, calling Dr. Bombay–come right away.
I was fearing Mumbai. I saw Slumdog Millionaire, I read A Fine Balance, and I heard stories from friends who had traveled here. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to leave the ship, but just because you don’t bear witness to a hard reality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Difficult as it might be, I knew that I had to see it, even though I was expecting the worst.
Let me step back a bit. George’s cousin, Allen, had been to Mumbai about thirteen years ago where he had a wonderful guide, Naju, with whom he still kept in touch. He arranged for us to be in contact with her and, after a call to her from the states, we decided she would be our guide in Mumbai. So far, so good, but this is India where anything is possible, and everything is complicated. Naju, you see, does not have email, so we were instructed to email her niece when we got closer to Mumbai to finish making the arrangements, such as the itinerary, meeting points, and a loose plan for meals. When we were about two months away from Mumbai, George shot her an email to start getting our plans together and we never heard back. No worries, we thought, we’ll send a follow up. No response. OK, well, the neice must be falling down on the job–let’s give her a call.
I don’t know if you’ve ever made a ship to shore call but it is very expensive. About $15 a minute. But we had a small telephone credit that I was hording to call my mother on Easter, so we thought we’d place a quick call Naju and simply say “check your email”. Mistake. Poor George made the call and he could not get a word in edgewise. She rattled on, mostly trying to convince George that we should take the morning tour with the ship to Elephanta Island and she would meet us in the afternoon. There were only two problems with this. First, we didn’t want to go to Elephanta Island. Second, the ship didn’t have a morning tour to Elephanta Island.
George could not cut in–we both have a hard time interrupting–but after what seemed a very expensive expanse of time he finally started to try. George is the calm one, but he was clearly getting frustrated and finally interrupted, forcefully explaining that we wanted to skip the island and tour with her the full day. She agreed and prattled on a bit longer until George stated, in no uncertain terms, that he had to hang up. Just before doing so she told him to call again before we got to Mumbai. Sigh.
A few days later she sent an email, instructing us to do a “City Highlights Tour” in the morning, and she would meet us in the afternoon. Clearly, she didn’t want to meet us in the morning. I wanted to find someone else at this point, but George wanted to use her, so we relented. Of course, her email included that we should still call her before we got there. We responded that we didn’t really want to call her because it was expensive, but please email us if there was anything else we needed to know. We never received a response.
We hit the Internet to find a morning city tour (the boat did not offer one), so we found a guide that was kind of pricey (we later learned they charged us a fortune for this part of the world), but we thought we should just do it, then meet Naju in the afternoon.
In one of her early communications, Naju pressed upon us that we should not buy anything before we got there, she would get us the best prices on everything. I had bought a few things, but George would always give me the hairy-eyeball and remind me that Naju wanted us to shop with her. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Enough background, let’s go to Mumbai:
The ship pulled into Mumbai early enough, and we had arranged to meet our guide just outside the port. We had asked one of the staff members, Jordan, if he would like to join us, so the three of us headed out to rendezvous with our guide. We walked through the gate were immediately surrounded by very small children pulling at us for money, and women with crying babies on their hips doing the same. The taxi drivers were pushing each other out of the way to get to us. Thankfully, we quickly found our guide and driver and they led us to our car.
He first took us to the Gateway of India, showed us the ferries and fishing boats, a view of the Taj Hotel, and demonstrated how the terrorists entered India when they overtook the Taj in 2008.
Next was the dhobi ghats, one of three hand laundries in Mumbai. This is where, everyday, they hand wash hundreds or even thousands of pounds of laundry. They wash them in cement sinks, beating the dirt out of the garments. We even saw hospital scrubs washed in this fashion–not exactly an aseptic method.
Our next stop was a beach where the fisherman were coming in with the days catch. This was a sad stop. The beach was clearly a garbage dump, with heaps of debris everywhere. Three small children, probably between five and seven years of age, were meticulously picking through the mounds. I didn’t know what they were looking for, but this was definitely a job for them, not a play date. Off to one side were the shacks and shanties where people lived cheek to jowl.
He took us out on a pier so we could get a full view of the city, and many locals were there eating lunch and spending some time relaxing. This was followed by a trip to the Hanging Gardens, a popular public park with lots of topiary.
The final stop of the morning was–can you guess? I’ve been doing this for three and a half months at this point, so I assume you guessed the market. And you are correct. It was as wonderful as it gets, everything was fresh and abundant–perfect produce piled high. Some stalls sold spices and our guide convinced us to buy some curry. In the back were live animals, most of them birds in cages, but they also included puppies, ducks, Guinea pigs and turtles. I don’t know which were destined to be pets and which were destined to be dinner, and I didn’t want to think about it.
While we were wandering through the market two vendors got into a fight and one pulled a knife. George was a little too curious for my taste, so I pulled him away and we got lost in the crowd.
Our tour guide returned us to our port. We ate lunch quickly, only because we had the best of the day before us–our tour with the celebrated and hard to book Naju.
Naju was waiting at the gate for us, and led us to our car a driver, deftly maneuvering through the children begging and the women carrying the babies doing the same. She got us in the car and lectured us for a few minutes about the evil of giving beggars money. We promised we wouldn’t.
The non-stop talking George experienced on the phone resumed in full force, and she announced that we were going to the Gateway of India. We told her we had been with our morning guide and told her of our other stops. She was furious–we were supposed to take the City Highlights Tour she instructed us to take. She was berating us because we went to the places she wanted to take us, to the point where (OK just like the market, I’ve been writing this for three and a half months, so you know what happens next) I had enough. “Look, we wanted to hire you for the day and clearly you didn’t want that. You told us to take a morning tour, so we did. Maybe it wasn’t the one you insisted we take, but we hired a guide and took a morning tour”. I gave George a withering look that said I want out of this car and away from this woman. Really? She doesn’t return emails, when we call she babbles on about nothing, takes offence when we don’t go to Elephanta as instructed, takes umbrage when we hire a guide despite the fact we tried desperately to hire HER, and now she’s giving us shit about it? This boy had had enough.
I shot George another dagger with my eyes and she saw it in her mirror. Our eyes locked for just one second, and she turned it around. Well, kind of, throughout the afternoon she would grill us about what the morning guide told us and laugh at his explanations. She also decided that, since she could not berate us, she would berate the driver for the remainder of the day. Sorry, dude, better you than me.
Our first stop was a temple we had passed in the morning that I really wanted to see. It was a Jain Temple dedicated to Adinath. Tourists were only allowed on the first floor, so we removed our shoes and walked through. Several worshipers were praying, so we silently entered to take it all in. It was a beautiful temple, ornately decorated. The domed ceiling was particularly exquisite.
The richest man in India is Mukesh Ambani, and to prove it he built a residence that stands 60 stories tall, has 27 floors, employs 400 people, has three helipads, an elevator for his cars, and all the trappings of a mansion in America. It’s not much different from Papa John’s Mansion in Kentucky. Except it’s vertical. And it’s in India.
Our force of nature guide, Naju, next took us to the Gandhi Museum, housed in a building were he was often a guest. Gandhi is a fascinating figure, and to be among his private library and personal items while learning more about this incredible man was mind-blowing. The room he stayed in was preserved with several of his spinning wheels, and re-creations of his personal possessions adorned the walls. They had a room with thirty or forty tableaus which illustrated the important moments of his life. Naju told us what to look at while she took a seat, and when we were done she quizzed us to ensure we looked at the right things. The soft spoken Gandhi she is not.
A Hare Krishna temple was next, Iskcon, and it was one of the most beautiful and welcoming temples yet. Most of the temple was carved out of teak–beautiful to see and smell. Naju wanted us to have our picture taken–even if we didn’t–and instructed us to stand in the center of a circular carved piece on the entryway floor, then scolded us for not being in the exact center. It was excruciating.
The main room was upstairs, and Naju insisted we take the elevator. We said we could walk up a flight and meet her there, as the elevator was claustrophobicly small. People were waiting to use the lift, but she was having none of it and herded us in before we could protest any further. The door shut, and we slowly rose.
The second floor was as ornate at the first, and Ganesha greeted us at the door. He’s a deity with the head of an elephant, the body of a boy, and he is riding a mouse. He’s terrific and much loved. He’s usually at a temple’s door, and he’s the opening prayer for almost every service, regardless of what the service is for. I find him really interesting.
The Hare Krishna temple was gorgeous. The idols at the front of the room are decorated every day, not just with fresh flowers but they get a new outfit daily. Hare Krishna chant–they have someone chanting throughout day. During our visit we had a particularly good chanter, if there is such a word, and it really did add to our visit.
This temple also had statue at the back of the room of their beloved teacher, which posed a problem for them. When you are in a temple, the soles of your feet should never face the deity, which is why kneeling is so popular. But if they kneeled here, their soles would face the beloved teach. So they lay face down, horizontal to the altar, so the soles of their feet face the door and not the statues. Problem solved.
A monk gave us a pamphlet about Hare Krishna, and I tried to read it three times but it was incomprehensible. I’ll have to look it up on Wikipedia instead. He also gave us a small sweet, and told us that he wished us much sweetness in our lives. The other monks were all very nice as well. I liked them, but we had miles to go. Naju was waiting by the elevator, as was a woman in a wheelchair. We darted down the stairs before Naju could force us into the lift ahead of the handicapped.
Naju is a licensed guide, and was very proud that she knew all of the hotel concierges. Since she wanted to show us the view from atop the grand hotels, so off we went.
We entered the lobby of a hotel, and she left us to have a private conversation with the concierge. A few minutes later, up we went to the top floor. Unfortunately, she had talked her way up to the catering floor where swarms of staff were either setting up or breaking down a function–it was hard to tell which. As they attempted to work around us, she took off from window to window to point out which building was what. It was a lovely view, but we were a little uncomfortable interloping like this. Plus these guys were trying to work. She paid them no-never-mind, stepping in front of them while pulling us behind to find a new vantage point.
I was getting nervous, and I pulled George aside. He convinced me to put off shopping because she wanted to take us. The clock was ticking, we had an hour until our reservation, yet we had not shopped. I know George would not mind skipping the shopping, but I since he kept telling me to wait, now was the time. We already had gifts for the nieces, but we needed something for our nephews.
So, she took us shopping. Pashmina shopping. Clearly it was her friend’s store, and I was pissed. First of all, George kept putting off shopping and now we’re in her friend’s store? This didn’t feel worth waiting for. AND we were looking at pashminas, and when we made it clear we didn’t want pashminas–despite the fact they could pass through a ring (one of the stupidest tests that was ever invented)–she kept instructing him to pull out MORE pashmina shawls. It was maddening. “No, I’ve said several times I don’t want pashminas, so please stop showing them” I said, the clock ticking away. I pulled her aside. “Maybe I was unclear, we do not want pashminas. Do not show me any more. Let me tell you what I’m looking for–sandals for me, and gifts for my nephews. My adult nephews.” She led me downstairs where they had carved elephants and I just wanted to throttle her to the ground.
Now my problem was that George was still in the Pashmina showroom upstairs, he did not come down with us. He is very polite, and I had a vision of him buying one just to be nice, so I flew back up to rescue him. I’m very proud, he stuck to his guns and we were gone.
She did take us to a store where we were successful in securing the gifts we wanted, but the nephews read this blog and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But let’s say she took us to a very nice shop where she did not seem to know the people, but I’m pretty sure she received a commission–that’s just how things work here.
It was getting dark. She talked her way up to the top of another hotel so we could see the night view. We live in New York, this was unnecessary, but we trudged up to be polite. It was in a restaurant, a very fancy restaurant, where people were impeccably dressed, and in we go with our sneakers and shorts, crunchy with a full day of dust clinging to ourselves. We both felt awkward, but Naju was proudly marching us up to the windows between the tables to point out more skyscrapers.
She wanted us to see the Taj Hotel, too, which was the hotel we saw from a distance with the first guide. It has a lot of history and we wanted to see it. She had the driver wait while we walked to the hotel from a parking area. She took us down a back street, and marched us into a shop that sold…wait for it…Pashmina! She was working the owner, having him unwrap several scarves, passing them through rings like a magician, pulling them off the shelves faster than you could say “No Pashminas”. What the what? I turned to her. “Naju, I said we do not want, or need Pashminas” and she countered “but you must want to bring them back for your wife”. “I don’t have a wife, or a daughter, or a grandmother. We. Don’t. Want. Pashmina.” My wife? She couldn’t be that unaware. Really?
Now the owner of the shop was not happy, but I really did not care. She took us in the back of the shop where there knives, statues, Christmas ornaments, hand mirrors, and other stuff you have to dust. He was even showing us refrigerator magnets, and look at us like we were nuts when we said we had a wooden refrigerator door.
There was a small carving of Ganesha which we ended up buying. We probably overpaid, but we liked it and we knew we couldn’t leave empty handed. I waited for my change and it was short by quite a bit. He made a good show of berating his assistant who came back with some more cash, and this time it was just a little short so I just called it even. This country is exhausting.
When Naju resumed verbally abusing our driver for minor infractions, he finally had enough, too, and gave it back to her a bit. He found our restaurant and in we went, over an hour late for our reservation. The owner did not look pleased, but had us wait while he figured out a solution.
Eventually we were led to a table, and Naju took charge. She didn’t consult with us–she just pushed forward. First, she told the busboy we needed water immediately. A waiter was walking by and she grabbed him, instructing him what she wanted him to bring us. He was just walking by–so he broke free of her grasp and found our waiter. She wanted one beer and two glasses for us, and she wanted an orange juice, room temperature, for herself. Then she proceeded to order two dinners and three plates. Our menus were taken away, and bread appeared. The drinks followed, and she told the waiter it was taking too long, to bring our the food as soon as possible. It had been about four minutes, but who am I to judge? Dinner plates arrived and, in a very short while, platters of food. She directed the serving of the food, and, whenever the poor kid tried to put a platter down, she snapped at him to keep serving it. It was scary. I just wanted out of there. We chatted while we ate, while she kept a sharp eye on the staff, ready to call them on the slightest transgression. I was dining with the Queen of Hearts, I was sure of it.
I asked for the bill, but she put a stop to that because she wanted George and I to split a dessert. We sheepishly agreed, only because we didn’t have any fight left in us. She told the waiter to bring one dessert and to split it into two plates. At this point I could tell the restaurant staff were weary of her. The bill was brought without our asking, which she reviewed with an eagle eye, commenting on how we overpaid for beer.
They did not accept American Express and she asked what rate they would give us for American Dollars. She asked to see the manager–how could they offer 55 rupees to the dollar when her bank gave her 60? She gave him a stern lecture despite the fact that we did not care–the difference was negligible. I was starting to see stars, so I suggested that I pay in cash with the rupees I had, and the balance would be charged in rupees on my credit card.
Exhausted. I was exhausted. A negotiation at every turn. I fell into bed back at the ship, longing for that magic day in Cochin.
The next day we had a half day in Mumbai. We didn’t leave the boat.