the unforgiving city


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The Queens Necklace at sunset

the busy city bustle is what i asked for and that is exactly what i got.  a 12 hour sleepless train ride followed by a crooked but too tired to care taxi ride brings me to Colaba – the old town area of Mumbai located at the lower half of a peninsula.  my self-inflicted budget landed me on the questionable side of Colaba where the scams have been turned up a notch.  it’s situated next to a poor market along a seaside stone walkway that transitions into a slum extending out into the bay.  garbage, human waste and animal guts line the streets and shores.  this picturesque bio-hazard is home for the next several days while i wait for a package to arrive sent by my parents.

P1020922the price i usually spend on lodging (around $8) now affords me a 5×10 prison cell with a hard bed, paper thin walls and access to a shared bathroom.  it was in this room on my first night in a sleep deprived state where i had my first breakdown.  i regretted my decision to leave the complacent comfort of OM beach.  i missed my friends back home and i missed my $3000 Tempurpedic Cloud Supreme mattress.  come morning however, i felt a lot better.  its amazing what a few hours of sleep and tears will do to your outlook, even in place so strange.

ok, time to leave my depressing neighborhood and embark on a self-guided walking tour through this behemoth of a city with no map or sense of direction and only my curiosity and the advice of my fellow Indians to guide me.  please follow along with this personalized map of reconstructed events.

oh but first, a quick side note about asking Indians for directions…

when asking Indians for directions, it’s important to keep the following 6 things in mind if you wish to get to your destination in an efficient manor:

  1. ask multiple Indians: the last thing they want is to reveal to you that they don’t actually know where your desired destination is.  this fact is often masked by giving false directions or by letting you believe it’s in the direction you want it to be in.
  2. don’t ‘want’ it to be in a particular direction.  admit to yourself that you are lost and open your mind to the possibility that your desired destination could be in any direction.
  3. if the person to whom you are asking directions operates a taxi, tuktuk or auto-rickshaw.  break eye-contact immediately and then remove yourself from his personal area.
  4. if the person to whom you are asking directions responds by pointing straight up in the air while bobbling his head side to side, do not ask him to clarify, he will just keep on doing it.
  5. if they offer to ‘show you where it is’, this actually means that they want something from you and have decided to use this as an opportunity to try and get it.  the end result may or may not give you the insight you are hoping for.
  6. and finally, be very nice.  Indians are sensitive creatures and projecting the headache the last nine gave you on the tenth isn’t going to do anyone any good.  you did up and decide to go to their country after all.

ok, now back to our tour…

of course i had to visit Leopold Cafe (as made famous by best selling novel “Shantaram”).  the place was not at all like i pictured (which is often how that works).  i was seated and enjoyed an overpriced meal while i tried to imagine i was Gregory David Roberts circa the 80’s having shady dealings with Indians while pining over whats-her-face.  signed copies of Shantaram in paperback were stacked high on the counter to my left and behind the counter stood a man staring languidly out into the street… ok, that’s enough of that.

P1020851as soon as i left my neighborhood i began to witness some of the beauty and uniqueness that Mumbai has to offer.  being a former British colony dating back to the 1600’s, many old Victorian Gothic buildings still stand tall in rows along streets that make sense.  many buildings can not be entered because they are occupied with official government business.  some are heavily guarded by soldiers with assault riffles mounted on turrets with their fingers on the trigger and barrels pointed directly into pedestrian traffic.  at the center of it all is a perfectly laid-out oval field where dozens of simultaneous cricket matches are played.

not too far east is Marine Drive (aka, “The Queens Necklace”) – a causeway that extends for miles along a filthy beach and looks out at Malabar Point directly across the bay.  along the inside are upscale hotels, extravagant outdoor wedding venues, a cricket stadium and open fields where even more cricket is played.  the sprawl of tall buildings seems to extend the entire way around the bay and then stop near the end of the point where a forested area sits.  i needed to find out what that was.

when i reached the other side of the bay and climbed up Malabar Hill i was looking right back at where i was several hours earlier in Colaba.  this is a city that stares at itself continuously.

what does $5 get you at this place?

what does $5 get you at this place? Masala Dosa and a Kingfisher Strong

i almost reached the end of the point when i hit a gated off area with more armed guards.  it was the home of the governor of Maharashtra.  i could go no further.  i told one friendly guard that i had walked all the way here from Colaba just to shake the governor’s hand.  he would not have been wise to allow me to do so and i understood.  he instead directed me to a temple on the north end of the point.

after negotiating my way through a series of squirrelly cobblestone streets that wound through old buildings it opened up into a courtyard with a temple and bath.  children and geese played in the water while their family members sat along the steps to watch.  no one paid me any mind here.  i was just another person to them and i liked it that way.

down the way is a narrow road that curves along the waterline with shops on one side and alleys on the other that lead through small communities held together by any means necessary.  men were getting shaved in the street while children played cricket or just chased each other with cricket mallets.  after a while the road abruptly ends at the last alley leading down to the rocky shore.  it was a tight squeeze but i followed it anyway.  i was worried that i was intruding but still no one seemed to pay any attention to me.  when i reached the shore i stepped out onto the rocks to get my barrings and noticed several men squatting in the near distance.  then the stench hit me and it didn’t take me long after that to piece together what was happening here.  i was standing in the middle of a toilet and the evidence was all around me.  men come out here to defecate on the rocks and then rinse off in the pools of sea water.  then the tide comes along to wash most of it away and salts the rest to let it bake in the hot sun.  i could see the tall buildings on the horizon at the other end so i decided not to turn back.  if i chose my footing carefully i could reach civilization before sunset.

P1020873luckily i didn’t have to wade in shit the entire way.  a very nice group of intoxicated Indians spotted me, invited me to rest on their rooftop and directed me back to a through street.  before long i was back in the bustle.  i reached Marine Drive again just in time to see the sun set over Malabar Hill.  The Queens Necklace was crowded this time of night.  couples of all kinds strolled along arm in arm and women walked freely in modern attire.  down toward the end i found a modern shopping district with a 3-story mall and movie theater.  to my surprise they had made another Iron Man movie and were showing it in 3D!  the action-packed CG special effects were the perfect capper on the day’s spectrum of events.

heading in the direction i thought was home actually led me into the southern bulbous tip of Colaba which was consumed almost entirely by a military base.   all branches of their military are represented here.  there are barracks, mess halls and arsenals all heavily guarded behind walls with razor wire.  several billboards are on display with catchy slogans like “we climb tall mountains and then our work begins”.  toward the end of the peninsula i could hear the faint but unmistakable sound of Elvis Presley’s rendition of “My Way”.  i love this song.  it also seemed all too fitting to my current situation so i decided to try and follow it to its source. then i hit wall.  i attempted to lift myself up over it to peak at where the music was coming from when i got stopped by an off-duty soldier on a bicycle.  he asked me what i was doing to which i had no good answer.  then he politely told me it was not in my best interest to be in a heavily protected military base at midnight.  i respectfully agreed then quickly hailed the first taxi i could find.

each additional day here was spent doing miniature versions of the above.  waking up, picking a new direction, getting lost then finding my way home again.  i became so invested with mapping out the city from scratch in my mind that i failed to get around to doing some of the more popular tourist activities such as taking a “reality tour” of the Dharavi slums, attending a cricket match and Bollywood-Bollywood-Bollywood! by the end i grew to really admire the place.  i’ve never witnessed contrasts so pronounced and in such close proximities.  everywhere i went i saw historical charm and modern lifestyles glued together by pockets of extreme poverty.  “enchant… humble… repeat” is this city’s chant.

on the 6th day my package finally arrived and i was set free.  farewell Mumbai.  i wish you the best of luck.

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  1. #1 by Ana on June 23, 2013 - 6:39 pm

    Aw… Ken and Karen are the best.

    I’m loving your blog, Roarkie-pie! Thanks for sending me a link!

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