Archive | January, 2011

Wingin’ It: Part 2

17 Jan

“How many motions have you had?”  the doctor asked Alaina (who has requested to be called Ida Emilia from now on) as he pressed on her stomach.  “Motions,” for those of you who don’t know, is how most Indians I know refer to bowel movements.  Loose motions, which Ida Emilia had been having since the night before, is the term for diarrhea.

Line to board the "ferry" in JanjiraAfter checking into the hotel and arranging for transportation, we headed to Janjira to visit the famous fort.  We read in Lonely Planet that we would have to buy a ticket for the ferry that would take us to the fort.  So, I imagined we would be on a vessel similar to the one that took us from Mumbai to Mandwa.  No, no.  The “ferry” in Janjira was a wooden boat with a capacity of 40-50 people, steered by two men with 12-foot bamboo poles and complete with a giant, tattered sail that slapped the faces of the dozen unlucky people who sat toward the center of the boat.

We climbed out of the boat, over another empty boat, and up the stairs.  The fort was impressive–the view of the sea and coastline was spectacular–but the structure had not been maintained.  It was practically in ruins and I wondered how long it would be before it could no longer sustain the number of visitors.  We could walk and sit anywhere we wanted, climb on anything, touch everything.  Nothing was forbidden.

“This would be a great place to do a photo shoot,” Ida Emilia commented.  “Yeah, America’s next top model should come here,” Andrea said.  “Yes!  Look, we can do some model poses on that thing,” Ida Emilia said, pointing to a crumbling, free-standing wall and some stairs.  The four of us were alone in that area of the fortress, but not for long.  Four white girls wearing shorts and mini-dresses striking ridiculous posing is bound to draw plenty of attention, and in this case, unwanted.

Within minutes, a group of 10 guys, who had been watching us, sent over three of their friends to ask for a photo with

Entrance to the fort

us.  As usual, we said no.  But they followed us and continued asking.  I was waiting for Andrea to slap them.  Earlier in the day, as we got out of the rickshaw in Janjira, a guy snapped our picture from only a few feet away.  Andrea approached him, slapped his arm, and yelled at him, “No pictures!”  The three guys at the fort finally relented and returned to their friends empty-handed.

We returned to the fort’s entrance to catch a boat back to the mainland, where we met our rickshaw driver. After a stop at a liquor shop in Murud for rum ($3.50 for a bottle!), Coke, and chocolate, we headed back to the “resort.”  What else do you do when you have two hours to kill before dinner, it’s dark, and there are no bars around?  After a failed attempt to nap, we called housekeeping for a bucket of ice, opened the bottle of rum, unwrapped the chocolate, and had a gab-fest in room 101.

Passing through the lobby on the way to dinner, we heard music blasting from the “disco room.”  “What’s going on in there?” Ida Emilia asked the manager.  A party.  We asked, “Private party? Or, can we go?”  He wobbled his head side-to-side. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

We went upstairs to the patio for dinner, and passed by the party room on the way out.  Still, music was blaring, so we went in.  No one was in there except for the DJ.  Kate went back to the room to shower; Andrea, Ida Emilia, and I decided to have our own dance party.  After some Sean Paul and Kylie Minogue, we requested “Sheila Ki Javani.”  That song attracted a few other people–mostly young couples and their children–from the resort.  They didn’t dance; they just sat in the chairs against the wall, so we continued, until the only people left in the room were the three of us and four 50+-year-old men watching us.

The dancing had distracted Ida Emilia from her stomach woes, but once we stopped and went back to the room, she began to feel worse.  The next morning, when she was so sick that she couldn’t even consider joining us at the beach, we asked the manager to call a doctor.

An hour and a half later, he arrived with a medicine bag and his four year old son in tow.  He began by taking Ida Emlia’s blood pressure and pressing on her stomach.  As he placed his stethoscope on her back, he asked, “How many motions have you had?”  Ida Emilia turned over.  “What?”  He repeated the question.  She looked at us, confused.  “He wants to know how many times you’ve been to the bathroom,” I said.

Having been in India for over three months and traveling quite a bit, I have come to realize that you cannot travel with someone if you are not comfortable talking to them about diarrhea.  The chances of getting sick while traveling are pretty high, and you better be with someone who is understanding, should you have to spend half the trip in the bathroom.

The doctor gave Ida Emilia some medicine and told her to take them after she ate.  “I cannot eat,” she said, “I don’t want to eat anything.”  “You’ll have to eat something to take the medicine,” the doctor warned.  “Veg only.  No chicken.  No spicy things.”  Thank you, Captain Obvious.  Ida Emilia began to cry.  Just the thought of having to eat was more than she could handle.  The doctor said nothing, then turned to me.  “Why is she crying?  What happened?”

I only know one person who got anywhere because of crying here.  When Andrea first moved to Mumbai, she met a woman who had a room to rent.  The woman had yet to decide whether or not she would give Andrea the room, but while visiting with her one day, Andrea began to cry, telling the woman how much she missed her mom.  Well, that sealed the deal, and the woman is now Andrea’s landlord.

Crying generally doesn’t go over well here, especially if you’re a woman crying to a man.  They don’t understand why we’re all so “emotional” and “upset.”  “She feels too sick to eat,” I explained to the doctor, since he no longer addressed Ida Emilia directly.  He handed me the medicine and explained that she should take one immediately and the others later in the day.  “Get her some coconut water for electrolytes,” he said, packed up this things, then left.

Kate, Andrea, and I arranged a late check out from the hotel, a rickshaw ride back to the ferry, and coconut water for Ida Emilia, then left her to sleep while we went to the beach.  Compared to Goa, the beach at Kashid was less crowded and the water bluer.  There were no hawkers nagging us while we lay in our hammocks under the shade of a thatched hut.  We had all put on our bikinis, then shorts and shirts to cover up for our walk to the beach.  Looking at the Indians playing in the sand and surf (we were the only foreigners), we quickly realized that taking off our cover-ups would not be wise.  Almost everyone–definitely every woman–was nearly fully clothed on the beach and in the water.  One man already had taken a picture of us lying in the hammocks.  Strutting onto the beach in only our bikinis would have been an invitation for loads of unwanted attention.

When Andrea told Kate and I that she was going into the sea to pee, Kate and I watched from our shaded seats to see how people would react to her.  She took off her shorts, but left on her T-shirt.  As she walked toward the water, she passed a group of six or seven men walking toward the hut.  They all stopped in their tracks, turned around, and watched her as she walked away from them.  Kate and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  Definitely not going in the water. And, I didn’t, until I had to pee, but I waited for the walk back to our hotel and chose a spot where almost no one else was around.

After a quick lunch at one of the guesthouses we had looked at the day before, we went back to the “resort” to check on Ida Emilia and pack.  We walked in to find five coconuts with straws lined up on the dresser.  I can’t even tell you how many times we stressed to the server that we wanted ONE coconut for the room.   There was no way Ida Emilia could still be deprived of electrolytes.  We went to the lobby to check out and pay our room bill and the doctor bill.  Four hundred rupees for the doctor to make a house-call, including the medicines.  That’s the equivalent of 10 USD.

The same rickshaw driver that took us to the fort the previous day also drove us back to the ferry in Mandwa.  Ida Emilia’s stomach held up pretty well and by the time we were on the ferry back to Mumbai, she began to feel hungry and ate some cookies.  She was the happiest sick person I knew.  If I had diarrhea for 24 hours on a beach vacation, I would not have been pleasant to be around, especially since I don’t like being around other people when I’m sick.  But, Ida Emilia was the most cheerful patient and wasn’t too upset about missing out on the beach time.  “I would rather be sick on vacation with all of you, than alone in my room in Mumbai.”

Ferry from Mandwa to Mumbai

Fort at Janjira

Inside the fort

Kashid Beach

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Wingin’ It: Part One

11 Jan

I am a control freak.  I was pretty sure of that before moving to India, and after three months here, it’s confirmed.  Oh, and, India is not friendly to control freaks.  Sometimes it takes half an hour to get to dinner; the next day, it could take two hours.  Sometimes the train doesn’t run on Sundays, and no one knows why.  I tell a rickshaw driver to take me to the temple, and sometimes I end up at the train station.   The only certainty is that anything can happen.  So, this weekend, I uncharacteristically agreed to make a weekend escape with the girls, in which only one aspect of the trip was planned.

Destination: Murud
Purpose:  Downtime on the beach and fulfilling Andrea’s dream of visiting the “impregnable” (as Lonely Planet puts it) fort at Janjira
The Plan:  Get on the first ferry from the Gateway of India, then wing it!

“I could really love Mumbai if it was always like this,” I said, as the four of us took a cab from Bandra to the Gateway of India at 7 a.m. on Saturday.  “You mean, if Mumbai had fewer people, almost no traffic, and was quieter?”  Kat said.  I laughed.  The traffic, 22 million people, and constant noise is what makes Mumbai…Mumbai.  I can’t say I’m in love with those things.  “Yes!  Exactly!”

After waiting in line to buy ferry tickets, only to find out that they’re sold at the window next to the one with the ferry schedule, we purchased them for 8:30 a.m., made our way to Gate 2, and claimed our seats on the top deck.  The chilly, hour-long ride included on-board entertainment, thanks to the group of a dozen Indians sitting behind us who clapped and sang Bollywood tunes for most of the journey.

Arriving in Mandwa, we crossed the wooden bridge to a parking lot full of rickshaws and a bus.  Fingers crossed that it was the one going to Alibaug, where we would then take another bus to Murud.  A couple of Indians were pushing their way onto the bus, which already exceeded capacity.  “We’ll wait for the next one,” Alaina said.

“Come, come, madame,” a tall, husky, mustached Indian man yelled as he approached the four of us and pointed to the rickshaw parked behind him.  “Where do you go?”  We told him we were waiting for the next bus to Alibaug.  “Come.  Free rickshaw to Alibaug,” he said.  We were skeptical.  Did he say free?  That couldn’t be right.  We ignored him and hoped the next bus would come soon.  “Come, come.  Free rickshaw,” he persisted.

I was ready to get in the rickshaw.  Why stand in the parking lot holding our bags, waiting for the next bus?  We all looked at each other.  Should we?  “Let’s see if anyone else takes a rickshaw,” Kate, ever the voice of reason, suggested.  When we realized we were the only ones standing around and other travelers were cramming into rickshaws, we went for it.  The driver was still standing next to us, waiting for our decision.  “Come, come.”

We were the first into the rickshaw.  Within two minutes, eight guys joined us.  Six piled into the back with us–four on the seats and two on their friends’ laps–and two sat in the front next to the driver.  Thirty bumpy minutes later, we arrived in Alibaug and asked several shopkeepers for directions to the bus depot.  We boarded a red, worn out, government bus at the station, and squeezed into the corner seat in the rear of the bus.

The hour and a half right to Kashid came with a price tag of 25 rupees (50 cents).  Based on suggestions from my landlords and Kat’s friends, we decided to stay in Kashid, 20 kilometers north of Murud.  The former is quieter and the beaches less crowded, we were told.  Passing through rural villages, open fields, and hills, we noticed all the signs were in Hindi.  We had no way of knowing where we were.  “Will you tell us when we get to Kashid?”  I asked one of the guys sitting in front of us, when he and his friends took a break from singing and dancing to Bollywood songs.

Realizing that breaking out in song on public transportation must be a trend, we girls started clapping.  We sang the only part of the only song we knew. “My name is Sheila/ Sheila ki jawani/ I’m too sexy for you/ da-da-da-da-da-da.”  My friend Alaina was obsessed with this song on our trip to Nasik.  With the tune stuck in our heads, we went to see Tees Maar Khan, the movie that features the song, last weekend and now all know the chorus.

The boys clapped along, then laughed when we stopped.  “Sheila is outdated now.”

At Kashid beach, we asked for directions to Kashid Beach Resort, where my landlord’s daughter had suggested we stay.  “Siddha, siddha.”  Straight, straight.  “How far?”  we asked.  One kilometer, a food vendor told us;  three kilometers, said the next one.  We began walking.  For ten minutes or so, there was nothing in sight, and not one rickshaw passed us along the way.  When we came across a guesthouse, we stopped in.  We looked at the room, I checked the mattress and pillows for signs of bedbugs (my latest habit), and we inquired about the price.  None of the rooms we saw at the three or four guesthouses were worth the price.  Furthermore, most of the guesthouses didn’t supply towels or toilet paper, and we had not passed one convenience store on our walk.

Towels and toilet paper are non-negotiables for me.  I’m not hosing myself off after using the bathroom, and even if I had to, I would need a towel to dry off.  “No towels?” I asked.  “How are we supposed to shower?”  “No shower,” the guesthouse manager replied, as if that was the obvious answer.

We stopped outside of the guesthouse to regroup.  There were no others in sight; were we willing to keep walking and take a chance we’d find something better?  I was, and so was Kat, so after a few more minutes, we saw the sign for Kashid Beach Resort.  Alaina and Andrea went to check out another guesthouse, while Kat and I made up way up the hill to the resort.  Sweaty, tired, and defeated, we walked up the steps to the lobby and asked if any rooms were available.  “Yes,” the manager replied.

I was so thankful we had not trusted a fellow traveler, who told us that he checked that morning for a room and there were none available.  A staff member showed us a room with enough beds for four people.  The room was nothing spectacular; the place did not deserve the “resort” label.  The wall was peeling, there were not enough sheets, and the door to the patio barely closed.  But, it was the best we had seen all day.

We inquired about the price after the tour.  “Eight thousand rupees, including meals,” the manager said.  WHAT?  Two hundred U.S. dollars for THAT?  “That’s ridiculous,” I said, as I picked up my bag and walked out. Walking away from a price usually encourages the seller to drop it, but this guy obviously wasn’t worried about filling the room.

Truth be told, I was happy to spend $50 to stay there, as opposed to $8-10 to stay at one of the far dingier guesthouses, but I didn’t think the other girls would go for it.  Kat and I met Alaina and Andrea as they came up the hill to meet us.

We told the girls the price.  I was shocked that they didn’t reject the “resort” right off the bat.  “It includes all meals?”  Alaina asked.  Yes.  “Is it nice?”  The nicest we’ve seen so far. “Does that include transportation to and from the fort?”  Not sure.  We didn’t ask.  “Let’s go find out what they can offer us,” she said.

It was Nasik, round two.  The four of us marched back into the lobby, and Alaina took over.  “Ok, so, how much is the room and what does it include?”  The manager repeated the price, which included three meals a day.

“Alcohol too?”  I loved Alaina.  She was going to try to milk it.
The manager laughed.  “No, no.”
“Do you have transportation to the fort?”
“It can be arranged.”
“Is it included?”
“No, you pay for it.”
“It looked like we weren’t getting anything extra thrown in.
“Do you have towels?”
“Yes.”
“And, toilet paper?”
“Yes.”
We looked at each other and nodded.  Done.

Ferry, Gateway of India, and Taj Hotel

Taj Hotel

Ferries at the Gateway of India

Not-So-Lazy Sunday in the City

3 Jan

I played tourist yesterday.  I’ve been in Mumbai almost three months and still hadn’t taken my picture at the Gateway of India.  It’s just one of those things.  I lived in D.C. for five years and never walked around the monuments at night.

After seeing my friends for New Year’s then spending Saturday together shopping and going to a Bollywood film, we decided not to let Sunday go to waste.  I wanted to go to India Gate for the photo op and to check out the ferry schedule for next weekend’s trip to Murud.  My friend Andrea wanted to scratch a trip to Chor Bazaar (a.k.a. Thieves’ Market, known for its antique shops) off her must-do list.  And, we all wanted to go to Zaffran, a restaurant near Crawford Market that I’ve been talking up since going there my first week in Mumbai.

In the morning, we text each other and agree to meet at Track 1 in Victoria Terminus.  That should have been simple enough for me.  I hop on the train at the station near my apartment and take the train all the way to VT.  So, at 11:45, I hail a rickshaw to take me to the train station.  I am shocked and pleasantly surprised to see almost no one in line at the ticket counters.  I get closer and realize the windows are boarded up.  The ticket counters are closed.  I walk over to the screen in the waiting area to check the train times.  The board is empty.  I look at the platform.  It’s busy.  People are walking and standing on the platform, socializing, eating.  I’m confused.

“Closed today,” an old man says at me as I wander aimlessly around the ticketing area.
“Closed?”  I ask, frustrated.  “Why?”
I need to stop asking why.  It doesn’t matter why.  Rarely do two or more people give me the same answer to that question anyway.  Don’t ask why.  Just have a plan B.
He wobbles his head.  “Closed.”
“So, no train today?”
“No train,” he says as he sits on a concrete block at the station.

I call Shama, my landlord’s wife.  “Shama, the station is closed today.  Is this because it’s Sunday, or does that just happen?  I am supposed to meet my friends at Victoria Terminus, but a man just told me there’s no train today.”

“Maybe they’re doing repairs,” she says and suggests and alternative route.

Maybe there should be signs at the ticket counter, or on the platform, or at the entry gates to the station.

I call my friends, hoping they have not left Bandra and I can take the train with them from there.  I am in luck.  They are on their way to the station.  “Stay there.  I’m getting in a rickshaw now.”

I ask the dozen-or-so rickshaw drivers gathered around the train station to take me to Bandra.  None of them will go there.  One takes me back to my apartment.  I hop out and immediately hail another one.  The driver takes me to Bandra.

Street bazaar near Crawford Market

Forty-five minutes later, I meet my friends at the station.  They have already bought my ticket.  A train to Churchgate is pulling into the station.  We push our way on the women’s car.  We get off at Marine Lines and walk toward Crawford Market.  Every few blocks, we ask someone to point us in the right direction, since we are winging it.  A quarter mile or so from the market, we don’t even have to ask.  A man comes up to us; he wants to take us to his stall in the market.  We have no intention of going, but we follow him, since we need directions.  We leave him behind at the market and walk up the street to Zaffran.

We order four vegetarian dishes, vowing to save room for dessert–the lava cake there rivals the one at Little Italy in Nasik (for more on that experience, see “Lots of Wining“).  The food arrives.  The portions of bhindi (okra), dal makhani, tofu masala, and peas with cashew gravy are beyond generous.  Full, but not stuffed, we have the servers pack up the leftovers and put in our order for the lava cake, since it takes 20 minutes to bake it.  In the meantime, we order a piece of “Sinful Chocolate Cake” a la mode.  We finish it off just before the lava cake arrives.  It is hot, melting the scoop of ice cream next to it, and when we break into it, the rich, liquid chocolate center oozes on the plate.  I still don’t know how Sarah, Andrea’s roommate, mustered the self-control to resist both desserts.

We pay the bill, take advantage of the clean restroom, and head out.  According to Lonely Planet, Chor Bazaar is part of Crawford Market.  We walk into the covered market, thinking sooner or later we’ll stumble upon Chor Bazaar.  The market is practically empty.  No sign of antiques.  Just fruit vendors.  We walk to the other side and outside.  More fruit vendors.  We keep walking.  Cages.  Cages of birds–pigeons, doves, parakeets–and puppies.  Cute, cuddly, sleeping puppies piled into cages in the market.  I can’t look at dogs in cages.  It makes me sad.  I cry every time I see that Purina commercial advocating pet adoption, in which some Sarah McLaughlin song plays as they zoom in on sad-looking unadopted puppies in cages in a shelter.   Thankfully, my friend Kat feels the same way and gets creeped out by birds, so we make out way out of the market area.  An impromptu cricket game is taking place in the street.  We walk until we get to a main road that we recognize.

“Chor Bazaar,” we ask a cab driver as we snap pictures of the cows in the middle of the road.  “Straight, then two signals, then left.”

Goat in Chor Bazaar

We walk until turning left is an option.  We ask someone else on the street.  “Chor Bazaar.  Straight.”  We keep walking straight.  We continue to ask strangers for directions until we finally arrive at a market, half an hour later.  We see bangles, pots and cooking utensils, more fruit and veggie vendors.  No antiques.  Goats are wandering around the market.  A group of six kids almost knock me over; they are running and staring at the sky.  I look up, wondering what the madness is about.  I feel something on my leg.  I am tangled in clear string.  At the other end is the wayward kite the kids were running after.

“Chor Bazaar?”  we ask two women shopping in the market.  “Straight.”  After walking straight, then taking a couple of turns, we arrive on Mutton Street.  We see gramophones sitting on a table outside of a shop.  Finally!  I make a mental note to write into Lonely Planet:  Chor Bazaar is NOT part of, or even near, Crawford Market.

I am a sucker for antique shopping.  I buy a necklace, a bowl, and a vase.  Andrea gets her Mother India movie poster.  Another thing to check off her list.

We decide to take a cab to the Gateway of India.  It’s 5 p.m. and the sun will set by 6.  “Let’s find a main road,” Kat suggests.  Luckily, with just a short walk and one turn, we make or way out of the maze that is Chor Bazaar and get a cab.  We arrive at the Gateway of India, check on the ferry schedule for next weekend, then proceed through the metal detector to the monument for pictures.  Sarah stands in front of an Indian guy to block his attempt at taking my picture with his cell phone, while Kat snaps the picture with my camera.  “Very rude,” Sarah tells the stranger after we’re done.

We take a couple more photos, then head out.  An Indian woman with young children approaches us and asks if we will take a picture with (not of) them.  I agree, because she has little kids, and the other girls follow suit.  They thank us and we begin to leave.  A group of men ask if they can have a picture of us.  No. Two young women ask us.  “Sorry, no,” I say.  “Just one,” they plead.  “No, because all these men will keep asking us for pictures,” I explain.  We apologize and leave.

We walk back to the Churchgate station through Colaba and Fort.  Sarah tells me how to get to Leopold’s Cafe, a popular expat hangout and one of the sites of the 2008 terror attacks.  Having a drink there is next on my must-do-in-Mumbai list.

On the way to Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Vintage Bollywood movie posters at Chor Bazaar

Chor Bazaar

Bangles at the market near Chor Bazaar

Cricket at Mumbai's Maidan