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I crossed the street in Mumbai…and lived

[NOTE: I've been traveling in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. My apologies in advance for any delays in responding or posting. I’ll be adding updates about our adventures as quickly as I can get to places with internet connections.

[NOTE: I travelled in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. I’m home now, but still catching up and posting.

Actual taxi interior upholstery.

Actual taxi interior upholstery.

After an early flight to Mumbai, we took a cab to our hotel. (Actually, all our flights were obscenely early. Curse Jaya and her mania for efficient bookings…) Jaya and Janine were excited to point out all the sights, but I had trouble paying attention after the driver piled our luggage—including the Barb Taub Memorial Artisan Block-Printed Textiles Collection—onto the  cab’s roof and tied it down with a little piece of string. Very, very used string.

But as we crossed the gorgeous Sea Link bridge, I was picturing tablecloths, napkins, and [no, please not that] quilt flapping off into the fog. The only thing that got me through was that Jaya had promised parathas for lunch.

But as we crossed the gorgeous Sea Link bridge, I was picturing tablecloths, napkins, and [no, please not that] quilt flapping off into the fog. 

Jaya didn’t mind because her suitcase was at the bottom. Janine didn’t mind because she was distracted by the world-class kitsch of the cab’s interior.

The only thing that got me through was that Jaya had promised parathas for lunch. That’s before I found out that you have to cross a street to get them.

Now, I’m a veteran street-crosser. I understand about traffic patterns, and red lights, and those little green and red walk/die figures. People in Mumbai understand all that too. They just don’t care. We finally figured out that it all works by critical mass. Jaya explained the “someone else is doing it” theory of street-crossing. Once you have enough people gathered around you to (hopefully) cause oncoming traffic to pause rather than engage in mass carnage, you crowd-cross the street. Oncoming vehicles are still using their horns as sonar, so the sight of bodies in their path simply ratchets up the volume. To cross the street in Mumbai is to shake your fist at fate, to exhilarate in your triumph against massive odds, and to learn how to walk really, really fast.

[note: keep an eye on the group of people crossing at lower left. When they reach critical mass, they step into traffic. They’re my heroes… And the guy on the bicycle? A god.]

Our first day in Mumbai was for the big touristy stuff like the India Gate, the Taj Hotel, and architect Frederick William Stevens’ victorian gothic orgasm, the Victoria Terminus (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The world's most civilized way to breakfast. First comes a tray with coffee and all the fixings, at which point orders are taken for breakfast omelets to be delivered to the room.

Breakfast at Chateau Windsor. First comes a tray with coffee and all the fixings, at which point orders are taken for breakfast omelets to be delivered to the room.

We started the next day with the world’s most civilized breakfast. Then we got down to the real business of the trip: shopping. For this, Jaya called in the professionals. Her glamorous niece Monu arrived with car and driver. First stop was the Khadi Village Crafts store. We wandered inside and were helpless to resist the artisan produced textiles and artwork.

Janine: What kind of wood are these made of?

Store clerk: Regular wood.

Janine: Ah. I’ll take three.

Not so fast. Purchases are lowered to the ground floor in a basket on a rope. From there, the buyer goes first to a clerk seated at a high desk, who totals the order on a handmade paper receipt, which is then stamped. The buyer then takes the receipt to another desk to pay. (More stampage.) Finally, the stamped receipt (Indian clerks LOVE to stamp stuff) goes to yet another desk, where the purchase awaits, wrapped, bagged and probably stamped again just for the heck of it.

Our next stop was Fabindia, a color explosion of traditional and modern interpretations of clothing and housewares. Unfortunately, they were having a sale. Clerks struggled to keep up as customers tossed gorgeous silks and cottons in a search for the perfect combination of price, color, and size. More wallet hemorrhage ensued, with much receipt stamping (especially since there were two different processes for sale and nonsale items).

Khadi Village Crafts

Khadi Village Crafts

Receipts on handmade paper--(copiously stamped)

Receipts on handmade paper–(copiously stamped)

Fabindia stores

Fabindia stores

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Shopping was hungry work, so we stopped for lunch at the Samovar Artists Cafe, which happened to be hosting (See? There is a god)—the Festival Paratha.

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Jaya’s niece presented me with this refrigerator magnet. I wonder how she knew?

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Many yummy paratha’s later, including—and I’m not making this up—dessert parathas stuffed with carrot halva and icecream, we staggered out of the Samovar and into the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival with its blocks of street exhibitors.

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Temperatures were sweltering and the streets were packed, but we joined the crowds enjoying the color and spectacle.

After a break for showers and copious applications of mosquito repellent, we were ready for the evening program of music and dance. My favorite was ‘Dance of Mystics’ featuring Manjari Chaturvedi. In an interview after her performance, she explained there were aspects of divine communication and love that could only be shared through her dance.

We still had barely made a dent in the list of Jaya’s relatives, but it was our last day in Mumbai. Our new driver—none of us ever got him to admit to his name, so we just called him the Old Man—took us back over the Sea Link bridge for brunch with her eldest brother, plus assorted sisters, in-laws, and one emergency backup niece. If there was some article of food missing from the MoMo Cafe’s food stations, I can’t imagine what it could be. (We’re talking pasta, stir fry, salad, chaat, dessert, salad, piles of meat for cooking to order, rows of soups, curries, breads, you-name-it, and kitchen sinks.)

Somehow, we all ended up back at Jaya’s sister’s house. Her older brother entertained us with family stories (sadly, still nothing we could use to embarrass Jaya). My favorite was his description of being a very small child on August 15, 1947 when India achieved independence. He sang a couple of the patriotic songs, and recalled the fireworks and celebrating.

We finally piled into the car to go to a textiles exhibit at the convention hall. But the Old Man thought we were going with the others, and so he just followed their car. By the time Jaya figured that out, he decided that instead of taking a U-Turn, he’d take a “short cut” down a lane clogged with pedestrians, auto-rickshaws, cows, racks of live chickens, beggars, and significant numbers of the homeless population of Mumbai, who were knocking on our windows, begging, and trying to sell trinkets. The stalls on each little block seemed to sell identical items. We passed the fishmongers block, the bakers block, and the chicken sellers where—I swear I’m still not making this up—most stalls seemed to have someone killing a chicken within arms-reach of my window, while the yet-to-be-murdered fowl protested.

Just as it looked like the tiny lane would narrow to the point where we’d have to back up, the Old Man yielded to Jaya’s direction and turned toward the main road. The textile exhibit was fun, with Jaya pointing out examples of sari and fabric from different regions of India. After many last-minute additions to the Barb Taub Memorial Artisan Block-Printed Textiles Collection, we headed back to Jaya’s sister’s house. We’d eaten enough to fortify us for a week at the MoMo cafe and there was no way we could possible eat more. But… we were leaving for the airport soon and this might be our last chance for such wonderful Indian home cooking. We stuffed ourselves again.

Wait... I have to go through Immigration again... to leave the country?

Wait… I have to go through Immigration again… to get out of the country?

Mumbai Airport

Mumbai Airport

Everyone piled into cars and we headed to the stunningly beautiful Mumbai airport to say goodbye. I had almost three hours before my flight. But it took most of that just to get through “immigration” (even though I was leaving the country…).  The best part was the Texan behind me in line. I could tell he was missing his concealed carry weapon as all the err… non-Texans… kept crashing the line. Fortunately before blood was shed, we were at the front of the line.

Last chance for stampage...

Last chance for stampage…

I’ll miss so many things about India. But here’s the thing. As all my writer friends know, there are two kinds of trips. The ones people (other than writers) take for fun, and the ones you can write off on your taxes as research.

So, I have to figure out who to kill off and how. Maybe a paratha overdose? I think I need to go back for more research.


Previous posts include:

  • Part 1 Indian Drivers
  • Part 2- Temples, trains, and the kindness of strangers
  • Part 3 – Agra is closed today
  • Part 4 – The Taj Mahal is very clean today, and Bargaining in India: beware of the chair and the special suitcase
  • Part 5 – Tastebud assault, Indian medicines, and an iron-mystery
  • Part 6  Delhi is closed today, and how to queue in India
  • Part 7 – Tea and pharmaceuticals as close to heaven as it gets
  • Part 8 – Spice gardens, elephants (!), ancient story/dance, and a death-wish
  • Part 9 – Delhi Belly: a level of hell that Dante missed.
  • Part 10 – Cars, Trains, and… Rickshaws
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