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Monday, May 2, 2005

Bewildered in Bombay (My First Day in Mumbai)

This is a first-hand account of my first day in India, a day I had been both longingly anticipating for a long time, and anxiously dreading, simultaneously. I took a punt by coming here with no accommodation arranged, which probably wasn't such a smart move, considering. After spending 18 hectic hours in the west coast city of Bombay/Mumbai, I have to conclude that India is a land of contradiction, and duality. In one sense it is heavenly, otherworldly, exotic -- the dream destination for the curious traveller. On the other hand, I haven't been to another place (excluding Vietnam) which is more taxing on the visitor. India is Heaven. India is Hell. There is not much space in between. That is the Indian polarity. Let us move on!

India is Heaven, India is Hell. Let us move on (India, 2005)
Last night I flew from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to the subcontinent, leaving the semi-developed world of SE Asia behind me, with its monorails and humid heat, its muddy rivers and bustling night markets. I had been apprehensive ever since my arrival in KL a few days previously, wondering if I had made the right decision by launching this whole expedition, aiming as it was for Mumbai on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Lying in bed in my hotel room near Chinatown, I had watched some Indian movies on TV, and they had lightened my mood, somewhat. Wandering around on the streets outside, I had consumed Indian food (Tamil, mostly), and been mightily impressed. Exploring Indian food had been a big goal for this journey, and I was lucky that I had selected KL as a stopover on my way to the subcontinent, for it is a perfect bridge. There are Indian people everywhere here, and even a Little India packed with colorful temples! Nonetheless, I was worried (maybe I am a worrier by nature?), and I lost just a tiny bit of sleep. Malaysia was easy, comfortable, a delight to explore... but I had butterflies in my stomach regarding what awaited me on the next step of the journey, in India. I thought to myself: Maybe I could just cancel my flight to Mumbai, and stay here instead? But that would be wimping out, like I wimped out of my first trip to Vietnam in 1995, and wimping out had never really served me in the past. What if I missed out on a great experience, simply for being too cautious? I'd never be able to forgive myself for that. Anyway, I am no travel virgin: I have been to Nepal before and am also well acquainted with Egypt and the Middle East... I've had my hands splashed with cologne on the buses in Turkey, and been seized by security in Spain. I have been around the block, so to speak. I've lived in Elephant and Castle in London, in a hardcore housing estate and all, the corridors smelling of piss. Nonetheless, there is something especially forbidding about India for the first-time visitor, no matter how experienced you are... there is something particularly frightening about the reputation this country has. Maybe it stems from all those traveller tales we have been told on backpacking routes around the world... "If you think things are crazy here, let me tell you about my trip to India." Those tales had me troubled, but I was also exhilarated by the thought that I would soon be visiting a new part of the world, an integral part of the world, and the spiritual heartland of Humanity: India! I had always wanted to go there, and here was my big chance! So, I kept on watching those Bollywood movies on TV, and held my nerve. In due course, the day of my departure arrived, the sun burning fiercely outside, the usual ruckus in my hotel. I headed out to the airport clutching my florid Lonely Planet guidebook to Indian cuisine, feeling like a condemned man. My anxiety increased when, arriving at the departure gate, I realized just about everyone on my Malaysia Airlines flight was Indian. Some of them were looking at me kind of funny, like I was the outcast, the intruder, the foreigner. As we headed out on to the runway, I began to feel like I had made a mistake. I began to wish I had remained in Japan, hanging out with my new girlfriend, going out for a bite of something Korean, or just staying home to watch TV. I had booked this flight before I met her, however, so I was kind of obligated to carry through. I had secured my Indian visa one sleeting morning, during our courting days, just across the road from the Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社), where all the war criminals are interred, and I couldn't allow that cold trek out there to have been in vain. There was no turning back. I'd made too much of the whole thing. I'd be letting myself down if I didn't go. Failure was not an option.

As we taxied out to the runway, the air hostesses came around to confirm which passengers had requested vegetarian meals, kosher or halal, etc, which is of course standard procedure when flying. On a normal flight there are just a couple of vegetarians scattered around the aircraft, and they always get their meals served first, lucky devils they! On this flight, however, it seemed like half the cabin was vegetarian. I had to laugh -- my vegetarian friends would have been in Heaven! And so, for a moment or two, my mind was taken off its plight. But it only lasted a moment or two, because India still awaited, and it was getting closer by the minute!

We took off, the jungle receding into a green and cloudy blur. I got myself acquainted with an Indian man named Ibrahim who was sitting in the window seat beside me. I asked him where he lived and was astounded at his reply: "Nagoya." I couldn't believe it but I found out he would actually be returning to Japan the following weekend, on exactly the same flight as me! Perhaps we could even sit together. At that revelation I started feeling more confident, and Ibrahim promised he could help me get through the airport and find a hotel, and whatnot. See what happens when you go with the flow, I thought to myself, Destiny steps in to help you! I started to relax, we had some good in-flight food (chicken tikka), and I watched a good Bollywood movie. Everything was gloriously colored, the chicken tikka, the movie, my Lonely Planet guidebook in my carry-on, and the general atmosphere on board the plane. It was like the sun was shining even though it was dark outside. I drank a little, slipped into comfort mode, feet outstretched, shoes off. Ibrahim pointed out there were a couple of Japanese businessmen sitting behind us, on their way to their subcontinental presence. He went back to chat with them for a while (what a good networker he!) I stayed in my chair, the hours passed, and my excitement grew. Following our progress on the on-board navigation system, I smiled as we hit the shore of Tamil Nadu, then dropped over the heart of southern India, lit up like a Christmas tree. Before too long, I spotted the tropical city of Bombay laid out before me in the humid night, a vast saucer of light. It was, in short, a vision of Paradise, inverted, because it was beneath me, and not above. But whatever: I was so glad to be finally landing!

A vision of Paradise, complete with chunky clunky old Tata cabs (India, 2005)
Bombay Airport looked old and dirty but charming in a faded, retro fashion. There were plenty of fierce police in green fatigues, and Indians pushing and shoving to get to the head of whatever queue was happening at the time. While I was waiting for my bags to come off my Nagoya friend Ibrahim disappeared on me, and I couldn't find him again! Perhaps he got sick of waiting for me... it seems that patience is not a strong Indian virtue. So, the upshot was, I was on my own after all! Stuck in a strange airport surrounded by palm trees in the middle of the night, in a country renowned for its hassle, and its hustle. And the vultures were closing in. Oh God, were they closing in!

It went like this: after I was abandoned by Ibrahim, I approached the accommodation counter outside, just as my florid Lonely Planet guidebook had recommended. I told them there that I wanted to stay at a cheap hotel in town, so they booked something that sounded fairly decent (the Imperial Hotel or something like that), and then I got a ride with a driver to the hotel. I was fairly sure that it was a hotel downtown, but not really knowing where downtown was, I was in no way to judge. We pulled out on to the road, in some old Tata (or something). In Japan, they would have called it a ponkotsu. Outside the airport the traffic was thick, and almost medieval, dusty and heaving  and medieval. I noticed the portrait of a Hindu god rearing over the hubbub, like an image from a dream. How exotic... this was the India I had dreamed to see! I kicked back in the back of the Tata, settling in for what I assumed would be a long and fascinating drive. And then, all of a sudden, the driver pulled up on the side of the road, turned off his engine, and announced that this was my hotel. I couldn't believe it... we were scarcely outside the grounds of the airport! Perhaps just two blocks distant, surrounded by slums. I didn't know much about the geography of Mumbai at the time, but I knew that this couldn't possibly be down town. My hotel it was, unfortunately. For some US$45 per night the dirty room was mine, complete with a TV that didn't work, cold shower and an air-conditioner that shuddered and shook all night long. I passed a very uncomfortable night trying to sleep under a flimsy, grimy blanket, shivering because the air conditioner was too cold. I kept thinking to myself: What am I doing here? I could have been back in my crib in Tokyo, snuggled up with C. I waited for sleep to descend upon me, and transport me back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Perhaps it did descend, too, for a brief stretch or two. But I never got transported.

Driving through the slums of Mumbai, on the way downtown (India, 2005)
Let this be a warning to those wanting to stay at a hotel near Bombay Airport -- the airport is built right in the center of one of Asia'a largest slums. If slumming it in the slums is your style, go ahead and stay there -- but I would prefer somewhere with a little more atmosphere. No, I will take that back... I would love to stay with the locals in the slum, provided I am not being ripped off for doing so, or taken for a fool. I would love to live like the local families, eating their food, sharing their lives. And as I would later discover, there is something warren-like about the Indian slums, something warren-like and magical, which suggests you are part of a new kind of organism. If I could have stepped outside my fears that night, and dreamwalked the neighboring streets, I might have had a more enjoyable night. But my fears, as usual, kept me grounded, somewhere between Heaven and Hell. Which is the place I usually reside, unfortunately.

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