India travel: work and tourism

Tourist for the weekend

I had the Saturday free and wanted to tour around. The guys from the office offered to be my guide, but it’s not my style. It takes away from the spontaneity of it all. Anyway, my driver spoke pretty limited English. For the past two days he understood that he was to take me from and to the office from my hotel, and he could understand numbers enough for telling time.

I was worried about this a little when I wanted to be driven around to see the sights of the city, but I figured what the hell. Anyway, it quickly became apparent that I had it wrong, in that we were going to the office. I said over and over again, “Not the office; I want to see the Hanging Gardens.” As we pull up to the security gate, I ask him to call the office and I’d like to talk to someone there. I do get someone and they promise to send a driver with whom I can better hold a conversation. Along comes Sameer, who speaks better than many Americans I know, and he quickly dissuades me from the Hanging Gardens. Old people are the only ones that still go there, and ignorant tourists. It’s an hour’s drive away and I am almost guaranteed to be disappointed. I give him a rough outline of what I want to do (not so many tourists, slightly unusual things) and he decides on the city laundry.

It is awesome! They’ve got blocks and blocks of lower caste Indians working in these really dirty pools of laundry washing uniforms and sheets from various shops around the city. Its an incredible sight and my description doesn’t do it justice. From there, he took me to the Gandhi Museum, where I did see the most tourists all day, but it was good to go. I didn’t know that Gandhi put the spinning wheel on the national flag to indicate simplicity, purity and connection to the poor. They changed it to a Dharma Chakra symbol a year before his death.

After that it was Victoria Station, a huge railroad station built by the British, with really impressive architecture, tons of people and lots of advertisements for the Indian version of Dancing with the Stars, now on Wednesdays AND Thursday nights. There was a ton of traffic, and I discovered from Sameer that there are about 50,000 taxi cabs in Mumbai and an unknown number of the automated Rickshaws. I next went in to the Crawford Market, an indoor hall of many different micro vendors that sell melons, pineapples, birds, fish (aquarium and the not so mobile), rabbits, miniature puppies, perfume, fruits and vegetables and chocolate. There were also chickens like you might see in the market, except the feet were still attached and they had been in the really bad air for who knows how long. It’s all like a supermarket, but made up of many small stalls lumped together. You can get everything, although I decided I didn’t want any of it that wasn’t wrapped in plastic. One of the funniest things I saw there was a box of McDonald’s French fries that said very explicitly that it should be kept frozen, but was very clearly out there all day long in the very stifling heat. Maybe it’s a language thing.

By the way, most billboards are in English. I asked Sameer about that and he said that the marketing is targeted towards the educated which almost all speak English. When I stepped into the car, I was drenched and my clothes stuck to me. So taking that longer step was probably a bad idea, since it split my pants. I didn’t mention it, but asked Sameer if we could stop at the Big Bazaar market that we had passed on the way out today.

There was a huge waiting line for parking toward the Big Bazaar so Sameer suggested I step out and call him when I’m done. I got lost twice which let me see more of Mumbai and also pointed out how awkward it is if you’re the only white guy in a densely populated area and you’re about a foot taller than everyone else. It makes it harder to blend in. I found the Big Bazaar but also discovered that pants only come by waist measurements, and then you’d tailor it back to the length you need. Works fine if you’re not 6’6”, so I left the Bazaar empty handed. By that point it was 7pm, I was beat and wanted a shower and good meal badly, so that’s how I ended by first day as a tourist.

More Tourism

I woke up pretty early to make it to Elephant Island. They named it in 1534, when the Portuguese found this giant stone elephant. In keeping with the total lack of originality, the previous name was Gharapuri (Gharis were the priests of the temple on the island, and Puri means town). I’m sure Captain Obvious has his secret lair on the island. The caves themselves are pretty amazing after you climb 120 steep stone steps lined on either side by small stalls selling the exact same goods all the way up. When its really hot outside and the humidity is somewhere around steam room, hearing a barker’s pitch is less than appealing.

The island is famous for three large caves, which are filled with carved images of various Hindu gods, most commonly Ganesha, the elephant headed god, Vishnu the destroyer and Shiva the creator, but also sometimes destroyer, depending on the circumstances. The stone figures are about 10 to 20 feet high and there is apparently some requirement that at least one limb have fallen off. Sometimes the entire lower torso is missing. The most revered statue is not a statue at all but of Shiva Linga, or literally Shiva’s phallus. It’s supposed to help in fertility and the like, and it’s the only sculpture completely intact. It’s just a wide cylinder with a curved top. Insert lewd reference here.

The entrance to the caves has two levels of pricing: 10 Rs for Indians and 250 for tourist chumps. This dual level pricing is not that unusual it turns out. In response, I think the US should levee a higher tax rate on foreign nationals working here, just to keep things even.

They sell tour books for anywhere between 50 – 250 Rs (approx $1-5), but they’re supposed to be cheaper than the 2500 Rs that guides would charge. Generally, I’ve passed on both and just latched on to the most likeable good sized tour crowd and get what I need. Turns out the best option is a small museum near the entrance where all the guides seem to get their speeches.

I head on back down, buy some postcards and figurines. The figurines that they have in the stalls are pretty ordinary except for the namesake ones. They have hand carved elephants that have a mesh patterned body and inside the body is another elephant. The more elaborate ones have a third elephant carved inside the second. The way back is pretty uneventful. I was soaked in sweat and all I wanted (once again) was a shower and air conditioning.

My driver, Sameer, tells me that we’ll be passing the main street where name-brand shirts are sold. I figure they’ve got to be cheaper in the country so I get some lunch first and then head on down for a little shopping. Turns out that they’re more expensive than the US, so I skip out of that after trying five different stores of the same thing.

I head back to my room for that long awaited clean up and feel that I’m finally getting used to the time change. I realize I’m getting older because its taken me almost five days to feel tired at a reasonable hour.