india.rickbradley.com - our trip to India
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There are some running jokes in Ali’s (largely Italian) family about the relaxed Italian demeanor, especially in contrast to the efficiency of the German volk. The most-cited yarn ends with the punch-line, “Of course ve vill be on time. This is a GERMAN train now.” Needless to say, Lufthansa got us into Frankfurt an hour early, as well as getting us into Mumbai exactly on schedule with nary a bag lost.
At 1am Indian customs was so laid-back as to be effectively non-existent. Despite the fact that we wrote on our declaration forms that we were importing 6 trash bags of marijuana (I’m lying, fwiw) no eyebrows were raised — we didn’t even get shaken down for a micro-bribe — and we cruised right through.
We had booked a room near the airport in advance, which came with free transportation to the hotel. We had no trouble finding our driver, and he walked us to the parking garage and then left us in a waiting area while he went to fetch the van. We met our first “helper” at that point, when an unidentified man told us a few times that a car was coming and would be here in a moment. It was never 100% clear whether he was talking about the car we obviously already knew was coming, another car that he was somehow affiliated with, or whether he was a bit off kilter and just delusional about cars. When our driver came back this other fellow continued to try to “help” by attempting to assist with the bag loading process. Given that I had no desire to lose our luggage 3 1/2 minutes after clearing customs we managed to decline the assistance. Ultimately our driver shooed the guy off and we took off to the hotel. Was he just shaking us down for the “I helped you, gimme some rupees” deal? Probably, but hard to say. I know for sure, though, that I wasn’t likely to play live action role-playing games at a jet-lagged post-1am new country airport.
On the ride back to the hotel we got our first look at the dynamics of Mumbai traffic. Somehow at 2am there are lots of people out roaming the streets near the airport. One of those people was a guy who found himself in the middle of the street as our driver came around a curve. While still probably 100 feet away from us, he panicked, and sprinted out of the roadway. He wouldn’t have moved any faster had the driver been shooting at him. That pretty much set the tone for what to expect from Mumbai traffic.
Our first hotel in India was nice: a small clean room with a small clean bathroom. The shower was on the wall of the bathroom without a separate stall (we’d seen that in Europe as well). The toilet was “western” style, there was air conditioning, and small on-wall water heater. They even had internet access — via a USB mobile broadband dongle. They charged us 50 rupees an hour for it (about $1/hour). The connection was a bit flaky, but it got the job done. Oh and free breakfast (of Indian food — did I mention that I like Indian food?) – bonus.
The hotel was located in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, not far from the airport. It’s crazy busy, seems very poor, and has an unique smell. My father-in-law recently said about Sheay Stadium, “The smell of Sheay Stadium has a heady combination of urine and beer which noone else has been able to duplicate — Yankee Stadium, Fenway, noone.” I felt much the same about Bandra, only I’m not sure what they used in place of beer. After a couple hours I wondered if I would just get used to the smell, but mostly I just started to get confused and light-headed.
All that said, it was a very interesting place to be. We ended up going to the Bandra train station to try to catch a ride into Mumbai proper. We spent probably half an hour there, first figuring out which trains went to Churchgate station, then fruitlessly trying to figure out how the ticketing system worked, or, actually, if there was a ticketing system. I presume there must be, but given the lack of ticket machines, railway employees, and the sheer impossibility of attempting to regulate riders on the train I’m still highly skeptical.
Each train that would arrive would be 120% full of riders. There was usually a car filled with only women that was a mere 100% full. The remainder of the cars were packed full with men, many hanging out the doorways and/or somehow dangling out into space from the train itself. We saw one car where a guy had what appeared to be maybe 200 small cans of paint, on some sort of jerry-rigged metal carrying harness, lying on the floor from one doorway all the way across to the other doorway. When the train stopped a layer (if you will) of paint cans left the train with someone else, while the others stayed on the train with their ostensible owner. It’s still not crystal clear to me whether this was a planned transaction (and if so, the mind boggles at the logistical arrangements) or even had the consent of the man on the train most associated with the collection of cans.
Ultimately we started drawing attention by being the only non-Indian folks anywhere on the platforms. It became pretty clear that Ali might find a moderately sane ride in one of the cars full of ladies, but it didn’t even look possible to get on any of the other cars, much less to have a fair chance at making it to Churchgate station intact — completely ignoring any questions of remuneration. That and the fact that getting split up on the Crazy Train on our first day … probably not a great plan.
(yes, that Hindi bit just says “Churchget Churchget” for some reason)
So, we bailed and decided to catch a cab. There were two kinds of cabs available: what I can only describe as a motorized rickshaw (a driver in front, an open rear with room for two passengers in back, but definitely closer to an automobile than a rickshaw), and a conventional, if small, regular car. The auto-rickshaws are evidently only for short distances, as we were rebuffed at the notion of hiring one to go into Mumbai proper. So we commandeered a regular cab, which ended up being not only a great alternative to being shivved and tossed onto the tracks on our first day in India, but also cheap (just a few bucks) and included what turned out to be a guided tour of significant Mumbai landmarks. While we might’ve been “taken for a ride” in the sense that the guy probably charged us for driving us around, we appreciated the tour, had a lot of fun on the ride, and didn’t get any of the “here, come to this hotel” touting funny business. Also, in case you’re wondering, there’s still a bit of the “fuck the British” sentiment lingering in certain quarters. The only time I saw “the finger” flipped so far on this trip was when our cabby worked through making one (like a kid trying to do the “live long and prosper” Vulcan cousin of the Shocker for only the third or fourth time) to give his sentiments about the British that little extra oomph. For what it’s worth, the other international affairs tidbits are that the Pakistanis have calmed down, but that the Chinese are the problem now and, “They are CRAZY.”
For what it’s worth, traffic in Mumbai (and I presume most of the rest of the country from what I’ve read) is a different variety of insane than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. In the US the pedestrian has the right of way, but I wouldn’t push it, and that’s a real city by city thing: what you can get away with in Portland will put you in traction in Nashville, much less Muskogee, OK. In Rome cars will often literally come to a screeching halt if a pedestrian is in the road, and Palermo takes that to the extreme: the way you cross certain streets is to walk out there, because there’s no other way to get a break in the traffic.
In Mumbai, it’s pedestrian beware (it actually seems to be “everyone smaller than me, beware”, but pedestrians lose that numbers game most of the time). The honking is incessant, though noone seems to be getting at all angry about the situation. They honk to say “I’m here”. They honk to say “you’re in the way”. They honk to say “if you stay there I’m going to end up hitting you”. They honk to say “how the hell am I supposed to use this 1/3rd of a lane, you need to move over 2 feet”.I think they even honk to say “word, I see you.” So it’s honk honk honk honk all the time. Even the bicycle riders are jingling their little bells constantly. And if you’re a pedestrian the honking is sometimes the only chance you have to see the car that just whipped around the roundabout bearing down on you at some improbable angle — which means you’d probably better move your ass, just like that guy we saw on the way in from the airport.
btw, that guy in the white shirt came inches from getting creamed by our cabbie
The lanes on the road seem to be pretty much advisory, and some of the traffic patterns are definitely in the “whatever seems like it might work right now” category. Of course, the best thing a city planner (btw, my working theory is that the inability to impose building codes or any sort of effective zoning ordinances in India was the British Empire’s failure write small, er large) could do in such an environment is to run as many high-volume roads together in the same place as possible. Roundabouts, fountains with umpteen impinging roads, “5 spots”, “6 spots”, “I lost count spots”, etc.
We were sitting in a cab today on our way to the train station and there was a point when pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, taxis of both flavors, cars, trucks, buses, and double-decker buses were all faced off in 15 lanes of honking mayhem as they were all seemingly wanting to be in exactly the same 100 square feet of space, just facing in opposite directions. And, yet, it all got untangled cleanly and recreated itself half a mile down the road at the next big intersection. Good times.
So, we did some errands in Mumbai. We had to hunt down a new hotel. We decided to stay in the Fort district, which actually meant we stayed across the street from the Victoria Station, the train station that was host to a major terrorist incident. Someone (Al, help me out with the reference here :-) once said that Victoria Station was to the Raj what the Taj Mahal is to the Mughals. If by that they mean some big-ass crazy architecture mixing 3 completely different styles, and full of trains and passengers, then, yes, I’ll have to agree. But, it is a big confluence point for businessmen, barefoot dudes walking quickly past with baskets of fish on their heads, people looking to sleep on a chunk of dry brick, Sari-wearing women, school kids, and officials in a varying but inscrutable array of military looking garb (with the occasional submachine gun).
That’s not the end of the first 24 hours, by any stretch of the imagination, but even my Steve Yegge style is making the server creak at this point.
One thing I would like to highlight is that the biggest win so far in trip preparation (other than all the mundane things like flights, passports & visas, etc., that you MUST have) was deciding to get a couple of Nalgene bottles and a portable water filter. Stewart’s makes this 4-liter water filtering system with a “million gallon guarantee” on the filter itself. You unscrew a cap on this bag, fill it with water of dubious cleanliness, then reseal the cap. The cap acts as a valve as well, with a connector pipe which leads to the filter and then into the Nagene bottle(s) you have waiting at the end of it. It’s 0.1 micron and is supposed to catch damned near everything that could go through it. Load up Nalgene bottles, strap those to your backpack, and now you have clean water wherever you go, without looking at bottled water caps and thinking about Slumdog Millionaire.
Tune in next time for the explanation to why we heard the melody of “Jingle Bells” about 50 times in a 24 hour span.