We woke up at 6:00 am this morning with the intention of having one last walk along the Goa beaches, hoping to find some nude, cartwheeling, catatonic, hippie chicks. Someone, whose name shall not be revealed, led us to believe that this was a common occurrence in these parts. Funny, in our relaxed state, it never occurred to us that the sun wouldn't be up. So, when we woke up to a pitch black sky, we changed our plans and coffee was ordered, bags were packed, and we made due with a quick jaunt to stick one last toe in the Arabian Sea. Not exactly a Bollywood ending, but we didn't care, because we knew we would soon be in the great city itself.
Flight #164 to Bombay, our last Indian Airlines adventure, and you would think that I'd just be relieved, right? Oh, no. The way I saw it, I had been blessed long enough to survive the first three inner continental flights, and the odds were now against me living through another. And, again, everything at the airport was going so smoothly, and from what I had heard, Indian flying experiences were supposed to be disastrous, so I was sure this flight would be jinxed. Annie, used to me by now, feigned sleep the second she hit her assigned seat, so I was left to get my solace from a two year old boy playing in the seat in front of me. He smiled and gurgled, totally oblivious to our impending doom; he was my perfect travel companion. Indian Airlines seems to have two kinds of landings; "the corkscrew" landing with which we are now quite familiar, and the "let's aim that nose straight down at the runway, and ride, baby, ride" landing. It was the latter landing that took place this afternoon. But, miracle of all miracles, we arrived in Bombay in one piece.
All four of us were prepared for the throngs of people that we had been told to expect in Bombay. Walking out of the airport we were braced for head to toe humanity, but no one was there. Leaving the airport, driving towards the hotel, we were sure we'd see the aforementioned defecation, but again we were puzzled. There certainly were a lot of people everywhere, but not the multitudes we had been primed for. Our tour guide explained that the city of 14 million people seemed so "sleepy" because it was Saturday. However, we did manage to see a sign that read "HELP YOU DROP DEAD - DROP IN, Ash and Body Forwarding", immediately followed by a funeral procession on the street, complete with shrouded body and a procession of grieving men. It was clear from the beginning that death was an integral, and visible, part of life in Bombay.
As soon as we arrived at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Annie, Elizabeth, and I dropped our bags and headed out onto the street. Alf, surely tugged by the agonizing decision over shopping versus hooking up to the Internet with a cup of Masala tea, finally opted to stay put in his suite. People were more aggressive than in other places, but still they backed off when we told them we weren't interested. Only one holy man imposture grabbed my wrist, whipped a string around it, while his accomplice held my head for the red dot blessing. This happened so fast that I couldn't even refuse, let alone negotiate a deal. So, while trying to flee, I jammed some rupees in the man's hand, the amount of which displeased him, but I figured 25 cents would surely secure a cushy karma spot. Annie picked up a self-appointed, little guide, about 9 years old, who stuck close and offered many observations along the way, such as "that man talks to horses, he's crazy", and "here is a very nice shop for the shoppers."
As we wound our way through the streets of Bombay, someone must have been looking over us, because we finally hit the mother lode. OK, Erickson sisters, this is where you can get jealous now, and it's all because of a shop named Curio Cottage. Leaving our sweet, newfound friend outside, we walked into the shop proclaiming that we just wanted to look for bangles. We mentioned we had spent our wad already, so it wasn't worth spending much time or effort on us. But, little did we know that were being observed by the shop owner, Habib, who quietly noticed what we were drooling over. All of a sudden, we heard fingers snapping, feet shuffling, jewelry jingling, and bronze clanging from all directions. If we asked for something, 500 would appear in every shape, size, texture, metal, and color you could imagine. Remembering that we told him we were down to our last rupees, an enticing grin passed over Habib's face as he spit out phrases like "Remember, you're in India; not like America, everything is inexpensive here." All hesitation was lost when he let it be known that they were on very friendly terms with plastic.
When we finally came out of the shop for air 2 hours later, Annie's friend, who was still waiting for us remarked, "You went in and the sun was up, you came out in the dark." We slowly made our way back towards the hotel, followed by more and more children, some of whom had children of their own, and all of whom were hoping for spare rupees. Upon coming to the hotel entrance, our tour guide shook Annie's hand and explained that he couldn't go inside with us because he didn't have the right clothes on. With a quick gesture, Annie snuck some money into his hand, as the rest of us said our good byes, and he quickly disappeared into the dark streets of Bombay.
We awoke to the sad realization that this would be our last day in India. Our first half of the day started out on the water, heading towards Elephanta Caves about an hour away. Our guide had a flair for the dramatic and acted out each scene from the stone-carved temple walls, ending with a pose of the Shiva dance which will be forever etched into our minds. It bears mentioning here that they offered quite the service for those faint of heart or the colonial wanna-be's at the foot of the caves. For a negligible sum, you could be hoisted upon a rig consisting of a wooden armchair with poles attached for four able-bodied men to whisk you up to the temple. We were surprised at how many takers there were and how they could even look us in the eye as they passed us by.
During lunch we decided to change the afternoon tour and trade the Prince of Wales Museum, with its world renowned miniature paintings for a glimpse of the seedy, underbelly of Bombay. Nothing like a little voyeurism to end our trip! You should have seen the look on our guide's face when we explained our new plans to him. Our choice of destination, Forress Road, would be like visiting the toughest neighborhoods in any world city, but our guide reluctantly agreed to drive us through, mentioning that four white faces in this sea of extreme poverty, and especially Annie's camera, might cause, at best rock throwing and spitting, and at worst an early end to this journey. Not deterred, we stayed firm in our course, but first we stopped at a Jain Temple, where a engagement ceremony was taking place. Beautiful music, traditional dress, and pungent smells filled the temple, as we circled from a balcony up above. We also stopped at the Hanging Gardens, filled with Sunday love couples and street performers, including snake charmers and dancing monkeys.
Driving through the Malibar Hills to the Public Laundry, we began noticing that our guide was beginning to show signs of agitation about our next destinations. When we requested to get out at the Laundry, he told us it would need to be quickly due to the numbers of beggars and lepers. He stayed true to his word and whisked us back onto the bus within minutes of disembarking. As we approached Forress Road, doors were locked, and we were strictly prohibited from leaving the bus. When Annie rolled down the window to take a few pictures of the prostitutes that lined the streets in cages, our guide's agitation turned into a nervous twitch as he barked at her to roll that window up for good. We couldn't argue with him as we were surrounded by a mass of flesh and bone with very little recourse should the crowd decide to turn on us. We actually made it out of Forress Road when our driver took a wrong turn down the most crowded street I have ever seen in my life. Wall to wall people, prostitutes, eunuchs, young children, mothers, fathers, old men and weathered women, surrounded us from all sides. All of the things that I have ever read about poverty at its most extreme came to life in this one street. Words like squalor, disorder, and misery flooded my brain, along with a disbelief that life could be so horrible and cruel to these people. And then, our guide's worst nightmare unfolded before his very eyes. Our guide, with what translated as cold-heartedness, proclaimed that if it were up to him, he would kill all of these people. When asked if he thought this could ever change, he said, "Absolutely not; that the rich just get richer and the poor, poorer, and there was nothing that could be done."
And, then our guide's worst nightmare occurred. Our bus came to a dead stop in the middle of the street, and we were told that we would have to turn around in the midst of all these people. Any semblance of anonymity that our guide had prayed for was now lost, as he had to jump out of the van and maneuver the vehicle 180 degrees through the hoards of onlookers. We quickly became the spectacle for all around, and with agonizingly slow progress the driver and guide managed to get us headed in the right direction. As we crept back down the street, pelts of coconut hit our van, thrown by smirking prostitutes, and we swerved one last time to avoid hitting a limbless soul rolling in the middle of the street, screaming at no one in particular. This was a picture that Annie never took, but will be forever etched in our minds.
My next trip was in March, to Kenya