Unlike Delhi, I was aware from the outset, traveling in from the airport that I was in a colossal Megalopolis. The 7-island archipelago, Mumbai, is the most populous city in India and fourth most populous in the world. On the drive in, the glittering skyline seemed to brag incredible wealth and prosperity, although not quite as on grand a scale as New York City. My cab driver pointed out the “house” of Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, which is a 27-story tall tower worth over 1 billion dollars. Apparently, a staff of 300 caters to his family of 5. This unfathomable wealth, by any standards, was quite jarring to me after all the poverty and suffering I had borne witness to over the past several weeks.
Nevertheless, there is a flip-side to the Mumbai coin in that the city also hosts some of the most atrocious slums in the world. I know that not only from the film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which cast an extraordinary light on Dharavi, Asia’s second largest slum located in the heart of the city and home to almost 1 million people. I saw it, first hand, the day after I arrived. That morning I had planned on going to ‘Elephanta Island’ (not to be confused with Antarctica’s ‘Elephant Island’), a popular tourist destination in Mumbai due to the island’s cave temples carved out of rock. However, the ferries had all been cancelled due to a ‘naval emergency’ (there were a number of warships in the harbor) that no one was willing to tell me the nature of. So, I did my usual and walked around until I was lost. On the way, I wandered into a slum (not Dharavi) and spent about an hour and a half in there, at the end of which I had quite a remarkable experience.
I was about to exit the slum when I noticed an emaciated, ancient-looking woman curled up in a colorful shawl on the side of the cramped alley I was walking down. I could tell there was something not right about her and when I squatted down to take a closer look I realized that she was stone cold dead. Waving to a young man loitering nearby, I informed him that the woman was dead. He glared at me and said “not dead – just sleep.” (I could make a tasteless reference to Monty Python’s ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch here but that would be just wrong – oh, wait, I just went and did it anyway didn’t I?)
“No,” I replied firmly, “just see for yourself. Her eyes are half open and there are flies on her eyeballs.” After the young man bent down and peered at her, he called some other people over. I looked on as a small crowd gathered around the dead woman. The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a group of youths, average age about 17 years-old. One of them hollered at me “you leave now! You get out now!” The anger and aggressive hostility in the eyes of these boys alarmed me and, as I beat a hasty retreat, some of them threw rocks at me, thankfully none of them making their mark. I flagged the first Tuk-Tuk I saw and instructed the driver to take me back to my hotel as I was pretty wigged out.
Remarkably, the Tuk-Tuk driver spoke fluent English so I told him about what had happened in the slum. He chuckled and informed me that I had had a run-in with the mafia (!) I expressed my disbelief and told him that these were just boys and, besides, what is there to be a mafia over? It is a slum! He explained these gangs of young men control all of the ‘commerce’ that goes on in the slums and that a lot of drugs are run through them as well. When I told him they threw rocks at me, he told me I was lucky that is all they did because the mafia is, in his words, “very moody”. Sometimes they leave foreigners unmolested and are even welcoming towards them. Other times, they give you the rock-throwing treatment. He speculated that they probably thought I was not minding my own business by bringing attention to the dead woman.
I was actually quite upset when I got back to the hotel and rested there for an hour or so before heading out again. I was not at all upset about how I had been treated but I was haunted by the expression on the dead woman’s face. It was a frozen mask of such anguished pain and despair. I imagine she had been born into the slum’s world of hurt, never having had the opportunity to leave for a better life. Then she had died in the streets alone, uncared for and her death unnoticed until a nosy foreigner came along. I wondered what they would do with her body and I figured she would simply be burned and her ashes dumped out with the rest of the trash. I started to cry.
After pulling myself together, I resolved to just do touristy things for the rest of the day. I returned to the harbor, called Apollo Bunder, to take a closer look at the Gateway of India. This was where my ferry to Elephanta Island was supposed to have departed from but the whole area had been cordoned off due to the mysterious ‘naval emergency’. It is fairly impressive and erected to commemorate the landing on the Apollo Bunder of their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary when they traveled to India in 1911. In hilariously classic Indian fashion, when their Majesties arrived only the foundation stone had been laid and construction of the monument did not get finally completed until 1924! One of King George V’s titles was “Emperor of India” and I am quite sure the Emperor was duly impressed with his commemorative hole in the ground.
I then went to a big open air market (I forgot to write down the name of it) which was very cool but not nearly as cool as the bazaars in Old Delhi. I then went to see the Hanging Gardens of Mumbai, terraced gardens at the top of Malabar Hill. Their claim to fame is that they feature numerous hedges carved in the shape of animals. This was thoroughly unimpressive as you could not tell if a particular hedge was supposed to be a giraffe, an amoeba or just a hedge. After that, I headed to Dhobi Ghat where each morning laundry from all over the city is brought to be soaped, soaked, boiled and thrashed by crowds of men who are ‘professional’ launderers. This was even less impressive although I did ask a local why they were all men as I had assumed they would all be women. I was told that being one of these launderers is a very prestigious job so, naturally, no women. At a loose end, I headed to the beach and took a long walk, which was lovely and I enjoyed watching some cricket on the way back to my hotel (although I narrowly missed losing all my teeth as some asshole cracked for a six which was aimed directly at my face). I had originally planned on hunting down a nightclub in the evening but it had been a long and emotional day and I was too tired and cheerless to be bothered. I just ate, took a stroll around the streets by my hotel (where I had a great time playing Frisbee with some kids I met) and went to bed. I was greatly relieved when I awoke the next morning and discovered that the mafia had not placed the severed head of a horse under my bed sheets.
After Mumbai, this is the small state I traveled to which is almost at the very southern tip of the Indian peninsula on the west coast. It is very beautiful and tropical. The literal translation of Kerala is ‘Coconut Land’ and with very good reason: the coconut trees are so ubiquitous, you spend half of your time anxiously peering skyward in expectation of a coconut errantly (or deliberately) doinking you on the head to the pleasure and amusement of the locals. After some hardcore ‘traveling’, I came to this place for a little ‘vacation’. I was in 3 different places in Kerala: Kochi (formerly Cochin), Alleppey and, finally, Marari.
This was an important spice-trading center and the first European colonial settlement in India, first plundered by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English. Most importantly for me, there was fresh, clean air gusting in from the sea to the extent that, when you blew your nose in the evening, regular yellow snot came out as opposed to the usual thick wad of gray-black slime. Imagine that. Also, the chaos was much more subdued – there was a relative calmness in the narrow streets and there was only a clamorous traffic jam every 5 blocks or so instead of the regular 2.
What made me happiest was being by the sea. Ever since I was a young boy, I have always felt happiest by the ocean as the sound of the surf as the tide rolls in and out is better than any of the finest poetry to my ears. Naturally, then, the first thing I did was make my way to the waterfront and watched with fascination the Chinese fishing nets (or Cheena vala) which are fixed land installations for an unusual form of fishing involving shore operated lift nets. They are hard to describe so wait for the pictures on Facebook. The place was jammed with tourists though so I kept walking and walking until I was mostly alone on the beach with the exception of a handful of locals. I only stopped when I reached an area that prohibited further access as a “Restricted Military Zone”. Not surprisingly, this area was utterly abandoned but I was not willing to run the risk, however slight, of getting shot if I wandered any further.
I found a rock to sit on and gazed out over the Arabian Sea, ships far off in the distance, as the sun began to set. Sipping a beer, I felt perfectly content except for one thing: for the first time since I had left Montreal, I felt my first pang of homesickness. Just looking out west over the huge expanse of water I knew I was looking in the direction of home. Then I recalled that after the Arabian Sea, there was the trifling matter of the continent of Africa followed by that piddling nuisance, the Atlantic Ocean, separating me from home. The sea always has that effect on me: it reminds of the distance despite how quickly air travel tricks us into thinking that we live in a ‘global village’ – a concept only truly valid in Cyber Space.
A houseboat cruise through the backwaters of Alleppey was something I had booked in advance as it came highly recommended and was surprisingly cheap as I got a deal. These houseboats are famous in Alleppey and are large wooden tugs with a helmsman who sits right up on the bow turning a traditional ship’s wheel to steer. Now, I was expecting this houseboat to be like a floating hotel and that there would actually be other guests on it to meet and talk to (I was craving company). It turns out that I had my own houseboat. Well, it was me and 3 crew members: 1. the helmsman, 2. the cook and 3. the “Captain” whose sole mandate was clearly ‘you keep that rich cunt happy’ (oh, and he also turned the engine on and off).
At first I was disappointed that I was alone but as we meandered deeper through the backwater rivers, half covered in large clumps of floating water plants, it was kind of cool with it just being me and ‘my crew’. As I sat in the bow with the helmsman, I felt like Willard in ‘Apocalypse Now’ as the banks of the river became more and more jungle-like and the people who lived there looked more and more native-like. I half expected a spear to come flying out of the maze of coconut trees and skewer the ‘Captain’ in mid-sentence just before a napalm attack transformed the jungle into a wall of fire.
We stopped for an hour so I could go for a canoe ride down a stream far too narrow for the houseboat to navigate. As I paddled, I truly felt in ‘Heart of Darkness’ territory. The jungle was super thick and steaming and the locals literally live half on or in the water. If they are not canoeing on it and/or fishing in it, they are swimming and/or washing in it. On my way into the stream, I saw 2 women up to their waists in the water doing nothing else besides having a chat. When I paddled back an hour later, they were still there blathering away! These are truly water people and I would not be surprised if, in a few generations to come, they have developed gills. That canoe ride was incredible but I’ll let the Facebook pictures do the talking when I eventually post them.
Back on the houseboat, we sailed until sundown, which was spectacular, when we stopped at a small shack. The ‘Captain’ informed me that I could buy jumbo prawns here that the cook could make me for supper. When he said jumbo, he meant JUMBO. The 3 that I bought weighed a kilo! The cook set about making my supper and when it arrived an hour later, I laughed out loud. Not only was I served my prawns, there were about 10 other dishes that came with it. There was barely enough room on the table for all the food. I told them that there was no way I could begin to eat even a fraction of what I had been delivered and I insisted that the crew share it with me. The ‘Captain’ outright refused saying it was against the rules. I firmly told him that, if we did not all share, I would not eat a single bite of any of it. He finally gave in and it was nice to have some company while I ate. Only the ‘Captain’ spoke English but he translated for the other 2 and they all seemed like good guys. The prawns were magnificent.
After dinner, I was expecting to dock at a town for the night. I was wrong. We stopped in the middle of nowhere with nothing but pitch-black jungle surrounding us. It did not matter as I was too wiped to go out exploring anyway. So I went to bed. In the middle of the night, I woke up thirsty and got up to get a bottle of water. There was only a dim light on in the galley. I helped myself to a bottle of water and then I made the sudden, startling realization that my bedroom was the only bedroom on the boat. “Hello!” I called nervously. “Hello!” Nothing. These guys had cocked off for the night and left me alone on the boat with night critters making ominous noises in the darkness! When I got back to my room, I double bolted the door, took a sedative and thought happy thoughts (no getting eaten by tigers clawing down my door) until I fell asleep.
I woke up the next morning at around 7 to find the boat still empty. It was not until about 8 that the crew ambled back on board. “Where the hell were you guys!” I cried. Mystified, the captain said “well, we go home at night.” After asking him how far away home was, the ‘Captain’ cheerfully said “Oh, not far – just a couple of kilometers”. Shaking my head, I muttered that I wanted breakfast. Seeing that the rich cunt was not happy, he barked at the cook who scrambled for his pots and pans. Another stupidly enormous breakfast arrived and, despite my lingering resentment at the previous night’s abandonment, I made them all eat with me again.
We then sailed back to Alleppey, crossing Vembanad Lake to get there. The water was disgusting, its surface slick with diesel fuel and slime. To my horror, I noticed a number of men in canoes net-fishing. I pointed them out to the ‘Captain’ who said “Yes, yes – there are many, many fishes in this lake.” Then a terrible thought struck me:
Me: Um, those jumbo prawns we ate last night…
Me: They came out of the sea didn’t they?
Captain [laughing]: No, no! Those were fresh water prawns! The best!
Me [quietly]: And… and… I guess they were caught in this lake?
Captain: Of course! The best!!!
Captain: Sir!? Sir!? Why are you so green!? Why are you sweating so much!?
I also booked a resort on Marari Beach in advance for my last 3 days in India to just chill out and relax before going home. All I can say is that it had its upside and its downside. I will start with the positive. The grounds of the resort were beautifully manicured and meticulously well-maintained by a super-friendly staff. The little cottage I was in was exquisite and literally within spitting distance of the beach. And what a beach! I have never seen such a magnificent white-sand beach as this. It stretched on as far as the eye could see in both directions and, unbelievably, it was virtually deserted. I swear you could walk for half an hour at any time of the day before seeing another soul. It was truly paradisiacal and it defies imagination that such a beautiful and expansive beach area has not yet been completely overrun by greedy developers. Also, the Arabian Sea is deliciously warm to swim in and I spent an inordinate amount of time in the water notwithstanding the fact that someone had recently been eaten by a shark not far from my location.
So far so good. Now for the downside. First, I was told that the beach was closed after 7 PM. Yep, they locked the gate at that time. What kind of resort closes the beach at 7 PM?! Anyway, I defied this rule and went out at night and just hopped the gate. Second, the resort was bone dry. That is right – not a drop of alcohol on or near the place. No bar, no shop, no nothing. What kind of resort does not have booze?! It was not named the Betty Ford Turtle Beach Resort, for God’s sake! I had to take a Tuk-Tuk every day to make the 5 KM journey just to get myself a few beers! Third, you had to pay for the WI-FI to the tune of about $1.50 per half hour. What kind of resort makes their guests pay for Internet access?! Not only that, but the server was down for an entire day (AND it was raining that day too). Fourth, apart from walking on the beach and swimming in the water, there was literally NOTHING else to do. I mean it. There were no facilities, no activities, nothing. There was just one restaurant that was open from 7:30-9:00 AM for breakfast, 1:00-2:30 PM for lunch and 7:30-9:00 PM for supper. That is it. What kind of resort only offers one restaurant with limited opening hours?! Wait, to be charitable there was a swimming pool but why would anyone swim in a pool when the ocean is right there? Fifth, the only other guests at the resort were a gaggle of wrinkly old Italians. Now these guys (who were with their wasted-looking wives) looked like the real mafia and ignored me completely so there was no one there for me to meet and talk to. Once again, though, I was grateful each morning not to discover a severed horse’s head under my bed sheets. Suffice it to say that, after the 3 days in Marari, I was also grateful to catch my lift to Kochi International Airport.
India, there is much to love about you and much to hate. My traveling was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life and I do not regret a second of it as it was always fascinating in one way or another. And that is the most important thing. As the wheels of my plane left the tarmac in Kochi, half of me was sad (as it is unlikely I will ever see this part of the world again in my life) and the other half was terribly excited to be coming home.