Monday, December 8, 2014

36 Hours in Bombay

Elise and I snuck away from the kids last weekend for the first time in over three years. I had to come to Mumbai for a week for work, so Elise and I decided to make a date of it.

We landed in Mumbai at sunset on a Friday. The earth looked dry and the city hilly. The dirt was a deep red hue from the setting sun and made the ground look like the plains of Mars. Mumbai’s infamous slums cut into the sides of hills and stepped one on top of the other like Jenga towers, blue tarps pulled over the eaves to keep the monsoon out. The sun was a bright red ball sinking into the Arabian Sea. As we rode in the shuttle bus from the airplane parked on the tarmac to the terminal, the sun set to the right while the full moon rose to the left. Flocks of pigeons flapped between the two, as though in each sphere’s competing gravitational pull, and I had the distinct feeling that I was not flying into Mumbai, but Bombay.

Mumbai, the most populous city in India, changed its name from Bombay at the behest of the Marathi nationalist Shiv Sena political party in 1995, stating that the name Bombay reminded of the unwanted legacy of British Colonial rule, but many Indians today still refer to the city by its original name, and, I think, in the minds of many, Mumbai has become the place and Bombay the spirit of that place in much the same way Madras is the spirit of Chennai.

My first piece of advice is if you ever plan to fly into Mumbai, please do not do it at rush hour on a Friday in a city of 20 million people and a notorious traffic problem. It took us two hours to drive from the airport to our hotel in the old Colaba neighborhood of south Bombay, a neighborhood characterized by cobblestone streets and old buildings built in the Gothic revival style, not to mention the ever-present street vendors.

Elise has been to North India, as I teasingly can’t stop reminding her, but I haven’t. In fact, in a year in Chennai, I haven’t traveled anywhere except for one short work trip to Bangalore. I told Elise that though I have lived in India for a year, I only now felt like I was travelling to India, the perception of India as I had always imagined it, loud, hectic, colorful, vibrant.

We arrived at our hip, modern hotel, Abode, shortly after eight, dropped our bags and immediately set out in search of food. Elise had a splitting headache, but we had to get something to eat. We settled on a restaurant around the corner of our hotel called The Table. We immediately ordered a glass of wine, a Kingfisher, and truffle fries. The head chef heralded from San Francisco, and you could tell from the menu. We ordered a Caesar salad with kale standing in for romaine. I ordered fish tacos, and Elise’s headache had sadly eaten her appetite, though she did rally in time to share the chocolate tort.

As soon as I woke up the next morning—low and behold—I was sieged by a horrible stomach bug. Welcome to India! But…but…but I've lived in India. For over a year! I have gone one entire year with nary a gurgle, and now, exactly one year in, Ive had a stomach thing no less than four times in three weeks.

There was a Le Pain Quotidian right around the corner of our hotel, so we decided to go there for breakfast. Elise and I have a special relationship with Le Pain; immediately before I asked Elise to marry me in Central Park, we stopped for breakfast at the Le Pain Quotidian at 7th Ave and West 58th. Most people would not come to India and breakfast at Le Pain Quotidian, but we eat idly, vada, sumbar and chutney every single morning for breakfast. Given the opportunity to order a warm chocolate croissant and granola and yogurt parfait, we were going to take it.

The eggs benedict did little soothe my stomach, however, and three Immodiums later, I still wasn't better. After a few minutes back in the hotel room, eyes closing, searching for inner gastrointestinal peace, I pulled myself together. There was no way we were going to stay in the room all day. I was going to have to fight it.

Elise knew it was bad when we went to Starbucks and I didn't order anything, but we soldiered on. We hailed a cab to take us up to the Chor, or Thief’s, Bazaar on Mutton Street. It was past eleven and the day had grown hotter and the streets more crowded. The cabbie took us on a jerky ride north. I rolled the window down and tried to get some fresh air. As we drove along the sea I was okay, but as we turned toward the center of the peninsula, car sickness piled on top of my already week stomach.

I looked out the window longingly at the street gutters. I formulated a back-up plan in my head. I pictured myself ordering the cabbie to stop, me throwing the door open and retching in a drain if I had to. Sweat poured off my temples and ran down my spine. It was the closest I have ever come to finding myself in a Hitchcockian horror sequence. Events were no longer passing before my eyes in a continuous stream, like video. I was seeing images flash before my eyes: a street completely covered in garbage, goats eating from the road, a movie promo poster from an Indian terror film. The crowd and noise and stench were pressing against me, then, mercifully, we were there. Elise stopped the cab. We got out, and I was dazed. She asked me if I was ok, but I couldn't answer. I couldn't even speak. All I wanted to do was sit down. I wanted to feel better, but desperately did not want to puke.

Elise got our bearings and we found the Thief’s Bazaar. We entered Mutton Street, slightly cooler in the shade. Elise spent the next few hours in heaven, digging through a treasure trove of Indian antiquities, antique plates and saucers, old photographs, and used equipment. We even bought a gold olive spoon. I was happy that she was happy and that the shop keepers were kind enough to offer me their stools in the shade. I was finally comfortable and, in looking around me, found myself immersed in the India that I only knew through my pre-conceived notions of the place: a snafu of wires crisscrossing overhead, goats chomping on rotting cilantro, children on the way to the water pump. A Muslim man asked me where I was from. I managed to answer, “The U.S.” “How is it?” “We have good days and bad days.” He chuckled, “Good answer!”

Elise would still be there if she could, but we decided to try and find something to eat. We hopped in another cab in search of a restaurant nearby that served a North Indian thali that was to die for and came highly recommended by a friend.

After a late lunch, we went back to the room to cool down, but with less than a day and a half at her disposal, Elise could not sit still and we were soon headed out the door for more window-shopping, followed by drinks and then dinner.

For cocktails we stopped at the Harbour Bar at the Taj Mahal Palace, the oldest continuously running bar in Mumbai. We had both a view of the Gateway of India and the brilliantly-lit Victorian horse carriages adorned in strings of lights galloping by. There, we toasted to having finally sold our townhouse. We listened to the annoying prattle of a table of loud twenty-somethings getting drunk--probably worked for an NGO--and speculated that the guy at the table next to us was either Michael Douglas or David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the Great Britain.

After drinks, we stopped at Bade Miyan, a shish kabob stall a half block from our hotel. The “restaurant” is merely a grill on the side of the road. One guy rotates a hundred skewers of chicken tikka, tandoor chicken and chicken kafka, while on the opposite side, another guy makes mountain bread, slapping stretched dough against an inverted bowl, heated from within, a reverse kiln. In the street, waiters come to your car (if you happen to drive), pop the hood and place a soda bottle under it to make it level to the ground. Then, they lay newspaper on your hood and take your order. A few minutes later, the shish kabobs and bread come. You eat, then the waiter take the newspaper away, wipes down your hood, closes it, and sends you on your way.

If you don’t have a car, you crowd the grill in search of a bearded man in glasses and a brown flannel. He doesn't write down orders, but a dozen eager, young diners bark orders at them, pushing to the front. There is shouting, cacophony, scream of “The side!” as waiters come through with trays of gravy, chaana masala or daal. I was experiencing a true Anthony Bourdain moment (only without the savvy, Hindi-speaking guide), an experience atypical to most travelers, when you are so immersed in local culture that the lines are completely blurred and there is no tourism, travel or vacation anymore, just the experience. There was no mercy for the Westerner. My brown loafers were completely covered in dirt, but somehow, over the din, I was able to procure food for Elise and I, like a hunter bringing home the kill. I threw 500 rupees at the bearded man in the brown flannel (there was no price) and he nonchalantly tucked it into his front shirt pocket. 

The trip was short, but it was long enough for Elise and I to reconnect and vow never to go that long without an adventure like this one again. 

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