Where I've Been

Thursday, January 31, 2008


Part 3: Elephanta Island

A great little day trip from Bombay is found in Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We hopped a ferry directly in front of the Gateway to India and an hour later we were on the long, sunbaked walkway from the dock to Elephanta Island.

A quarter mile staircase, leading past a couple dozen trinket booths, finally crested near the entrance to the Elephanta Caves. It appears that about 1000 years ago (between 9th and 13th centuries) the Silhara Kings wanted to build an appropriate home for Shiva (one of the Hindu trinity) and so hollowed out several caves and carved pillars and statues out of the bare rock. These are just some of the fantastic carvings that result:

This one, the Trimurti Sadasiva statue, is about 20 feet high, depicting three faces of Shiva.

As I’ve mentioned before, monkeys are holy because Hanuman the monkey god helped Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity) rescue Sita in the Ramayana, a Hindu holy book. I have always been a bit perplexed by the contrast of blatant sexuality in Hindu theology with the extreme conservatism of Hindu practice. Many gods are popularly depicted in a sexual pose

and Shiva’s lingam, a clearly phallic symbol, is widely worshipped. Most Hindus, however, are very conservative in dress and sexual openness. There seems to be a clear distinction about what is sexually allowed for the gods versus the mortals. The monkeys on Elephanta clearly wish to remind us of their divine status:

In all places where monkeys are holy (generally in and around temples), these hallowed hominids tend to run rampant. Here is a picture of two monkeys.

The small one is looking to steal the banana from the big one which is clearly, childishly, withholding the banana he just freaking bought 2 minutes before.

What is not pictured is how, later, a rogue monkey literally climbed up me like a tree to get the banana I held aloft in my hand. The monkey became increasingly agitated after I bodily threw him off me. After landing a good five feet away, he immediately bared his teeth and began charges and feints. Being a big fan of bananas that I freaking bought for a reason, I decided to not let him have the banana. Thus began a kind of holy war between the sacred monkey and the guy who wouldn’t let this celestial primate thieve his meal. I don’t really know how offensive it is to physically fight an incarnation of divine deity but the onlookers didn’t seem so amused. In the end though, I kept my banana and the monkey ran off. I then promptly gave it to a beggar woman, I don’t need that bad karma following me…

Soon to come, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, the jewels of Rajasthan!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Part two: Mumbai

One of the joys of severe jetlag, besides 6PM bedtimes, are 4AM awakenings. As a result, we saw much of Mumbai before and during sunrise. No constant horn bleeps, no incessant flow of beetle-black fiats,

and nobody trying to sell you 5 foot diameter balloons (yes, I have NO idea why I look like I need one).

Approximately 15 million live in Bombay (Mumbai). It’s set to overtake Tokyo as the world’s most populous city in 2020. Unfortunately, an early morning walk in Bombay illuminates the plight of many of the working class. Streets were lined with figures sleeping in a row beneath blankets; sometimes at stretches 40-50 long. At first I assumed they were all jobless but as we continued our walk we saw them arise, wash up, get dressed and head off to work. Contrary to what I’m used to in the US, it seems that many of India’s homeless are employed.

There are plenty of beggars but they aren’t the middle to older aged men you see in the US; most of them are children or mothers with children. They are characterized by a much more aggressive begging style, tending to follow you for several blocks while tugging at your hand, shirt, and heartstrings. I can’t say I enjoyed seeing that.

Above are some shots of the buildings in Bombay, many of them blatantly English.

The Victoria Terminus has the distinction of attempting to incorporate every major architectural style in the last 3000 years into one building.

At the end of our walk, we were stopped by a talent scout. “Yea right” we laughed and brushed by, but this fella was insistent (not that any of them aren’t). It looked like he was looking for a couple pale faces to be extras in his latest Bollywood film. Finally, a chance to be a real Bollywood film star; an opportunity I had been seeking ever since I began mocking Indian movies (it’s been a while). I think I’ll do it right now.

If anybody hasn’t seen a proper Bollywood movie, I would not urge you rush out and see one. Knowing one plotline is enough since they are 97% similar. A poor boy one day sees a rich girl, he thinks she’s perfect in every respect but she doesn’t know he exists. Suddenly, they’re both seductively dancing together, a gyrating force 500 dancers strong whirling behind them in brilliant colors, fountains of water bursting from every corner. “Oh wow, it looks like they hit it off really quickly”. Nope, as soon as the gyrations stop, he’s poor again and she still has never met him. About an hour later they’ll lean in for the kiss, at which point the fourth or fifth music video comes back on, more gyrating dancers, water, wet saris, etc. Two and a half mind-numbing hours later, after she falls in love with him, it turns out that he’s really a rich prince. They dance again. The end.

Despite my love for Bollywood films, we declined the invitation.

We viewed a Bollywood film in an old fashioned theater, Eros, in downtown Bombay. After about 15 minutes I looked around to see 70% of our party asleep. Nope, not joking. Not even a good dance number could wake them. Fortunately, the intermission let us exit without disturbing the packed house. At least the tickets were only $0.50.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Part one: Bombay

I have several Indian friends; I mean I’m an engineer after all. They don’t seem so terribly different than me; we share many of the same tastes and enjoy the same activities. Hanging out with them is little different than being with my American or Canadian friends. Therefore, it’s hard to believe that they came from a place…like…India.

India is an assault on the senses. I have never visited a place that is such a bewildering juxtaposition of rich and poor, excess and extreme want. Wary acceptance between religions does not translate to acceptance within the religion, especially concerning the caste system; the beauty of their religions and culture are marred by the prejudices embedded in those practices.

I have never had such difficulty getting myself between destinations, nor of trusting those that I hire to get me there. However, despite everything India is one of the most thrilling destinations on earth, with some of the most throat-catching sights these two eyes have beheld, a people industrious and motivated, and a veritable Willy-Wonka-factory-like romp through culinary delights.

I was accompanied by my good friends Brian and Steve. Our adventure began before we even landed. We flew from Bahrain into Mumbai (Bombay) on Gulf Air. With us on the plane were a great number of devotees returning from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Some large families, but mainly men with a wife on each side, most of whom were entirely covered. An interesting thing to note about our fellow travelers is that they seemed to harbor an impressive lack of respect for airline personnel. Gulf Air employs “Sky Nannies” who provide resources for mother and child and ensure that the entire family can sit together. This necessitates asking people to move. Brian and I quickly put away our books as we realized that the entertainment value provided from this endeavor was far more satisfying. After moving a husband and wife to a seat, the husband would generally stand up and walk to another empty seat that the Sky Nanny was trying to clear, the wife would then move to another seat nearby. When asked to move, the wife would not answer and simply gesture or look to her husband sitting nearby, the husband, when questioned, would ignore the Sky Nanny.

The best part of the show was when we landed. Immediately upon touchdown, large groups of people unbuckled, stood up, and began getting their bags. An announcement: “please stay in your seat with the seatbelt fastened” did absolutely nothing. The flight attendant then unbuckled, ran to the unpacking group to yell at them to take their seat. About 10 of the 12 would, with the other two kind of warily squatting over their seat. As soon as the flight attendant returned to his seat, 14 people would stand up and reach for their bags again. Another announcement, another run back to the group and the same result. Three times he got up to to yell in about 3 minutes. Finally, “SIT DOWN!!!” was screamed over the PA to which approximately half the group listened. I was very pleased that we were not charged extra for the show.

Here we are at the baggage carrousel. Brian and I received our bag, then 45 minutes later Steve received his. In the meantime, we watched large groups of pilgrims gathering jugs of holy water brought from Mecca.

We were met at the airport by our good friend Jaideep and his mother. For the next hour, we waded through Bombay morning traffic in an effort to get to our hotel. Countless thanks go out to jaideep, his mom, and Jaideep’s fiancĂ©e Shelu for assisting us in every respect while in Bombay.

Breakfast that morning was served up in the Radio Club that Jaideep haunts in Colaba. Thus began my love affair of Indian food in India. A sweet affair that ended bitterly 2 weeks later in Delhi with food poisoning induced vomit and diarrhea. But oh, while it lasted, mmmmm.

Our first real experience with India was, appropriately, at the Gateway to India where the British made their final exit from Bombay after Indian independence.

It’s under construction.

After a delightful lunch at Gaylord’s we enjoyed paan: an after meal digestive. Paan tastes like India smells. Seriously, take all the spice smells like cardamom and anise, mixed with the rosy scent of the temples, combined with wafts of coconut and incense, the sickening sweetness of all Indian candy, and a healthy dose of the cowpies that are on every road and path and you’ll get the taste of paan. Here is Steve enjoying paan.

It’s made with approximately 20 ingredients mixed together with the bare finger of some dude sitting on a street corner.


Crawford Market is a huge, exciting market that specializes in everything, but has an especially commendable section of flowers for use in the many hindu temples.

At least they’re honest

While there, we visited a temple to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. As I’ve said before, I love visiting temples and India is a temple-visitors dream. Jaideep and his mom were kind enough to show us the meaning of all the rituals and offerings. I’m constantly impressed by such devotion, and India’s devotees are among the most fervent I’ve seen. Throngs attend the more popular temples such at the Mahalakshmi temple where stern faced guards are employed with whistles and batons to ensure that attendees stay in the proper line, don’t linger too long at the front of the shrine, and make a timely exit to keep the incessant stream moving.

That evening, we attended the arati at the local temple in Colaba, which is when the gods in the temple are put to bed. It is a LOUD affair. The bell is rung continuously, horns are blown, and songs are chanted for about half an hour as the priest prepares the gods for bed. With 5 kids, it actually wasn’t too different than bedtime growing up in the Spears household. Afterward we were given a dot (bindi) on our forehead and a fragrant flower necklace. It was like arriving in Hawaii…with a dot on your forehead.

More to come, don’t worry!