Mumbai Madness: Part II

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Since I didn’t go into detail about our motel, if you could even call it that, I will talk about it here. In Mumbai, there is a place to stay for every budget. You could lie in the lap of luxury at any one of the Taj Hotels, or you could lie in a bed of stained sheets like we did at Traveller’s Inn. I suggest that you do not choose as we did.

I have had good luck using Hostelworld.com, so I used it again for this trip. Traveller’s Inn’s ratings weren’t stellar, but better than other places listed on the site. One thing that caught my eye was a comment about the guy at the front desk being able to help you get into a Bollywood movie. I looked at a few other comments on other sites as well, and thought everything looked good, so I booked it for three nights.

We got there at about 2:00 a.m., and when we got to our room the first thing that greeted us was a roach. The next thing we saw were the stained sheets. I looked at B worriedly. What had I gotten us into? The bell hop came with a towel that would mean the end of the roach, and two towels for us that looked like they had been used for the same purpose. The knot in my stomach grew. Finally, we were offered a tiny tattered blanket and half a roll of toilet paper. I slept in my clothes that night.
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The next day I searched the Internet for a different place to stay, but due to the holiday everything was booked. ‘O.K.,’ I thought, ‘At least I can be in a Bollywood movie!’ I asked the guy at the front desk about going to Bollywood, and he told me, with an extremely bored look on his face, “It’s too expensive, 6,000 Rupees.” My hopes of stardom were gone. “Do you have any other suggestions?” I asked hopefully. Increasingly bored he replied “Maybe you can go to the Gateway of India.” Thank goodness we met Munna that day.

The day after our tour with Munna, we were looking for somewhere to go. B found a water park and a spa. If you have read my other blog entries you know that I am a sucker for massages. We set out for The Four Fountains Spa in Bandra. Lucky for me, our helpful manager was at the desk. “Hi! Can you tell me the best way to go to Bandra?” With a nod of his head he said, “I think taking the train is better. It’s half an hour train ride. Taxi will take one hour.” “How do we get to the train?” “Turn right and go straight. If you need, ask anyone and they will tell you where to go.” So, there we were, getting ready for our first experience of Mumbai mass transit.
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We found the train station, and it was full of people. A nice boy told me where to buy tickets and for 12 Rupees we got our ticket to Bandra. We went to the wrong platform at first, and a tall guy redirected us to the right platform. We waited a couple of minutes and then the train arrived. Men hung out of the doorways and jumped out before the train came to a screeching halt. I noticed there was a “Women Only Cart”, but didn’t think much of it. Our tall friend grabbed my arm and thrust his body against me so we could get on the train. I thought it was a little aggressive, but I thought he was trying to be helpful, so I just ignored it. What I couldn’t ignore though was the fact that even after the train began to move and we were settled in our spots, our friend kept jamming his groin into me. I thought maybe it was all in my head as I clung tightly to B. Nope, there it was again. I wedged B in between me and our friend in the yellow shirt. He acted as if nothing had happened, and kept notifying us about how many stops we had left. We had to get off the train, and that is when I decided it was time to lose the guy.

We lost him, which was good, but it also meant that we were lost again too. A guy from the last train led us to where we were supposed to be. Another crowded train full of men. B and I moved toward the door, at least no one could stand behind me then, and I gladly pressed myself against the metal wall. Then, I felt something on my leg, a hand pressing against me. I looked down, it wasn’t so crowded in that space that the guy had to do that, but I wasn’t sure. I tried to squeeze closer to B who was hanging out of the door like a dog in a car window, and I didn’t feel it, for a moment anyway. Then, it happened again, and this time I pushed his arm away and hoped that the next stop was ours. We got off the train, and the guy with the roving fingers tried to help us onto the next train. I guess them touching me was an unspoken helpers fee. I was through with these trains and we got a taxi to Bandra.

If you are a woman traveling on the train in Mumbai, please take the women only car. My advice? Don’t take the train at all if you don’t have to.

We had been on the train for nearly an hour, and were still nowhere near our destination. After about 30 minutes or so in the black and yellow cab, forcing its way through the crowded streets, we made it to the spa, which was located directly under Gold’s Gym. The Swedish massage was good, but it ended with a head massage that included pouring thick oil all over my head and hair. Think, pouring almost half a cup of olive oil on your head and you will get the idea. Oils are used a lot in in massages and various treatments here in India.

Then it was time for food, my favorite part of Mumbai. No matter where we went, the food was amazing. Naan, paneer, vegetable pakora, roti, masalas, long grained rice, the list goes on and on. Seriously, at every restaurant the menu is huge! There is a good selection for all Indian dishes, both vegetarian and non-veggie. Then there is usually another good selection on Chinese food. They also throw in pizza and pasta for good measure. I have not left a single restaurant feeling less than happy, no matter if it was at a small street corner joint or a more upscale venture. There is nothing better than dipping a crispy piece of buttered naan in a sweet sauce spiked with peppers, garlic, and cardamom. India knows how to do food, and on that fact alone, I would seriously consider moving here.
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After another delicious dinner, B and I headed back to Traveller’s Inn for our last night. The next day at noon Munna came to pick us up. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes looked worried. He ushered us to his taxi and quickly got us on our way to the airport. After we had gone a couple of blocks, Munna looked at us in the rearview mirror and said “It’s very dangerous today, high alert.” B and I looked at each other, puzzled. We had been out earlier to go to the ATM and get a bite to eat and everything seemed O.K., but as we found out from Munna, something big was going on. “I can’t take Ceiling Bridge, too dangerous. Today, after I drop you, I don’t stand outside my taxi. I go home, lock the doors and stay inside.” “What’s wrong?” “The people are very angry with the leader.” Just then we passed a long line of protesters carrying signs like, “Stop the corruption in trade.” People were angry, they were organizing themselves and gathering. The police officers walked along with them, allowing them to demonstrate but just keeping an eye on things. We noticed many more police officers on the street after that.

Otherwise, things were going on as usual. Some people slept on the busy sidewalks, while some advertised their items from a tiny shop front. Gaggles of men walked closely together, old women spread out their vegetables under the bridges. Life went on as usual, but still the sense of urgency was tangible in the thick air. We said goodbye to Munna and I hoped that he and the rest of Mumbai would be safe, that night and always.

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Mumbai Madness: Part I

It was Christmas day, Sunday, and we got an early start. The streets were quiet with only a few shops open for business. The rest sat sleepily with their metal doors closed to the world. Our first stop was at a small stall that sold snacks and fresh fruit juice. We got a watermelon juice, and it was an even better way to start the day than coffee. We watched as the men behind the counter discussed something heatedly while one guy chopped up our watermelon. Into the juicer it went and out came our breakfast.
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Then we started out for the Gateway of India. I didn’t know much about it, just that it was a place listed in the guidebooks. After walking for a while, we realized we were going the wrong way. We had passed people sleeping on the sidewalks, bright silver carriages, and children bathing outside of their metal shelters. A black and yellow taxi took us to the Gateway for 100 Rupees, it should have cost less than 50. The area of the Gateway was much different than the area we were staying in, near our motel, Traveller’s Inn (more on that crazy place later). They say India is a land of stark contrast, and although it sounds cliche, it couldn’t be more true. On the same street that you see a Hermes shop, you will see women and children with no shoes begging for money. There are malls filled with diamonds and rubies in the midst of slums filled with rubbish and goats. It was shocking to see, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the city formerly known as Bombay.

However, as the sun began to warm the city streets, Mumbai started to grow on me. We arrived to the gateway of India and realized it was a sea port, hence the name. It was packed with families, one of which paid a photographer to take a photo with B and I in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel. We strolled along the boardwalk and were asked to buy everything from peanuts to giant balloons. We were approached by many taxi drivers who offered to take us on a tour of the city, all of whom we refused. We were going to find something to eat when again we were approached by a taxi driver. His name was Munna, he was tall, young, and had a very kind smile. There was something about him we liked, so we changed our plans and went with Munna.
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Our first stop was Nairiman Point, the commercial area where all of the money was made, then it was to the famed Chowpatty Beach with banyan trees and yellow sand. A nice place to have a picnic, but I wouldn’t swim there. Then it was off to Jain Temple. There we met a boy who loved chocolate, and was so adorable that B just had to buy him some, and a Santa hat too. It was Christmas after all. The boy beamed a missing tooth smile and waved goodbye, clutching his gold wrapped chocolates.
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Inside the temple, worshippers lit incense, rang bells, made patterns out of rice and flower petals, and prayed to their Gods. One of the things that is clearly evident here is religion, a stark contrast to predominately atheist China. Throughout the day we drove past many temples, churches, and mosques with people lined up for what seemed like miles, all for the chance to pay their respects to their various Gods. When we asked Munna if he was Hindu, he said yes, then added, “We are all red. Hindu, blood red. Muslim, blood red. Christian, blood red. There is only one great God in the sky.” We agreed.
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After that we drove to the Hanging Garden, so named because under it lies a huge body of water that keeps the gardens green and lush. Huge families sat and had picnics of naan and rice, couples walked hand in hand, and groups of young men roved about. Everyone smiled at us, and sometimes said, "Hello!" often nodding in the truly unique Indian way, not shaking, not nodding, but somewhere in between. At one point, a group of children stood in front of us with their cellphones poised for action. "Can I take a photo?" they asked, one after another, grinning huge grins and talking to their friends excitedly. Of course, we could not refuse, and one after another the children took their best shots. "What is your name?" "Oh, that is a very nice name!" "where are you from?" "Oh America!" We felt like Bollywood celebrities, if only for a moment.
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Next, we went to Malabar Hill, another nice park filled with nice people. There you could find the best viewpoint in the city. We perched for a photo and then followed Munna back to the taxi. We drove for a couple of moments, then he pointed to the crows circling overhead. “See those? They are over the Tower of Silence. No one can go there except Persians. Their bones go in the tower, and the rest is for the birds.” As we drove past, I could not ignore the stench of death.

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Our last stop was the biggest laundry washing area in all of Asia. We looked over the wall at hundreds of concrete tubs filled with brown water. Men and women, old and young, painstakingly scrubbed shirt collars, bed sheets, jeans, saris, and tablecloths. Heaps of fabric hung in the heat of the day like colored flags.

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There is a definite sense of urgency in this city. As you walk along the alleyways and crowded streets, you can feel the fear and desperation clinging to your skin. With the political unrest, poverty, and violent outbursts, it is no wonder it feels this way. The city doesn’t pause, not even for a moment, as if doing so would bring it closer to the great God in the sky. The ominous black and cawing crows sense it, and day after day they circle the city, waiting for it to stop breathing.

A Day in Bangkok

Last week I received an e-mail from Cheap Tickets letting me know that there had been a significant change in my itinerary and to call them. Usually, when there is a change I just get a friendly reminder that there has been a delay, or something small like that. A bit worried I called the hotline and was told that our flight from Bangkok to Mumbai had been cancelled. Luckily (thanks to the lovely people at Cheap Tickets), we were able to book a much later flight to Mumbai, one that left Bangkok at 8:30 p.m. So, what to do with a day in Bangkok? Travel along the canals? Visit the revered Grand Palace? Climb the steps of a monastery? I am a little ashamed to admit that we did not choose any of these fabulous options, but instead we chose to spend the night in a cheap hotel, sleep in, and creep the famous Khao San Road for a few hours before heading back to the airport.

We arrived in Bangkok at 1 a.m., and thought we might just sleep in the lightly padded chairs of the airport check-in area. Why not? We are young(ish), robust(ish), and adventurous. By the time we got through customs it was nearly 2:30 a.m., and all we really wanted was a bed. We went to the hotel booking counter, and for $30 we booked a room at a spot five minutes from the airport. Now, it was nothing spectacular, but the air con worked and the sheets were clean, so we were happy. We slugged around and finally got out of there at about 11:00 a.m.

We embarked on our journey to the famed Khao San Road. We had seen the Hollywood version of it on The Beach, we had read about the ladyboys, entertainment, and touts. You would think we would avoid it, but this is how we roll.
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Out taxi driver, who tried to charge us 650 Baht (we only gave him 350, a fair price), dropped us right in the middle of the action. The streets are lined with tuktuks, fried noodles, egg rolls, iced fruit, stalls selling everything imaginable, bars, restaurants, and more. It wasn’t nearly as crazy as I was expecting, but then again, it was early. B opted for a Thai massage while I decided to do something about my winter feet and got a pedicure. Mine cost 150 Baht and B’s 200. That’s just over $11.

After that, we went to a so called beer garden, which just had a few beers on tap. There were also a couple of interesting drinks on the menu, the orgasm and sperms. Although curious, I opted for a good old Thai Chang. We ate some food and drank two big ones. Aft that we rushed to get a cab back to the airport, feeling quite full and a little buzzed.

One one hand I do feel a little guilty about how we spent our limited time here in Bangkok, but at the same time, it was deliciously indulgent. Maybe it was the perfect way to spend Christmas Eve.

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A Few of My Favorite Things

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The holidays are approaching and everyone is saying their last goodbyes before the break. Some Shanghai transplants will be having Christmas dinner with their adopted families, usually co-workers, friends, and friends of friends. The city is all dressed up in trees and tinsel, so it really does feel like Christmas. Close friends, food, drinks. The only thing missing from that equation is childhood resentment, which I can happily live without. Those who do travel may be going home for the holidays, or to places completely unlike home. B and I chose to do the latter this year and booked a trip to India.

This was the last weekend we could all get together before 2012, and we went out together with a bang.

Friday night about nine of us went to Party World, similar to KTV, to sing us some karaoke. People here absolutely love karaoke, and in every town, no matter how small, one will find a dimly lit KTV sign somewhere. Karaoke here is nothing like back in the states. There is no stage, no bar full of audience, and no karaoke mama to take your requests. I was a little dissaponted at first, I guess because I like to make an ass out of myself in front of everyone, not just my nearest and dearest. So, your group rents a room by the hour, and is in charge of selecting songs, and pushing the button for food and drinks when needed. It had been a while since I went to belt out my favorites, and it felt awesome. There are two mics, so anyone can join you, if they feel so inclined. I spent five hours there, and when I got home my throat hurt. That’s when you know it’s been a good night of karaoke.

The next night we first went to Tiayro Teppinyaki, so good. For 168 RMB, you get all you an drink beer and sake, and all you can eat everything. We spent hours there taking shots of sake, cheers-ing each other, and occasionally breaking out in some sort of song. There were prawns, fish, lamb chops, tender beef, sushi, all kinds of veggies, and more. I have never left that place less than stuffed nor slightly sober. It is well worth the money spent.

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Finally, we ended the night with a little driving under the influence, but not in cars, mind you, and not on the road. Disc Go Kart is an indoor karting track with a bar upstairs. The second you enter all you can smell are exhaust fumes, and trust me, it gets you all revved up for the track. Grab a beer and take it with you to drink while you wait in line for your turn (I know, it’s awesome), then get into your go kart and race up to 8 others for 8 laps around the curvy track. At times it looks like people are drivinng bumper cars, and there will be crashes and small pile ups often. You really have to watch out for those hairpin turns, especially when you have had so much sake and gasoline fumes. Needless to say, it is one of the greatest things I have done in Shanghai. Just remember to wear your seatbelt.

I have found many of my favorite things here in Shanghai. Good food, friends, karaoke, and crazy go karts…these are a few of my favorite things.

My Cat Likes to Eat Diamonds

Shanghai has a way of surprising you; she tests your limits to the point that you feel like you may have to flee, while soon after showing you something that makes you feel like you should stay forever. In one day you can experience serenity, fear, confusion, and joy. Those emotions may be evoked by a fuchsia flower blooming at the beginning of winter, a taxi nearly rear ending the car in front of it, a person accosting you for being crazy enough to walk without an umbrella in the rain, or a taxi stopping to pick you up on a freezing Shanghai night. Everything that happens in Shanghai seems to be an oxymoron; yin and yang. Somehow, it always ends up balancing out.

We came to Shanghai with one pet, a Chihuahua named Pepe. We didn’t plan on getting any other pets until we had a big space of our own, but you know how those things go, especially on the other side of the world. Our first new addition came in the form of a turtle, whose name is still Turtle. She is a Red Eared Slider and loves the water. I fist saw her when she was about the size of a half dollar. She was in a bowl with about twenty other babies, all trying to claw their way to freedom. The baby turtle seller saw that I was an easy target and thrust Turtle in my hand. One look into her shimmering green eyes, and I was sold. I carried her home in my hands and found a plastic container for her to stay for a while. B arrived home, and was understandably confused, “I thought we weren’t getting any more pets.” I replied sheepishly, “I know, but it’s just a turtle.” One trip to Pet Zoo and 7,000 RMB later, Turtle had a pimped out tank.

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One night, a few months later my friend was waiting outside a building when she heard meowing from a nearby trashcan. She sifted through the garbage to find two tiny kittens, no more than a couple of days old, tied up in a plastic bag. Fate had decided that was not the way those kittens were going to leave this world, and my friend took them home. She contacted the Second Chance Animal Association of Shanghai, an amazing organization that fights for animal welfare and assists with pet adoption. SCAA paid for the vet visits, kitten formula, and gave excellent advice on how to care for a newborn kitten.

My friend mentioned that one of the kittens developed an infection, and it was getting hard to care for the two. I, without discussing it with B, offered to help with one of the kittens…just until she was adopted of course. Luckily for me, B has a soft spot for cute things, and jumped right in to help care for her. The little ball of orange and white fur grew stronger everyday. We fed her every two to three hours, even at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., we helped her to the bathroom, joyously declaring to the office that she was pooping quite well. Needless to say, we grew quite attached to the little one. I had just finished bottle feeding her one day when B came up and said, “We’re not giving her up, are we?” I looked at him, wide eyed, “Really?” And that was how we added the fifth member to our family, Penelope the cat.

The cute little kitten went from being a helpless, sightless, wobbly thing, to what she is now: an out of control, out for blood, mad cat. The transformation happened so slowly that we didn’t really notice it at first, we thought it was normal kitten behavior. She got into everything, had crazy dilated pupils at certain times of the night, she ran around chasing an invisible foe while sliding on the wood floor. It was cute because she was little. However, she did not stay little for long, and quickly outgrew Pepe, our poor Chihuahua, who now is attacked daily by his nemesis Penelope.
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One night I was minding my own business, watching TV on the couch, when a cat claw found it’s way into my cheek. Another time I was doing some crunches and a claw sliced into my leg, one of my friends went to play with Penelope one evening and came out with her hand dripping in blood. Then, one night I was petting her and she started to try and eat the diamond off of my engagement ring. She is the most bonkers cat I have ever known, but when your life starts out like hers did, you are bound to have a couple of screws loose, right?

Luckily, Penelope seems to have calmed down over the last month. She has recently been spayed, and maybe that is why I can actually pet her now without being attacked. She still tries to drink out of Turtle’s tank, “play” with Pepe, shove everything off of all of our tables, and she will still try to eat my diamond. But I love her anyway. Penelope is true to her city of birth. She pushed us to the brink, just to the edge of the cliff of insanity, but just in time became more than tolerable. Pretty great, actually.

As I start to plan the next phase of my life in Shanghai, another two and a half years, I know to be prepared for anything and everything. I have some big changes coming up in my life, including a wedding…in Shanghai. I will hope for the best, and plan for the crazy. That’s what you do to survive Shanghai.