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Trip 9 -- Western India

Message 1: Mumbai to Jodhpur

Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2005 00:05:30 -0500
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: India update #1: Mumbai to Jodhpur

One is unmistakably in Mumbai from the moment one steps off the plane. First, there is that initial whiff of tropical stagnation - heat, humidity, and the promise that one is about to rub shoulders with the city's 16.4 million inhabitants. Then comes the raw, dusty odor of the jetway and the airport terminal, and finally, on the taxi ride into the city, the kaleidoscope of smells: fetid trash, spices emanating from restaurants, the exhaust from cars and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws. Every footstep in Mumbai brings on another scent. On that late-night ride, we saw people sleeping in the streets, two-story slum houses reached only by steep ladders, and countless stray dogs and cats. A sign advertised "Pigeon: The New Style of Cooking."

Bentley's Hotel, which Erica and I reserved from the airport's hotel-booking counter, was on a leafy street in southern Mumbai. The room was huge and quirky, with antique furniture and ancient light switches, and the hotel had one of those elevators where you get to open and close the gates yourself. The cable TV offered Bollywood, MTV, and "Back to the Future." Though not cheap by India standards, it was inexpensive for Mumbai (about $33 per night) and worth it for the balcony overlooking one of the city's tree-laden streets. A sign on a building nearby mandated "Urination Prohibited." This was a clean neighborhood.

We awoke to the raucous cawing of crows and spent the day walking a long distance through the city, stopping briefly at Churchgate train station to buy tickets for the overnight train to Jodhpur - trains are often crowded, so it was important to book as early as practicable. We spent the day getting a taste of Mumbai, wandering through chaotic vegetable, sari, hardware, and "immitation jewellery" markets; lunching at a thali restaurant, where the head waiter repeatedly snapped his fingers to summon barefoot waiters to refill our little bowls of vegetables and plate of bread; gawking at the Gothic arches, gargoyles, and stained-glass windows of the city's main train station; watching cricket players on the Oval Maidan, next to the exquisite buildings of Bombay University; and rounding out the day by sampling bhelpuri (round fritters filled with lentils, lemon juice, and spices) at Chowpatty Beach, watching kids play on hand-operated amusement-park rides and warding off the malish-wallahs, whom we had trouble convincing that we really didn't need a head massage.

Mumbai provides the ultimate in sensory overload. Rising early the second day, we waded through the early-morning fish market at Sassoon Dock, listening to the barking of the auctioneers and the clamor of the sari-clad bidding women. Shirtless boatmen standing in ice were tossing the latest catch ashore, and elderly women and children were shelling tiny shrimp. Later that morning, we took a bus up to Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi's temporary residence in Mumbai from 1917-1934. Pictures, dioramas, and captions chronicled his life, though I found most amusing a caption describing Gandhi's visit with lepers: The accompanying photograph had fallen down.

We took a suburban train - boarding it as it was moving, for they don't spend more than about 15 seconds in stations, and we had to join the queue fighting their way aboard - to the dhobi ghat (municipal laundry) at Mahalaxmi, where 5000 men swelter in the heat, literally beating the dirt out of the city's laundry dipping the clothes in open-air vats, whacking them against the troughs, and hanging them in the sun to dry, sorted by color. Boarding another suburban train, we rode to Bandra Terminus, the departure point for our 20-hour ride to Jodhpur. This was nothing like the stately station in central Mumbai: Accessed via a mile-long walk beside one of the city's larger slums, in which the main "street" was an outsized water main, the terminal was basically an overheated, overcrowded one-room shack. Three filthy, barefoot albino children with pink eyes and wild white hair were taking turns pulling each other through the station in a red wagon with a wheel missing.

The train wasn't quite as nice as I remembered Indian trains being. We were in second-class sleeper, which featured three-tier doorless compartments and steel bars on the windows. Our compartment-mates consisted of a young couple that insisted on going to bed at 8:40 and an elderly couple. The elderly man was dressed all in white, with a characteristic long turban; he slept most of the ride. The woman wore a bright-red sari, 20 white bangles on each arm, a giant gold nose ring, and a silver ball over her forehead. In the afternoon, a group of children boarded the train with drums and an accordion; I paid them a small amount to perform a song and let me try the accordion. A simple dinner of vegetables, rice, and chapatis (thin, soft, round bread) was brought out. We slept fitfully until about 3:30 in the morning, when the chattering ladies in the aisle took no notice of the sleeping passengers in our compartment. In the morning, passengers gradually left the train at stations; beggars made the rounds, as did a man dressed in lavish woman's clothing, who clapped his hands forcefully and demanded money. According to one of our guides in Jodhpur, he was a eunuch.

We arrived in Jodhpur at about 10:30 in the morning and made our way to Newton's Manor, another quirky hotel - think stuffed cats glaring at each other in the lobby - south of the city. Jodhpur is the "blue city" because of the pale-blue walls of the densely built houses - whether the blue represents the priestly caste or is simply the color of the agent used to ward off termites is a matter of some debate. Regardless, it makes the city picturesque, especially as the city is topped by the grand 550-year-old Meherangarh (Majestic Fort), with its ornately carved walls. We had dinner at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, still the home of the current maharaja and also a hotel; snappy waiters in impeccably round moustaches brought us what was rather surprisingly bland food - and suffice it to say, there's a reason India doesn't feature in New York's wine stores.

Yesterday we hired a driver (also with a perfectly round moustache) to lead us on a tour of a Bishnoi village about 15 miles south of Jodhpur. "Bishnoi" means "twenty-nine," and the name refers to the 29 spiritual and social customs that unite the Bishnoi in Rajasthan and Punjab. It's a strictly vegetarian group that won't so much as cut a tree down; their one vice is opium, and they no doubt look forward to the arrival of visitors so that they can produce a small opium ceremony. The Bishnoi were dressed in exactly the same garb as our elderly compartment-mates from the train.

We spent the afternoon wandering through the crowded bazaars of the old city of Jodhpur before enjoying a tasty Indian barbecue on the terrace of a restaurant called On the Rocks. Today we leave for Jaisalmer, in the country's extreme northwest, which will be hosting a desert festival.

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