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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Mumbai: The Soundtrack, Author's Note

I've gotten about 10 emails in the last 20 minutes remarking on how clever my Soundtrack was, how did I pick the songs, etc...

Those are the songs THE DJ PICKED in the Mumbai club in my hotel that kept me up all night. They were played IN THAT ORDER, during the time I was writing. I know I am prone to bouts of extreme exaggerations, embellishments and exclamations, however, outside of (Last Dance), which WAS used for creative effect and continuity, it's all REAL.

And who chooses a soundtrack and adds "That Thing You Do"? I mean, really....

I am NO James Frey!!! ;)

Thank you.

Mumbai: The Soundtrack

So, I’m sitting in my hotel room in Mumbai as I write this, The Gordon House, a charming little boutique hotel in Colaba, the downtown area of Mumbai, which is constantly jumping. Street bazaars, coffee shops, restaurants abound in Colaba and The Gordon House is right in the center of the action. It’s around the corner from the Gateway of India which is the main port of Mumbai, a city that is so cosmopolitan, so full of energy and life, that I easily fall for it. Thus far, Mumbai is my favorite city in India. The architecture of Mumbai reeks of the British; beautiful Victorian buildings, brownstones on side streets, parks everywhere but with palm trees for a tropical touch, or the reminder that you’re not in Europe. Mumbai ranks with London, Paris and New York, it’s a modern city, with old school charm and loads of character.

The Gordon House, painted baby yellow and white in all the common areas with stressed-wood country French furniture and shabby chic accents in all of the rooms is a hotel where you feel you can relax and escape the hecticness of the Mumbai streets. My room could easily double as a guest bedroom in my future home (one day, one day…) because the taste is exactly mine (Kar – you AND CAROL - would LOVE it). The ONLY drawback is the nightclub downstairs. Yeah. When I checked in, they warned me:
“You like noise?” the receptionist asked devilishly.
“How much noise, why?” I shot back.
“Oh, we have nightclub underneath, noisy,” he replied.
I had NO IDEA just how serious he was….

Hence, my writing this entry at 4 AM on a Saturday night, after my own long evening, tired, weary from a day of exploring and a night of making new travel friends (repeating the same story to new people all the time gets tiring…). The bass is kicking, the walls are pounding, the people are yelling below as the soundtrack continues. I’m NOT sleeping, so I might as well be writing. Fodor’s forgot to mention “the nightclub” when they gave this hotel a starred review. So, to Saturday Night Fever, I begin my Mumbai blog.

I’m not only (Staying Alive), I’m most definitely staying awake…

In my first hours in Mumbai, I went to the Haji Ali mosque, and while Mumbai is so lovely in so many ways, the poverty here rocked me harder than it did in Delhi. The Haji Ali is set at the end of a long pier in Back Bay, off the Arabian Sea. My taxi driver begged me to let him wait and take me my next place, or to let him accompany me to the mosque, but tired of being taken as a female tourist in need of “help” through India, which usually turns into being taken advantage of is some fiscal way, I refused. (Chaka Khan/I Feel For You) As you walk the length of the pier, you are accosted by the poor. Both sides of the pier are lined with beggars and children, holding out silver pans for change. There isn’t room between one family, one group, to the next. And each set of desperate eyes implores you to aid them in some way. The limbless form circles on the ground, drumming their stubs in unison while chanting religious songs, the babies are malnourished, their bellies swollen while their limbs are bony, the blind walk with canes in one hand, jars in the other, mothers with broods and little clothing put their hands to their mouths as you pass, and you can’t help but stare. I was completely aghast at the intensity of the poverty on the pier. I was emotional, trying hard not to make eye contact, not to crack. (Electric Avenue) Then, I got to the mosque. I guess that because I was so focused on the homeless, I wasn’t seeing that I was being watched by a thousand Muslim eyes. I was wearing a tank top (I keep forgetting!!) and knee length skirt. My head wasn’t covered, I was “announcing” myself, seemingly. And, as I made way into the mosque (where I wasn’t asked to cover) I felt the oppression of the women of this country. Signs everywhere in the mosque denoting where “women only” should be. Men leering in hordes, closing in, surrounding me. I kept wandering through, “I’M FINE” running as a mantra in my head. But, clearly, I wasn’t. Between the pier and the mosque, I had had my fill. I started back the way that I came, spinning a little from the sensory and intellectual overload. (YMCA) And, there, on the pier was my taxi driver, relentlessly waiting. My relief at seeing him, at being “rescued” even if I was going to get a whopping “wait charge” on the taxi that was bullshit, was overwhelming. Seeing my body language – he whispered, “Let’s go, ok?” I rightfully offered him the “you were right” once we were back in the cab. Polite as always, he replied, “No madam, it was my duty,” and smiled, secretly loving that I had given him his due. Of course, he ripped me off anywy, that’s par for the course. I’m always ripped off in Asia, that’s what Asia does best.

(Land Down Under) I spent the next two days merely wandering Mumbai. The city is one big bazaar. The tunics, colorful skirts, silk and gorgeously patterned Kashmiri pashmina scarves and shawls, the bangle bracelets, the rugs, the linens, the jewels, it’s all eye-candy and Oh-So-Enticing. But, between the stalls lie naked babies sleeping alone on scorching concrete sidewalks that you practically trip over, looking down to see what you’re about to step on and – gasp – it’s a CHILD, bums and beggars in nooks and crannies, distracting you from the myriad of colors and cottons. But, like Delhi, next to beggars on corners, are Hugo Boss clad business men with Rolexes on cell phones, drivers waiting to whisk them to their next meeting. India’s contrasts are country-wide, seemingly, all cities are plagued by the highbrow-lowbrow gap. (Don’t You Want Me) As you walk through the streets, the market places, you’re pestered by the sellers: “Pst, hello,” “Look at my shop,” “Take a peek, it doesn’t cost you anything to LOOK,” “Sssss, tourist, my store,” “Come inside, you, you, hello.” You are also hissed at, whistled at by the men. They “brush” into you as you go by, gently swatted on the rear as you pass. Try as you might to avoid it, the density of people everywhere allows such transgressions to occur, and as you turn to ball out the dirty old man that “accidentally” fell into you, he’s gone – swallowed by the throng that’s just passed you by. (Get Into the Groove)

One of the other things specific to Mumbai is the Bollywood agents. India’s movie industry is HUGE. Second, in international size, only to Hong Kong. Hollywood pales in comparison to the obsession that Indians place on cinema and their stars. All over the streets of Mumbai are men looking for foreign women to “go to Bollywood.” There isn’t an hour that passes that foreigners, both male and female, aren’t approached by shady looking dudes asking “You want to be a star?” “You want to be in a Bollywood movie?” (Billie Jean) Friends I made in the city, Kiera and Rowena (from Ireland) and I couldn’t understand JUST WHO actually says yes to these Bollywood agents. Do people REALLY fall for this schtick?? They pay 500 Rupees a day, which is roughly $10 for 8 or so hours of work, and they’re NOT selective. The girl with purple hair, a cheek tattoo and freckles is equal to the blond haired, blue eyed, C-cup model next to her. Is this how one gets discovered or makes money? We can’t imagine either possibility. (I Will Survive ) It’s a scam!

So, a girl I had met earlier in the day, Jodi from Australia, had given me the idea of going to see a Bollywood movie in the theater. Michele and Jeff also said it’s a must-do in India as Bollywood movies come with all different plots, but what they all have in common is these overdone music/dance scenes. They’re like music video diversions to the actual story line. And, supposedly, the audience is interactive at Bollywood movies, ala Rocky Horror Picture Show, shouting at the hero that the bad guy is behind him, cheering with the cops catch the killer, and clapping and singing along with the video sidebars. (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go).

We go to meet Jodi to see Taxi 9211, a psychological thriller, which opened the night before. But when we arrive, Jodi is talking to Harry. A tall, spiky-haired Australian with a skin-pigmentation disease who is…recruiting for Bollywood!!! I couldn’t have scripted this better!!! The two of them are in the deepest of conversations. See, Harry was already in a Bollywood movie, but the agent hasn’t paid him (shocker…). He has to round up 10 girls for ANOTHER movie and IF Harry does that, he’ll get paid for BOTH. Makes sense, right?!?!?!? (Grease Lightning). Enter Jodi (again), who now shares with the group that THE REASON she came to India was to be in a Bollywood movie, but she hasn’t been approached yet (Really? I thought any Tom, Dick, Jane or Susan with sideburns gets approached) and she had planned to leave tomorrow. BUT, Harry has saved her! He approached her! He righted her Indian fantasy! Kiera and I can’t even make eye contact. My mouth is agape, I cannot believe the look in this girl’s eyes, what is transpiring in front of me. Then, as if the whole scene wasn’t ridiculous enough…Jodi exclaims “I’m a bellydancer at home! This is PER-fect!” (Like a Prayer) Bollywood. Go figure.

My questions answered as to just WHO goes Bollywood, we (sans Jodi who left to help Harry recruit 9 more women), still laughing, go to see Taxi 9211. The only tickets we can get are from a scalper (I kid you not…) dripping in goombah gold and tripling the price. After we are shown to our assigned seats (ala Broadway not Loews), and pay respect to the National Anthem (please rise, hats off), the movie starts. (That Thing You Do) On cue, the audience starts chattering, laughing, clapping, cheering. The musical interludes, that J-Lo couldn’t top, break up murder scenes, and the half-Hindi, half-English dialogue semi-amuses. Everything will be in Hindi, and then the main character will go – “Take it easy, man.” Or “Bye, I love you, babe,” at the end of a phone conversation. So random. At intermission (yes, intermission), we head out. We were stuck in the third row, necks craned, dizzying ourselves from the manic dance scenes. Outside of John Abraham (lead actor), the hottest Indian man I’ve EVER seen, possibly the hottest MAN I’ve ever seen, we decide we’re over Bollywood, and sticking with Hollywood.

But…it was good while it lasted. (Last Dance).


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Wax on, Wax Off ... in Agra.

So, I decided that to get to Agra to meet the Hanfts (Rikki’s parents who are in India for a month, the coolest parents around besides my own (well, there’s also Bob Schwartz, my email buddy, but I digress. This sidebar is for those who aren’t ‘in the parents-of-my-friends-know’), I’d take a train. Everyone told me that I should hire a car/driver to take me there/back and transport me around Agra, but I deferred. No, no….I want to EXPERIENCE the trains in India. Ok, everyone sighed reluctantly, knowing that an Indian tourist pressed for time shouldn’t be wasting precious hours on the trains, they rarely leave on time, they rarely get where they’re supposed to get in the said amount of hours. It’s fine, I say. MY train will be on time. Morning of, I grab a rickshaw and headed to Nizabuddim train station, filled with people immediately surrounding the rickshaw (before I even step out, and elderly woman hopped in with me, pinned an Indian flag on my shirt, then asked for a “donation.” Uh, donation…right.).

GUESS WHAT? Train is delayed.
GUESS HOW LONG? 4-5 hours. They’re not sure.
They tell me to come back around 6 to see if there’s further delays. REALLY? Is this any way to run a train service? No, it is not. DO THEY CARE? No, they do not. So….beaten, I head back to Matt’s for the “I told you so”s. I call the travel agent that I’ve hooked up with here in Delhi (who has basically in one fell swoop – or is it foul swoop, I never get that right – did the rest of my trip thru coming home) and he tells me he’ll have a car for me in 30 minutes. I really want to meet the Hanfts, I do not want to idle the day away at a train station or Matt’s apartment, so….I take the chauffeured car. I guess I’m starting to cave on my NO HIRED HELP policy I felt weird about , um….YESTERDAY.

The four hour car ride to Agra was uneventful except for the kamikaze driving (130 kms/hour!), traffic weaving around cows, camels and donkeys peeing in the middle of the road, braking for women with bushels of wheat piled high atop their head, staring at the rickshaws PACKED with 20-30 people hanging out in all directions from the roof, back, front, sides (to highlight, me and my luggage are a tight-rickshaw squeeze…20 people is insanity), being ignored by my very sweet, cute driver who balked when I offered him some banana (obv...), then some peanut M&M’s (I wanted to ask if he was allergic to nuts b/c his reaction was THAT severe) then stopped talking to me because seemingly, I offended him by disregarding the caste lines in the vehicle – he’s my DRIVER, not my snacks partner.

Agra itself is a dirty, rundown little town. The streets are a mess, the sewer stench which is omnipresent in India seems worse here, the town lacks character, and the poverty seems intensified because of how unsavory Agra is. I’m disappointed, as in my mind’s eye, Agra – the home of the Taj Mahal – should be lovely. However, the Taj Mahal MORE THAN makes up for it. Magnificent, stunning, breathtaking, inspiring, overpowering, perfect. There’s no way for me to convey with any measure of success just how amazing this work of art is, because that's what it is...a work of art. A mausoleum for Shah Jahan’s second (and favorite wife), I was under the impression that the Taj was a residence, inhabited by the Shah and his wife. But, it’s actually just the tomb that the Shah built after her death to honor her. She never even saw it!!! The whole concept is beyond comprehension when you see the Taj, this massive and shining white marble structure of perfection against a cloudless blue sky. Every movement of the sun creates a new moment. You cannot take your eyes off of it, you cannot stop taking pictures TRYING to capture the beauty, you cannot believe you’re seeing it in person. Seeing the Taj is just one of those life moments. It was utterly unreal.

After seeing the Taj Mahal, Michele, Jeff and I went around Agra in THEIR chauffered car (see, everyone's doing it...) to see various shops that specialize in custom marble pieces. The process is unbelievable, a myriad of working chipping slices of colored marble and hammering them into stenciled designs. Then, to see centuries old embroideries at stores housing centuries old jewels. Michele and I trying everything on, admiring ourselves in mirrors, while Jeff sat back and watched quietly. Such a fun day, so nice to spend the day them. I meet so many people at night, at dinners, or having a cocktail, that it was nice to SIGHTSEE with people I adore, rather than just kick back with other travelers. The parental TLC felt good (and made me miss my own mom and dad, of course … ) Retiring back to our respective hotels (they stayed at the Oberoi which was one of the most amazing hotels I’ve ever seen…), I decided to put myself back into the gym at my hotel to kill an hour, start to run again, make myself presentable for Lukoff’s wedding. And then, the fun really started…

I’m all into my run, it’s 30 minutes in, I’m going, I’m sweating, I’m feeling good. I’m alone in the gym, so I’m just wearing a sports bra and running pants, the treadmill is next to the window overlooking a back garden at my hotel. Along comes an Indian window washer, slowly ‘wax-on, wax-off’-ing the window of the gym. Then, he notices me. As per usual in India re: being a western woman, he stares for a bit, making me uncomfortable circling the window in the same place, then moves on. Great, back to running, focus, keep on pushing. About 5 minutes later, though, he’s back. This time he’s not making any false show of washing the windows, he’s just stuck his face to the glass, with his hands over his forehead to block out the sun, and get a better look. Staring right into my eyes as I notice him, he’s starting to glaze a little and SLOWLY, SLOWLY, one hand disappears below the window sill. I FREAK OUT. So, I put my feet on the side of the treadmill to balance myself and start to pull the blinds closed – reaching and stretching to get the pulley stick – when, one foot goes back onto the moving treadmill, knocking me off balance and into motion, pulling me down down down with it. It was, when I pictured what I must’ve looked like, A Naked Gun movie scene. Fully. But, with much lewder content. I’m splayed out on the floor, bleeding, pissed, sweaty. And, I look up, and see, through the sliver of curtain that didn’t close, Sanjay Sex Fiend still stuck to the glass watching me!!!

Welcome to India, as a Western gal.
I’ve now got a huge bandage on my right knee and have frequent “ow!” moments when I do things that involve … bending my leg. But…I “told on” Sanjay the window washer and didn’t see him working the next day when I checked out. Justice. Hopefully. But, likely not, the rest of the male staff probably patted him on the back.

More from Mumbai…
Hopefully, less lascivious behavior from the locals.