Passage to India
- Cairo, Egypt to Mumbai, India
Hello and greetings from India which has rejuvenated
the tired traveler. When we last wrote, we were headed to the Pyramids of
Egypt with a bad case of the ABC's.
Another bloody castle,
another bloody cathedral
another bloody crumbly.
We were homesick and it just crept up on us. All of a
sudden, we found ourselves having a Big Mac at
McDonald's because it reminded us of home. We stayed
in our air-con hotel room with one English channel,
BBC World and watched it continuously all day, just
because they were speaking English, even if it was in
a funny accent.
All these supposedly amazing
sights were starting to blend. When you've seen one,
you've seen em all. So much so, that the pyramids
when we were finally there were ... OK. It probably
didn't help that Ann was quite sick and on Egyptian
antibiotics. But it was our last day, and darned if
were going to leave Egypt without seeing them.
Up close and personal, they actually look like a nice
neat pile of rocks. The ultrasmooth limestone
has long since eroded away, leaving a very rough heap
of stones. And the sphinx, poor guy, not only has no
nose, but most of one side of his face is blasted off
as some infidels used him as target practice. And the
baksheesh was as bad as ever. It is so hard to
appreciate ancient Egypt with modern Egypt tugging
so persistently at your arm. And the final straw for us
poor lone souls, taking local transportation to the Pyramids and
wandering in on our own, was that we could not go inside. Seems you have
to purchase a ticket and there are a limited number of them. Well, the
big tour groups of Americans, Japanese and Germans gobbled them all up
long before the sun even dawns on the Pyramids. There was nothing left
for us, the individual traveler. So we left, defeated...
We left Egypt at 3:00am in the morning to head to
Bombay (Mumbai as they like to call it) India.
And we were bit anxious. Not sure what to expect. Already
homesick. And the horror stories we had heard.
Well India has been everything we did not expect. For
one thing, it has completely cured our homesickness.
Everything is so different and so new and exciting.
It started at the airport, when we got a taxi to the
city. The mini-taxis (no such thing as a full-size
were sitting outside in the dripping humidity.
as we got into the back seat, our driver who spoke no
English, tried to start the car to no avail. Well,
rather than move us to another taxi, he had all his
taxi-driver friends push us while he tried to jump
start the engine. Well, when we were pushed almost
halfway to the city, it finally started, and away we
went. First of all, they drive on the left, well
theoretically, but actually it is more of the middle
of the road. There appears to be no lanes and this
congestive stew of mini-taxis, auto-rickshaws (motor
scooters with backseats), people, trucks, scooters
of course, the ubiquitous sacred cows move through
city streets with seemingly few accidents but many near misses.
But what really struck us as we drove into the city,
was the people, so many people crushed into very
places. India is poor, unlike you have ever seen.
Home is a relative word. Do you call a lean-to made
from corrugated tin painted with a pepsi logo, a
Do you call the gutters in the streets, toilets?
India certainly makes you think, or rethink maybe.
Immediately, the begging began. Whenever the taxi
slowed even a bit, we would be mobbed by scraggly
asking for a rupee, the equivalent of two cents. They
stick their arms in the car and tugg at your sleeve.
Sometimes, they would be joined by their mothers, who
would be breast-feeding at the same time. One must
remember that India is a country of almost one
people. Compare that to America which has a
of 250 million. But of course, this is but one facet
of an incredibly complex country.
Everywhere we go, we see the British influence.
colonized the country for two hundred years, India
finally achieved independence in 1947 and is now the
world's largest democracy. In fact, we are watching
election mania overtake the country, as elections
last a month (getting a billion people to vote!)
But the British have left a lasting legacy including
the architecture, the administration, and the Indian
passion for cricket! We had cable in our room and
watched ESPN, albeit not quite the same as home. It
non-stop cricket, badminton and ping-pong. Quite
exciting stuff. One day, as we were wandering around
Mumbai, we came across a large park and many games
of cricket were being played in the traditional
'whites' - white pants, white shirts, and white
less v-neck sweaters. Very elegant, until you fall in
the mud! The pitch (field) was not in the best
condition. As we have finally learned the basics of
cricket, we are actually becoming fans.
first things first. We had to do laundry... we decided to
the famous dhobi-wallahs- the laundry people! Your
dirty undies are whisked away from your hotel and
back spanking clean, but what happens in between is
India's greatest mystery. First off, they don't go near a washing machine. All
of the city's dirty
is collected each morning and taken to
a dhobi-ghat (series of steps that lead into a lake
or river and reserved for the washing of laundry.) Upon arrival at
dhobi-ghat, all the clothes are separated by
colors and types- whites shirts in one area, blue
in another etc. If this were home, your clothes would
either be hopelessly lost or need a bar code to
keep track of it. They
are soaked for a few
hours, following which the dirt is literally beaten
out of them. No miracle of technology can wash as
clean as a determined dhobi-wallah. Once clean, they
are hung out to dry on miles of line, then finally a
visit to the ironing shed where your undies come out
with knife edge creases. Then the miracle occurs.
Somehow, your clothes are separated
back out and delivered
to your door that same evening, utilizing a
system of marking clothes known only to the dhobi-
wallahs. They say that even criminal can be tracked
down by the tell-tale dhobi-marks. All my time in India, and I
never did discover the dhobi-marks. After a few visits
to the dhobi's your clothes do start to look a bit
threadbare, but at least they are CLEAN!
The largest dhobi ghat in Mumbai was a miniature city in itself,
its dhobi-denizens scurrying here and there, beating clothes to within
an inch of their lives. Passages wove between rows upon rows of washing
tubs and troughs. And miles of miles of billowing clothes densely strong
on crossing line. All of India must come here to do laundry.
dhobi-ghat in Mumbai, rows upon rows of laundry
Mumbai itself, is not so much a tourist destination.
is India's financial capital and home of Bollywood,
largest film industry in the world (by volume.) It
actually very refreshing because the city is not so
reliant on tourism and we could just relax and take
all in. One afternoon, we took in the
few 'sights' that there are in Mumbai. We saw Gandhi's
house, which is now a little museum in his memory,
retelling his non-violent struggle for independence.
Then there is the Parsi's Tower of
Silence. The Parsi are followers of the ancient
religion of zoroastrianism and as they believe in the
purity of the four elements, they cannot bury or
cremate their dead. Instead, they lay the body out
a large tower for the vultures to pick them clean.
While we saw the towers, artful landscaping keeps out
is actually a peninsula off India, and the
harbor is immense. One day we took a boat ride
out to Elephanta Island, and had our first direct experience
with sacred India, home to Hinduism and Buddhism.
Elephanta Island is home to 8th century
temples dedicated to the Lord Shiva in all his
Hindus believe in one god, the
many gods and goddesses (at last count, 330 million)
are just different facets of the one. The
main players Brahma, the creator god,
Vishnu, the preserver god, and Shiva, the destroyer
and renewer. Shiva, appears to be the most
popular, along with his consort, the beautiful
and their son Ganesha, always shown with an elephant
Elephanta, we sawusually not edible. It was
hilarious to watch the tourist run
some incredible cave rock sculpture especially the
bust of a triple-headed Shiva. Each head was forty
feet tall yet the delicate carvings gave it such
a peaceful and tranquil expression.
But the most entertaining aspect had to be the wild
monkeys that owned the island. Those naughty guys
would drop down on unsuspecting tourists and steal
whatever they were carrying. We watched one monkey
take some guys plastic bag, take it up to the tree,
where he proceeded to go through the contents,
throwing them down one by one since souvenirs are
around collecting his stuff as the monkey tossed it
down. Here as in all parts of India, the wildlife is
a part of the fabric of life, not relegated to a zoo.
Monkeys roam the streets, and cows always have the
right of way. We have seen incredible birds and
warthogs, and wild pigs and dogs, geckos, monitor
lizards ... all seem to take no notice of the humans
in their midst. But all this takes a toll on the
and villages. Every street becomes an obstacle course
of cow dung and auto-rickshaws nearly mowing people
down. Good fun indeed!
In spite of all our apprehensions, we are enjoying
India very much, especially the FOOD! As we are both
avid lovers of the Devon Ave. Indian buffets back in
Chicago, we were excited to try the real deal. And it
is delicious, spicy and cheap to boot. As many people
are vegetarians for religious reasons, many
restaurants advertise PURE VEG. A typical dish here
is called a Thali, which consists of a metal platter
with small serving bowls around the outside or the platter itself
may be divided into small compartments. Waiters
come by and fill the metal bowls with whatever vegis
they are cooking that day (usually 2-3 kinds) swimming
in some fabu sauce, dhal (lentil curry), some sweet
item, maybe a potato samosa, and in the center they
heap rice and chapatis. Many thalis are all you can eat and
they will keep filling your little bowls til you cry
uncle. And all this costs just fifty cents! The food
especially at the places with no English signs is
just the best. Unfortunately, we ate once at a
place and the food was horrendously bland, so now we
head to where the locals dine, and our stomachs and
pockets are the happier for it.
The street food is also good, although we must be a
more cautious as Indian water can wreck havoc on your
digestive system. The best street food snack in
is Bhel Puri, an addictive blend of green chutney,
tamarind sauce, chili paste, fried vermicelli, puffed
rice, potato, tomato, onion, green mango, and
coriander. The vendors mix it up and pour it into
a newspaper cone and give you a chip to scoop it out
with, all for ten rupees (25 cents). In fact, the
food had been so good, it seems to have cured our
digestive woes picked up in the Middle East, but no
need for details on that.
And from Bombay, we will take our first journey on
the legendary Indian Railway System, inherited from
the British, but more on that interesting ride next
Ten four good buddies
Ann and Doug
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