Saturday, June 07, 2014

Bombay Bicycle Club

This morning, bright and early (6:15), I met my guides for the Mumbai By Bike tour.  Mumbai doesn't go to work til 9 or 10 AM, so this early there's almost no traffic, and it's cooler and quieter.  The short cab ride was the first of several occasions where cab drivers would claim the meter was "broken", but the helpful staff at my hotel had told me what a reasonable fare would be for this trip.  Background: Manu, who was also my guide for Mumbai Night Tour; foreground: Penguin is ready to go.  Manu is riding a wallah-bike, the kind ridden by couriers and other on-the-ground personnel in Mumbai; it has a somewhat archaic-feeling cable brake system and handlebars whose orientation is a bit unusual for westerners, so Penguin & I went with a traditional one-speed cruiser bike.

I had already been to the Taj Mahal Palace and Gateway of India, but without the traffic and noise, and with the sunrise over the harbor, they look much more stately.  An enormous number of corvids (the crows here have a gray mohawk, they're pretty funny) was waking up noisily as we were there.

Notice the almost total absence of cars as we stopped for some photos of Elphinstone College (top) and Victoria Terminus (bottom), in the area I'm calling the "colonial quarter" of Mumbai.

The next stop was Crawford Market, named for the British architect who built the market building in the late 1800s.  In the 1990s, the name was changed to something Hindi during the "de-colonialization" of Mumbai place names, but Mumbaikars (even cab drivers) sometimes forget the new name, and so have I.  The market is not unlike big markets anywhere else, except I'd say the meat market is a bit more of an assault on the senses, since as far as I can tell there is no refrigeration.  It's one of those breathe-through-your-mouth kind of markets.

Needless to say, the next stop was the cow sanctuary.  (What else would it be?)  Cows are sacred to Hindus; I learned that they believe that within the cow's stomach are the approximately 330 million (really) Hindu deities.  This sanctuary, built by Parsis as I recall, is a place where several dozen cows are taken care of.  Daily, they are fed, their living quarters cleaned out, the pregnant cows checked on, and so forth.  There's also a couple of cages of birds that are taken care of—lovebirds, budgies, cockatiels—which are spacious and where the water is changed daily.  The birds actually looked happy and were all chirping and hopping.  There is also a resident flock of geese.

We walked our bikes through the flower market—this is an outdoor market/bazaar, unlike the covered Crawford Market, but it is right nearby...

...and another section of the market where some of the vendors were waking up, having their breakfast or doing their morning ablutions…

…to a Jain temple,where Penguin posed with our other guide Chetan.

At this point we decided we needed a snack, so we had some things that looked like pakoras but turned out to be more like battered onions—sort of a cross between onion rings and an "onion blossom" like you get at state fairs.  The vendor was amused but indulged Penguin for a photo op.

Our next stop was the fish market.  It's not as big as Tokyo's Tsukiji, but it is a longstanding tradition—fishermen basically founded the city.  The fishermen of old did not have the luxury of refrigeration or of sanitary tables on which to gut fish.  Apparently, neither do today's, and a fish market with no refrigeration and an outdoor temperature of about 95 degrees with 90+% humidity smells exactly as you'd expect.  We didn't stay long, and I left making a mental note to stick with the chicken curries.  I would've taken a picture, but my hand was otherwise engaged holding a handkerchief over my nose.

We rode back along Marine Drive, which is the western waterfront of Mumbai and where Chowpatty Beach is (day 1)...

...and of course paused to see one of various random cows that wander around the city…

…before turning in our bikes and having another snack.  

In all, if you've done some urban cycling in the US, this tour is mostly no problem.  It gets tricky at the end because by 10am the traffic has really picked up.  Fortunately, all rental bikes are equipped with the loud ring-ring handlebar bells, which bicyclists use the same way drivers use car horns.  ("The hell with you, I'm coming through.")  By the end of the ride I was pretty accustomed to it.  I don't think I clipped anyone, and I had no near-misses with vehicles, which is good because the bike rental guy looked perplexed when I asked about borrowing a helmet.  (No one in Mumbai uses one, including most people on motorbikes.)

Definitely recommended, but if you've never urban-cycled, it might freak you out.  Now it's back to the hotel to rest up during the midday hours, wring out my shirt and change, and head for the Dharavi slum tour, which will cap off my Mumbai experience!

Village tour!

Today Penguin and I went on a tour of a "rural" village about 90km north of Mumbai.  I use the scare quotes because the village is only about 10km outside a sizable and bustling town (really a small exurb of Mumbai) with modern buildings; apparently the urban frontier is continually encroaching on agricultural land, and this exurb was agricultural ten years ago.

Essentially, the tour consisted of visiting two or three farming families, and a bit of walking in the actual country.  As in many small European towns, farmers consume some of their own produce (rice, cucumbers, root vegetables…) and trade the rest.  These particular farm families are fairly prosperous.  I got to sit in their houses briefly, but as my TripAdvisor review notes, there wasn't really any interaction, for which I ding the tour company mightily.

Penguin and I got to travel on one of those wooden carts pulled by bulls.  I asked why they didn't put tires on them—the wheels are wooden spoked with iron rims, as they have been since the 1800s.  The nominal answer is that these carts are used to haul wood out of the forest along trails where rubber tires would sink; but I think the real reason is that they also preserve a tradition.

The scenery is quite pretty; there are mountains all around, some of which are still active hill stations (holiday retreats) built by the Brits, and one of which has a fort at the top that was built by Chhatrapati Shivaji.  (You did read about him in the previous post about Mumbai, right?)  People do sometimes hike up there, but the trail is supposed to be treacherous, and I can't imagine hiking in this heat.  (In the cool season it gets as cool as 77 degrees...still too hot for me.)

We also walked out over a dam—the lake and river are currently mostly dry, but will fill when the monsoon comes, and all the stuff around it will turn green and grow things.  It's a popular picnic spot because of the surrounding view.

We ended the tour at a sort of outdoor informal restaurant for locals. Think "comedor" in Ecuador: one or two dishes are available, it's home cooked by whoever runs the place.  We had some chole chana (fried chickpeas with garlic and onions) and a tasty chicken curry, and of course Kingfisher beer.  This is my driver, Dupesh, who also works as a piano tuner (!) and with whom I had a great conversation on the ride up from Mumbai, one of the only auto rides I would describe as truly harrowing.  Drivers here have great operating skills and reflexes—I haven't seen one accident—but traveling on expressways here isn't for the faint of heart.  (My guide isn't in the photo, Vishal, but he wasn't very useful.  He didn't say much and it's not clear what value he added.)

Although I could've gotten a ride back with Dupesh, I asked if they could just drop me off at a nearby train station, so I could experience the Mumbai commuter trains.  They tried to sit me in a window seat, but I spent the whole trip hanging out the open doorway like the locals (or like cable car passengers in SF).

Although my official slum tour is tomorrow, we definitely passed through slums on the hour-long train ride back to CST...

The amount of trash here beggars the imagination.  Every urban waterway is toxic and choked beyond hope. Trash mounds are the defining topographic feature along the train lines...

...  And yet I have not seen a single garbage can.  I asked one of my Mumbai guides why not, and he said the government tried to install them, but people would steal them and sell them as scrap metal.  Indeed, people have been known to steal entire bus stop shelters bolted to the ground to sell as scrap metal.  Also, there is a "just throw it on the ground" culture to disposing of trash here, so maybe people wouldn't use garbage cans even if they were provided.  The garbage and sanitation problem here is huge, and it's hard for a westerner to understand what is so hard about instituting waste collection.  Surely it would be preferable for all of this stuff to be put in a number of landfills rather than strewn everywhere, notwithstanding the "garbage pickers" who make a living by picking out recyclables and other items of marginal value, the endless numbers of corvids, and the nontrivial number of goats who pick through the mounds.

Tomorrow is the bike tour and Dharavi slum tour, and my last day in Mumbai.  It's been great visiting here, but I'm ready to be heading home by then.  Mumbai is fascinating, but it is loud, you need two showers a day to really feel clean (especially in this heat), and every place smells like something (they're not necessarily all bad smells, but with this population density and sanitation problems, there is a  lower bound on how much things smell).  My guess is visiting in cool season would be much easier on the senses!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Mumbai day 1: slumdog millionaire

After our morning arrival in Mumbai, it was just a few blocks to the hotel, although it took a bit of orienteering to figure out in which direction.  Mumbai felt cooler than Hyderbad: here it feels like a day that's too hot for Miami, whereas Hyderabad felt like a day that was too hot for Mercury.  But it's deceptive: Mumbai is much more humid, so the effective heat is actually worse.

Victoria Terminus/Chhatrapathi Shivaji Terminus at night

What distinguishes Mumbai's look from Hyderabad's is the presence of colonial buildings left over from the Brits, not least of which is Victoria Terminus, the railway station at which we arrived and the national headquarters of Indian Railways.  Here's a quick panorama of the waiting room, and a  nighttime picture:

In any event, as soon as we checked in and freshened up, it's out for a stroll.  Mumbai is about as hectic as Hyderabad, but it has more of a New York vibe.  In Hyderabad the locals wanted photos with us Westerners; in Mumbai no one gives me a second look.  You can navigate the sidewalk crowds by focusing on a point ten feet ahead of you, just as in Manhattan.  Everyone is going somewhere or doing something; no one is just sitting around.  It's pretty cool.  But hot.

Emboldened by five days in a row of no stomach problems, probably due in part to good judgment and lots of Pepto-Bismol tabs, I had some street food on the way--the kinds of things that would be appetizers in an Indian restaurant, like samosas and fried dough things.

In the nineties, when Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai, many colonial-area names were scrapped in favor of local ones, and "VT" was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (yes, the double "h" is correct) or CST, in honor of a 17th century Maratha king who is seen as a sort of proto-nationalist and in whose name many people committed controversial acts of nationalist violence, kind of like Jesus.

Our 2km walk to the harbor passed a number of these buildings, including Churchgate, the other major rail station....

...before ending up at the Gateway of India, erected by the Brits in 1911 in honor of Queen Victoria's landing there.

It is so hot here that my shirt was absolutely soaked through after a two-hour walk, so I had to come back to the hotel to change and rest up a bit before the Mumbai at Night tour I'd booked. As it turned out, I was the only one who had booked—in fact, I had seen exactly two other Westerners in Mumbai since arriving here.  So I had a lot of opportunities to chat with Manu, my guide, who is working full-time as a guide while also training to be a hair stylist.  He could only afford eight years of formal education—his parents worked for a patroness who subsidized his tuition at a private school, which accounts in part for his good English, since the public schools generally instruct in the local language or Hindi and have minimal English coverage—and he's determined to get fulltime work with his certification and stay financially independent.

He took me to some really cool places, including Chowpatty Beach (actually Girgaum Chowpatty, since the Hindi word "chowpatty" actually just means "beach"), where people come to sit on the sand and eat snacks and enjoy the sunset—but not to swim, as the water is absolutely toxic with raw sewage.  And also with millions of Ganesh statues: during the festival whose name I forget that honors the god Ganesh, people keep small plaster statuettes of Ganesh in their houses for several days, and then ritually sink them in the water at the end.  Given there are something like 10 million Mumbaikars, the bottom of Chowpatty Beach must be several inches deep in plaster Ganeshes.

This is supposed to be the spot to eat the street treat bhel puri, which is puffed rice tossed with fresh raw onions, cilantro, and other potential gastrointestinal disasters.  It was delicious and I've had no problems.

After a visit to a Hindu temple and a Jain temple, both of which were appropriately peaceful, he took me to Banganga Tank, a reservoir filled by a natural spring.  This reservoir dates from the 12th century; its myth is that the god Ram, on a military mission to Sri Lanka, stopped here desperate with thirst; he asked his brother Lakshman to bring water, and Lakshman shot an arrow (baan) into the ground and water gushed forth, thereby creating a tributary of the sacred Ganges (hence, banganga).  Malabar Hill, the ancient neighborhood where it's located, is one of the few spots in Mumbai where you cannot hear the constant honking of car horns, and full of charming narrow lanes.  One imagines this is what Mumbai was like before the automobile.

...and a final stop at the "Hanging Gardens" overlook on Malabar Hill, from which you can see the so-called Necklace, the curved road along the Mumbai waterfront stretching out behind me.  Chowpatty Beach is approximately over my right shoulder where the unusually bright spot is.

The best was saved for last.  I had mentioned that after the tour was over I wouldn't mind having a beer, and offered to buy one for Manu too.  During the tour I had spoken of how I like to try to do local things and meet local people when traveling; so he asked if I'd like to come back up to where he lived—15 minutes north of the center—and have a beer with him and his friends.  I couldn't refuse, and within 15 minutes we were in the courtyard area of a group of buildings that in any US city would probably be called a slum, more for the amount of trash than actual poverty; and there I was having beers with Manu and his crew—Nitin, Aakash, Rajesh, a couple of others, all of whom were amused when I had Manu explain that I knew not one but several students in the US with each of those names only a couple of these guys spoke English (including his brother).  (I just realized I didn't get a picture with Manu himself; he's taking this photo)

With all these guys being in their early 20s, I asked where the girls were.  Culturally, unless you are raised by semi-westernized wealthy professional parents, girls are kept indoors with their parents while the guys go out.  So men and women basically never interact socially until the courtship of their arranged marriage.  It explains a lot about some Indian students I've known in the US.  

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Penguin and I on the Indian Railways

Penguin and I ultimately decided to take a cab to Nampally railway station. I was going to take the commuter train, but the timing was such that I would've had to burn an hour at the railway station, which normally would be fine but I needed to use the time to do work while I still had Internet access.  

My cab driver was super helpful and pointed out that we were making good enough time that we could stop to get me a take-out dinner to eat on the train, and he took me to the take-out outpost of Paradise, which is supposed to have the best biryani in Hyderabad (which is itself known as the biryani capital of India).  I appreciated this since I would otherwise have left here without having any (the hotel restaurant didn't come highly recommended).

With take-out biryani and Kingfisher beer in hand, we arrived at the railway station. I was the only Westerner in (or anywhere near) the station, and as far as I can tell, I was the only Westerner on the train, and I saw no Westerners at any of the station stops for which I was awake.

The station was busy, but not ridiculously so (by the standards of, say, Grand Central, though this small station was much more modest); the most impressive thing was actually how long the platform was. (Sorry for the blurry picture, I was trying to stay out of people's way)

These trains are about 15-20 cars long -- nearly twice as long as long-distance US trains -- and the platform is easily  a quarter mile end-to-end.  All but three or four of those 20 cars were "sleeper class", which misleadingly means "unreserved": you get a ticket, but not a reserved berth, so you fight/negotiate for sleeping/seating space once on board.  

I was in 2nd AC (air conditioned), which is reserved seating, and arranged like this:

(w is a window; > is a seat and points the way you're facing when you sit; vertical lines are bench seats)

 ---  w  -----  w  ------  w  -----
    >   <     >   <     >   <  
   (aisle)   (aisle)    (aisle)   ....  (bathrooms)  
    |   |     |   |     |   |   
    |   |     |   |     |   |   
 ---  w  -----  w  ------  w  -----

    --->  travel direction --->

Here's a short video tour of our seating area.

On the single-seats side (upper row), where I was sitting, there is a cot overhanging the two facing seats; at night, the seat backs fold down so the two seats become a lower cot, and the two passengers who had been facing each other take the upper and lower cots, which are parallel to the direction of travel.  On the bench-seat side of the train, there is a cot overhanging each bench, so the benches and cots are perpendicular to the direction of travel; the benches become cots at night.  Curtains you can draw provide some privacy from the aisle.  Before the train left the station, an attendant came around and placed a pillow, a blanket, and a paper-wrapped package of freshly-laundered sheets on each cot.

Unlike Amtrak, you do the seat-to-bed conversion yourself and negotiate with your seatmate as to when the seats fold up and down.  Our seatmate goes by Reddy (I can't pronounce his first name)...

  It is a little bit tricky to maneuver things in and out of your carry-on if you haven't staged the stuff you need for the ride--we mostly had--but once you're settled, it's cozy but not at all uncomfortable.  The only comfort issue is that the straight-backed seats do not recline, though that seems to be the same in all classes, even in 1st class AC; some trains (not mine) have "executive chair cars" which resemble what we are used to on American trains, with big reclining seats.  Also, if passengers on the opposite side of the train from you choose to keep their curtain drawn during the day, you cannot see out of both sides of the train and the interior can be somewhat dark.

Everyone knows Americans are loud, but Indians are REALLY LOUD!!!  AND THEY TALK FAST!!!!!  AND CONSTANTLY!!!!!!!!!!!  Here is an approximate transliteration of the first few seconds of what I heard from the group across the aisle: 


I was concerned it would be impossible to sleep, but after the first few stops the lights were turned out and people quited down.  THe earplugs, blindfold and Benadryl definitely helped.  (And during the day, so did my blessed Bose noise-cancelling headphones.)

The equipment is sturdy and aging -- the machinery is vintage 1950's -- but gives the impression of being in good repair.  I walked part of the train and tried to discreetly capture some footage without being rude.  This train has a 1st AC coach (cabins with doors rather than curtains; the cabins and berths are larger than 2AC, but there are four per cabin), 3rd AC (like 2nd, but stacked three-high instead of double-high), and Sleeper (like 3AC, but packed closer together and unreserved, so you have to jockey for seats).  I was unable to move from the 3AC car into the Sleeper cars because they were *packed* with people - walking through one would be like walking through a New York subway car at rush hour, with people sitting in the aisles and car vestibules as well as occupying every square foot of bench/cot space.  Each car has both an Indian-style squat toilet and a Western-style toilet (though both have signs with the ominous admonition "Do not use while at station", which gives you a clue as to where the toilet contents go when you flush).  Nowhere did I see filth or anything disgusting; it is certainly crowded, but everything was sanitary.  There were no chickens on board or anything like that.  In fact, when I opened my beer, the conductor quickly admonished me that beer is not allowed on the train, so I had to ditch it, which was disappointing since it would have gone well with the biryani.

It took a little shuffling things around for penguin and I to get ready for bed, but once we did, it was fine.  The only issue (which I also experience backpacking) is that the padding on the cots is pretty spare, so it's about like sleeping on a Thermarest, which makes me a bit sore; but overall I woke rested at about 6:30am.

Once morning came, Reddy and I folded the seats down and proceeded to have a long conversation.  He works in business contracts, so I assume he's representative of a typical middle class Indian working guy.  He was curious about my iPhone, and with that wonderfully compressed sense of personal space that so many Indians have, he proceeded to look at every photo and ask me questions about it: where is that?  who is that?  what's going on in this photo?  But it was all more like the charm of a curious child than nosiness.  He wanted to know about life in the US as narrated through my pictures.  Do people take the train there?  (He was astounded to learn that it takes 3 days to get from New York to California by train, since no two points in India are that far apart.)  How many states are there?  Is Texas a country?  (It was tough to answer truthfully.)  When people vote in elections, what symbol goes with each candidate on the ballot?  (It took me awhile to figure that out. Because of the high illiteracy in India, each candidate is associated with a pictorial icon, which also appears on the ballot.)  How long was your flight?  Why don't you have children?  Do you live with your parents?  (In India, as in much of Asia, the presumption is that children will take care of their parents when they get old, usually by moving back in with them or living very close by.)  

The other great thing that happened once morning came is the food vendors.  Most overnight trains here don't have kitchens or dining cars: instead, individual food vendors get on and off at different stations and roam the train selling bottled water, packaged snacks, masala chai, chai coffee (I had four little cups, just 10 rupees each, which is about 15 cents), baked goods (I had a couple of fried dough things stuffed with chickpeas), "bread omelets" (basically an omelet sandwich), and more.  There's some remote possibility that the food had been reheated rather than recently cooked, but there is so much turnover that I doubt it.

In short, the trains work.  There is no luxury or glamour on board (or beer), and it's not particularly fast, but every available seat is filled: there is a waitlist system in which, at the second station of a long-distance train, a waitlist of people (who have pre-reserved a spot on the waitlist!) are given seats that were reserved for no-shows who didn't board at the origin station.  (There is no "standby list" in the airline sense; the pre-reserved waitlist can rarely be fully accommodated.)  People behave very chill (for Indians, loudly talking in a continuous stream of short syllables is chill) and, modulo no beer, you don't go hungry during the ride.  The onboard equipment, while dated, seems to work; in fact the railway is the only thing I've seen so far that isn't an unmitigated infrastructural disaster.

...and just like that, we're on the far outskirts of Mumbai, and the mountains of garbage perhaps concealing a haunting Malthusian reminder that maybe India just cannot handle the sanitation needs of this many people (18% of the world's population in less than 3% of the world's land area).  Every kind of construction props up "informal dwellings" - cinderblock walls and corrugated metal roof is at the high end, bamboo framing with palm leaves or cardboard boxes for walls at the low end. 

Now passing through residential developments -- lots of dense high-rises, as on the outskirts of Hong Kong, with more under construction.  We're speeding through train stations where people are boarding overflowing commuter trains.  Those trains travel at full speed with all doors open and people hanging out of the doors.  (Note to self: I want to try that.) Two Western-dressed Asian girls with roll-aboard suitcases - maybe college age - are standing on the platform; they're the first non-Indians I've seen since boarding in Hyderabad, and they look like nonlocals because the other people waiting for the train are sleeping or sitting on blankets, whereas these two are standing up, looking around, one hand on suitcase.

After hotel check-in, it'll be time to do a little exploratory walk of south Mumbai, the area where most of the colonial construction and development occurred!

Hyderabad heritage walk

Our last tourist activity in Hyderabad was the most interesting: we visited what used to be the mansions built by the white-collar administrators of the Nizams, those wealthy Persians.  These well-paid administrators aspired to the bourgeoisie as much as the employer they served, and they built mansions to prove it.  Most were European-wannabe architecture, which was all the rage in the 17-18th century here, with courtyards.  Originally the mansions stood on large tracts; in time the city filled in around them.

Now the mansions are in irreversible disrepair, and many people squat there.  Basically, if a structure here has at least two walls and can be roofed, someone will be living there.  Not sure I'd go so far as "squalor", but certainly "extreme austerity" -- more than the most unpretentious and modest conditions we ever see in Mexico.  One of the mansions dedicates one floor to a family and the other floor to goats; the result smells about the way you'd expect.   I couldn't figure out where the family did their toilet, and I don't really want to know; I can't believe this place would have running water.

While it's depressing that no one has stepped up to rescue these structures or at least declare them off-limits to squatters, this was the most interesting of the Hyderabad tours since it addressed an important facet of the history and got us into backstreets of the Charminar area where tourists definitely never go.  It is worth remembering that more than half the world's people live this way (if not even more austere). Worth remembering next time you hear someone use the expression "That's a first world problem".

Oh, right - my two presentations were successful by any standard, and there were even a handful of Indian students who recognized me from taking the MOOC.  They were honored to meet me in person and wanted a picture with me, and were positively giddy when I offered them free book copies.  It is nice to feel one is making a difference; the whole purpose of my trip was to help Indian faculty adopt our stuff, and I think based on the reception I received that it's been a successful trip.

Next: Penguin and I travel to Mumbai in 2nd class rail, with the working people!