It’s Bombay, Not Mumbai

May 10, 2009

Location: Bombay, Maharashtra, India                                                                Date: April 2009

Names Matter

First things first. Before I get into my time in Bombay, I want to go into a little detail about its name.  I don’t call it Mumbai. I call it Bombay. Why? Because the name got changed due to pressure from the Hindu fundamentalist group Shiv Sena. I’m not alone in refusing to use the new name, as many cosmopolitan Indians continue to call it Bombay. It’s Bollywood, right? Not Mollywood. Long story short, Shiv Sena pressured the government into naming it Mumbai in their attempt to go back to the good ‘ol days.  Basically Shiv Sena wants all of society to return to the medieval period. On Valentine’s Day this year they were out in the street attacking lovers holding hands as they said Valentine’s Day was not Indian (read: Hindu). Physically assaulting them.

The membership of Shiv Sena tends to be young, male, unemployed, racist and, obviously, sexually frustrated. They also have a base of support among taxi drivers, which is why my friend Colin was always wary about talking about them when in taxis. Shiv Sena members were also the ones who decided to attack all taxi drivers not from the state of Maharashtra working in Bombay.  Their hatred is so strong for difference that people from other states (but the SAME COUNTRY) are too much for them.

While I respected Colin’s wishes when he was in the cab, when I was alone I would always ask taxi drivers who they supported in the upcoming elections, as Shiv Sena is also a political party, in the same way that the Nazis were also the National Socialist Party. If they said Shiv Sena I wouldn’t tip them.

Bombay Living

My previous experience with major cities in India had been limited to Delhi, which is a sad excuse for a city. Bombay has completely altered my view of Indian metropolises.  The place has a soul, a heart to it, that any visitor can feel beating. It’s got arguably the best food in India, the largest slum in the world, and the world’s largest movie industry. It is also the second most populous city in the world, behind Tokyo. Bombay does everything to an extreme.

Whereas Delhi is like DC as the administrative hub of India, Bombay is most like New York. It never sleeps, has the best night life, and is the cultural capital of India. All the best music and movies come from Bombay. If I ever worked in India, I would certainly put Bombay atop my list.

My experience in Bombay was no doubt altered by the incredible time showed to me by my friend Colin who is there working for Credit Suisse.  People in finance (at least those left) the world over live life large, and finance folks in Bombay are no different. Colin has a sweet apartment a stone’s throw away from the coast and (especially important for me) the best hospital in India, Breach Candy Hospital. Little did I know when I arrived that I would be spending many hours and many rupees seeing all manner of doctors there.

Just down the street from Colin’s apartment is the Breach Candy Club, to which he is a member.  When you walk in, all the sounds, smells and annoyances of India melt away. Just past the entrance counter you enter into the pool area with a pool that could easily take 500 swimmers along with three diving boards and a water slide. I think it’s the only one of its kind in India. It’s also got to be the only club in India where a majority of the members are foreigners, mostly expats and their families. On one side of the pool the British and Americans sit. On the other, the French. Due to this strange seating arrangement the pool has earned the nickname “The English Channel.”

The club sits right along the coast and provides stunning sunset vistas.  The banner photo atop this blog comes from a Breach Candy Club sunset. So does the one below. It is most certainly the best escape from India that I have ever experienced. Which is partially why I think Colin has the dream life.

Sunset View from Breach Candy Club

He can experience India in digestible sizes. When he’s had enough of the dal and vegetables, endless polution and honking, he can walk down to the Breach Candy Club and order up an actual beef hamburger with fries and sunbathe by the pool until he’s ready to go back to the insanity of India.

I fell so much in love with the Bombay expat lifestyle, with the posh bars, private clubs and A/C rooms, that I failed to see much of the tourist trail.  I never saw the hanging gardens or Elephanta Island. When I go back someday I’m sure I’ll see those places, but while I was there this time it was nice to experience something outside the backpacker lifestyle of bed-bug infested mattresses and squat toilets.

Pushkar/Udaipur

May 10, 2009

Location: Pushkar, Rajasthan, India & Udaipur, Rajasthan, India           Date: March 2009

Pushkar:

In between my two weeks in Jaipur, k aI too quick trip out to Pushkar with a friend from the group I traveled with in 2005 who was back in Jaipur for a one year Hindi program.  In 2005 we had taken a quick two hour tour of Pushkar on our way through various towns in Rajasthan and it was a place to which I wanted to return.

I remembered it resembled the striking postcards from islands in Greece with white washed buildings set against a brilliantly blue lake.  Unfortunately, like many things in India, that beauty didn’t last long as environmental damage had taken its toll. The pollution in the lake, which the town is set around, had clogged it up and it wasn’t even half full by the time I came back. Luckily, the government had recently recognized the seriousness of this and installed filters in the lake, which will hopefully revive it back to life for when I come back again.

Beyond my memories of a beautiful lake, another image was shattered. I remembered it being an idyllic hippie style town, with a laid back atmosphere. Instead, what I found after spending some more time in town was that the hippie atmosphere was a facade, and what really lay beneath was an Israeli culture of drugs and rudeness.

Israelis in India come for six months usually, after spending their mandatory two (women) or three (men) years in the military.  But the Israelis who come to India tend to be of a certain breed.  They are lazy, rude, ignorant and usually high out of their minds.  This prototypical Israeli backpacker comes to India for the cheap prices and the drugs, not the culture, the food, or the people. They don’t learn a lick of Hindi, want only Israeli food and hash, and are often incredibly rude to those around them. It seems they live in their own little bubble that they take with them wherever they travel.

On the bus from Jaipur to Pushkar there were four Israelis who decided it was appropriate to blare their God-awful Israeli club music on speakers for the whole four hour ride. Apparently, the invention of headphones hasn’t reached the Holy Land yet.

Pushkar is supposed to be a holy town for Hindus, as it houses what it claims is the only Brahmin temple in India.  Brahma is considered to be one of the three main gods in Hinduism, but the only one to whom you will find no temples dedicated. The story is that on the day Brahma was to be married his wife-to-be was late, and he was fed up with waiting so he married a milkmaid who was standing nearby. When his bride did show up she was so furious she cursed Brahma and said that no temple shall ever be built in his honor. Later, after much lobbying from other deities, she relented and agreed he could only be worshipped in Pushkar.

This importance in the Hindu religion set against a stop along the Israeli hash trail has made it a very strange place.  As a Hindu holy town it has endless processions and religious festivals, but as a hash trail stopover it also has endless touts trying to sell you drugs and clothes that would have been considered cool in the late ’60s.

Udaipur

Udaipur marked the first place on this trip that I had not been to before in India, and as such, my trip seemed to begin in Udaipur. My friend, Drew, who I traveled to Pushkar with, had highly recommended Udaipur, but also said to limit myself to 2-3 days, as that would be all I would need to see the city.  Some people who have never been to India might recognize the main attraction of the city–the Water Palace–from the Bond film “Octopussy.” Just as Pushkar is built around a lake, so is Udaipur, with the stunning Water Palace as the centerpiece.

Udaipur was also my first experience of the Lonely Planet (LP) effect. That is, if you go to a place listed in LP don’t expect to find the same prices listed.  It is more than just the fact that what you are reading was researched 2-3 years prior, but that since most goras (foreigners) traveling to India follow the LP like a bible they stick to the places in the LP. That means guarenteed business to the hotel owners, allowing them to sometimes more than double their previous prices. I knew it was futile to point the price listed in LP when trying to get the price I wanted at one hotel, but it still frustrated the hell out of me. I felt cheated, but also stupid. In the end I asked for a cheaper room, and got one at a hotel next door.

Having eaten mediocre food since arriving (save for the

Night View of Water Palace, Udaipur

Night View of Water Palace, Udaipur

meals I ate at Jai Vilas), I decided in Udaipur that I would splurge. Joy had urged me to eat at the world famous restaurant at the Water Palace despite the buffet costing US$50.  I was all prepared for the feast, but when I called I found out they weren’t accepting guests not staying at the Water Palace hotel.  Since I couldn’t afford a US$400 room to go with the meal, I had to chuck that idea. They wouldn’t even let me come for a drink, like Anthony Bourdain did in his TV show “No Reservations.” Having TV cameras and being a famous chef might have helped his case.

But all was not lost, as I was able to go to the City Palace, which was on the coast and had a great sunset view of the Water Palace.

Sunset view of Water Palace from Sunset Terrace, Udaipur

Sunset view of Water Palace from Sunset Terrace, Udaipur

Rajasthan is nothing if not full of palaces. It was a true joy to sit down and have immediate service with a smile from a traditionally dressed Rajasthani waiter. After a few Carlsbergs I decided I would stick around for dinner. Man, am I glad that I did. It was the best meal I’ve had in years — no exaggeration.  I ordered the Chicken Tikka Makhani (see picture below).  Most meat I get in India is of questionable quality and cleanliness but this meat was tender and delicious.  I still dream about that chicken. That kind of chicken really makes me question how in the hell someone could be a vegetarian

ChickenTikka Makhani

ChickenTikka Makhani

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Chicken Tika Makhani at Sunset Terrace (City Palace Restaurant). Udaipur

Royal Politics of Facebook

May 9, 2009

When Facebook was started by a Harvard student over five years ago, I somehow doubt he thought he would be having an impact on the royal politics of Jaipur, Rajasthan. But Facebook has done just that.  Facebook is now a global phenomenon where posted photos and comments reach a worldwide audience and have a global impact.  In Egypt, anti-government protests have been started from it. In Rajasthan, it is used as a tool in the games played by people who want to keep others away from the royal family.

My second night in Jaipur, Joy, my former homestay father, and Archana, my former homestay mother, took me to the party at City Palace in Jaipur. As Rajasthan was a state once ruled by Mahajaras (kings), most major cities have a city palace where the royal family resides, though without their former dictatorial powers.  And Jaipur’s City Palace is quite the palatial estate. There are countless courtyards and large rooms for hosting elaborate parties, and a royal band to entertain at all functions. For me the key thing at the party was the open bar and the meal fit for a king (pun intended).  I have simple needs.

The party was a virtual who’s who of Jaipur, with a former cricketer (cricket players are living gods in India), a liquor baron and, of course, the royal family all in attendance.  The princess had hired a professional photographer (or photographers–couldn’t tell since there were so many there) for the event so she would have good photos to post to Facebook.  Of course I didn’t realize the Facebook angle at the time–remember–open bar.  There was also a bevy of newspaper and TV station cameramen there because royal parties are India’s version of the LA premiere party.

The next day Joy took me back to the City Palace to celebrate my new favorite holiday — Holi.

Holi is a celebration of Spring where colored powder and water are thrown on everyone. It has also been used as an excuse for hooliganism in the past, with a tradition being built around giving unsuspecting people bhang lassi.  Bhang is basically the shoots and stems of the marijuana plant ground up into a lassi (yogurt drink).  Needless to say it is known to have a considerable intoxicating effect. But apparently that aspect has been dying out and Holi was a relatively sober affair this year.

At the City Palace, in another section of the estate from the previous party, there was the house band performing traditional Rajasthani music with kids and those young at heart running around throwing colored powder at each other.  There was also a number of photographers. And of course another open bar. It was quite the party. As you can see from the pictures on Facebook my clothes will never be clean. Unfortunately when I decided to wear white so the Holi colors would show well I forgot about the water fight aspect, and white clothes see through ability when wet.  Thankfully I wasn’t wearing my teddy bear boxers.  A number of pictures made the paper the next day, and thankfully none of them were of my see through pants.

What pictures did cause a stir were those posted by Archana and a friend of hers to Facebook.  Like most users of Facebook, Archana and her friend posted photos of themselves at the City Palace party, including those with members of the royal family in it.  Before I had even woken up the next morning there was already a political storm brewing. Apparently someone who wanted to push away people from the royal family had started complaining to anyone who would listen about the posted photos.  The instigator said it was inappropriate to post photos of the royal family to Facebook.  This despite the fact that the princess had hired photographers to take photos of the party for her personal Facebook page. Afraid of causing any more trouble Archana took the photos down, but found the whole situation to be utterly ridiculous.

When I heard of this brewhaha I couldn’t help but laugh. Not only was it ridiculous and petty of the person making public complaints, but it was a unique way to look at globalization.  Something concocted by a college student in the US with too much free time had been able to upset the social balance in the royal circles of Rajasthan.

The world is truly flat.

Jaipur

May 9, 2009

Location: Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Date: March 2009

Upon hightailing it out of the hell-hole of a city called New Delhi, I made my way to Jaipur, Rajasthan.  I lived in Jaipur with an Indian family for about six weeks back in 2005 when I was studying abroad in India. Since then I’ve stayed in touch with my homestay family, and they graciously hosted me during my (longer than expected) two week stay.

In the four years since I last visited they turned part of their property into an incredible B&B guesthouse called Jai Vilas. See my facebook page for pictures of the place. What they created is truly remarkable, with marble floors and custom made furniture for each room.  It has four double bed rooms and two queen size bed rooms, all with private bathroom with an individually designed motif.  The most alluring aspect to the place is that it is truly a bed and breakfast feel, where guests feel like they are visiting a home, not a hotel. Being so nice it’s not in a backpacker’s budget like mine, but my homestay family graciously hosted me for free.  If you read this and are planning to go to Jaipur, please consider staying at Jai Vilas.

While I had planned on staying about a week, it ended being more like two due to, what has become par for the course for me, a number of medical issues. I ended up getting a lower intestine infection from God-knows-where. When in the States it’s usually possible to pinpoint where you might have eaten something bad, but in India almost every meal could be the culprit. On top of that I got an infection on my lower spine from a spinal tap done a month prior.  India is not the place you want spine problems. Despite the fact that every town has some spinal “doctor” operating out of a wooden shack, there isn’t a dearth of medical facilities I’d trust to go anywhere near my back.  The exception being Fortis Hospital.

I heard of this place through someone who helped me with my research project back in 2005.  Matthew Rudolph was a guest lecturer on the politics of India and later on he basically gave me my research topic. I had contacted him for a meeting when I was back in Jaipur–luckily he was in town– and when I cancelled at the last minute on the way to another doctor, he again provided life saving advice.  He put me in touch with Dr. Gupta (no, not the CNN guy) at Fortis Hospital who helped me figure out what to do.

Fortis Hospital isn’t your average Indian Hospital. For one, it’s sparkling clean, has flat screen TVs in the waiting area, and a computerized record management system. Not that TVs equate with good medical care, but upon walking into a hospital which considerable money has been spent on, a feeling of trust develops. No investor would have spent that kind of money without good doctors to go along with it. So another Jaipur plug — if you get sick in Jaipur, go directly to Fortis.

I wish my time in Jaipur had been filled with more exciting adventures and experiences, like Holi (SEE ROYAL POLITICS OF FACEBOOK POST), but unfortunately it began like most India journeys–in sickness.

Touching Down in Delhi

March 15, 2009

Upon exiting Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi, that familiar and only-in-India smell hit me.  No matter where I’ve traveled in the world I have been unable to find that exact stench, that particular aroma.  It’s a smell of dust caked into the earth, warmed by a brutal sun, with wafts of open latrines and masala chai floating over it.  I’ve found over my three jaunts to India that words are incapable of describing the unending insanity and incredible beauty that is India.  Smells, on the other hand, seems to perfectly incapsulate the essence of India, for me at least.  You can tell someone that India is a country of extremes, from the blindingly bright colors that grace the Rajasthani woman, to the sheer number of people Indians can seem to fit into one moving vehicle–but that wouldn’t really help someone truly understand this place.  Have them just inhale India briefly, pulling in both the god-awful stench of dried urine and the pleasant aroma of cardamom.  There, in that moment, they will understand India. They will feel both nauseous and perplexed. Perplexed because they know they hate the smell of urine, but yet the cardamom gives them hints of something more beautiful, and certainly something more palatable.  That’s the thing about India: it drives you absolutely mad, but yet there is something that attracts you. 

Many people who have traveled to India leave thinking they’ll never come back to this place.  They had become so frustrated with the busses and trains never being on time, the aggressiveness of the touts, or for women, the constant harassment from young Indian men.  But, usually, a few weeks or months upon their return home their mentality changes.  They begin to look back on their time in India more fondly.  It’s not exactly a revisitionist history, but more like an acquired taste that for many is only acquired after leaving.  You might say India is like a fine wine, that ages only after you have drank it, and is only appreciated after digested.  Understanding India in this way has allowed me to keep a measure of sanity during some of my most frustrating times here.  I have to tell myself I’ll appreciate it more later.  Kind of like when you screw something up royally you have to tell yourself you’ll be able to look back later and laugh.

Gregory David Roberts in his novel Shantaram says to appreciate India you have to submit.  I would amend that slightly to say that to appreciate India you have to accept reality and know that you’ll appreciate it later.  The longer you spend in India or the more times you come the quicker that appreciation comes about.  India has 1.1 Billion with a B people, and a long and rich history.  India is not going to change, so you have to remind yourself that no matter how angry or frustrated you get India will stay the same. It’s like when Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon with their minds.  A ridiculous proposition. I’m thankful that on this, my third trip, I have learned to accept India as it is.  Here’s to hoping that the appreciation delay is short.

Hello. Namaskar. Assalam Alaikum. Halo. Julley. Tashi Delek.

February 9, 2009

Welcome to Ballot Box Backpacker — a blog on politics, travel and food.


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