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Jaipur

MUMBAI – The cab from the Jaipur Airport to our hotel was driven at such a relaxed, normal pace it made me nervous. I looked L1001608around, wondering what nefarious activity this could signify. It appeared that everyone else was driving at a fairly relaxed, normal pace and that I had been in Mumbai too long. A day or two later I went out in the evening to walk around the old Pink City. I took a rickshaw back to the hotel during rush hour. The driver asked if I had ever seen such awful traffic. I said I lived in Mumbai. “Oh,” he replied, “That is too much bad.”

IMG_7236Jaipur is the capital of the mostly desert state of Rajasthan in north-west India. Even while still on the plane, it reminded me of Arizona. The approach is over brown desert and dark, rocky mountains and the first thing that strikes you upon stepping off the plane is the dry air and the smell of dust and spice. Preserved by the arid climate, the buildings do not have the scabrous, underwater appearance that everything but the solid British stone buildings in Mumbai do. Even the piles of trash in Jaipur appear cleaner.

It takes a while to shake off the stress and pace of The Maximum City. We arrived at the Sarang Palace Hotel in a foul mood. Still relative novices at traveling with children, we still had the subconscious expectation that one could arrive at a hotel, lie back, and relax for a few minutes. A hotel, to a three year old, is not a place of relaxation or romance, but a gymnastics course of bed shaped trampolines and new furniture from which to launch surprise ninja assaults. I think that too much time in Mumbai gives you a skewed perspective of everything else. A friend recently returned from Thailand. He told me his first trip overseas was to Bangkok and he remembers how hectic and chaotic it seemed at the time. Now, after a year or so in Mumbai, he thinks of Bangkok as an oasis of calm, clean order. There are times that I long for the quiet and efficiency of Honduras. These are all signs you have been in Mumbai too long.

In reality, Jaipur is plenty chaotic, but there is still a certain laid back feel. With a population of a little over three million, it is stillL1001612 tiny compared to Mumbai. Travel a short distance in any direction and you are in the countryside. Jaipur is, perhaps, the India of your Orientalist subconscious with rickshaws and camels, elephants painted with Hindu symbols, mountain forts with pointed archways, and temples on hills guarded by monkeys and sadhus.

Another thing traveling with children allows you to do is to be a shameless tourist. Guided tour? Absolutely. Silly hats? Why not? Elephant rides? Without a doubt. I look forward to our first Disney cruise. Of course traveling with two children, a toddler and an infant no less, anywhere in India, is far from a Disney cruise. Like much of the world, there are few regulations and even fewer safety rails. We traveled by motor rickshaw, with plenty of rushing wind and no seat belts. We rode pachyderms, an animal known for its intelligence, memory, and occasional murderous rages. A cobra (presumably defanged, it was a sad cobra) was draped me and my son. Up at the monkey temple (actually a sun temple but home to many vicious primates) we were well received. Perhaps it was because we brought our kids, maybe it was our eldest son who was a diplomat from the day he was born and could work a D.C. cocktail party by the time he could walk, but we were invited to sit a long time inside the temple, were hand-fed sweets, garlanded with marigolds, and my wife and son’s hands painted with henna designs, bindis painted on all of our foreheads. It may be that we were dedicated to the sun god and his legions of Hanuman avatars, but we escaped handily enough. We walked down the long hill, watching other sightseers being threatened by the monkeys who left us alone. I like to believe it was professional courtesy on their part.

P1010438We toured the Amber Fort, visited an elephant village and the Monkey Temple and met the man I believe to be the Pirate King of the TukTuk drivers. To me, the most fascinating thing was the bazaar section of the Pink City. Colonnades run in every direction housing shop after shop. The shops sell everything from the famous textiles of Rajasthan to cheap bangles, brass idols, and gemstones. Then you turn a corner and the shops are selling furniture, farm implements, and electronics. Walk a little farther into the domain of the spice dealers and the air is thick with the scent of turmeric, so heavy with the vapor of chilies that your eyes and throat burn, and then redolent of theP1010387 4 tea being scooped out ounce by ounce and pound by pound. Each major street eventually leads to one of the city gates but the place is like an alternate universe. Just when you think you have your bearings you are lost again and I found the best way to navigate, as I often have in India, is by noting landmarks and using a compass. The north gate, after all, will still be in the north. But perhaps the best way to navigate is to wander until you are lost then hail a rickshaw, observe the worlL1001667 2d from its exposed perch, and be slowly and steadily peddled to your hotel by a man who actually knows where he is going.

I could easily have spent the days we were there and more besides simply wandering the markets, watching the sun and shadows shift through the colonnades, setting the streets aglow. Like Arizona, the evenings were long with fantastic skies but all in all there were far more elephants and camels. Coming home to Mumbai we felt tough. Sure we could live in a place like Jaipur with its dry air and charming architecture. But we lived in Mumbai, The Maximum City. We had made it there so we could make it anywhere.

Street Still Life

Walls are closets, tarps are roofs, sidewalks are homes.

Walls are closets, tarps are roofs, sidewalks are homes.

Alibaug

IMG_6121MUMBAI—The Arabian Sea is a shimmering blue-tinged gold and the tall palms a fringed wall of green. In between are the sands of Alibaug’s beaches. You can imagine those beaches have changed little since British colonists saw them from the decks of tall ships bound for old Bombay, or Shivaji’s armies marched by few hundred years before. Alibaug is a getaway spot for locals fleeing the crush of Mumbai. There are scores of hotels and guest houses but it is far off the international tourist trail. It is relaxing, at least compared to the non-stop Mumbai hustle of 30 million people and all of their machines and animals. The air seems clean and it is fairly quiet. There are breezes and trees and open spaces to rest the eye upon. The city of Alibaug itself is unlovely, nor are the beaches the white sands of Waikiki. But they have what beaches require, sun, sand, and surf and are not trash receptacles like Chowpatty and Juhu Beach in Mumbai. All in all this is what I expected. What I did not expect is what a visually surreal place Alibaug can be.

You can drive to Alibaug from Mumbai — and an interesting drive it is — through industrial flat lands, small towns, and forested mountains teeming with monkeys. But the drive is long and since the point of Alibaug is to escape traffic, there is P1000932a much more pleasant way to get there. Each morning ferries packed with holiday makers depart from the British built Gateway of India down in Colaba. The top deck at the stern is the place to be. The morning sun makes the Gateway, that massive arching monument to failed empire glow gold. Other colorful ferries rock gently at anchor. When it is full, the ferry pulls away in a cloud of diesel smoke but a little out to sea the forward motion and ocean wind clear the air. The boat is followed by flocks of gulls, swirling and swooping, coming almost close enough to touch and everyone shrieks back at them, throwing bits of breakfast to the birds as tiffins are opened and food passed around.

The ride is a pleasant hour or so, and at the dock you take a large motor rickshaw for an additional 20 minutes, puttering along down country lanes overhung by trees. We had booked a small guesthouse, taking one of the two rooms in a village outside the city. It became a lovely haven over the long weekend. The caretaker would ask us what we wanted to eat (the choices being prawns, fish, chicken, or vegetables). We would tell him and he would take off on his motorbike and come back with the fresh ingredients. He and his wife would cook them into delicious fresh meals while our older son played with the village kids and the older women came to take turns holding the baby, giving my wife a well needed rest.
The ferry left Bombay about 8:30 in the morning, and we found our guesthouse, ordered lunch, changed, hailed a rickshaw and were at a nearby beacP1000672h by 11 a.m. To the left and right were open, empty sands but for a few hundred yards in the middle was a vision of Indian beach weirdness. Brightly colored carts, streaming with flags, galloped through the surf pulled by tiny horses while the riders took selfies. Several entrepreneurs were giving camel rides and those ships of the desert were silhouetted against the sparkling waves of the midday ocean. Farther out were the canopies of parasailers and 20 foot inflatable tubes were pulled back and forth by motorboats while screaming families clung to their sides. In the middles of all this people were laying out, playing in the sand, swimming, eating snacks, playing soccer and cricket, and most of the women were dressed in bright red and orange and green and gold saris while they waded in the surf. It all melded into the weird cinematic vision of a Subcontinental Fellini. Like many scenes in India, I saw it in monochrome. There is always a tension here, as a photographer, between the vibrant color of India and the strong light, the shapes, shadows and silhouettes that translate so well in black and white.

The next day brought more strangeness. We took a motor rickshaw the other direction, to the town of Alibaug. The state of Maharashtra is littered with forts. They are everywhere, atop hill and mountain, dominating passes and approaches, commanding islands and bays. Alibaug, or Kolaba fort as it is alternately known, lies offshore about a mile at high tide. At low tied it is easily accessed by walking across tidal flats which are utterly bare save for the wave sculpted ripples of the sand. If you dP1000792on’t feel like walking, there are more camels and pony carts which will race across the sand, carrying you out to the old fort. These conveyances are silhouetted against the flat landscape and the sea is a dazzling mirage of light in the background. The fort itself is interesting. There is an Archeological Survey of India office on site and digging into the fort’s past is ongoing. Many of the layers of history are there to see without a shovel: a Hindu temple still in use, the refuse of partiers, some of which will add to the historical record, and several large British canons, cast in Sheffield. It was the tidal flats, however, that held my attention. Something of the landscape and the people crossing it had the appearance of a pilgrimage. The landscape was ocean and desert and tropical at once and each image, whether photographed or kept in memory, seemed to hold some coded memory, some element of archetype and myth.

P1000783Alibaug is not a glamorous destination. It is a local beach town, a quick getaway from one of the world’s largest cities. Cheap, friendly, and basic, it serves well its stated purpose. But it occupies a larger psychic space and seems much farther away than it is. In the daily grind of Mumbai traffic, car horns, yells, streets jammed with busses, trucks, motor rickshaws, the stink of diesel, humans, animals and life, Alibaug is a place of sunlight and open space with the outlines of palms and camels etched on a glittering backdrop of the Arabian Sea.

Ganpati

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In the Countryside

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There is no try.

L1008082 2MUMBAI—In the literature, those accounts of mostly British people who have passed through here, Bombay is a way point. It is a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else, a place you stop for official business, training, garrison duty, before marching off or setting sail for points beyond. Of course the 20 million or so people who live here, who make Mumbai their home, might object to this viewpoint, might, if they took the time out of their busy lives, tell you that this place is the destination. Mumbaikers are fiercely proud of this city and their place in it, of its size and speed and ability to make fortunes and crush dreams. People look into Mumbai, towards Mumbai. For thousands and thousands of people from all over South Asia, this is the destination.

I have written this before, but it bears repeating. Mumbai is not an old city. The history is complicated, like most history on the Subcontinent, but before the Portuguese arrived here in the 16th century, the area was home to fishing villages. What is now India’s Maximum City, was, in fact, seven islands that have since been joined together in massive land-reclamation projects. The fishing villages are still here, by the way, ancient outposts clinging to the rocks right inside the city, and scatted up and down the coast as you get farther away. But the city itself is little more than 500 years old, a blink of an eye in a country whose antiquity is still being unraveled, one of the founding cultures of mankind.

No trip is ever how you imagine it. In no season do you do all the things you dream of. I believe this is why the Buddhists preach the avoidance of desire, the denial of expectation. Desire and expectation lead to wanting what never is, never was, never can be. Desire for a specific outcome, narrowly defined, will always end in disappointment because the thing you wish for will never be what you get. We have been in Mumbai for six months now. As always, I am surprised by the swift passage of time and the unmarked transition between the strange and the mundane. In half a year I have been outside the city limits a handful of times and those were not long journeys: a day hike to an ancient hill fort, some documentary work in nearby communities,  a few short ventures into the surrounding countryside. All of India is out there and I have seen Mumbai. There are reasons for this, but for the most part they are utterly mundane reasons. First and foremost is that we are not on vacation. We live here, work here, and are raising our family here for two years. Days and weeks and indeed months are taken up by the quotidian tasks of establishing a household. Still more time is taken up by the process of acclimatizing. For the first months it seems like you are at least 20% sick 80% of the time. There are weekends you would like to go away but then it rains for 72 hours without ceasing. You have social obligations, shopping to do, reports to write, work to edit, and for all your desire to see Varanasi, Kerala, Jaipur, Kathmandu and Goa, you also realize that in two years you will barely get to know the fascinating city you live in.

I feel strangely at home here. Not in the sense that I wish to buy property, settle down, and raise my grandchildren, but that beyond the first rush of strangeness, there has always been something deeply familiar about Bombay. Coming here for our first posting seemed almost inevitable and when my wife was assigned to Mumbai, my first thought was, well, of course

I am reminded of something the great traveler Blair Schweiger wrote to me a few months back. She told me of the Spanish word, “enseñado,” and one if its meanings as a state where you begin to feel comfortable in a new place, to have reached a certain equilibrium. I was thinking about this the other day on my way to a meeting. It was a pleasant day, mild by Bombay standards. I had planned to hail a cab but by the end of the block I decided walk. I knew the route well, a half hour of dodging cars and motorcycles, threading through markets, cutting through the train station and going from sidewalk to street and back again. To get to my destination there are only three major turns, but contained within the route are hundreds of small, separate paths. Walking down the street is like giant three-dimensional chess match with potentially fatal consequences for a misstep but somehow that too becomes no more than what it is. Sometimes I think I have reached that state of enseñado and other times I think it is a constantly receding goal, like fluency in a foreign language. There is always more to learn, always a deeper understanding to be acquired of a place, a language, another person.

I traversed the sidewalks, made a certain detour and was stopped by a flood of people filling the street I was going to cross. From a nearby doorway pallbearers carried a dead man on a white-draped bier. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the people praying around me, pressed my palms together and silently said my own kind of prayer. It was an old man with a patriarch’s white beard. Incense spiraled up from around his body. The man at the front of the bier scattered rose petals back over the corpse. I caught a glimpse of the face in the morning sun, serene, grey, slightly swollen with a death unobscured by makeup and embalmer’s tricks. They carried the man a short distance to a waiting hearse and as they passed traffic began again. The walkers started walking and the cycles and cabs pressed ahead on their various missions, as did I.

 

In the Bazaar

IMG_5194MUMBAI—At the risk of offending Edward Said, I will describe the famed Chor Bazaar. It is in a Muslim quarter of old Bombay, its narrow lanes caked with the accumulation of Bombay’s years and history, despite daily sweeping, one darkly glittering storefront after another, whose jumble of wares, all the amazing, exotic junk and treasure of the mysterious Orient, line shelves in passageways barely big enough for a grown man to pass turned sideways, shelves that reach up into shadowy, cobwebbed recesses and spill out onto the street. And again, all deference to the learned Mr. Said, but these things are exotic by any measure.

In a small store on Mutton Lane, are shelves and baskets and piles of sharpened iron and pointed steel, stacks and sheaves of old weapons: armored fists sprouting tiger-claw blades, steel Mughal bows, a breastplate in the female form, silver filagree work over steel breasts worn, says the man, “By the famous Muslim warrior women of Lucknow,” and up in a dark corner, hanging from the ceiling, another such breastplate but of plain iron and of massive size, “Worn by a Lucknow warrior woman who was 7 feet tall!”

Other shops have different specialties, furniture, architectural salvage, vintage Bollywoood posters or just a dense accumulation of antiques and curiosities. There is a coiled bronze cobra in front of one, near life size, and I ask my driver what it is for. My driver, a sober man of a certain age, a southern Indian who pilots the car through chaos with remarkable sangfroid, says sharply, “You do not want this, sir. You put this in your house and the real cobras will come.” I know good advice when I hear it.

We walk, waiting for all the shops to open. Bombay is a night city and wakes late. Most businesses are rolling up their shutters by about 10 a.m. We walk down one street and across a busy one to the butcher’s stalls. The air is heavy with the scent of dead flesh, the atmosphere a palpable miasma of blood and meat. There are mountains of ribs, racks of dismembered parts dotted with black flies. My gorge rises and I have to fight not to visibly gag. I see rows of hanging things I cannot at first identify. They slowly come into focus and my mind sorts out the anatomy. I am seeing an assemblage of the liver and lungs of a goat hanging from the stretched trachea, dangling over the goats’ severed heads. A man in a spotless white kurtah and skull cap sees my gaze and offered to make me a deal. I politely demur and indicate I am still looking. We spend a few minutes examining the piles of fish and about the time I stop retching I begin coughing, my lungs involuntarily spasming, trying to expel what they have taken in. We leave and cross the street back into the Chor Bazaar area and return to the arms and armor shop.

It is my second time here. A few weeks ago I bought a scimitar, somewhat crude, made by a village blacksmith, but nonetheless of fine curves and lines, well balanced for something so heavy. The shopkeeper begins to bring out the things I had shown interest in before, as well as pointing out some new acquisitions. The scimitar has a mate, a smaller blade obviously forged by the same smithy, there is the armored fist with the tiger claws and a matching long-sword for the other hand, some swords with fine, English blades set into Indian hilts, a sword cane with silver filagree work, and various pieces of armor.

He offers me a chair. I wave it away and sit crosslegged on the floor opposite him and we begin. I look over the things, some of which I intend to buy today if we can reach a deal, some I wish to bargain for at a later date and others I have no interest in. The rhythm of the bargaining is different here than in Guatemala, where I have a fair bit of practice in the art. Something of the overall dance is the same, but the pace is more courtly. Tea is offered and accepted. Word is sent and it comes from down the street carried on a tray by a boy. It is scalding hot, in a clear, straight glass, sweet and milky and redolent of cardamon. Often, in Central America, the initial number would be double or more the final price. Here, it seems that the margins are slimmer. To offer less than half, as I found in earlier forays, is insulting and will clearly not be accepted. I adapt my strategy and numbers. As well, my Hindi is rudimentary, whereas my Spanish was good. The seller speaks English, the numbers are always in English, but I know there are subtle cues I am missing.

Do not be in a hurry, my driver has counseled me. He is right, of course, and this is my second dance with this seller of antique arms and armor. This works in my favor. He knows that I come back, that a deal I am satisfied with will lead to more deals in the future. I have also shown I have knowledge of merchandise, of blades, of metal, of arms. I point out that the locking mechanism on the old sword cane has been replaced in modern times. The machine cut threads of the screw and the welds give it away. He agrees that this is true. Perhaps I am still interested, but not at that price. The cheap metal swords with flashy engraving were dismissed out of hand on my first visit and now he does the same. “Tourist junk,” he sniffs in distain as he sorts through his stock, looking for things I might like. The plainer, deadlier, more valuable blades start to emerge from the corners, from behind things.

I throw out a number for the two pieces I want. He counter-offers, but the pause tells me I am close. I add a plain, but solidly made khattar knife into the mix and offer him his last number for all three. He meets that number plus 500 rupees, but I need to stand firm, it is all the money I have. I get up, leaving the things on the floor, shrug my shoulders, go outside and discuss the warrior woman’s breast plate, a Mughal helmet with a chainmail coif, and an unadorned spear head.

My driver is an observant man. He is learning my tastes, my interests, my rhythms. He has a good eye and he spots an iron trunk from the days of the Raj under some junk. It is pitted, its black paint worn away, but it has good bones. The trunk too comes into play, ultimately adding another 1,000 rupees to the bottom line. I tell the shopkeeper that I don’t have that much and it is the truth.

“Pay me next time,” he says, smiling. We come to a deal and shake hands.

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Out of the City

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MUMBAI—I had been too long in Mumbai. I had been too long with only the banyan trees of the city with their long tentacle roots for a taste of nature, the only horizon the Arabian Sea rolling in at the edge of the metropolis. But then one person introduced me to someone who introduced me to another and an organization of good repute needed the kind of work I do. Early one morning I found myself pushing thorough the commuter crowds onto one of the legendary Indian trains. After a time the city became sparser and there were open fields visible through the grime and rain smeared window. Then I found myself in a car and then another car and my spirits lifted as we drove over a rise and the land fell away into hillocks and shining rice paddies as far as I could see. The sky was dark storm grey and the air tasted of rain and I could hardly wait to stretch my legs and walk on an India not covered in concrete.

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On the Streets of Mumbai

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