A few weeks ago, Savatri, our maid, had invited us home for a late lunch, which was very sweet. When we got there, after an hour in traffic, her husband just got out of bed and looked pretty miserable, but her two daughters and one son were pretty excited and shyly curious. Her son is 17 and dropped out of school. He is working as a DJ to hire and wants to become a famous professional DJ, much to the distress of our maid. One daughter is still in school, the other works in a call center.
Savatri lives in an area that our Mumbai map designates as a slum area near the Eastern Expressway. For about $7000, she owns a very small house with a cramped living room and kitchen on the ground floor and another bedroom on the top floor. Her children sleep in the living room – the two daughters on the floor and her son on the little couch. It’s all very cramped, but it’s clean and homey, and the television was on the whole time. Soon, the entire neighborhood is going to get replaced to make room for new constructions, and Savatri thinks that the government will provide them with new housing.
As Ksenia and I we were sitting down having lunch while the rest of the family watched us, some curious neighbors stopped by to say Hello. In between Hindi television commercials, the daughters and her mother kept serving us food and orange juice. After the Hellos were said and the lunch was eaten, the maid took us to a visit at her childhood friend and neighbor. Savatri is originally from Kerala and her friend from Goa, but they had moved to Mumbai for better prospects. Savatri’s friend finds Goa boring now, especially since her husband spends most of the year in Dubai. He used to live in Kuwait and was there during the Gulf War and had sworn never to go back to the Middle East, but then he went to Dubai for the money. One of his sons works for Dell now; he still lives with his parents and was sporting a baseball cap.
Savatri is thinking about going to Dubai, but she doesn’t want to work for a Muslim family, because, she says, their families are too big and they don’t treat Indians very well. After yet another tea with our maid’s friend, we took off to make our way home through the Saturday afternoon insanity called Mumbai traffic. Due to the bird flue panic, chicken prices fell from Rs100 to Rs15, and fish went from Rs300 to Rs1000.
So I haven’t blogged in a while, but we are still sort of alive. It’s not that the holidays were particularly time consuming or that nothing happened, but basically it seems like the entire town of Mumbai is getting new roads (and even some sidewalks) these days, so traffic has been, well, even worse. In fact, I’ve been heeding Ksenia’s advice and now let Deepak drive me home then and again – and even he has been quietly complaining about the traffic. They basically ripped open everything left, right and middle between home and work and are slowly starting from scratch. With hammers and little buckets of concrete carried by women in flip-flops, mind you, but there’s plenty of those around, so I guess it could be slower.
Of course, people still like to double park wherever they please and rickshaws still like to wait for customers practically in the middle of the road, and everyone still loves to make a u-turn against all odds, blocking all traffic in both directions. Nevermind the hawkers and slum dwellings that seem to re-appear within days on the shiny new sidewalks, pushing the pedestrians into the road. Anyways, I’ve been getting wild fantasies of running over rickshaws, pedestrians and little children, so I guess that was sort of a sign that maybe I should let Deepak drive then and again.
The holidays were pretty much non-existing. No snow, no Christmas trees (apart from plenty of fake ones in malls and stranger places), no days off, a busy business trip to Kanpur between Christmas and New Year, it was not the best birthday for little Jesus. It got a lot worse when we went to church on Christmas eve and the church choir started to sing, because not a single one of the 10 singers could get out a straight note. In fact, they were all solidly atrocious. Nevertheless, the church was packed to the hilt, people practically sitting on our laps, the fully unmemorable sermon and the, entirely dysfunctional sound system nonwithstanding.
Speaking of sound systems, we have yet to see an event where they use some sort of sound system that actually works. It is a given that there will be ear splitting feedbacks, crackling drop-outs, and some sound technician jumping around trying to fix the unfixable. Of course, if and when it does work, usually for a few seconds at a time, the volume is turned up to deafening levels, probably to make up for whatever was missed during the drop-outs.
But what else is new? Well, for starters, our apartment is missing a large mirror, a curtain rod, and the rod for the terrace awning. All gone since the last days of renovation while we were gone to Kerala. Instead, one wall is already leaking moisture again, and the awing has got a nice little hole now. That hole is new, courtesy of our neighbor who for some reason dropped a heavy steel kitchen utensil from her balcony. I have no idea how that utensil is called, suffice to say that it ripped straight through the awning and would certainly have killed anyone who might have happened to sit under the awning. Maybe when people talk about spiritual India what they really mean is that these sorts of things don’t even faze you all that much any more.
Or maybe they mean people like Deepak, our driver. He is the only one working in his family of mother, wife, kid, and two brothers, but he’s always in a good mood. He had tried to get a job in the army but was too slow a runner, and he tried to get a job with the police, but can’t afford the ridiculously high bribes required for that – $3000 or so, he says, and even that doesn’t guarantee a job; they might just keep the money. So now he’s a driver, and he says: my job no future, but I enjoy. Of course, the big attraction to a position with the police would be the large extra income in bribes, but we can’t even imagine him being able to take a bribe, he just seems more like the type who’d be happy to make the world a better place by standing at some road junction detangling traffic jams.
Anyways, he went out of his way to buy Ksenia a flower for Christmas, and we love him. At Rs7000 a month for five days a week, we are paying him a bit more than the standard Rs5000 or so for six days a week, but I think we’ll make him a big present when we leave, and I am not even sure he would take money. Our maid, by the way, has already asked us whether she can come with us back to New York, and if it weren’t so decadent and illegal, we’d actually be tempted, because she is great as well, even though she was very upset when we got back from Kerala and said to Ksenia: Oh my God, you are turning black! Madam, you have to use bleach creme!
One thing that isn’t illegal, but should be are Bollywood movies. The other day we made another desperate attempt at finding some quality entertainment and so we got Salaam Namaste, which was a big hit last year and apparently caused a bit of a circus, because it features a live-in relationship. Bottom line is, it’s simply and utterly unwatchable crap. How on earth anyone above the age of four can find this stuff funny is totally beyond me. It’s not even Louis De Funes or Jerry Lewis kind of stupid funny, it’s just painfully atrociously unbelievable not funny. It’s way beyond so unfunny that it even passed any chance of becoming funny in a twisted kind of way again. That’s how bad it is, and, yes, that’s pretty bad.
But enough of that. Wednesday is a holiday. I don’t even know which one, really, but we are off to the South again, until Sunday. We might have cramped our itinerary a bit too much, but the plan is to go to Nrityagram near Bangalore, then to Mysore, two nights in Mudumalai, via some weird mountain railway and a night express train to Kanchipuram, and then back home via Chennai.
Our trip to Kerala started at 3am in the morning with the riksha driver making a big detour via the international airport to get us to the domestic airport. I suppose he was assuming that we must be wanting to get out of India, even though we repeatedly told him domestic airport. Or maybe he just wanted to take us for a ride and a little early morning scam. Either way, we were passing hundreds of parked rikshas, most of them with the driver sleeping under a blanket on the back bench. Even Mumbai gets a bit cooler at night at this time of the year.
We landed in Kochi at 8am, and the air was noticeably nicer than Mumbai, even while walking from the aircraft to the terminal, which looked like a repurposed train station. Most men were wearing white lungis, which look very comfortable. It would be nice if one could wear those in NYC, but then again, seeing that all the men in Kerala are constantly playing with their lungi, tucking them in and out, lifting them up or down and adjusting them, maybe not.
The can ride to the ferry for Fort Kochi was a bit of a ride from hell. The roads are much better than in Mumbai, but the drivers are even more suicidal. There was a disturbingly large amount of huge advertising posters everywhere along the 20 miles road, but eventually, we got dropped off at the ferry. Of course it was the wrong ferry, the ones for the tourist, so we got immediately harassed left and right, as we must have been the day’s first prey. But we successfully dodged this second scam of the day and rather than paying Rs400 for the tourist boat, we walked a bit further down to catch the Rs2.5 regular ferry, which had the added bonus of watching the security guy lock up all the passengers behind a steel gate as they were waiting for the boat to come in. Which it did, 15mins late, with another ferry in tow, whose engine had apparently given up.
In Fort Kochi, we had our first of many encounters with riksha drivers who simply refused to turn on the meter. At first, we were rather annoyed, but over the days it dawned on us that maybe this is one of the features of Kerala’s long history of communist governments. Maybe you can’t have the highest literacy rate and lowest infant mortality rate in India, a noticeably more equitable distribution of wealth and a school in literally every village, and still expect the riksha drivers to use the meter. Of course, the rikshas were still pretty cheap, but at two or three times the going rate in Mumbai, one had to wonder whether this was the tourist rate or whether the locals really pay Rs2000 or so a month just for their daily commute.
Kochi is quite nice, but the some of the aggressive sales tactics got a bit on our nerves quite quickly, and almost every riksha driver made the same joke about wanting to give us a ride in his Ferrari, which also got a bit old. One driver tried to tell us that petrol is much more expensive in Kerala than in Mumbai (it is not, as the central government sets the price). A waiter ordered us to sit and relax. And we tried a ayurvedic massage, which Ksenia loved and I found a bit too up close and personal for comfort (I take a Thai massage any time over that).
Somehow the nicest part was to sit in a tea house just a bit away from the main drag. But in the evening we saw a Kathakali performance, and that was great. Yes, there were virtually no Indians in the audience, and it was more an exhibition than the real thing, but it was very interesting and beautiful. We finished the evening with a pretty bad dinner and the next day we had a cold shower and decidedly horrible breakfast in our overpriced hotel – white toast and jam consisting of 50% sugar and 50% gelatin. What the hell happened to idli, we wondered).
After that, we took a two hour bus ride to Alleppey. Ksenia got a seat and observed a very suave guy quietly and slowly slipping a piece of paper into a female passenger’s hands, who took it after fifteen minutes with a coy smile, while I was standing the whole time, watching the communist flags go by. In Alleppey, we got picked up by the cook for the houseboat that we had rented in Kochi, and then we argued with the riksha driver, who also refused to turn on the meter. The cook got quite annoyed with us and said come on, sit down, everything is ready to go, which of course it wasn’t. But eventually our houseboat got moving and we got some food, which was actually quite nice.
We spent 24 hours on the boat, which is about enough for our taste. It’s nice and relaxing at all, but looking at rice fields isn’t really all that thrilling, nevermind the fact that one basically takes the boat through other people’s back yards, where the women wash their clothes, bathe, and brush their teeth, and some children (much better dressed than in Mumbai) ask the tourists for money.
Ksenia and I entered a lengthy discussion about possible explanations for the size of the paddles that the locals use with their little wooden boats. These paddles are basically teaspoon size: they are very small and look almost fragile, with an undersized surface for effective paddling, and they are only one-sided, i.e. they have to change their grip, if they’d like to paddle on the other side of the boat. If they had better paddles, let alone contraptions for actually rowing instead of paddling, they’d be quite a bit faster. After pondering many theories ranging from lack of materials or engineering expertise or rowing muscles, to they aren’t in a rush to get anywhere, to maybe they had never thought about it, we settled on the explanation that maybe they used to use these little boats to go on tiny canals into the rice fields, where rowing would have been impossible and paddling with teaspoons offered the best balance of moving forward and protecting the rice fields.
Anyways, somehow the engine of our own boat gave up pretty much in time for sunset, so we got towed for a bit by another boat, and the next morning we woke up to the smell of diesel exhaust as the cook and the two other crew members tried to repair the engine. Eventually, we got back to Alleppey, where we found a number of touts who didn’t understand the meaning of the word no, but also a bus station attendant with badly deformed legs who pointed us very helpfully towards the right bus to Thiruvalla, our next stop.
Thiruvalla has the only temple in Kerala where Kathakali is performed daily as part of the religious ceremony, and it also has a number of temples in the surrounding villages, so that’s where we wanted to go. But first Ksenia needed another ayurvedic massage, so we went to a place that was listed in our Kerala travel book, but that place really looked more a hospital than anything else. They didn’t seem to have any patients, because the owner/doctor pretty much spent his whole afternoon with us, embarrassingly eager to please us, to make us want to come back tomorrow, and to tell all our fiends. He even reserved a room and drove us to a hotel that he insisted we stay in, even though we had told him a few times that we don’t know how long and where we want to stay and that we might actually leave town altogether.
So instead, we just had lunch at the hotel, pondered our options and called a place outside of town, which sounded much nicer than this hotel in the middle of Thiruvalla. Of course, the receptionist followed us onto the street wondering where we are going, but ah well. We took one of the many HM Ambassador taxi cabs, and even the cab drivers that were immediately surrounding us were laughing with me when I laughed about the price the driver wanted for the 2km ride.
But at least we got there, and we were quite happy with our choice this time, the Vanjipuzha Palace in Chengannur, where it was quiet and green, the food was great and the staff was very helpful. Maybe a bit too helpful, because, since it is more a homestay than a hotel, the staff had no problem asking us all kinds of private questions, insisted on watching us eat while they served us very yummy food, and tried to walk into our room for our wake up call at 7am. Like many in Kerala, they are also Christians, which got a bit annoying when they started preaching about it or acted as if that were a special accomplishment, and downright embarrassing when one of them gave us a tour to a number of Hindu temples while going on about how Christianity is the opposite of Hinduism’s idol worship, as he called it. Strangely, he also was a devout anti-communist, the main reason seemingly being that the communist government was to blame for labor costs being too high and so many rice fields were no longer economical.
Either way, he was quite knowledgeable about the area, and he showed us a lot of things that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In the evening, we went to the Kathakali temple and apparently he was able to tell us what the story was all about just from reading the hand gestures. Amazingly, the Kathakali performance is almost every night from 10pm to 5am. Not there were many people there apart from us, but it was quite impressive. Later on, there was a bit of a cat fight amongst the staff, because he hadn’t told the others where we were going or when we would come back, so they got all worried and showed up at 2am at the temple to find us and take us back to the hotel. Sadly, both staff members were strongly hinting that they would like to help us get themselves or their children a work visa for the US, again emphasizing that they are Christians.
Anyways, we left after three hours of sleep to catch a 6am train to Trivandrum. We only had time for a quick stop at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose inner square was closed for non-Hindus anyways, as is the case in a number of temples, and then it was back to Mumbai, Ksenia’s backpack enriched with a number of fabrics and a hand-made metal mirror she had bought and me already looking where should we go onto our next little trip.
So I’ve been kind of lazy in terms of writing here, but while Ksenia was a bit obsessing about sewing some curtains and pillow cases, I was obsessing about re-writing my photo blog. Neither of us is done yet, but then again, nor are the painters, so our apartment is still a construction site. Of course, the difference with the painters is that they haven’t even started yet. I guess that’s a good thing in a way, because we really were not in the mood to have these guys make a bloody mess again – at least not right under our noses, so we told the landlord to have them patch up the walls while we go on vacation.
So rather than them doing a real full paint job while we are at home, they’ll do a crap paint job while we go to Kerala for a few days, starting tomorrow. Not that they wouldn’t have done a crap job anyways, but the hope is that they will actually be done by the time we come back. One can always hope. We’ll be happy if the currently still barren and exposed walls display some sort of resemblance of paint when we get back.
So our flight to Kerala is tomorrow at 5am. Speaking of hope, the idea is that we’ll catch a few days of semi-clean air in a reasonably laid back setting. Here in Mumbai, whenever Ksenia goes out during the day for this or the other errand (such as getting her own debit card from HDFC, which apparently is impossible, but that’s another story), it only takes about two hours until she’s entirely exhausted. I also have been feeling slightly sick for a good two weeks now, probably due to the air – after all, the daily pollution chart on TV keeps telling me that pollution is at unhealthy levels, usually just barely below hazardous. As if I needed confirmation.
Kerala holds the promise of green landscape, backwater boat rides, and mellow people. I am betting on a huge population of mosquitos as well, so we better unpack our Malaria pills. Everybody keeps telling me that Kerala is great, but then again, a lot of very intelligent people apparently really loved the movie Swades (Our Country). I only saw the last 10 minutes of it, but Ksenia had gotten it, because it supposed to be a thoughtful movie by the same director who did Lagaan, and not yet another Bollywood trivia. Apparently, I only needed to see the last 10 minutes, because there was more use of the word motherland than you can shake a stick at. It was an utterly unbearable patriotic shmaltz production all the way. Still, I was kind of disappointed that I had missed the best scene, which was when the main actor Shahrukh Khan (probably the top Bollywood actor at the moment), who played a grown up scientist at NASA, started to cry like a little girl because he was missing his childhood nanny…
Anyways, in other news, we tried to go to Shivaji Park twice now (to play frisbee), but both times the place was mobbed with hordes of pretty looking followers. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the acronym for Shiv Sena is SS, because they do look like a bunch of Hitler Youth guys (khaki shorts, white shirt, black head gear, dull faces), and they have an insane ideology and plenty of criminal energy to match. There were cops everywhere, including cops with machine guns cruising around on decrepit scooters. Not our scene really, so that was that in terms of playing frisbee in the park.
Alright, so I am trying to finish this on a good note. Ok, the weather is decent, the maid is great, we love Deepak, and we are going to Kerala tomorrow. Work is a mixed bag of good stuff and incredible insanity, but compared to other things, it is a place of retreat, which says something about Mumbai I guess. Which reminds me: a colleague at work told me that he was trying to bribe the MTNL clerk to get his DSL service set up properly and quickly. Believe it or not, the clerk ended up calling my colleague’s father: Your son has very bad manners, I don’t want a bribe, we have a capacity problem! Yes, apparently, everybody knows someone with influence in Mumbai, and it’s ok to complain to grown-up men’s fathers about their son’s manners. I really need to see that scene with India’s Brad Pitt crying about his nanny…