Love Letters

Today we were walking around the Hanging Gardens in Malabar Hill, supposedly one of the poshest areas in Mumbai, wondering what it is that made someone decide they should be using metal penguins everywhere as trash cans in the garden. There were penguins everywhere. It was good to see that there were trash cans at all to begin with, but then again, judging from the trash people were throwing across the fences of the garden, we presumably weren’t the only ones who couldn’t quite understand the penguin thing. We also didn’t quite get to see what makes Malabar Hill so posh, so off we drove, further down to Colaba.

After a number of detours through tiny streets downtown, we gave up in the silly idea of finding a parking space downtown. This was after we have been having a coffee, when a bunch of kids came to us screaming very excitedly about something or other. It turned out that they were telling us that the cops were about to tow our car. I had never seen a tow truck in this town and had sort of dismissed rumors about the cops actually towing cars, so I have been getting into the habit of parking anywhere where I didn’t seem to obstruct traffic too much. But there they were, a bunch of guys in blue overalls, plus a smiling cop who actually spoke English, about to tow our car.

Of course, there was the usual back and forth and here and there and give and take that is the regular mode of communication for us. The cop wanted to see my driver’s license and I showed him my New York State license, as I had done in other occasions like these (there had been two of them, both times for being on my mobile while stuck in traffic). In this case, however, the cop didn’t simply look at the NYS license, only to decide that he can’t be bothered to deal with me, but instead he asked what country I am from. I didn’t want to confuse him too much, so I simply said, well, New York is in America. Somehow I came to understand that they wanted me to pay 100 rupees fine at the Dadar police station. I really wasn’t in the mood for that, so I asked him, ok, give me a receipt and I pay you. I don’t know which part of that simple suggestion did the trick, but somehow the cop then decided that he can’t be bothered after all, so he just told me to park elsewhere and left. So I parked the car right next to another No Parking sign, but this one was in a dead end street, and that was good enough, I suppose.

Of course, the kids who had warned me about my car being about to get towed were very eager to get their tip, and I thought, ah well, I really never give money to kids, but in this case, they did a good job, so I gave them two rupees each.

Anyways, so downtown there was no parking of course, except that there are a few official parking lots that cost something like four rupees an hour. By that time we were absolutely starving, so we went to Indigo, which has very good Italian food. Well, the salad and the wine and the quiche was great, the pasta was pretty bad. As a special treat we had the slightly doubtful pleasure of sitting right next to a big table of Westerners who were surrounding Gregory David Roberts, the author of Shantaram, which is currently one of the two must-reads about Mumbai (the other being Maximum City).

After that we went to the National Centre for the Performing Arts to see Love Letters, a play by A.R. Gurney. Their parking lot had a big sign about being full, but this being India, we knew that such things don’t mean anything, so when we asked the parking lot attendant whether we can park there he said but of course! We quite liked the play, actually. Well, first we didn’t but it got a lot better. But what absolutely boggled our minds was that at the end, during the very final monologue of the very good male actor, right in the middle of his quiet tender speech, there were not one, but two people from the audience who walked out. With loud steps, one shuffling her feet, the other clicking her high-heels. The poor actor’s eyes followed one of them as she was making her exit from the audience, and I don’t know what he was thinking, but we just couldn’t believe it, because, well, it was just un-fucking-believable that people would be so incredibly crass and rude to make that sort (or any sort) of exit during a final quiet scene of a pretty good play.

It was really quite amazing. I mean, this wasn’t some kind of improv theater in a garage, tickets were relatively expensive and people seemed definitely upper class. But with all the crotch scratching and spitting everywhere, the car honking from behind in standing traffic at a red light, the blatant staring and Hello foreigner! wherever we go on the one hand and the obedient Yes, Sir! Thank You, Madam! one the other hand, these two walk-outs really get the first prize in our Incredible India Awards.


Last weekend we drove to Matheran, probably one of the most popular and nicest places in Mumbai’s vicinity. Matheran is a hill-station, 2600ft above sea level, and is apparently the only village or town in India where vehicles are not allowed, so it has lovely air and a calm atmosphere, despite being quite touristy. It is only 110km east of Mumbai, but of course that still means a 3 hour drive. Add another hour, if you can’t read Hindi like us. We were kind of hoping to see signs for Matheran or Chauk or any of the other places shown on our fairly useless map, but no such luck, at least not in English. I had noticed on the way to Kashid that there were big signs for Goa for a while and then, all of a sudden, none of that, and we missed the road to Goa. So I was extra careful this time, but we ended up doing a little detour, reversing directions and passing through the same highway toll booth three times, until we finally understood the toll booth guy’s directions. We were meant to actually make a u-turn right at the toll booth, to get onto that little pothole infested dirt track, which then brought us to the road to Chauk. The toll booth guys only made us pay once, but they probably had a good laugh about those stupid Westerners. Try that on the NJ Turnpike, and you probably get shot at.

Anyways, so eventually we found Neral, which is the valley town where we could have taken a little toy train, which takes two and a half hours to climb up to Matheran, if that train weren’t currently out of service, due to the heavy rains this year. So we drove up the hill to where the road stops at a big chaotic parking lot. The road up there was quite something – hundreds of feet straight down on one side, canyons of water drains ripped and carved into the semi-destroyed road on the other side. The road was basically made of clay and had a nice 20% or so climb. One really had to wonder when this road will go down the valley in a landslide, but after half an hour driving in first gear we arrived and left the car on the parking lot.

From there we took horses, which is the main means of transportation in Matheran. Of course, there were two horsemen enthusiastically fighting for our business and before I knew it they literally pulled me in two different directions. We are not exactly practiced horse riders, so the fact that our horses were a bit on the small side was quite welcome. Half an hour later our horses dropped us off at the hotel that we had made reservations for. The place was recommended to me, and it looked like an odd mix of Sovjet exteriors and British-Indian colonial – well, at least the dining hall did, the bungalow-type hotel rooms looked just Soviet and didn’t have any windows to speak of. But they bathrooms were ok, and we picked the one that smelled a little less strong of whatever hotels in India smell like, probably some sort of anti-mold chemicals or maybe it’s anti-cockroach spray or whatever. There also was a strangely shaped and unused swimming pool, a cricket field that had not seen a batsman in 50 years, and something that was threateningly advertised as a discotheque, but which luckily also just turned out to be a threat.

The food was fantastic though. All vegetarian (and of course no alcohol), but very very yummy. The dining hall had a huge mirror with a kitchy etching of some wild horses, but one could well imagine a bunch of stiff British officers walking around in jackboots smoking cigars, so we didn’t even really mind that there was zero relationship between the price they had quoted on the phone, the prices on their price list, and the price we actually ended up paying.

The rest of the weekend we pretty much spent on horses and feet, going from one valley view point to another. People were annoyingly eager to try to nail us down on certain times of the day (or the next day) when they would be waiting for us with their horses, and wherever we went we or our horseman got asked where we were from and which hotel we were staying, but other than that, it was all good. One of our horsemen liked to watch WWF on television, the other one told us that his horse was the fastest horse in town, and of course the blatant staring and hello, how are you never ended.

We took one of the bigger horses once, but that was a bit scary, since it’s not like we actually have any clue about how to ride a horse. We also firmly decided that we don’t like monkeys. There were quite a few monkeys running around, and they are well trained to get their food by scaring tourists off their bags. Just a few minutes after we had seen one of the monkeys grab a plastic bag out of some tourist’s hands, I was sitting down with my bag next to me, lighting a cigarette, and before I knew it some monkey had snatched my bag and ran away with it. I guess I should not have left my bag alone, especially not if it contains a few slices of sweet bread from a Bandra bakery. So that monkey grabs the bag and as I try to go after him, the bastard just retreats right to the very edge of the cliff, a couple of hundred feet of air behind him. And then he hisses at me like a bloody monkey who just stole my bag, which by the way contained my passport, foreign registration card and another camera lens.

But of course that monkey is too stupid to actually open the bag and get the bread. Just like they are smart enough to get scared when you simply pick up a stone and raise your hand, but they are too stupid to throw stones themselves, thank god. So eventually he gets bored with the bag, leaves it right at the edge of the cliff, where there’s already a nice slope, and buggers off. Alright. Needless to say, we have an audience now and one guy deplores me not to go get the bag, because, you know, it is very dangerous and it goes down a couple of hundred feet. Well, yes, we are in India, and thankfully, it’s not like they turned that view point into a plot of concrete with benches and garbage cans on top and nice railings and warning signs around it, like they would in the US. And if anyone fell down that cliff into the valley, good luck with trying to sue the town of Matheran, telling them they didn’t know that falling down the cliff could hurt.

Anyways, so Ksenia was no longer in the mood to use her video camera or to take pictures, but just asked me nicely not to kill myself, as I got onto my knees, crawled towards my bag (go slow! someone yelled), and rescued my US passport and, more importantly maybe, my official Foreign Residents Registration Office book, the one printed on toilet paper, stamped many times by Indian government officials, the one and only document that sometimes allows me to pay local rates for museum entrance fees instead of the foreigner rates, which are usually ten or twenty times as high.

So apart from the nice views and the clean air, that life and death experience was another highlight. Well, plus the fact that it started to rain heavily just as we were about to head back home on Sunday afternoon. Not only didn’t we have umbrellas and weren’t in the mood to ride back to the parking lot in the rain, we also weren’t particularly happy about the idea of trying to drive down that little nasty clay road in heavy rain, because that seemed like just asking for trouble. But then it stopped raining, so we rode back to the parking lot, and of course by the time we got there, it was dark and now it was raining again. Ah well. So we had no choice but to slowly slowly feel our way back down that road, 1st gear all the way, and then back home from there, this time without any detours. All in all, not bad, and we’ll come visit Matheran again some time.

In other news, Ksenia is getting a tooth pulled tomorrow. The Indian tooth fairy hasn’t been so kind to her so far. Also, one of her first exectutive decisions when she got back was to fire our maid. And when I asked her today what’s new in the world, she said well, apparently, policemen in Mumbai are raping women left and right… Ok, so maybe some more on those things another time.


Monday evenings is Dhamaal night at the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. Dhamaal means turmoil, frolic, and is a kind of song which is sung at the Holi festival. Basically, there were eight or so different performers and groups performing Shakespeare-inspired pieces for 10-15 minutes each. Sort of an open mic evening, except better, because they actually had to do an audition. Entrance was free, and the MC was a French-Indian guy.

The place was pretty much packed with about 200 people, mostly hip looking young people. The first performer was a very cute 10 year old boy doing a funny sketch, in English, about how William Shakespeare is actually an Indian guy. There were a number of pretty intense young men performing. Almost all the performances were in Hindi, but it was pretty interesting to me nevertheless. My Scottish expat friend and her French roommate were doing a scene in French, and even though probably hardly anyone in the audience understood a word, it was well received.

There was a very very good young actor doing a Hamlet scene in Hindi, and a very good older actor doing a scene from The Merchant of Venice twice, in two different ways (both with a fabulous colonial British accent). A smart-looking comedy scene had everyone cracking up, and there was a very weird slapstick scene of a bunch of guys pretending to be from Nagaland. Nagaland, a small province in the Northeast, has a number of indigenous tribes, so people were laughing before the troupe even entered the stage. So then they did this strange primitive dance thing around Romeo and Juliet, which sort of reminded me of how Native Americans used to be represented in very old American Western movies. Pretty dumb, a little scary, but generally harmless. It was a bit embarrassing, but people seemed to think it was very funny, which was sort of remarkable, given that the same audience obviously also had appreciated the very serious acting skills of the Hamlet guy.

Anyways, what do I know, after all, I could only get the acting and movements, and didn’t understand a word for the most part. But I will definitely be back to Dhamaal.

In other news, Ksenia is finally coming back tonight, so I am very excited!! Next week we will have our old trusted driver Deepak back. Apparently, he has a salaried job, but he seemed pretty eager to quit his job and work for us. He seemed really happy back when I picked up the Ambassador with him and was looking forward to driving it. Speaking of the Ambassador, I took it to my regular gas station today. They usually also check the oil and water, but what really cracks me up every time is that the guy there seems to like to burn his fingers. Every single time he checks on the oil, he burns his fingers, then laughs about it, and then reaches for a piece of tissue paper to wipe off the oil from the stick. Then he throws the paper on the floor, reaches for the water coolant container, burns his fingers again, and laughs again. It is very strange.

Speaking of throwing paper on the floor, last Sunday I was in a public park in Dadar to play some frisbee with some expats. As I was walking around a bit, I saw three different people throwing their plastic garbage on the floor. Just like that. The park accordingly looks pretty shitty. Another day some guy was throwing his empty plastic bottle out of his car while driving. Just like that. Ugh!

Today is a holiday, Dassehra, by the way. From what I gather, it is a festival in honor of the goddess Durga. Dassehra means ‘the tenth’ and it is celebrated at the end of the nine-nights Navaratri festival, during which hymns are recited to Durga. Apparently, Dassehra is a special holiday for brides and engaged people. All I can say is that somewhere in my neighborhood last night there was a big disco evening, and they played that incredibly awful song by Queens We Will Rock You. Over and over again.


Last weekend, a Scottish expat, her French roommate and I drove down to Kashid, a very small village on what’s said the be one of the nicest beaches in India outside of Goa. It’s about 160km (100 miles) south of Mumbai, which, given the state of the roads means a 4 hour plus drive. They both speak and read a bit of Hindi, so we took the wrong turn only once, since they can actually read the road signs, and understand left and right, whereas I, embarrassingly enough, still can only remember straight.

Apart from the at times disastrous roads, it was a pretty nice drive. We drove down the Mumbai-Goa express highway, which is a little road with one lane in each direction without a median. Of course, that meant that we had to practically stop on the side of the road once or twice, because some maniac bus driver coming the opposite direction took up our entire lane as he was passing some car or truck. But the views from that road are nice, it was very green and mostly fun.

On the way there we passed through Alibaug, a small crowded town by the coast, and then later some monstrous industrial estate that looked like they were mining red stone. Kashid has absolutely nothing other than a green background and a long beach. There were a couple of options to stay over night, and we settled for a small place that had very simple rooms for Rs650 each. Probably overpriced for what it was (and I should have brought my own towels and bedsheets), but ah well.

I also tried to check out the fanciest place in town, but before I could even ask any questions there, I got stopped at the gate, they wrote down my license plate number, and then I was told that they are booked and, no, I cannot get in to check out the place. It later turned out that that was A Good Thing, because we could hear some horrific disco music all the way from the fancy place to our little spot.

As probably was to be expected, but it never fails to amaze me, even this quietest of quiet places, in the middle of nowhere, near a long sandbeach, was not all that quiet. Apart from the disco music coming over from the fancy place, there were a bunch of guys in the hotel who insisted on playing their car stereo, making a lot of noise fooling around, and laughing like little children – at seven fucking AM the next morning.

A similar bunch of boys was hanging around at the beach. The Tata truck parked by the beach, all doors open and car stereo on full throttle. For some reason, they decided it would be cool to play every shitty song on the 80s US charts for five seconds and then play the next one. Of course, they also came over and asked whether they can take a picture of us with them. Not sure why, but this happens very often. I was in a good mood, so I said, sure, why not, but regretted it immediately. When this happens with Ksenia, she always says no, before they can even finish the question.

Anyways, so of course they were taking the picture of themselves with the girls and then they buggered off. Unfortunately, I am now considering not taking any pictures of kids either, because, while it’s cute when little kids want their picture taken (and they always go completely crazy with laughter when they see themselves on the LCD monitor), it is very bloody annoying when teenage and older boys do it.

The beach is pretty long and sandy, but not exactly clean, and the water isn’t exactly blue or otherwise inviting. So we didn’t go for a swim, but that was ok. At least the air was nice and despite the boys, it was quieter than Mumbai. We took a different and very nice route back, and stopped at some place for dinner. It took them a lot of official maneuvering to set up our table and to give us the menu and to take the orders, only to then tell us that they don’t actually have a single thing from the menu, but only some sandwiches or something. So we went somewhere else, and that was great.

In other news, my phone was ringing with the same unknown number that had been trying to call me for days now. I usually don’t take these calls, because it inevitably turns out to be my bank, which for the tenth time is trying to sell me some investments on my mobile phone. Sometimes it is the local liquor store that has delivered beer a few times now, trying to sell me some wine that they apparently just got in. Anyways, so it was Airtel, my mobile phone service provider, and the woman is telling me that I am way over my credit limit with them. I think last time Airtel had called me, the woman only spoke Hindi and was in complete disbelief that I only spoke English.

Anyways, so the conversation went something like this Hello, Sir, you are over your credit limit.I have a credit limit? What’s my credit limit?Excuse me?I didn’t know I had a credit limit. How much is my credit limit?Sir, you are over your credit limit [this goes on in a loop three more times] Your credit limit is 5000 rupees, Sir.Ok, so what’s the problem, my last bill was 8000 rupees, and I paid that, no problem. [Yes, I am spending a fortune on international calls from my mobile these days, but two hundred something dollars is still bearable] – You are over your credit limit, SirOk, so what do you want me to do?Sir, can you pay the bill now?Well, send me the bill and I will pay it. And please stop calling me while I am at work.I am very sorry, Sir, but can you pay the bill now?Well, I don’t have a bill. You need to send me the bill, then I will pay it.But can you pay the bill now, Sir?Well, no, I can’t pay any bills when I don’t have the bill, right?Ok, thank you, Sir. Have a nice day.

So, I don’t really know what to make of that. I guess I will be waiting for the bill now. Meanwhile, I still have the original of my rental lease, which I had needed to buy my car, over a month ago. Now, the relocation company that took care of the legal stuff has been wanting that lease back ever since. Since apparently noone here would ever even think about using the postal service, they keep calling me in the afternoon, asking whether they can pick it up from my apartment, either now or tomorrow. And for many weeks now, I have been telling them, you have to come in the morning, when my maid is at home, or I can bring it with me to work, and you can pick it up there. And for many weeks now, they never actually come by to pick it up, but just keep calling me (sometimes twice a day, two different people from the same company), asking the same question again. Maybe they are hoping that they might catch me on a sick day, but basically, the concept that someone, anyone (maid, mother, wife) might not be at home, is completely foreign to them, it is kind of bizarre, and apparently just showing up at a certain place at a certain time is impossible.

Anyways, I think I need a vacation. Luckily, Ksenia is coming back next week and we are off to Thailand in two and a half weeks!