H2O

So last night we went to H2O. It will be the closest lounge bar to our apartment when we move there next week. The place is Rs500 per person for drink/food tickets, and it’s a bar/restaurant on two floors, with a terrace on the upper floor. When we got there, at around 9:00pm, we were about the only people, except for two Western women. The place has a whole army of neatly uniformed waiters, one of them jumping the very second I reached out to touch one of the movable A/C fans that they have on the terrace. Then there’s a few head waiters, and everyone is very friendly and professional, and we don’t even get stared at for a change. The cocktails are expensive, but way less than NYC, and the food is actually fantastic.

For some reason, the music is unfortunately quite atrocious 80s stuff, but ah well. I guess we’ve reached the point where we can do with a little escape from the noise and dirt and stares of the street, so we don’t mind too much. By around 11:00pm, the place is quite crowded with the modern jeans and t-shirt crowd. I think Ksenia is the only woman wearing a saree. The CDs aren’t skipping like they did at The Myst last weekend, and as the evening goes on, either the music got better or we got drunk. We waited in vain to see whether people are going to start dancing, but then again, we were too beat to wait around. Apparently, the place closes at 12:30am, maybe later, if there are no cops around, but we went home, thinking, ok, we can deal with a place like that in walking distance from our apartment.

On The Streets

It’s no secret that very large numbers of Indians are dirt poor, literally. While the middle class is growing in numbers by 10% or so per year, hundreds of millions are very poor. Most Indians still depend on a good Monsoon season – if it rains well, there will be food on the table, if it doesn’t, then maybe not. So millions of them try to get out of the rural areas and migrate to the cities, where they will most likely live in shanty towns, under bridges, right next to sewage and traffic lines. As we get driven around in our car, we see these shanties everywhere. Many families seem to have absolutely nothing, except the dirty shoddy clothes that they are wearing. Many families have miniscule tents made up of plastic wrap and cardboard, with no protection whatsoever against the sometimes heavy rains. Many have slightly less improvised tents or shacks made of plywood or sheet metals. Finally, there’s many families in miniscule brick housing, maybe 10 by 10 feet. As we drive by, these families live literally a few feet away from the traffic, and we can see them sitting on the floors of their homes, eating with their hands. Sometimes they wash outside on the street with a plastic bowl of brown water. There are no toilets anywhere it seems, so business is taken care of on the streets.

Kids are playing around everywhere. The dirt and garbage that makes up their playgrounds is often unbelievable. The kids don’t seem to care, they just laugh and play. At other times, some of them run around between cars at intersections, begging for money, often with their parents sitting around at the corner. I had expected to find a lot more beggars in India, but while there are many, it is not quite as bad as I thought. Around The Gateway of India and other tourist spots, there’s quite few, although most of them are actually hawkers, who can be quite persistent and aggressive. Road junctions and, even more so, churches are pretty much the only places where they will come to ask for money. Any Indian volunteer social services group tells people, especially foreigners, not to give any money, especially not to kids, and we never do, so when we saw some Western tourist hand a kid Rs5 without even stopping or looking much at the kid, we were quite pissed off.

On the other hand, I am also not sure it’s such a great idea to take a picture of them, but I have somehow convinced myself that they probably think it’s fun, so there’s no harm done. Given all the constant staring and mostly very friendly, but still quite annoying, attention that we are receiving just walking around minding our own business, I very much doubt that the Western concept of privacy has a lot ov value here. Obviously, I would take a picture of a muslim woman, but I guess a kid is ok, begging or not.

More Car Shopping

The car shopping saga continues. We started our day by driving around for over an hour trying to find the location of a 12 hour dance festival that was posted in TimeOut Mumbai. The listing had an address and a phone number, and the map promised a vague idea of where the venue might be. Well, either the map or the listing were wrong, most likely both. Even our driver laughed about it, he said the address doesn’t make any sense, because it mentioned both Andheri and Oshiwara, which are quite far apart from each other. Of course, calling the phone number was equally useless, because no-one picked up, and not even the driver was able to understand the brief message one would hear upon calling the number.

So that was that. Next stop was a Bajaj/Tempo showroom in the Eastern outskirts of Mumbai, in Bhandup. Their sales guy had actually visited me in my hotel two weeks ago, to show me some brochures that were trying to be glossy. Back then, he said no problem, I can show you car Wednesday. He never called again. I called him last weekend, he said definitely, I can show car tomorrow. That didn’t happen either. I called him again last Wednesday, he said Saturday, no problem, we have car in showroom. Ok, so we drive to Bhandup from the westside of the suburbs, and it turned out to be a fairly nice drive through the Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a real park with lots of birds, and trees and flowers, and, yes, real tigers. Because residential areas are shooting up everywhere around the park, it happens then and again that some little kids get in too close, and unpleasant, contact with the tigers.

Anyways, the park looks nice, it has two lakes, and we’ll definitely come back here sometime. When we finally find the Bajaj/Tempo, there’s a lot of commotion, we get tea and water and coffee offered, and the sales guy greets us very excitedly. But, of course, he has no car to show. He has a number of autorikshaws standing around, and the Tempo Traveller that he tried to interest me in, but that’s a 15 or 20 seat bus. So now he says maybe Tuesday or Wednesday he can show me the car I was interested in, if not, he says, maybe I should go and buy a Mahindra, i.e. the competition. The Mahindra Scorpio appears to be the strongest Indian SUV in town, but at $19,000 or so, it’s more than I want to spend, and I really don’t need an SUV with 110 or so hp; I’d like a simple one that’s safe in a potential crash, gets over the incredible potholes, lets us go into the rural areas on weekends, and can easily get repaired at every corner.

After that, we needed some lunch. We go to a place nearby, where we were immediately sent into the airconditioned room on the upper floor. That A/C is a bit too cold, so we go back to where we came from, and started ordering from the sticky menu. The whole place is staring at us, especially Ksenia, who generally gets stared at wherever she goes, it is sometimes getting a bit annoying. But the food is great, the chai is good, and we manage not to use our left hands. Behind us are two utterly drunk guys in their late teens, who eventually stumble out of the place. To our side is a few teenage boys shoveling in the food like it’s going out of fashion. We are the only ones with a fork and spoon. The boys constantly look over to us and hardly even pretend they aren’t looking.

Next stop is Chembur, back towards home. Rumor has it that there’s a Tata showroom that actually has cars to show and that would accept credit cards for the initial deposit. When we get there, they do indeed have the Tata Sumo that I had in mind. It comes without any bells and whistles, but has an A/C, even in the base version. One version up has power steering. The top model also has central locking and electric windows, neither of which we need. At around $14,000 it’s not exactly cheap in my book (who has never owned a car in his life), but it’ll do. So then the commotions and negotiations begin. They didn’t like my Indian government issued Foreigners Regional Registration Office ID. They had probably never seen one of those. They said it’s only valid for a year, normally they’d require a passport, which would be valid for 15 years or so. We said, we are very sorry, but we will probably not stay for 15 years, and this is an official document, with an official stamp, issued by the Indian government. It even has our address in there. Unfortunately, it’s the address of our hotel. Don’t we have a phone bill, they ask. I wonder out loud how a phonebill could be more official that this Indian government issued document with my address and a bunch of stamps in it.

So, eventually, they give up. Ok, so what’s next? They’d like a Rs100,000 deposit, and yes, they take credit cards for that. No problem. Well, I guess I should have known, but of course neither the American Express card, nor a regular Visa card is accepted. Indian bank issued Visa/MC cards only. So, after some back and forth, it turns out they will accept Rs15,000 in cash for now, and with that, they will get the car from the factory. Then, next week, I need to come back with the remaining Rs85,000 to give them the balance of the Rs100,000 deposit. Preferably as a DD, i.e. a certified check. Ok, from taht point on, it’ll be another 10-12 business days to have them get the car registered. Finally, the car would be ready for me to pick up, if and when we pay the remaining balance of the Rs600,000 total. Needless to say, the last points took us over an hour to negotiate. The sales guy kept changing his story about what money is due when and for what item of the list of things that need to be done to have the car and keys in your hand. He kept going back to saying Sir, can you give me six lakhs now, by check (six lakhs = Rs600,000)? I kept saying, no I can’t, besides, I won’t give you the full amount untill I have the keys to the car in my hand.

So this went back and forth for a while, the General Manager of the place got involved (or, rather, we were summoned to his office), who tried to tell me that he’s taking a big risk by letting me not give him the full amount now. As he was sort of insinuating that I should be very thankful for his service, he kept saying You know, Sir, I take one lakh now, but then you might change your mind and not want the car. I guess the logic escaped me and I tried asking him, wouldn’t it be rather stupid of me to hand you one lakh ($2300), and then change my mind? So then he tried to explain to me the ways of doing business in India (well, in India, you see, Sir, we have certain rules and regulations…), and at that point I slowly started to sense that he was beginning to feel insulted by my arguing with him (after all, he was probably twice my age), so I left it at that. I think we have a deal, I guess we’ll see next weekend, when I hand them the rest of the deposit.

High-Tech India

My driver was an hour late this morning. He was very sorry, I was half an hour late to a meeting, but I think the reason was because he got us a new car. Well, it’s not a new car, it’s a different car. The same little Maruti (I think), about the size of a Mini Morris but not quite as sexy. At least the left backdoor is now working again. The A/C is just as crap as before; it’s either below freezing or just as hot an humid as outside. I am rather annoyed that I have to pay $800 a month for this, just to get around and to work at all. That’s when you start missing the $70 NYC subway monthly. Of course, this town doesn’t have a subway. 16 million people, but only two suburbian train lines, and a big bus network, that’s it. Everybody suggests to stay away from the trains and busses, way too crowded, way too unreliable, always late, and a little dangerous. Not to mention the fact that neither have any windows or any doors that would close, so if there’s a nice monsoon shower, you are bound to get soaking wet. I have no idea what they will do in this town if and when in a few years half the population has its own car and they are all going to try to get to work in it. There’s just no way anyone will have a commute of less than an hour or two, not to mention the pollution, which is already incredible. But a subway or a mono-rail in the largest and most important city in India? Not happening.

On the way to work we passed a huge crowd of people blocking the entire traffic on a two-lane street, because they had to take a very close look at the motorbike that was just being pulled out from under a big truck. No idea what happened to the guy on the bike (or maybe it was a guy and a woman, her sitting sideways behind him, as they usually do here), but, basically, anyone cruising around on a bike in this town has to be seriously suicidal. Not only are there regular speedbumps everywhere, but there’s potholes everywhere, huge crowds of people left and right and crossing the streets without any notice whatsoever, plus the autorikshaws are always going zig zag, plenty of rich boys in SUVs driving like complete assholes, and of course busses and trucks literally do not stop for anything. Still, helmets are optional, and there’s quite a few bikes with dad and mom and two kids scrambling not to fall off and onto the road. It is quite amazing.

Later today news came out that there was a terrorist attack in London. A couple of days ago, some militant muslims tried to bomb a Hindu temple in northern India, basically to take it back from the hindus, who a decade ago or so had destroyed a mosque that was located at the same place and replaced it with a hindu temple. That time, 2000 people died in the resulting riots. Of course, way back, the place had been hindu to start with, so when the muslims originally came into the area, they replaced the hindu temple with a mosque. And so I guess it’ll go back and forth for the next 1500 years. What’s strange is that some parts of the opposition party BJP called for a strike to protest the terrorist attack. The logic somehow escapes me, and I am trying to imagine the Democrats call for a strike after 9/11. Anyways, the BJP is apparently basically running under the banner of Hinduism and Nationalism, and they are always happy to use religion as a way to get votes, in quite the same appaling way as the Republicans. Not sure what platform the other main party is running on, but since they’ve ruled the country for almost the entire time since independence, with abrief exception, it’s probably safe to assume that they are corrupt buerocrats to the bone.

Corruption is by the way pretty much a given. Students openly say that they got placed at prestigious colleges because they had some family friends. Doctors may refuse treatment unless there’s some upfront cash (and, yes, people die). There’s big signs in the airport telling travellers to report any airport staff who attempt to get a bribe. Not to mention the real estate market, which is full of illegal constructions, demolitions, etc., all courtesy of greased palms.

Closer to home, I am being told that the reason SMS isn’t working on any of our two pre-paid SIM cards is that you have to actually call the mobile phone company to activate your SMS services. Except that the phone number you need to call is always busy, so a nice voice tells you to call later. Today I have actually received the post-paid, i.e. subscriber SIM card. No SMS either though. Now, in the case of a subscriber SIM card, one can actually call to activate SMS. Except, it takes a minimum of seven days untill that activation actually happens. Needless to say, voicemail does not come standard with mobile phone service, pre-paid or post-paid, and noone seems to have it. So much for high-tech India.

On a different front, it now looks like we will move to our apartment next Monday or Tuesday. So the last thing we’d still need around here would be a car. We are still waiting to be able to get some money wired over here, it’s taken three weeks to get that Indian bank account fully setup, meaning: the netbanking password is still in the mail. The easiest thing of course would have been to pay with a credit card, but that’s not an option. The car dealers don’t seem to have credit card machines, or if they do, they insist that the customer pays the 2% extra that VISA/MC/AMEX gets out of every deal. So at this rate, we might have a car in three weeks or so.

Luckily, the weather is actually not so bad. It’s very muggy and quite warm, but not too hot. It was quite a bit worse when I was here in April, and the smells in some of the crowded residential areas were dizzying. Anything from the wildest spices and incenses (often to be found on the little dashboards of cabs and autorikshaws), not to mention the thousands of street food vendors, and of course plenty of piss and shit and molding buildings and god knows what infested puddles of old water. Now I kind of miss them, although I do think of Central Park sometimes. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to it already. I guess I’ll have to go back to Crawford Market, and this time I should shoot some pictures.

A Downtown Stroll

So today we actually got up at a decent time and took the car downtown at 11am. On weekends, traffic isn’t all that bad really, so it only took 90 minutes or so. We’ve given up on trying to remind our driver to keep the A/C low, so we sit in the car with long sleeves or jacket. We let him drop us off where he had picked us up yesterday, which is right by The Prince of Wales Museum, now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastusangrahalaya (just like the Churchgate and Victoria terminals, the airport, and all the roads have been renamed a few years ago, but everyone still seems to call them by their colonial names).

First we needed a coffee. Even though that’s probably the most touristy area there is in Mumbai and even though (or maybe because) Ksenia is wearing a saree, she definitely gets stared at. Not in a hostile way, it’s more like a big what the fuck? Some women seem to appreciate it and talk about her smilingly (or maybe they make fun of that stupid blonde Westerner trying to look Indian). Anyways, the coffee is great, as always. Walking from there along the Gateway of India is not so great. It’s a bit of a circus there and the hawkers are a little overeager.

Somehow I imagined walking down to Cuffe Parade, which is an office/business area around the World Trade Center might be nice, but it turned out to be boring highrises. On the way back we saw a number of sadly deteriorating villas, which seem to have seen better days and would look fantastic, if they got renovated. Some of them are actually locked up and seem to real estate speculation objects. Still, there were a few quite nice ones as well. Then we hit Colaba Causeway, which is pretty lively, and since we had heard of the Leopold Cafe, we went there to get some lunch. I guess we weren’t the only ones who had heard of it, because the place was packed with Westerners, and even the Indian looking people had an American accent. Besides, we waited 15 minuts without anyone coming to our table, and by that time we had read the menu up and down and sideways and were still unable to find much else other than Italian, Chinese, and only the odd Indian item.

Well, that was that then, so we just left and went to a place across the street, which turned out to be the real deal and had great food and fantastic fruit juices. Our doctor had told us to keep our hands off any drinks with ice in them, but we figure in small doses it’s got to be just like vaccination, so we didn’t worry about it too much. It’s late evening now, and it seems we were right. We are still trying to get the hang of eating the bread with just the right hand and apparently we are making progress, because our forks remained untouched. For all the apparent inequalities that women face around here, one thing appears to be no problem, which is breast-feeding your child in a restaurant. Try that in the United States, and you might get arrested, here it’s thankfully all good.

Finally, we went to the museum, which was actually quite nice although sorely missing some benches and air conditioners. Foreigners pay 300Rs instead of the regular 50Rs, which seems fair enough and includes an audio tour. Unlike a lot of museums in say Germany, which appear to get no visitors whatsoever, this one was bustling with Indians. So bustling in fact that Ksenia got her legs grabbed by some guy, but he really was just trying to get hold of his little kid, and it was actually quite funny.

So after all that walking, we were ready for a drink. We had walked by The Sports Bar and T.G.I. Fridays, but those were pretty much the last places on earth we had in mind. The TimeOut Mumbai Nightlife section came up empty, but today’s Times of India had a brief mention of a place called The Myst in the suburbs (they are really not suburbs, but just streched out extensions of the city). Finding that place was a bit of a challenge, but it turned out to be near the mall that Ksenia had spent most of Friday afternoon. It was a kind of lounge bar/restaurant, playing Eminem followed by Enigma. That would be ok, but the CD unfortunately kept skipping on both songs and noone seemed to notice or care, so we ended up having to listen to each one for about half an hour, which was a bit too much, even though the cocktails were quite good and sitting outside was almost pleasant.