Matheran

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.

Kashid

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!

Lonavala

Originally, I had wanted to drive out of town yesterday, but then it was raining cats and dogs, so I just ended up going for a coffee at the Juhu Mocha with a Scottish expat whom I had met a week ago at the other Mocha in Bandra. I find myself going to Mocha quite a bit. Anyways, this Scottish expat is a teacher in training at the Mumbai Rudolf Steiner School, which is kind of interesting. On Wednesday she, her friends and I went to a club called Seven, which happens to be located in the sixth floor of a shopping mall. This club actually would have a nice view, except it was of course dark. The music was as usual total crap – why on earth people love Bryan Adams so much that they have to play three songs of it, is beyond me. But the crowd was ecstatic and sang along with full gusto.

Then yesterday I went to Club IX with our American Mumbai tour guide, her boyfriend and another expat from work. Club IX has equally atrocious music, but at least no-one is singing along and the place feels a bit like a Jugendzentrum – i.e. one of those youth clubs they have in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere, where 15 year olds (like me) grew up on beer, ping-pong and foosball (which we called kicker). It had plush brown couches and incredibly tacky paintings, but the Kingfisher was cold, and so what else can one ask for. And despite being called Club IX, there was no dancing.

So this morning I set out to drive out of town. It takes a good hour to actually get out of town, but then heaven starts. Well, at least there’s a real highway with three lanes in each direction, actual lane markings, and a surprising lack of potholes. This is the Mumbai-Pune express highway, and my little silver machine did a solid 120km per hour, no problem. I was tempted to go a little faster, but who knows what happens if you push your luck with a new Ambassador. I wanted to go to the first destination listed in the 52 Mumbai Weekend Getaways book, but of course the important directions are in Hindi, or maybe I am blind, but in any event I missed the exit to the road towards Goa.

So I drove to Lonavala instead. Lonavala is pretty high up in the mountains, and as I drove up, the rain and the fog thickened with every kilometer. When I was still in the plains, the views and the green were really quite fantastic, but here I was, crawling up the mountains to Lonavala. I guess if it weren’t for the fog and rain, the views from up there must be quite spectacular, but as it was, the view was gray. Nevertheless, the place was packed with weekenders. There’s lots of waterfalls there, and everybody just goes take a shower in full clothes. Truckloads of young men (hardly any women), singing and dancing next to their parked cars, drenched from the rain and from their adventures in the waterfalls and rivers.

The air was very nice and fresh, but the weather was too crap for any pictures. I had some chicken masala, which I think ended up being mutton, but what the hell. I was hoping to be able to sit down and continue reading Maximum City, but unfortunately it was a bit too wet and crowded. Maximum City currently is quite the bestseller – it’s written by a guy who left Bombay when he was 14, lived in London, Paris, and New York, and then returned 21 years later. So far, it’s great, because it really helps me be able to actually read the newspaper, as it gives a lot of context to the daily reports on the incredible extent of corruption, the Shiv Sena party (which is basically made up of thugs and religious extremists, and which rules parts of Mumbai), the slum lords (which apparently control the majority of the Mumbai population). Not to mention the currently almost daily riots by commuters who are fed up with the non-functioning railway service, so they frequently start attacking railway workers, block trains for hours and wreck all kinds of additional havoc on a weekly basis.

Weekend In Pune

Last weekend, before the flood disaster, we drove to Pune with my co-worker. Pune is about 100 miles from Mumbai and there’s a three-lane express highway. Still, it took three hours to get there and four hours to get back, due to heavy rain and insane traffic on the way out of and back into Mumbai. But it was worth the trip.

When we drove there, it was dark, and we didn’t see much of the landscape. What we did see where heavy trucks crawling up the Ghats mountain range at the speed of snails – except we didn’t actually see them, because hardly any of them had any rear lights, and a lot didn’t have any front lights either. Of course, that didn’t stop them from using the middle lane or pulling over to pass an even slower truck without much notice. Add to that a good amount of wind an rain and an “express highway” that, while in surprisingly good shape can have curves like Marilyn Monroe only more dangerous, and one can say it was an exciting trip.

Apart from the truly insane truck drivers, there was also a number of people parking their cars right in the middle of a blind spot after a curve, where there is no emergency lane or anything, so basically on the middle of the highway. Why? Well, because they were in the mood to get out of the car for a piss or maybe to take some pictures.

Anyways, we got to Pune at 11pm or so and checked into a little hotel with the obligatory Barista on the grounds, right next to the Osho Ashram. One of the first things I noticed in Pune was the number of hipsters walking around, sitting at Barista, and standing around in front of some modern movie theater/mall. The term hipster of course simply denotes college kids in jeans and t-shirt, as Pune is actually also known as the Oxford of India, due to the number of IT colleges and universities here, so don’t think East Village, as the dress code is rather unimaginative, and labels win over originality any time.

Now, we are anything but hippies, but the Osho Ashram promises to be a very quiet green space where one can relax and meditate. Osho, of course, is the guru that at some point got deported from the US for tax evasion, and whom Western tabloids used to refer to as the sex guru, because he had pretty liberal views on sex. But really, it is just big business, and a pretty weird place. I had somehow expected that we would only find Westerners there, but there were about 30% Indians as well.

The first thing that happens when one gets there is you need to pay Rs1200, fill out a bunch of forms, show your visa, have a picture taken, and get an HIV test done. No, you don’t see anybody having sex or anything, but basically, it’s part of the belief that sex is natural and shouldn’t be discouraged, and besides Osho apparently was pretty paranoid about hygiene, so there’s also big signs everywhere about how not to handle the food, where not to go if you have a cold, and where to wear socks instead of bare feet.

Then, during the day, everyone has to wear a maroon robe, no exceptions. In the evening, they have a huge two and a half hour evening meeting, where white robes are mandatory. At the swimming pool, maroon swim suits only. It’s all quite cultish and rather unenlightened, and of course they want you to buy these things on the premises for inflated prices. On the other hand, the pool is very nice, and they have a sauna and a tennis court (for extra cash). Oh, and taking pictures on the premises wasn’t allowed either.

We also went to a couple of meditation sessions, which are basically a mix of dance therapy and Osho philosophy brainwash. An interesting experience maybe, but why anyone would want to devote his or her life to this sort of thing is a bit beyond me. Add to that the obvious big business mentality – Osho’s Rolls Royce is exhibited right next to his ashes in the “Silent Meditation Area” – and one could easily get pissed off by all of it. Or one could travel thousands of miles from Europe or elsewhere, just to spend a few weeks here, as many people do.

The big evening meeting was in a gorgeous auditorium – a huge square space with a black marble floor and a huge triangular ceiling. Absolutely no coughing allowed for two and a half hours. There were 200 or 300 people there, and the thing starts with some music and “meditative” dancing, which in our case ended with some freak woman hysterically crying out for Krishna, untill she got escorted out. Maybe she was a real freak, or maybe the whole thing was staged, either by her or by the Osho Ashram head of marketing, who knows.

Then there is an hour long or so video of Osho giving a speech. I kind of fell asleep at some point, but basically he was saying that Western religions have been created by the poor and for the poor, with Jesus having been a carpenter and Islam promising 72 virgins after death, Christianity promising heavenly paradise, etc. while Indian religions were created by kings, who had everything materially, and desired nothing but solitude and nothingness. No wonder than that Indian religions have found such a large following among the spoiled and sated Western population, while Hinduism has nothing to offer for the poor in India, he said.

Well, I don’t know, it sounded like an odd mix of half-truths and bullshit, but it certainly seemed to show that Osho knew his target group and built a pretty successful marketing and product line around it, because Westerners are coming in droves. Besides, he probably had trouble getting laid, so what better idea to help him out on that account than coming up with a sexually liberal cult targeted at rich Westerners? I had thought this was a cliche, and maybe it is, but we definitely saw a number of single older Western ladies hanging around with young Indian boys.

In the immediate vicinity of the Osho Ashram is a “German Bakery”, which was crowded with Indians, hippies, and regular travellers, and, as Ksenia observed, the atmosphere was a pretty much like they took everything stereotypical Indian, digested it in California, and spat it back out here in Pune. Somewhat interesting, and somewhat revolting, just like the Osho Ashram itself, which would make a fine relaxed place to go to, as it is clean and green and has nice facilities, if it weren’t for the cultish freaks and the many strings firmly attached to visitors’ wallets.

Anyways, bottom line: I am still not enlightened, despite having walked around in a maroon robe all weekend, looking like I don’t know what.