Astad Deboo

Yesterday I went to the Prithvi Theatre in Juhu to see Astad Deboo, one of the few Indian modern dancers/choreographers. The Prithvi Theatre is quite an interesting venue; I had wanted to go see something there for a while. Tickets are only a bit more than a dollar, but unfortunately there were many empty seats, and probably not because the evening’s program leaflet was almost half the price of a ticket. I can’t say I loved it all, but it definitely had its moments. He is quite fascinating to watch, and the eight dancers (all of them deaf teenage girls) were very impressive.

Afterwards, I went to a place called Seijou, which had its regular French DJ evening. He wasn’t so great though, but the place is nice (and pretty much empty until midnight), despite the assembled collection of blinking red yellow green blue orange lightbulbs. Maybe those were leftovers from Ganpati, or maybe they are already preparing for Diwali or Christmas or something. Or maybe they thought it looked cool, which it didn’t.

In other news, I don’t know what my maid did today, but she must have done something to disturb my local cockroach population, because when I got home, there were five big and fat ones running around in the kitchen. The strategically placed can of NEW! HIT! COCKROACHES! came in handy though, so that was the end of that. Unfortunately, I also dropped my bowl of yummy Indian food, so there was a nasty mix of dead cockroaches and food on the kitchen floor, and me without any idea where the maid keeps the mop. I do remember her buying one, or at least asking for money for it, but I ended up using old issues of the Times of India, which gave it a nice original touch I felt.

I also ventured out onto the Western Express Highway for the first time in two weeks or so, just to see how the highway construction mafia is coming along. Not surprisingly, they are doing great, and so the highway still looks like one of the tougher stretches of the Paris-Dakar Rally. So I was thinking, if even a Texas DA can manage to finally get Tom DeLay by his balls and hopefully throw the guy in jail, I wonder how long it will take … But, ah well, I guess until then I will take the local roads to get to work. And this weekend I am set on getting out of town to Kashid, which is supposedly a very nice and quiet place, one of the nicest beaches outside of Goa, and only three or four hours outside of Mumbai.

The Insanity Called Commute

So now I have a lovely car, and I am driving it. Myself, to work every day. What kind of looked crazy from the backseat of my former driver’s car, can now indeed be diagnosed as exactly that: insanity. The morning is not so bad, and today was actually pretty quiet. I take the Western Express Highway and after about 30mins and a few potholes here and there, I am at work. The way back, however, is absolutely mind-boggling. At around 7pm, it’s usually already dark, and today it was raining a bit as well. Not that the roads would be slippery or anything – the fact is, The Western Express Highway on Friday evenings is never quite express enough to anywhere near any speeds where one could slip.

The best part, however, is getting onto the highway to begin with. It’s about 3km or so through residential areas (well, in Mumbai, everything, literally, is a residential area), on pretty narrow lanes, each occupied by two or three cars each direction. There’s thousands of pedestrians fighting for space with the traffic. The road has fantastic potholes that make the cars look like little cogs in a whirlpool, or maybe toilet bowl.

I knew I was in a bit of trouble when a riksha coming the opposite direction got close enough to fold in my side mirror. Matters got a little more exciting when another riksha cut me off and scratched the left front corner of my car. It was my turn next when a truck to my right started swinging so heavily from the potholes that I saw it coming within fractions of an inch of my sidemirror, so I took a little swing to the left to evade him and immediately made contact with a riksha. So I heard a nice scratching sound and felt very sorry for my left door.

Drivers around here are incredibly impatient. The traffic is not moving one bit, there is absolutely no movement in sight in front of me, and the guy behind me keeps honking his horn like his life depends on it. There’s pretty much zero courtesy – instead it’s an all out war for every single inch of space. The Western Express Highway has a couple of stretches that could be considered fast road, but there’s other stretches where one has no choice but go down into first gear to make it over the potholes relatively safely.

Of course, the highway is filled with rikshas as well, and just like on the NJ Turnpike, the very slowest cars are happily crawling along on the center lane. Except they are passing two wheelers (helmet optional, flip-flops mandatory) and sometimes the odd pedestrian. Still, some folks in their Hondas and Hyundais will use every split second opportunity to zig zag their way around the mess, always with the hand firmly attached to the horn, never too shy to come within inches of anything the pass.

I don’t think accidents happen all that much – traffic is generally too slow for anything serious to happen, and the bumps and scratches are just part of the deal. Of course the absolutely last thing I’d like to happen would be to hit a pedestrian. As it is, no matter what, it would be my fault – if the guy walks onto the street without looking, as seems to be the custom, it doesn’t matter. Interestingly, however, if the driver is a woman, at least that’s what I was told, it is never her fault.

Anyways, so my commute back home usually takes an hour or more, for a distance of about 20km. And at the rate of three little bumps per day, my car will very quickly develop some lovely patina. I guess that’s the way it should be, although the amount of cars with dents and scratches is actually pretty low, so maybe this just means that I’ve got to learn how to drive. I thought Italy was pretty good practice, but really, it’s just elementary school compared to the masters of the Mumbai roads.

A Commute From Hell

So it took a quick 20mins to get from work back to my posh hotel yesterday, but today it took a good 2.5 hours to get to work. In the morning, the usually desperate attempt to explain to either anyone from the hotel’s car pool management army and/or the cab driver where I want to get to. This morning, everybody seemed to be in clear agreement: Yes, Sir, no problem. So I guess I can read the Times of India and relax. Unfortunately, when I look out of the window, we are in a huge traffic jam at the end of the Western Express Highway, going into the opposite direction of where we need to go (i.e. south instead of north). 40mins later we finally get off the so-called highway and I am trying to explain to my driver that he needs to turn around and get back onto the highway going north. It turns out that the driver doesn’t understand a single word of what I am saying and my body language also appears to mystify him completely. Well, the sentiment is mutual, so eventually I just make him stop somewhere in the middle of traffic.

Stop he actually understood, but he wasn’t one to give up easily. As I try to hire a different cab going into the opposite direction, he catches up with me and literally begs me to get back in with him. He is a very very old man with a very bad cough. Luckily, I find a translator, so, surrounded by a whole collection of spectators, I try again to point out where I want to go. She translates and after many gestures, laughs and smiles, she confirms: Don’t worry, Sir, he got it now.

Happily, we are back on the highway. The Western Express Highway is literally a race track that is in pretty bad shape, has no markings whatsoever, is filled with two-, three-, four- and more-wheelers passing left right and in zig zag. There’s the odd traffic light then and again (it seems these are one of the few traffic lights anyone actually pays attention to in this town), and here and there you get pedestrians on the side of it, and of course, a number of seriously suicidal ones who will either sprint, or, equally frequently, who will extremely slowly, entirely unfazed by anything at all, walk to cross the highway. It is serious madness.

Even better, 20mins or so later, I realize that I am not recognizing the landscape. There’s a few hills in the distance, but they are on the left of the road, when they should be on the right. Then again, I might be wrong and not remember correctly, but I get the sneaking feeling that we are totally wrong and I make the driver pull over, right next to a long line of auto rickshaw drivers on their second breakfast break (on the highway). Ooops, it turns out we are on the Eastern Express Highway, not the Western. Well, that’s just entirely wrong. I think I need a cigarette.

So, I guess we’ll need to cut through the suburbs of Powai to get over to the west side. We pass an impressive roadbridge construction site where an army of women carry cement from one corner of the site to the other. They carry big buckets of that stuff on their heads, wearing incredibly shoddy clothes and flip flips, in the middle of dust and dirt and traffic at 36 degrees celsius. All of the construction workers are wearing flip-flops, actually. Forget about hard hats, gloves, or anything like that. It’s quite unreal.

Eventually I get to work and decide that I better get a car plus driver on a daily basis, at least untill I have bought my own car, which I am planning to do. By the evening, I got that sorted out, and get driven back to my hotel in a fridge of a car. The driver sort of understands me and I sort of understand him, but he insists on having the AC turned to subzero temperatures. He also drives like a complete maniac, but I guess that’s the way it goes.