Sunday, April 18, 2010


I was thinking about yesterday's tour of Bombay this morning. OK, to be precise, I was in the loo and I was thinking that I should have gone a lot easier on that hot green sauce they served with the curries at lunch.

Somehow, though, that comes close to capturing my reaction to seeing this city for the first time. It was interesting at times, but left me feeling so ambivalent I don't know what an honest answer would be to the question of whether I enjoyed seeing the city. I guess, on the whole, seeing anything interesting is worthwhile. But enjoyable? Not so sure.

I had braced for lots and lots of people - and to be honest, lots and lots of very poor people. Bombay (now called Mumbai) is either the second or third most populous city in the world, depending on whose lists you look at. And the depth of poverty here is well known; you don't need to visit here to know all about that.

On a day where temperatures soared into the high 90s and the humidity was palpable, we spent about six hours on a tour checking out the highlights of the city.

And the lowlights. That was definitely the case on our last stop of the day when we visited the Thieves' Market, which sounds romantic but is actually depressing. Block after block is filled with shops that sell junk - and I mean junk, as in stuff we would throw out rather than use. Like the best mall, each shop seemed to specialize. While we may have Borders for books and Bath and Beyond for homeware, they had shops specializing in such things as rims for bicycle wheels or broken religious statues. What the market lacked, though, was a good anchor store - or perhaps it had one and I just didn't recognize it as such. It did, however, have dozens of goats wandering around - kind of a petting zoo for tomorrow night's dinner.

We also stopped by the Ghat - a massive area where men called dhobis wash and dry clothes. This is a traditional, inherited job in India - although watching them work made me think it was the sort of inheritance you give to a kid you really don't like because he looks so much like your next-door neighbor. The washermen do it the old-fashioned way making their own detergent and bleach and pounding the clothes on the rocks. The water they are working with starts fresh in the morning but is not replaced, and by the time we saw it it was grey, approaching black. Yet looking at the clothes hanging to dry, it is amazing how clean they are. The whites really are whiter than the ones you see on the TV ads.

LK, also known as The Launderer, was fascinated. Besides doing the hard yards with my XX-sized wardrobe, she is fascinated with hanging laundry. We have pictures of clothes hanging from windows in seven or eight different countries. I think coming to this shrine of laundry in Bombay was pretty much the pilgrimage she needed to complete at least once in her life.

Mind you, it's not all drudge and drear. The city also has a large number of beautiful buildings and things to see. From Malabar Hill, the highest point, you can see the bay and far to the right the district nicknamed Manhattan because it is home to the financial companies. Well, you can kind of see because the haze in the air makes everything just this side of a shadow.

Driving down to this area, we saw the major tourist stops - the Gateway of India, built to commemorate 1911 cruise ship visitors King George V and Queen Mary. It is perfunctory that all modern cruise ship visitors must spend enough time to get their pictures taken in front of the arch, as well.

The Gateway is directly across the street from the Taj Mahal Hotel. Built in 1903, it is an eye-popping exercise in excess in a city where more than 10 million people live in shacks. It was impossible to look at it, though, without remembering the black smoke billowing out when the terrorists took it over and shot so many people. That memory took away any desire to pop inside for a coffee.

We did more, of course - visited a swimming pool/bath, a farmers market, the gardens planted atop the city reservoir, and our guide showed us several places we might wish to visit on our own today. But both of us feel we've seen what we want to here in Bombay, and we definitely have no desire to again struggle through the stifling heat and humidity. So it's a boat day. Next land - Tuesday in Dubai.

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