Mumbai's Backstreet Boys

Ladies and Gents, I spent almost 7 hours out and about in Mumbai yesterday.  I even took public transportation.

I decided that I wanted to start with the most basic tourist traps: The Gateway of India and Elephanta Island.  To get to the Gateway I had to take a train.

Taking the train in Mumbai is a bit like taking the train in Manhattan at rush hour, only it's always rush hour, there are a zillion more people, and all the signs appear to be in Hindi.  The signs are actually also in English, but it is in very very small print which is not helpful when one is nervous.  Also, I should reiterate that I am living in a very working class part of Mumbai which means that as far as I can tell, I am the only white woman who is bound to take the train from Santacruz Station anytime this winter.  If I were to calculate the ratio of men to women of any color standing in line for train tickets I'd say there were approximately 20 men to each woman.

It is not so much that Mumbai men seem to dislike women, or me in particular, but there is a certain overt sexism that permeates the streets, add to that that I was a cog in the smooth running line at the ticket window in that I didn't know how much my ticket would be and so had to ask a question and wait for an answer and I felt a bit unwelcome.  Men were trying to jump in front of me in line and one even subtly tried to take my change at the ticket window.  Thankfully the man behind the counter smacked the would be thief on the hand and had me take my 4rs, which is about 9 cents.  It was one of many moments where I was (and, I'm sure, will be) torn about money in this country.  That man needed my nine cents, nine cents mattered to him.  At home, I might be inclined to leave that kind of change in the "Take a Penny" tray, or, most certainly, in the Charity of Choice box on the counter.  But here, it felt important to not let myself be taken for that 9 cents.  So, I took it back from the man.

After asking for directions to the right platform, I descended the steps to wait for a train.  It was in those few minutes of navigating the stairs that I felt for the first time how truly crowded this country is and how people here just move through the throngs seemingly without any care for the other humans around them.  I understood why people so often get trampled in India.  I was, I admit, very nervous walking down the steps.  I was aware of how much adrenaline I must have been using just to have gotten that far without having a panic attack.

On the up side to train travel in Mumbai, are the Women Only cars.  Here, at least, there is a sense of ease.  For an hour I stood in the door of the train, which was wide open to the world and watched the city flash by.  I saw families bathing in sewer water on the edge of the tracks, men naked and defecating, rats playing, children sorting through layers of trash that seemed to be limitless.  Warrens of homes built out of corrugated steel sheets and tarp and, well, all those things you've probably seen in Slumdog Millionaire.  I wanted to take pictures, but thought the native women on the train might think it rude.  Eventually, though, I pulled out my camera, when the city started to get a little more "pulled together" and snapped away through my moving window.

Before I go any further, I should tell you about Harish and Zeeshan.  Harish is a young friend of my dear college buddy, Gary.  The two met several years ago when Gary started coming over to India for work.  Harish friended me on facebook a while ago and we have exchanged brief "hellos".  We spoke for the first time yesterday morning and when I told him that I wanted to go to Elephanta he arranged for his friend Zeeshan to meet me at the Gateway to accompany me on my journey.

Thank goodness for my Indian mobile.  As you can see, even though this was a slow day, the Gateway is a bit of a mob scene.

The famous Taj Hotel is right behind the Gateway

Even the dogs hang out at the Gateway
Through various phone calls, I found Zeeshan.  Turns out Zeeshan is part of a very large Muslim family (his grandfather had four wives, his father has two) that run several of the ferry boats that go to Elephanta.  He met me, whisked me on board past the long lines and sat and chatted with me for the 1 hour ride.  He also introduced me to his cousin, Assam, who was the captain of the boat and would also be my escort.  I sensed it was important for me to be accompanied by two men, for appearances.  Though I think if Zeeshan had not been under strict orders from Harish to treat me with the utmost care and respect....well, lets just say that at one point Zeeshan placed his phone on the seat between us, turned on his "special mix of favorite (love) songs", and obviously hoped that I would be impressed.  I tried to explain to him as gently as I could that though Enrique Iglesias was a guilty pleasure, that the Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber were never gonna quite do it for me.
Zeeshan and Assam
One of the things I learned about Zeeshan is that he finds the Hindu wall carvings of Elephanta Island to be a bore.  Which meant it was gonna be a quick trip to my first Hindu shrine.  The second reason we breezed through the elaborate carved Shiva temples was that Zeeshan and Assam were trailed by security all the way through the grounds.  There was a lot of yelling in Hindi.  I tried to pay for my ticket, thinking that the problem was my getting escorted through scott free by the ferry boat captain.  But Assam wouldn't hear of it and paid for my ticket himself.  Zeeshan explained that the guards thought I had hired them as my guides and so I was not following ticket protocol.  I told them that I was happy to inform the authorities that my nice Muslim friends obviously had no interest about or knowledge of the Hindu caves, so they were utterly useless as guides.  I said it nicely, of course.

When we returned to the boat I told Zeeshan I was exhausted and needed to return home; they stayed on the island and we went our separate ways.  On the boat, a man came up to me who had been in authority on the Island.  He asked me if "those boys" were my guide.  I said, "no, they were friends of a friend and they were escorting me as a courtesy."  He said, "Oh, friend of a friend is okay.  But you see, lately these boys are meeting young women at the gateway and offering to be their guide and then touching them.  I tell them it is bad for India.  These tourists will not come back."  I assured him nothing like that happened.  I also wondered if he meant Zeeshan and Assam in particular when he said, "these boys," or if he meant, "some boys."  I guess I'll never know.  I was glad, however, to have been under the protective watch of Harish.  Though, if Harish had not insisted I let him help, I would have happily gone on my own and not have thought of having a "guide".

For Harish's sake, I told him the trip had been wonderful and uneventful.  I did not want to embarrass him.  He said, "I am glad." When I told him how thankful I was for his help he said, "It is my duty."

This is another thing about India that I am getting wind of, "Duty".  The confusing thing is that I do not understand what my duty is.  Was it my duty to absolutely insist that I pay for the ticket that Zeeshan and Assam ended up paying for?  I tried to pay them back several times, to no avail.  "Duty" is such a strange concept.  "Respect", "gratitude", "going dutch", "tipping," are all things I get, but the Indian concept of "Duty" is murky.

I guess I'll add it to the list of things to investigate.

Needless to say, after I got the train home, tried haggling for a few tangerines at the farmers market at the foot of the station, I was spent.  I whiled away the evening watching tv and trying to stay awake long enough that I wouldn't be up at 2 a.m.  It didn't work.  I was up at 2.  Thankfully, I was also so deeply tired that after a half hour or so, I went right on back to sleep.

A couple of the monkeys that "guard" Elephanta Island

Lord Shiva's most sacred form.  This Linga is representative of his fierce masculine power.  And, yes, it represents what it looks like.  Zeeshan got quite a kick out of trying to explain to me what I already knew.