Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings. Follow this link to see all the posts from his journey. The first one is titled, Hello Mumbai.
Journal Entry Number 2
A firm bed on the first night is a joy, even for just four hours. I wake at eight to Lena calling downstairs for breakfast, saying that I’m asleep and won’t need any.
I get up.
In five minutes two omelets and an Indian dish similar to a crepe plus teas and a sort of coffee are at our door. Again, despite warnings concerning eggs and water, we elect to eat and drink freely.
The breakfast is sacred- especially after the uncertainties of the past day. Michele’s been up most of the night tossing, wondering why she came here, tallying the days until she can return home. That feeling has hit me in waves since leaving Baltimore for the airport, and I’m grateful to be less alone in it. Confessing the needless fear I experienced last night in the street, it’s transmuted to comedy.
Shirt and shorts, sitting on the bed, drinking my coffee slowly. Morning cool pulls through our open window, over the tiny white cup set on sheets folded down. Trees growing from fourth floor mortar across the way are supernaturally verdant and outrageous, not as fearsome as by night. I feel serene, really, and on comes the wave that says I’ve made a good decision.
At the front desk to retrieve our passports and there they are; get directions – south is left; ask for an extra key – “That is not possible”; and as for the promised safe, I’m told, “yes – you leave your things at the front desk.” I return to the room with this report. Slowly, sweatily, we dress.
Back at the counter as a group to see about switching rooms, but there’s doubt: is the desk trying to play us into a pricier arrangement? No. We wring out the math on hotel stationary, and in fact, they’re offering us a better deal. The new room will be larger, with A/C and a private bath. We’re told to surrender our only key, with the room switch still pending. This would leave our stuff locked into room one, having already paid the week in advance, and us without a receipt (“No need,” says the man at the desk). That’s all it takes: thirty minutes old, and my breakfast time confidence evaporates.
Two attendants appear. They lead us down the second of Hotel Hello’s two hallways and into the new space. A third attendant drags Lena’s mattress from the first room to its new floor.
Like a good and thoroughly paranoiac western traveler, I deliberately arrange the contents of my backpack to bust potential snoopers. Trusting no one, I stuff everything I’m too afraid to lose into a bag and take it along with me.
On the street, people and merchandise and animals are everywhere. We’ve walked several blocks when Lena says that we’ve gone the wrong way. I decide not to quibble about directions, but feel grumpy, because I’m lugging my computer bag. And I’m lugging my computer bag because I’m full of fear and suspicion.
After several tries, we find an old man who directs us to the botanical park where I begin taking sloppy tourist photos. On the other side of the gardens, we obediently shuffle into the gravity of India’s first Starbucks and promised wi-fi. A teenage guard at the entrance is almost apologetic in searching us. We pass through the metal detector.
Inside, it’s enormous and ornate, and the service is embarrassingly personal. Three staff members and the on-call IT guy come to help with our failed internet project. I ask where to find the milk for my coffee, and within seconds I’m presented with a cupful freshly steamed. An hour after placing my order, I’m addressed again by name. We’re given extensive travel advice and offered more coffee, gratis. As we leave, the whole front counter staff shouts farewells. It’s a gross feeling of celebrity. Two hours wrestling fate in the wi-fi sanctuary and I still haven’t managed to email my parents that we made it safe.
Back outside, hard rain starts; chasing us under an awning. I worry that my unpreparedness is annoying my companions. Snoop-proof, all of my valuables are in the flimsy bag on my back. None of us have umbrellas yet and I can’t walk around like this in monsoon rain. When it slows, we start moving in roughly the path suggested in Lena’s guidebook.
After passing through Churchgate train station, we find a supermarket. An enthusiastic clerk seems amused with my hapless Americanness and helps me pick out batteries, tape, and razors. For an extra four Rupees, I purchase the largest available plastic bag. Across the street again, Michele buys something small and I set to work on my grand defense plan. On the floor of the Asiatic department store, like an oblivious child, I fashion the bag into a raincoat for my computer case. The perfume counter ladies laugh.
Lena is annoyed, and when I buy terrible sandals from a street hawker, she tells me that I’m being a sucker. Both of the pair are labeled ‘9’, but they’re generally misshapen and of dramatically unlike sizes. The rain, however, is picking up again and I have only these doughy shoes along for the trip; I’m willing to concede that it’s the vendor’s price to name. I step off a curb while grumbling, “I feel crass coming here and haggling someone down 1 USD,” and very nearly get run over.
We enter a restaurant in the belly of Lonely Planet’s walking tour, and it looks like it would be way out of our price range, but isn’t. The dal, mutton biryani, and paneer that we order are easily the best Indian food I’ve ever had, and the meal settles fine in each of us. Lena tries a sauce with tomatoes, topic of many warnings, and in solidarity and a rush of optimism, I do too.
The waiter is attentive to the point of hovering, and everything he says to our table is directed through me. This scenario makes me uncomfortable, though I’d been told to expect it. I clumsily order for everyone, but at the end of the meal, Michele reflexively hands him our check, then worries about the miscue. While it strikes me as prudent to follow custom before food arrives, once finished, I like the idea of a little polite subversion. But saying as much, I feel conflicted and deeply ignorant.
From a street bazaar with American paperbacks, designer underwear, incense, and endless tourist knickknacks, we enter a kind of pristine lifestyle store in which Lena wants to pinpoint the local price ceiling. They carry furniture, house wares, and clothing of quality way beyond my U.S. purchasing power. In India, despite an exchange rate favoring the dollar more lopsidedly than ever before, this stuff is still way out of my league. These are the kind of nice towels that don’t smell like industrial toxins and make me wonder if I should have placed more emphasis on accumulating money.
A little girl looks up shyly as I’m passing on the stairs. I hear her mother tell her, “Hey, you should say hello.” Jarred from my daydream of hoarding, it occurs to me how much kindness I’ve encountered since arriving last night.
Drifting through a series of crowded bus stops, past several churches, along massive gardens, we’re nearing the waterfront. Tiny bakeries and more conspicuous grandeur crowd the streets. Two Bentleys are on display in a hotel’s street window.
We’re approached for our first picture.
The iconic Gate of India sits beside the Arabian Sea at the bottom of Mumbai and commemorates King George V, Queen Mary, and the audacious British imposition. Looking up, I’m caught off guard by an older man who asks where we’re from. I tell him, and he says, “Welcome. All the best.”
A map seller trails me around the plaza, pitching a book of postcards I don’t want. I pull my one trick and act dumb, gaping at the bobbing, colorful, and packed boats bound for faraway Elephant Island. Several hustlers present inflatable tie-dye phalluses the size of punching bags, and each appears genuinely perplexed at our disinterest. An adorable girl of six or so begins to follow us, and I’m approached by a woman in traditional dress, carrying a baby. Her eyes are fiery, her posture direct and open, and something about her features impress me as truly aristocratic and unscathed by modernity. She asks for help, “No money, just food.” Lena raises an eyebrow.
And suddenly we’re surrounded, as promised, by a joyful crowd requesting photos with us, probable stars of film. Two families ask that Lena hold their children and dozens of the guys reach out to shake my hand. It looks like sincere enthusiasm all around, but I’m often dim at parsing the distinction between friendliness and hustle. The man with the maps really wants to close me, and I’m about to give in when Michele says, “Not more than five Rupees.” Solemnly, I tell him that I must defer to my wife.
Now pushing as a team, the woman with the baby and the little girl ask for milk and rice, and I can’t refuse. Lena and Michele wait, bemused or possibly annoyed, as I follow the group across the road to the nearest open air shop; only to say no when the price quoted makes even me incredulous. Lena says, “She has a deal with the shopkeeper. And she probably rented that baby for a day’s work down here.” Now, only the little girl follows, and I give her the Rupees she requests. Lena continues: “she’ll follow us to our hotel- and she’ll be there in the morning, with others.” Befuddled, I shrug, “Hey, you asked for two, so that’s what it is,” and the kid splits.
A shopkeeper runs to the sidewalk and pleads that we check out his store. Telling him we can only look- “no money to spend”- we’re impressed inside. I’m captivated by a heart-shaped jewelry box with a cat’s face, painted in a style that calls to mind campaign posters for charismatic South American leftists. Here are silks, countless icons in brass sculpture, and hand-carved chess sets, pieces magnetized for use on bumpy bus rides.
The staff buzzes and chairs materialize. Suddenly, we’re seated before a master salesman with an impossible mustache and boundless, eloquent love for the great state of Massachusetts. The case he makes for his scarves is compelling, but he knows when to back off. We take his card as we exit, dazzled but unpressured.
I take pictures madly on the last leg back to our hotel and soon have to stop for more batteries. Alkaline are what I need, not nickel-cadmium; the latter are easier to find but produce alarming static on the screen when loaded into my camera. We get sodas that taste like Orangina, and they’re discounted 50% for immediate return of the glass bottles.
A cat guards his well-loved fish carcass from two others, while a dozen shrewd Mumbai crows wait for the situation to play out from wires above. One of the city’s countless broken-looking dogs hangs off to the side. Kids sit in streets and motorbikes swerve; men work on cars; bouncers and attendants wedge into doorways; cafes are gearing up for night. Tomorrow is Friday.
Sweat pours freely back in our chilly room, like it caught us when we finally stopped moving. I go immediately for the shower. Afterward, I collapse on my bed and drift off, but wake with the lights still on. There’s a small blood mark on my pillow, and it reminds me that I found a new red spot on my face this morning.
But I don’t stay up late worrying about Malaria.