Tomorrow, I’m spending the night on a train as I head down India’s western coast. My destination is Kochi, a port city in Kerala, close to the southern tip of India. Kochi, also called Cochin, is another city especially vulnerable to climactic threats. On the way, I’m stopping in Goa, which lies at the mid-point between here and there. A straight shot would be 28 hours on the train so I figured why not break it up and see more India!
On monday, I stepped into the Jungle Book. I visited the Khaneri Caves which are in a National Park in the middle of Mumbai. They park is the biggest green space inside any city. The center of the park was like being in the jungle. Monkeys were hanging out in trees right next to me. They would climb around like gymnasts, totally trying to impress me. There were all sorts of species of monkey, some were about 5 feet when they stood up on their long limbs. I was a little bit spooked walking on paths alone because they could easily beat me up. I was tracking the forest floor the whole time for snakes. Leopards sleep in the caves at night.
Mumbai is built on a tropical rainforest. Crocs, leopards, and monkeys roamed the islands the city then smothered. In pockets of green space around Bombay, these creatures still have some habitat, but urbanization is spreading like the plague. You still see falcons, parrots, kites, and other tropical birds I can’t name throughout the city. Most of the falcons are concentrated near the Zoroastrian temple. Zoroastrains don’t believe in polluting the soil with human flesh, so they leave bodies above their ‘Temple of Silence’ where they are taken care of by the birds. I heard a rumor that in recent years supply has been too much for the winged beasts’ appetites so there has been a lot of excess piling up…
Back to visiting the caves. The national park bus, which serviced different sites wasn’t working so I had to pay a guy to drive me into the jungle to see the caves. Most people come visit in their own vehicle (other tourists have their driver). I took the local suburban train there. Most of India’s middle and upperclass don’t touch the train so I’m glad I’ve experienced what it feels like being a bean in a bean can. At the stations, 1 in every 3 signs is in English, and if you’re lucking enough to spot the sign through the hundreds of heads bobbing up and down in front of the window then you get off at the right station.
I was dropped off in the center of the park, close to one of the largest peaks around. The top of the hill was a giant granite slab and within that slab are buddhists caves which date back over 2000 years. Imagine the Monkey Kingdom from the Jungle Book.
From the very top of the hill you can look out past the forest and see the northwestern corner of the city wrapped along the fringe of the canopy. One amazing site is the Global Pagoda. An enormous gold pagoda that is one of the largest in West Asia. It’s magnificently sized in comparison to the skyscrapers and high-rises miles in front of it, so it must be gargantuan.
The view south is obstructed by a higher topography.
I took a couple hours to walk in the age old rock homes, temples, and markets of the buddhists that lived there a pair of millennium ago. There were amazing rock carvings, including two 35 foot Buddha figures.
That afternoon, I took the train down south to Colaba, the Southeastern-most ward of Mumbai. There, I painted a view of the Queen’s Necklace. The QN is land that was reclaimed from the bay at the turn of the 20th century. Upon the new land, Mumbai’s elite built homes, hotels and clubs in art deco style. It looks quite a bit like Miami.
I was attracting quite a crowd. A white, bearded American painting the city scape was probably for my spectators as a walrus juggling sea otters would be for me. At one point, there were 15 people around me watching. Pressures on. I turned around and asked one person for 10 rupees, a fee for watching. He didn’t get my humor.
I can’t remember what I did yesterday so I’ll do today next.
Woke up. Went to an art store. Reserved canvas to bring to Varanasi. Took the train to North Mumbai for delicious masala and the best coffee ever. Meal cost a dollar. Got 2 bananas. Yum. Got played by a taxi who was drove from point A to point B via point C. Called him out; too bad I have an impeccable sense of direction. Stuck my ground to pay him only 100 rupees. Held my ground. Won. Went back to the Worli fishing village. Painted.
Policeman with big machine gun approaches. I brainstorm things I could have done wrong. He takes out his phone and takes a photo of me. A bunch of teenagers come hang out. They invite me to their gym. I say I’ll come after I finish. Go to gym. Got swole. Returned home. Big festival in the neighborhood tonight. Going to go and check it out when I post this.
So yesterday I went to try to buy a train ticket and so many unbelievable things happened. Not unbelievable because they were awesome. Because they were literally. Un.bel.ievable.
I had all the information for the trains I wanted to buy tickets for on a sheet of paper, very clearly written out with train numbers, train names, departure city codes, times, everything. I waited in line for 20 minutes. Lines aren’t civilized here. You have to bump and grind with your peers so that someone doesn’t cut you. As you get closer to the window, you have to protect your turf the way a hermit crab protects his hole so that some sneakily little bugger doesn’t spin move you and dive right in. It’s unbelievable.
I got to the window. I gave then man, who as I expected neither spoke nor understood english, my neat form. He put the paper down, looked at me like I had just handed him dogshit on a plate, then signaled at a form. The form was in hindi. The letters have no resemblance to roman alphabet. I looked at him and said, absolutely perplexed. ‘I can’t read hindi. How could I do that?’ He reacted to my pleading tone and started punching things into his computer– a black and white screen that looked like it hasn’t been updated since 1996. On my paper, he scribbled w/12 next to my notes about train from Mumbai to Goa and w/3 next to form about Goa to Kochi. He handed it back through the window and shook his head in the traditional Indian way (side to side rather than up and down, the way preschoolers do it when they say ‘nah nah nah nah nah nah’). It’s used to nod yes. I’m perplexed and even bothered (not bothered as in annoyed, but rather bothered as in a slight irritation like the way you feel when you get a floppy fish handshake) by it whenever I get the nod as a silent reaction to a question I ask. It’s unbelievable. After that, the guy behind me popped in front of the window and I was tossed out like a bad rough draft. Unbelievable.
I asked a policeman if there was anyone who spoke english. He pointed to window 20, ‘enquiries.’ There, I got instructions to go to Victoria Terminus, the end of the line in Southern Mumbai. There, there would be a window specifically for tourists.
I went to the taxi stand to get a taxi. ‘300 rupees’ a driver replied. That was way too much. They are supposed to use the meter anyways. I walked down the end of the line. ‘250 rupees’ a bearded cabby said. I knew I’d be able to find a guy who would take me there on the meter. The fare decreased linearly as I went from taxi to taxi. 200, 180, 150. After I rejected their rate and walked on, they called after me, lowering the price, which helped because the next guy in line always heard that lower price. Outside the gate of the Station a guy said 100. I said ‘no thanks. I’d prefer to go on the meter.’ We banter back and forth and he keeps on insisting 100 as if he’s the only taxi in Mumbai.Taxis compose about 75% of the vehicles on the street. It’s as if the citizens of Mumbai all share cars with personal drivers. Interesting system. He finally agrees to the meter as I start crossing the street. I don’t like his attitude and find a taxi across the road to take me there on the meter, for 60. It took 8 different taxis and I only ended up saving a couple of bucks. But it’s a matter of principle.
Got my tickets squared away. The tourist window bypassed the massive line at Victoria. Went to the Mumbai Museum of Modern Art. Got lunch at a Parsi Restaurant–delicious fresh squeezed pineapple juice and a spicy rice dish.
In the afternoon, I toured Crawford Market, an amazing marketplace with fruits, vegetables, animals, and all sorts of other goods. It’s housed in a relic of the colonial era. The building is now rotting, but retains an amazing aged beauty to it. I took a picture of some guys sitting around and they invited me to hang with them for Chai. I hung with them, but didn’t drink their chai for personal health reasons. They were old and toothless and grunted and laughed simultaneously at my responses to their interview questions.
I went over to Babuneth Temple, a Hindu temple with amazing stone carvings all around the property. An old man called me over to sit on the steps next to him. He gave the a brief rundown. He was old and senile and repeated his sentences in loops. I sat and listened to his repetitions. Our bodies are temporary, souls are eternal, and our bodies are housing our souls now. When we die our souls move on elsewhere The world is a supercomputer and humans were like RAM in and RAM out. DOG is GOD backwards. I tried to escape as he kept on repeating his main arguments over and over again, like a miswired supercomputer. He got up with me and introduced me to all the gods, which was actually very nice. He put a orange dot on my forehead between my eyes. At the main alter, he grabbed a handful of leaves and orange flowers that others had just put down and poured milk over in a ritual, and put them into my hand. I felt awfully uncomfortable. I feel like I’m trespassing in religious places as it is, being so unaffiliated to any religion. I looked around with guilty eyes and my glances were met sympathetically. As if the others said, “you not the first to be trapped on the tour with this crazy man.” I returned the bouquet. While leaving, a woman asked where I was from. She was surprised I was wandering solo, but impressed that I was traveling through such a distant place alone. I get the sense this is an endeavor that garners respect among Indians I’ve met. They seem to understand that it’s not always straightforward for outsiders to make footprints through this country self-guided.
Last night, one of Soraya’s young friends, a 27 year old guy took me around the city at night on the back of his scooter. It was total madness weaving in and out of the honking gridlock past temples, mosques, and churches alike that were all lit up. We stopped at a place famous for kebabs, a place famous for chai, and a go-to Indian ice cream joint. We zipped through the red light district, a place I couldn’t go into on foot without being sure I’d make it out. (Because of gangsters and harassment, not because I’m into prostitutes). The ride has to hit the tops of my experiences from the whole year. This place is an absolute zoo and going face to face with it at night on scooter was sensational.
A motorcycle drove past us on the wrong side of the road. “That’s absolutely remarkable,” I say, “What’s he thinking?!”
Rehan, my guide responds,
“This is India. The land of possibility.”