Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Tale Of A Two-Names City

The very fact the city of Mumbai/Bombay has two names foreshadows its split personality.

On one hand, it's a megacity with 18 million people and the diversity of both culture and pollution to accompany it. Blue jeans walk next to black burqas on busy streets; enjoying its lovely boulevards with Art Deco buildings on foot is the equivalent of smoking 22 cigarettes a day. Mumbai is made up of seven islands and acres of reclaimed land, yet there's not a patch of beach or bay into which you'd want to stick a toe.

Bombay is India's economic powerhouse and home to the "Bollywood" film studios and glitterati, so billboards sell technology and chaste sexual innuendo. But it's home to Asia's largest slum, which usurps more ground than the tarmacs of Mumbai's two airports, and the smells go from felicitous to foul so quickly I sometimes couldn't catch my breath fast enough and actually dry heaved involuntarily.

And by the time we left, we still weren't sure what to call it....Bombay? Mumbai? Heaven? Hell?

Things started off mysteriously, as we thought we followed all of the Lonely Planet "getting a taxi" steps properly. However, we ended up in a car with a meter, official-looking workers and taxi sign that charged us over three times the normal rate (indicated by the digital meter on the dash, we later found out the real taxis have mechanical meters out of the 1940s on the hood!) to get into Colaba for our hotel. Sometimes, it just sucks being a stranger in a strange land and that stuff happens, but it never feels good.

Once inside the hotel, which Andy had booked 10 days before and then re-confirmed hours before from the Goa airport, we felt like we'd entered a sleek marble forum that belonged in Dubai or Dohar, not Mumbai. There were lots of men in kuffayehs, ghellibeyas and other Arab dress, ~> read more

and only women wearing the black burqa of varying degree. Needless to say, I felt a little underdressed in my lipstick red spaghetti-strap tank top.

Andy introduced himself, Mr. Andrew as he seems to be known around the reservation blocks of India, and they were slow and unwelcoming in getting his information. The two hotel men hesitated and said they weren't sure if they had a room for us. Puzzled and surprised, Andy went over all of our information and explained how he'd called the Hotel Regent a few hours before, and one man said that "no one had checked out" today and they didn't have our original room. Feeling a bit of panic come over us, we were incredulous as a city of 18 million was not easy to secure a hotel room. Finally, one man took Andy and said we could see the one room they did have.

As I waited with our packs and new bag of purchases from Goa, an Australian couple arrived, who we'd actually seen our flight from Goa, and asked for their room reservation. No such luck. For them, it went downhill into an ugly shouting match of "We have a reservation, mate" versus "No one checked out, sir" and we stood there awkwardly thanking the gods for our expensive yet expeditious cab ride from the airport as we ended up with the last room in the Hotel Regent!!!

Hours later, we started our "Food and Wine" magazine as guide eating expedition through the city, as they dine fashionably and fashionably late in Bombay. The food and eating part was definitely heaven! At Indigo, we sat outside on a rooftop patio lit with twinkle lights and candles floating in lanterns filled with water and ringed with fragrant frangipani trees.

The food was continental with Indian flair and the menu was beautiful: cilantro pesto mushrooms with masala-spiced feta, polenta gnocchi with rosemary and chili butter, Parsi-inspired lamb stew with prunes and pinenuts, pistachio creme brulee and more. The presentation was outrageous and my gnocchi starter actually had dried red chili berries the size of raspberries that were perfectly pink and mild, and you cracked them open with a fork and they spilled golden seeds over the pasta. Awesome!!! We tried Indian champagne and it was fruity, sparkly, chilled...and perfect for price since alcohol is taxed 20% in Maharashstra.

Late the next morning, we packed our camera, pocket tissues, deet and Purel hand sanitizer, and set off to explore Colaba Market and greater Mumbai. I love delving into food markets and was excited to share this with Andy since it was a local affair and Goa's night markets had more of a tourist element. This market, however, was so very real...I have honestly never smelled so much at once in six continents of travel!

Formerly fresh fish sat on tables in the sun covered in flies for sale while herbs of mint and cilantro tried valiantly to perfume the air. Samosas deep fried pungently in oil while turmeric burned on altars and garbage baked on the street. The vivid colors of vegetables rioted over the primitive pavement, and sari-clad ladies haggled over the prices of lentils, rice and millet. School children in smart blue uniforms walked by us with a constant "Hello" and we saw barbers, milk scalders, ditch diggers, silversmiths and beggars all working in concert together.

We were definitely the only non-natives at the market that day (I don't know why) and while it was great not be hassled for a rickshaws or pashminas, it was a little overwhelming. My nose and stomach bore the brunt of this and poor Andy! This was definitely NOT the Cherry Creek farmer's market and harshly broadened his senses and horizons.

After Colaba, we took it down a sensory notch with a self-guided walking tour--though it's Bombay and that's only possible to a certain extent. In a monster city like this you collide with a mysterious form of India's magic: sheer magnitude.

With population and diversity as massive as in Mumbai, you have everything...and everything is magnified. Every smell, every sound, every light, every shadow and every person and his/her physical space. There is never just one balloon or peanut vendor -- there are 62. There are never just a few people on the promenade at sunset -- there are hundreds. While sitting in a taxi, however, you are just two backseat bodies...but next to at least a thousand more on one road surrounded by scores of humanity going about their day. Physically and mentally, I found it all a little challenging to digest.

And then, hours later, we were eating again and that was easy to digest. Sigh...the polarities of travel in a megacity. Bombay has The Taj, a very famous old hotel, and inside of it was Masala Kraft, a trendy spot serving Indian fare from all over the country with a strenuous focus on meticulously roasted and balanced spices plated to perfection. We had a tomato chile soup served in a coffee cup with a stick of lemon grass for stirring and spicing. Our main course dishes were mezza lunas put together to form one giant, round moon plate, onto which they placed the most delicately cooked giant shrimp with cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and fresh mint chutney, plus barbequed satay of broccoli with mustard and fennel, a reinterpreted-from-street-food lentil kebab and lamb, for Mr. Andrew. The vivid Indian spices and ingredients jumped off the white plates...a feast for eyes and tummies alike.

I guess that is what Bombay/Mumbai is too: a feast. For the senses, and perhaps mostly the ones I'm not normally aware of in my daily life. Ones without such a magnitude of humanity, in every literal sense.

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