Monday, February 23, 2004

Mumbai, India--Day 24

Nothing on my trip so far really prepared me for what happened to me today. It all started off in the usual fashion, having breakfast at the hotel before catching a cab to the zoo. I was even up early enough and felt ok, which was good considering my lack of sleep yesterday and the time differences. At breakfast I met these two sisters from California who were about oh, 55 years old each and who were going to go on a tour of Northern India in a few days and were spending some time in Mumbai. They were impressed with me being on my own and doing what I was doing.

After breakfast, I asked for a taxi at the reservation desk and the woman working asked whether or not I wanted a cab with air conditioning. Hmm, let me think for about, oh, five seconds on that one. I chose air conditioning and headed outside to meet my taxi. My taxi came, although at the time there were several outside so I couldn’t really tell which one was mine, and after a moment’s discussion with about ten hotel employees and examining my map, it was decided that they all knew where the zoo was and that the driver would take me. Prefect, I thought, we’re on our way.

But that is when my experience on this trip all changed... My driver immediately very intent on giving me not only a ride to the zoo, but a tour of the city. Within three minutes of me hopping into the taxi he had I said no thanks, I just need to go to the zoo about one hundred times. He didn’t like this answer. But I will give you a good price to see the city, he tells me. No thank you, I say, and again, this is not good enough. For the next, oh say, 45 minutes, the driver was really insistent on me taking a city tour with him and this conversation was repeated over and over again. What, you need only to be at the zoo for an hour, he says. Um, no, its my job, I say, I need to be there longer...I don’t know how long I will need. He, again, does not like this and for the rest of the trip to the zoo he tells me over, and Over and OVER again how I need to pay for him to take me on a tour after the zoo and that he will take me, not cheat me of my money, and take good care of me, etc. etc.

At this point I was annoyed. Really annoyed. All this guy clearly wanted to do was to make money off of me and by that point all I wanted him to do was just to drop me off at the zoo. I exchanged a few words with him expressing my mood and how I did NOT want to go on a city tour, and that yes, I was here for work, and that involves me going to the Zoo for more than an hour, thank you very much. This kept him off of my case for a while, and he was silent the rest of the way there although he would throw in a little thing here and there about how I was not going to be safe or get back home safely, etc. etc.

Meanwhile of course we are zig zagging and honking our way through traffic. And when I talk about traffic, I’m not talking in those I’m-in-Los-Angeles-and-gee-look-at-this-long-line-of-cars type of traffic. I’m talking about car traffic, pedestrian traffic, ox-cart traffic. All types of traffic. People were darting in and out of cars, some selling things, some just asking for money, cars, taxis and auto rickshaws (which are basically scooters/motorcycles with one seat in the front and two in the back for passengers, all covered with a roof). There are people everywhere and every street that I would look down would have hundreds of people, young and old all surrounded by extreme poverty. Never have I seen anything like this, anything this bad, and I have been to several poverty stricken countries. It was horrible (it IS horrible I should say) and really quite unimaginable.

We finally pull up to the zoo and by this time I have calmed myself down, and I decide that my taxi driver is my only friend at this point and the only person that I know in this area. So I ask (although not too politely) would he wait for me and I will come back in a few hours? He asks me how much am I going to pay him to wait for me. Umm, uhhh…He interrupts me before I can even think. $1000 Rupees to wait for you and then take you back to the hotel he says. Fine, I say and he pulls the car over to park in the adjacent parking lot. Then he gets out with me and says that he is coming with me to the zoo to be my guide, he says clearly annoyed. Fine, I say back equally annoyed. It wasn’t until later on that I realized just how important this (him coming with me) would be.

He snaps at me to give the parking attendant money for the parking and then makes sure that he keeps the ticket for parking “in case you lose it.” Fine, I say back and we lock up the car and go to the entrance to the zoo.

There was a young man about my age sort of looming around us at this point, giving me that I-want-to-steal-your-money type of look, that although I am lucky to say that I don’t know very well, I could definitely recognize. The driver, whose name is Anil, heads up to the ticket booth and asks for two tickets and for a camera ticket for me. The man working at the zoo gave me back my change and I said thank you and took the money before I could even look at it since the suspicious young man/potential thief was standing very close to me. The driver looks at me and then looks back at the ticket man and says something to him and the ticket man hands over another 10 Rupee bill.

Walking away from the counter, Anil says to me, see, I would not cheat you like the ticket man, as he hands me back my 10 Rupee bill that the ticket man “forgot” to give back to me.

Oh man.

So we head towards the hippos, although Anil is convinced that I want to see the alligators. I try to explain to him, no, just the hippos and he is very confused. Why not the alligators? At this point the young man (remember, the potential thief…I’ll call him P.T.) decides to play tour guide and show us where the hippos are. Umm, this is good, I think to myself. Here I am in the middle of this sketchy place with two seemingly very sketchy men with my nice camera and all I want to do is take pictures of the hippos and leave. Like right now.

Luckily there were signs that I found that pointed in the direction of the hippos. Phew. We found the hippos and luckily there was a sign in English that said “HIPPOPOTAMUS AMPHIBIUS” and so I knew that I was taking pictures of the right ones! Now we had a slight problem. Not only were the hippos in the water, but they were not in anyway sticking out of it besides a little bit of their backs and they were so far away from where we were standing that you could barely even see them to get a good picture.

P.T. was standing next to us so saying all sorts of things that I obviously couldn’t understand and then Anil said that we needed to go right now and look at the other animals that were near the hippos (aka “we need to move away from this sketchy guy cause he wants to rob you.”) Great. So we move up to look at these black swans and move away from P.T. so we try to play it cool and not look like we just moved away from this guy. Now we are even farther away from the hippos.

Anil was frustrated that I didn’t want to see any other animals. Let’s walk around, he says. No thanks, I say, I have to watch the hippos. He says that they are not coming out of the water, let’s go look around. NO THANK YOU, I say, I HAVE to watch the HIPPOS. P.T. at this point was getting annoyed with us sitting far away from him. He had followed us through the entire zoo and I’m sure that Anil told to leave us alone, but he never did. He finally was fed up and left, going back towards the entrance away from the hippos, but kept looking back at me and waving his hands and saying things and then turning around again, only to walk about two feet more and to do it all over again until he was out of sight.

Finally (again with the frustration), I ask that we find somebody who works at the zoo who can help us. When I meant “help us” all I really meant was that he could help me figure out the names of the hippos and we could wait for the hippos to be active. But for Anil this meant finding someone to help us get the hippos out of the water.

So we find a man nearby who apparently works there (how he could tell was by his tan shirt but how else who knows) and starts talking with the man. The talk back and forth and finally the zoo worker leaves. Um, I say to Anil, where is he going?? And Anil says, he wants to you to pay 400 R to have him feed them and that is cheating! We will not be cheated and we will not pay him that much.

At this point I did not really care if we were “being cheated” according to Anil’s terms. I wanted to just take the pictures and go, as now a crowd of people were gathering around us and I was getting all sorts of stares. I never in my life have actually been stared at by over twenty-five people all at once, and really its not that great of a feeling. I tell Anil that the REASON that I have here is to take pictures of hippos and I don’t really care at this point if he is cheating me just because I am a foreigner. Let’s just feed the hippos…ok?

So Anil goes after the zookeeper (who is now quite far away) and calls him back to us, and tells him (at least I think he does) and about five minutes later there appears another zookeeper (again with the tan shirt but nothing else showing that he works there) on a broken down bicycle. He puts the bike down and goes off to the left passed the hippos (there are four in all- two in one sort of dirt area with a pond, and two in another right next to it) and then disappears behind a wall. He then reappears in the left side hippos’ pen holding with him a large bundle of green grassy food/plants and starts shouting Heeeeeeppoh, heeeeeeeppoh (Hippo hippo), and throws the green food down near where they were sleeping in the water.

Luckily the two hippos stirred and to my amazement both got out of the water to eat. YAY! There was a big hippo and a smaller baby and they were really, really cute and it was much better that they were both out of the water, and so quickly I might add. It was a relief.

I got out my camera (glancing both ways first) and snapped away. SNAP SNAP SNAP. I got my pictures and was ready for the next hippo feeding in the pen to the right. REALLY? Says Anil, you don’t want anymore pictures of them? From this angle, or this angle, he says pointing to the hippos. I got plenty of nice photos from different angles, so I told Anil no, this is great, let’s move on.

So the zookeeper heads into the second pen. This time he gets out a long stick from behind a wall hear the hippos and starts poking one of the hippos in the water (again with the shouting Heeeeppoh, HEEEEEPPOH) I think to wake them up. Oh, I felt really bad for the hippos who were obviously enjoying a nice sleep. Hopefully they would enjoy eating too! There was nothing at this point that I could do to stop the zookeeper from poking the stirring hippos so I just watched, along with the crowd of people who were just as interested in watching what I was doing as they were with the hippos. Finally he throws out another bundle of green hippo food and shuts the gate to the pen.

The hippos don’t do anything. I start panicking. The idea of staying at this zoo was really not appealing and all I wanted was for the hippos to move. Now all along this trip I have wanted the hippos to start moving so that I can get a variety of pictures, both in and out of the water, but this time I really meant it. C’mon hippos, pleeeeease move.

And they did. After a little bit of stirring around in the water, they both made a great effort to get out of the water and to eat the bundle of obviously delicious looking green stuff. Thank God.

Snap snap snap, I take the pictures and we are ready to go. Anil has questioned the zookeepers as to what the hippos names are (Pappu, Shaktir, Babu and Puppy, if you are interested) and we were finally on our way back out of the zoo. Anil again did not understand that I didn’t care to see any of the other animals, just the hippos. I really tried to explain to him my situation but it was impossible to make him understand what I was doing because he didn’t really think of my job as a job, just a hobby and that I was here to take a city tour of Mumbai. Ugh.

So I gave in. If it wasn’t for Anil I would still be standing at the zoo, watching the hippos and probably with less money and stuff in my bag than I came with, so I was grateful for him to come with me. More than grateful--I felt horrible about how I had come across before in our heated city tour debate before and so I said fine, let’s go on a city tour.

Anil was happy with this answer. We get back into the car (P.T. saw us again and came RIGHT up to my window and was looking at me the whole time we were in the parking lot while Anil decided that this was a good time to fill the air conditioner/radiator with water, and I was trying my hardest not to look at him) and finally we were off. We headed back into the sea of traffic and poverty and past many different sights that were printed on his photocopied map of the sights in Mumbai. We went past many different places, including Bombay University and Haji Ali’s Mosque, all of which I had no time to see what they were in my guidebook and every time Anil would say READY YOUR CAMERA, M’AM and the would say TAKE THE PICTURE. TAKE THE PICTURE NOW as we would pass these impressive looking sights. Ok ok, I would say as I would take the picture and then put my camera back into my very “hey-I’m-a-tourist” backpack.

Do you like saris he says. Do you like Indian art? Do you like rugs? I will find you rugs he says. Again I had a hard time telling him, no I don’t want any rugs (what am going to do with a rug right now?) and he says that he will take me to these. To the rug? What? Anyways, we end up parking the car at a shop that is near the Gateway to India, which is a prime tourist spot and colonial marker after King George V visited in 1911 (Thanks Lonely Planet). He points me to a shop and says for me to go in and buy rugs. Argh, again I say I don’t want any rugs and he insists and opens the door for me. I go in and am lead up the stairs past the rugs to the room with beautiful scarves. For the next 15 minutes I am persuaded by the man working at the shop that not only do I need one, but at least six. Hmm, I settle on a few and make my way back to Anil who is downstairs waiting for me (after refusing to buy a bed spread and seat cushions--the man was desperately trying to sell them to me even as the door closed behind me) and Anil and I walked over to the Gateway to India (where I got my pictures taken by Anil (and by several other onlookers…hmmm…) Right next to the Gateway is the Taj Mahal hotels (both the old and new ones as Anil points out to me) and Anil insists that I get my picture taken in front of them too and that I take pictures of them and then we went back to the car. Anil wanted to know if I wanted an ice cream and some leather goods (no thank you to both) and then what our plans was now?

I said let’s go back to the hotel. This wasn’t’ good enough for Anil. No no, he says, I will take you on more of a drive. Sigh.

So we drive around more of Mumbai, passing the beach and the park and several other beautiful buildings including the planetarium, all of which I “readied my camera for” and got some pictures, although I am not sure how they have turned out since we were driving so fast. I find out that Anil is married, has two children and lives with this parents in his house, and that his wife stays at home while he works. Anil wonders why I am not married and don’t have any children. All this talking and picture taking was definitely distracting Anil, and speaking of which, this is about the time in which the bus “came out of nowhere” and hit us. Not some much of a hit, per say, but more of a scccreeeeeaaaaaaccch across the side of us, which left this huge mark across Anil’s taxi. Oh man. Anil had tried to maneuver his taxi in between several cars into a space much too small and hence we hot hit.

Anil didn’t seemed to worried, just mad and got out and examined the “damage” although there was plenty of other damage to the car that it was honestly hard to tell the difference. He got back in and we were on our way again readying my camera and taking more pictures. Then Anil decides that he will take me to buy nice Indian art work (again I say no, let’s go back to the hotel) and before I know it we are at an Indian wholesaler for art work. I have to go in. We go in and its this tiny tiny room and is built with glass cabinet walls all filled with intricate carvings. I had to admit, I liked what I saw so I picked up a few things, drank some real Indian chai (not the Starbucks kind) with Anil and the man who worked at the store and about a half and hour later we were on our way.

Or so I thought. The road in which we were trying to go down was blocked by an ambulance. Anil gets out to check to see what is going on and comes back. I think someone died right there, he says to me. What?!?! Yes, somebody has died right over there in that shop. Oh man.

He walks back over to the scene of the crime, for lack of better terms, and I have a very hard time straining to see things while still in the taxi and past the crowd of people gathered. We sit there for about five or ten minutes or so and then the ambulance driver and paramedics came out of the shop with an empty stretcher (whether that was a good sign or not I don’t know) and Anil came back and we were on our way again…back to the hotel, right?

Wrong. Anil was taking me to buy saris. Um, ok, I guess I would like to see some, but….Ok, Anil says, here we are go into this store. He drops me off at the FANCIEST department store I have been in. There are six floors and I am greeted by a hostess who takes me up to the top, and then allows me to walk down the rest of the stairs on my own. The top floor is the expensive jewelry section (um, no thanks) and then down to the women’s sections, men’s, etc. etc. I find the saris (which are the traditional Indian garment worn by women, btw) and of course they are beautiful but over the top in price. (I also find out that one Indian symbol of good luck is the swastika and one shopkeeper couldn’t understand why three German women wouldn’t buy it). The man selling the saris and shawls actually told me (honest to God) the best, and only pick up line I’ve heard on this trip, “This shawl is beautiful, but it would look even more beautiful on you“ as he held it up to me. Oh really?

But Anil is very disappointed, if not mad, at me for not buying anything. Nothing?? I try to mumble something about them being too expensive. Wrong move. Anil decides that I need to be shown the less inexpensive stuff then. And we are off. This time we are bustling through small streets and through several market streets and he finally comes to a street filled with shops and stalls and pulls to the side. Go into that shop, he points and out I get. I go into the shop and am pleasantly surprised by their nice selection of attire and pick up a few things, although the shopkeeper is mad that I haven’t bought any Mumbai touristy shirts from him (sorry guys). I get back into the car with Anil and he drives me like 500 feet more and makes me get out again and go look at the sari shop. I go in and look at the saris. The problem was that even if I tried my hardest not to look interested in anything, I would have several shopkeepers coming up to me and wanting me to try things on. I made my way out of the sari shop and back to Anil. It was about quarter to six by this time and Anil had one last stop ready for me to buy bedspreads. Ack, I don’t want a bedspread right now (I don’t even have a bed!) and I was so flustered and tired that all I really really wanted to do was go back to the hotel. Please Anil, just take me BACK.

He said ok, it was my money to spend and his time to save (meaning I was paying him to take me places and all I wanted to do was to go back to the hotel) and proceeds to ask me how much am I going to pay him for the ride to the zoo and all of this? In the beginning of the trip he had quoted me 1300 R for the taxi rides, tour, and back to the hotel. Since he had paid the zookeepers 750 R to feed the hippos (the “cheated” price 400 R for each hippo feeding (about 10 dollars) which Anil got knocked down by 50 R), I then owed him 2100 R. I had paid him 400 when we first got to the zoo and 1000 while we were driving around (so that he “could have money in (his) pocket”) and so then technically I owed him 700 R. Then Anil starts going into this I didn’t charge you for this you know, and I really should have charged you such and such, and then tells me, Pay me what you want, but I want you to know that lessons are to be learned.

What’s that supposed to mean?

We stopped at where the shop was for the bedspreads and I told him again that I just wanted to go back to the hotel. He drops me off and I give him a nice tip, if I do say so myself, and Anil is clearly happy with me. He promises me that tomorrow he can take me to the Sari shop that is cheaper and nicer than the ones that I saw today, and that I should call him with the number on his card. I make it back to my room. I made it, I am now alone, I can just take it easy. I start to run a bath to relax when the door buzzer rings. Who could that be? Oh, its my laundry (thank goodness) and I shut the door behind the hotel man who has brought my underwear all folded neatly between tissue paper in a box. Not two minutes afterwards the buzzer rings again.

Its my fish.

No really, its my fish. In comes a man carrying a beta fish that he has delivered to my room and puts onto my desk, leaving before I could even ask what he was doing.

So now I have a friend named Fish. I’m not sure if Fish is impressed with his small bowl but its kind of funny having something else in the room with me. I finally got to my bath, got dressed, went downstairs for dinner (in which I ran into the California Sisters again who were horrified by my story about my day) and had a really nice dinner. I am now ready for bed and for a long, long sleep.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.