Friday, May 8, 2009

Old Goa was a great town once, in the sixteenth century, larger than Lisbon and London. No longer. But the huge elaborate churches, convents, and some ruins are still there, scenically scattered about a very large park with palm trees (one of which tried to drop a huge frond on me but missed), forests, and ponds. Few people live here any more, it's like a giant theme park for colonial monuments. Some of these churches have seen Christian, Muslim, and Hindu services, but today they are well-preserved museums. No admissions are charged anywhere.

The sun burns down vertically (Goa is solidly tropical) so no walls see any sun and there is little shadow. People move slowly, or sit or sleep in the shadow. Even the few souvenir vendors who have made it out here seem lethargic and easily discouraged. I'll catch a bus to Mangalore tomorrow, and then I think I'll escape to the cooler hills.

The picture is from Panaji, a couple of blocks from my hotel. Nice quiet town, hard to believe it's the capital of Goa.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Goa, on the west coast of the India, surrounded by beaches and old towns that look more Portuguese than Indian, has been known as a 60's hippy hangout ever since the Beatles found their Baghwan here. The hippies are gone, but this is not the place to rush from one church to the next. This is a place to sit idly in a park, chat with locals, ponder where to have lunch, and generally relaxing. I'll stay a couple more days here before I take the bus to Mangalore.

(Actually I wanted to take the train, but trains in India are fully booked. All of them. You need to draw a number at the station, at a cost of 10 rupees, fill out a form, wait in line, and get told that there is no way from here to there. They are good with forms here - my hotel needs a passport copy, and while a SIM card in China is handed over when you put enough money on the table, here it takes a passport copy, a photograph, and nine signatures on four forms.)
The hotel breakfast isn't very good ("continental", ugh) so I went to Leopold's. That's an old institution in Mumbai dating back to the British rajs. It was one of the targets of November's terror attacks, and the bullet holes are still there. I hope it's the last bullet hole I'll encounter on this trip.

Dharavi in the middle of Mumbai is Asia's largest slum, they say. From above it's a patchwork of gray corrugated metal roofs, packed so densely that there are hardly any gaps, and none wide enough that they could be called streets. They actually run sightseeing tours through the slum, but I was content with the edges, it would feel like a zoo otherwise.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The interesting part of Mumbai, where nearly all the sights are, is a peninsula between the harbor in the east, and Back Bay in the west. Another, much narrower, peninsula wraps around the other side of Back Bay, and that's where I went today. They have a few very nice parks (where "straineous exercise" is not allowed), and a large rectangular pool with stairs leading down on all four sides. People sit there and talk, or perform religious rites involving offerings, incense, and washing. There are many small shrines around it, and a large area where Mumbai's clothes are washed. Back Bay is open to the Arabian Sea, but that side of the peninsula is very filthy.

Walked to Chowpatty Beach next. This part of town is nice, and I had a great lunch with a monumental chocolate sundae there, but the beach is not. There is an abandoned amusement park, huts made from bamboo and plastic tarp, with an open sewer running down to the water, and children are playing in the dirty water. They came out, smiling excitedly, to shake my hand and earnestly pronouncing their few English sentences, then ran back into the water giggling.

Also walked to the Chor Bazaar, a large part of town crammed with food and clothing stalls, and the ubiquitous cellphone repairmen. Chickens are killed, plucked in plastic buckets, and sold here. It's quite dirty and slippery. There are many women I call Black Ravens - muslims with full-body burkhas and only an eye slit. One lifted her veil to spit on the ground.

Watched the sundown at the Gateway of India, and soon attracted the photo crowd again. I should consider a career as a model.

The bottom photo is from the Chor Bazaar area, and the top is from the Colaba area of town, the back side of the block my hotel is in. Mumbai is a city of contrasts.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Gateway of India in Mumbai is a monumental arch facing the sea. It's best seen from the harbor so I took a harbor tour boat. It didn't really work because it's full of Indians; at first I didn't realize why the two seats next to mine saw so much traffic, people constantly getting up and sitting down, until I saw that I was the main attraction and people wanted their picture taken with me. So we turned it into a party where everybody was taking pictures and showed them around. Many people wanted me to take their picture, children were grimacing. (The harbor itself is totally boring.)

I had inquired about rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a landmark next to the Gateway. But the palace wing is still roped off, boarded up, and shut down after the terrorist attacks in November. The tower wing is open, but it's a boring office tower with some prefab concrete ornaments hung on the facade; it has a barrier, a fence, metal detectors, a gun emplacement, and a bag search station. I am glad I am not staying in this prison camp.

Mumbai, as expected, is a big noisy town with the usual honking traffic chaos. But there are lots of quiet leafy neighborhoods with old buildings that have a feel about them that almost reminds me of some old neighborhoods of Berlin (if they weren't so dilapidated). Mumbai has many trees lining its roads, which hide some of the rundown architecture. There are also grand old palaces from British colonial times, big parks where people play cricket and rugby, and the most palatial train station - Victoria Terminus - that I have ever seen. Inside it's not palatial at all though, and filled with masses of people in a hurry. There is a big bazaar to the north of the train station, with a heavy emphasis on electronic, and in Asia "electronics" is a synonym for "cell phones".

As a Mumbai visitor I am obligated to choose a picture showing the Taj and the Gateway. It's the #1 postcard motif here, and Mumbai doesn't have a huge selection of those. But I like the one above better. I hope it looks good, this PC is unbelievably creaky. The shift key is missing too.

The original idea was to take the bus to Varanasi in India, but that would have meant about three full days in buses in places that aren't very safe (they still have communist rebels in the Terai and in northeastern India), and it's difficult to go south from Varanasi too, so I reversed my schedule and flew to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I am now writing this post. Not much to report.