Monday, April 20, 2009


...felt different than the other cities I've been to in India.  Most of it is because it's a more business-focused city, the financial hub, much like New York would be.  The bustle of business people moving about felt more focused and less chaotic than Bangalore or Delhi.  It's also by the sea, the first time I'd experienced the ocean here.

The ocean means many things.  It means there are fishing communities, and the slums that accompany this industry.  It creates a shore, that defining edge of land that evokes perspective and a sense of openness.  It enables landmarks like Mumbai's Gateway of India, a monument to "the landing of their imperial majesties", the king and queen, in 1911.  And it means it's humid as all get out.

You can take a one-hour boat ride to Elephanta Island, site of many ancient caves, one of which still has amazing carvings hidden inside.  There are actually three villages on the island, a captive population to hawk the many trinkets and clothes ubiquitous at such tourist destinations.

Having just finished the book Shantaram, I knew many of the names and landmarks of the city, but with no reference to geographical location - it was interesting filling in my orientation with the legendary Leopold's, Colaba Causeway, Marine Drive, and others.  I stayed close enough to be able to walk to many of the sightseer's destinations, but far enough from the tourist area to disassociate 
myself from it.  I hate staying in tourist areas.

There are an incredible number of old British-raj-era buildings that may still be in use, to some extent, but are in the inexorable process of mouldering and falling down.  It's a bit like one of those movies where humanity has abandoned a city - plants and vines creeping up walls, watermarks staining the outside walls, dust and decay setting into the books and furniture inside.  My sister would love it.

Next to all this, of course, are skyscrapers and innumerable miles of congested residential maze - I took the train 45 minutes north of downtown to meet Harsh, injured cyclist from the Sikkim ride, and other friends of friends living in the more populated suburbs and witnessed, among other things, the Oberoi mall.  Walking in was weird - I could have been in any bright fancy mall anywhere else in the world.

Hilarious observation of the week: Apparently the trend of artistic decoratings of some theme animal has arrived in Mumbai.  But what animal for a city in India?  The water buffalo, of course.  A series of brightly-painted offerings were displayed in a tiny garden near Churchgate station.  Ha!!  Gotta love it.

I didn't get to a couple of things like the Haji Ali mosque and a museum or two - have to save something for the next time...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Back to the mountains

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) is one of four government mountaineering institutes in India.  It is heavily subsidized, and teaches everyone from lowlanders who have never seen the mountains to those who grew up in the Himalayan foothills the skills of mountaineering.  Three- and four-week basic, advanced, and search-and-rescue courses begin with walking uphill and end with technical climbing and rescue techniques.

I had originally planned to hike up to meet two of the courses - a basic course and a search-and-rescue course that a friend was on - but my delay by injury meant the courses were on their way back.  But despite my imposed physical limitations, I was well 
received and made a great connection with the Vice Principal, one Major Thapa, who I look forward to working with in the future.  We had time to discuss many aspects of the climbing establishment in India and, more importantly in the short term, arrangements for me to return in the fall to work with one of the courses as a guest instructor.

Friend Sujay's search-and-rescue graduation formalities included the display of ceremonial NIM sweaters, a rite of passage he had experienced twice before on the basic and advanced courses.  Nice!

With some of my readily available time to myself, I walked down to the market in town.  Four women who had been walking around NIM earlier met up with me and invited me to their house the next day after a friendly, if quiet-ish walk downhill.  Why not?  

Her house turned out to be one of those two room affairs tucked next to the market road, one room for everyone to sleep and the other to cook.  Her family was either gone or kicked out, and the afternoon was spent looking at pictures of their family and friends and utilizing their limited-but-much-better-than-my-Hindi English to exchange basic life stats.  They are all about 24 and unmarried, and traditionally generous to their visiting guest.  The ceiling turned out to be a little low for me (probably wasn't planned with 6-foot foreigners in mind!), but the company was fun, and I look forward to seeing them on future trips to NIM and the town of Uttarkashi.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I decided to postpone the mountains for a week so as not to tempt myself into further injury, so instead went to Bangalore for a week of rest and visiting friends I met on last year's mountain bike race. My last visit involved lots of running and cycling, but this time I'm fairly boring - "resting" isn't quite as glamorous and definitely not as conducive to good pictures. (See, you all want me to get better, too! ;-) I'm finally seeing some progress in healing, so will try to persevere in the resting effort. *wry grin*

So instead, more impressions of the crazy mishmash that is the cities of India:

One of my friends noted that if you wanted to bring the US to its knees you wouldn't need terrorists. Just abduct 10 Indian auto-rickshaw drivers (the ever-present three-wheeled open-air taxis) and set them loose on our roads. Then sit back and watch the crippling chaos. Just imagine trying to drive in a city full of them...

At the relatively healthy food market nearby, I can get a half-pound of red grapes, eight little Kerala bananas, four local oranges, and a miniature cantelope, all amazingly tasty, for 99 rupees, about two dollars. The same money gets you a tea at Coffee Day, trendy cafes modeled after the coffee shops I'm accustomed to at home. A muffin will be another family supply of fruit, please.

The autorickshaw driver stopped at a shop on my way back from central Bangalore this afternoon to buy oil for his vehicle's two-stroke engine. The oil-wallah filled his empty oil container from one of four juice pitchers on the counter holding different types of oil. I love that there's an everyday bypassing of the excess packaging we can't let go of in the US. On the other hand, the practicality of this arrangement is potentially offset by the likelihood that the oil is dirty, or sub-standard, contributing to the incredibly high levels of the pollution in the city.

What to do. I love many of the chaotic overtones of daily life here, their difference from the sometimes restrictive or excessive habits of the US. But I'm finally listening to my friends' observations of the negative aspects of their continuous practice. No place is perfect - I guess we just have to find the balance we're willing to put up with and keep trying to make it better...