Wednesday, January 28, 2004

By the way, through Thursday, you'll find my article on Christina's research at the Austin Chronicle website . After Jan 26, though, you'll have to surf this masterwork up in the paper's archives.
Just finishing up the first swing(s) of the present India trip -- and back in Bombay just this afternoon. Leaving 10 days ago, we headed for the beaches of Goa, once part of the Portugese empire, today part of the world rave scene. C and I stuck to the northern-most beach, Arambol, where we rented a cliff-side hotel room for about $6 USD per night, enjoyed massive -- and I mean massive -- fresh seafood dinners -- tiger prawns, fresh red snapper and pomfret dry-rubbed with Indian spices and grilled in a wood-burning oven -- as well as plenty of fun in the sun.

Since last year, I had often wondered about the magic of Goa, and in short it lived up to expectation -- more on our days in this wonderful slice of paradise later.

Next up was Hampi, in the southern state of Karnataka, a town of ancient ruins and beautiful sunsets. It took an overnight busride to reach from Arambol, and although I promised myself that I would go easy blogging the details of actually getting from point A-to-point B here in India, I cannot resist noting that in India "sleeper bus" is very much an oxymoron. For the duration of an overnight 15-hour ride -- we did this both to Goa and from Goa to Hampi -- you get a tiny 4X6 cubby, with two side-by-side reclining chairs. The ride would be alright if the busses had any suspension, or if India's roads were better maintained.

Instead you find yourself bounced up 6 inches off the seat padding every hour or so. It's as though the hand of god had reached down like a giant cat's paw and slapped the pavement you were driving upon. Add to this pleasure the joy of some idiot's burning ember blowing back into the bus and landing on your neck, and you can begin to understand my inclination to swear off sleeper busses forever.

But maybe I'm just bitchy because I didn't get much sleep on last night's overnight train, either. I'll come to describe Hampi and Goa in more detail in the next week or so. Certainly, I don't want to leave you stiffs back in the good-ole US of A thinking we're suffering too, too much.... Meantime, we're back at the Bentley's Hotel for the night. This time, I managed to negotiate a quiet room off the main drag.

After a refreshing shower (the first hot water we've had since leaving the big city) we also just enjoyed a spot of high tea at the Taj Hotel, a three-hour meal of mini sandwiches, fruit tarts and high-priced mineral water which harkens back to the days of the Raj.

Dining this way and watching the sun set on India Gate, which the British finished just in time to march back out through when India regained its Independence, the impact of the New Colonialism, in the form of international tourism, sparked some recognition. During the past couple of weeks, we've found India to be both a great getaway and a real challenge to our basic assumptions about the world. I'm a bit tired to delve into this topic; though, in sum, luxuriating in a developing Asian nation takes some getting used to -- as anyone who has done so could easily tell you.

Gotta run. More soon... hopefully, very soon!

Saturday, January 17, 2004

We've had as smooth a landing as I could have expected here in Mumbai/Bombay. The biggest hassle has been the street-facing hotel room, which for some reason I couldn't rearrange, and therefore enjoyed the early morning blare of horns along Colaba Causeway for the past few days. But the joint, Bentley's Hotel, has been clean and the staff pleasant, while the morning "continental breakfast" of toast and tea makes for an efficient way to get the day started. Perhaps when I'm as famous as Mr. Rushdie, who was also here this week, I'll be able to afford the $300 USD/night Taj Mahal Hotel on the water.

The best sights so far have been on true working-class Indians making an honest rupee. The Sassoon Dock, where the fishermen unload their catch was really amazing. Just nextdoor to Mumbai's massive naval center, the dock swarms with women in the early morning who gather the fish as it offloads by hundreds if not thousands of pounds, and then barter with the market owners and other buyers who come to the dock as the fish gets sorted and cleaned. The sheer number of species, from skates and rays to tuna and mackerel to octopus and shrimp is mad; in India, you might say, there's no such thing as bycatch or trash fish, just various size potential meals.

Another great scene, albeit a little horrifying in its own way, was the huge "dhobi ghat" or washing area, where around 6,000 laundry specialists beat clothes against the walls of concrete tubs. The ghat serves the whole city, and strikes a heavy contrast to the fact that Mumbai happens to be the center of India's film industry and one of the nation's tech capitals to boot. Meanwhile, there are whole families whose work is to pound the dirt out of people's clothes; more than likely our own outfits sent out for laundry ended up on the block as well. We actually attempted a ground-level tour, but were chased off by a manager offended that I was taking pictures.

It turned out I had missed the washed-out sign that forbade photography, although I expect that my true crime was refusing to offer any baksheesh. Thus, we made our way to the Lonely Planet-sanctioned photo area, a nearby overpass, where I stood self-conciously next to an Australian couple and took a few more shots. I can't help but imagine what it would be like if American laborers, say meat-packers and mechanics, suddenly became the object of some weird cross-cultural festish. I mean, what if Japanese people thought that cut-and-die factories represented a harkening back to a pre-technological age and paid good money to take pictures at American factories?

I may have got the answer to that question this afternoon while visiting Mahatma Gandhi's Bombay residence, however. Posted on the wall was a quotation that rings true for me: "What I object to is the 'craze' for machinery, not the machine as such," he wrote, contemplating the effect industrialization was having on India's millions. "The supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man."

Word up, MKG. Leaving off, we'll be trying on our leisure suits on the beaches of Goa starting tomorrow. It'll be a change of scene, and hopefully I'll have a little more time even to reflect on the trip of being in India -- albeit a trip of less than a week so far.

Friday, January 16, 2004

After an uneventful flight, I arrive in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) on the heels of native son, author Salman Rushdie. According to the papers, he was staying around the corner from our humble digs in the Colaba neighborhood at India's poshest hotel, the Taj Mahal. The television news last night had a dispatch from the street outside the hotel, where Muslim extremists were expressing their longstanding outrage over Satanic Verses. "Gotta get a copy," I think to myself.

So, yes, I am safe and sound, and soaking up the atmosphere -- the fish mongers on Sassoon Dock, surrounded by thousands of pounds of fish, shrimp, octopus, eels and giant rays, including one with leopard spots which must have weighed 60 pounds; the families flying kites on Chowpatty Beach, where boys competed to catch breakaways by their thread-like strings; the quiet ruins of Elephanta Island, where religious carvings from the 6th century show Shiva in various poses, creating and destroying the universe.

Back in India? Yes indeed. And needing more time to digest these thoughts. So far, though, so good.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

We ain't there yet, but rather in New York with 48 hours to go. First to Bombay, and from there to the beaches of Goa. As it's a mere 7 degrees in the Big Apple, I can't wait. Check back soon, as I'll be on the ground in India in just a couple of days.

In the meantime, you can read previous posts from last year's trip at Or check the Austin Chronicle website at for other writing, including music reviews (Al Green, 1/8; Joe Strummer 10/24) and a new article on India to be published on Jan 23.

And remember to think good thoughts Monday as my flight will be one of the first Air India planes to cross Pakistan airspace enroute from Paris to Mumbai/Bombay.