I realized early on that I wasn’t the only one enjoying these absolutely magical ancient building. An unfortunate side-effect of tourism is the presence of commission touts, young men trying to steer you away from the hotel, store, or restaurant you want to get to in order to take you to a place of their choice that will give them a commission. It sounds like a trivial incident, but believe me it gets incredibly frustrating when it happens twenty times a day.
Being harassed on the streets of Rajasthan reminded me of my earlier stay in Kerala, another very touristy place with plenty of touts to go around. Except this time, my experience was quite different: The culprit in this case was Firas (not his real name), a young Muslim man who had lived in Kuwait for a few years. After bumping into each other a few times and me politely refusing his offers to go to his multitude of ‘best shop in Kerala’, he made me an interesting proposition in broken Arabic:
“I want to show you my life with my friends, but I don’t have money. If I take farangs to nice souvenir shop, boss gives me Rs. 100 (about 2 dollars). Come with me to the shops. No buy anything, no problem. After we go drink with my friends.”
Of course I was skeptical at first. In such a tourist-trap environment, you have to be wary of ‘propositions’ like these. But I had a few hours to kill, and the worst that could happen was that I waste time looking at what Kerala had to offer in terms of souvenirs. After hopping on his motorcycle, I ask Firas how the fierce shopkeeper will let me leave without buying anything. With a big smile, he answered: “No problem, just say you ask your wife before buying.”
Before I knew it, we were a group of five big guys crammed in a rickshaw at full speed in the narrow streets of historic Fort Cochin. It took me a while to build up the courage to bid farewell to the first store owner by using my non-existent wife as an excuse. Firas gently scolded me on our way out, saying that at this pace we’ll have to split one beer between the five of us. By the third shop, I started really getting into the game, going as far as giving the wife a name. At shop #5, I put a dare to hit up 10 shops for an even Rs. 1,000.
But I was being too ambitious: two shops later my new friends, who had started itching for a drink, decided they had had enough and steered the rickshaw straight to the nearest bar. We had a long and fun night of malealum/arabic/english/hindi conversations, laughing about anything and everything, regardless of whether we understood each other or not. At closing time, I offered to pay – they firmly refused.
Two months later, Firas still drunk-dials me sometimes. It makes me feel special.
Whoever said living in India was cheap?
Certainly not someone who would have followed my friend’s recommendation to check out Aer, the newest addition to Mumbai’s hip social scene. Sitting on top of one of the fanciest 40-something-floor hotel in the city, this rooftop lounge is one of the most stunning bars I have ever been to.
With an incredible view of the sun setting behind the Arabian Sea, an “atmosphere that redefines the notion of freedom,” and a Moet & Chandon glass in hand, what more could you ask for? Silver weights to hold down champagne flutes on the stylish coffee tables? check. Slick mini-torches to read the Mediterranean tapas menu? You got it. Quite simply, things can’t get any better.
But everything has a price, especially in Mumbai. A few weeks ago, Aer’s manager was quoted as saying that “All you can see is the sea and the lights of Mumbai spread out like a blanket beneath you.” Well, that is certainly true. But what is also true is that if you look down instead of looking over to far-away cruise ships sailing across the Indian Ocean, you would see dark, disorganized areas of the city, appearing almost blurred from the fortieth floor. Below you are some of the world’s largest urban slums.
My biggest culture shock in India has not been the omnipresent abject poverty, or the constant deafening noise, or the thousands of people crammed together in the rickety commuter trains. Ironically, it has been the incredible wealth that sits right next to absurd poverty. More than half of Mumbai lives in slums, yet it is home to the richest collective of billionaires in the world – ahead of New York and London. With 0.00001% of India’s population now accounting for a quarter of its trillion-dollar gross domestic product, the wealth disparity is enormous.
And yet, it seems to make sense to everyone but me. My middle-class Indian friends have reinforced this many times when they say: “Of course it’s normal that the rich and the poor live next to each other… The rich live here and require services, so the poor come in to fulfill that demand.” It doesn’t shock anyone that you could pay 22,000 rupees to get into a new year’s eve party, much more than the national yearly income. And no one seems to mind that the office I work in, which has air-conditioning, wireless internet, and biometric fingerprint security, sits literally across the street from hundreds of temporary workers and their families – we’re talking dozens of children per street block – who cook, eat, bathe and sleep on the dirty sidewalks every night.
In that sense, India is quite different from Africa, where the rich are merely middle-class, the poor and the rich are typically segregated, and the ultra-rich promptly shift their assets (and themselves) out of the country. Yes, as an expat in Africa, you will certainly feel wealthy, privileged, or just plain lucky. But here, holding a glass of one of the most expensive champagnes in the world, surrounded by the cream of the crop of Indian society and looking down on more than six million human beings living in slums forty floors below, you can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of a sick joke that someone decided to play on people.
The many hours I spend stuck in traffic every week allow me not only to get caught up with the local news in the Times of India, or see what new concerts are happening in Time Out Mumbai, but also to observe the sea of motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, cars, trucks and buses that happen to take up nine lanes on a road that is meant for three… (but more on this subject in a forthcoming post)
Even through the incredibly hazy and smoggy morning air, it didn’t take me long to notice that the most eye-catching sign on the streets of Mumbai is the phrase “Horn OK Please” painted in many different patterns on the back of all vehicles.
Now this is in a city where, with 17 million people roaming around every day, if you are no longer able to hear car horns it probably means you’re dead. Are drivers seriously encouraging each other to honk?
Turns out that yes, they actually are. Nobody knew the meaning for this phrase when I asked around the office, and that’s when good old Wikipedia came to the rescue:
“Horn OK Please” is a phrase commonly painted on vehicles in India. This is spotted almost without exception on commercial vehicles like trucks, buses or local taxis. The purpose of the phrase — whose origin is unknown — is to alert a driver of a vehicle approaching from behind to sound his/her horn in case they wish to overtake. Tens of thousands of vehicles are decorated with this phrase, despite the fact that no rules in India mandate or suggest the use of such a ‘slogan’ on a vehicle.
And therefore it is for this phrase, which undoubtedly saves countless lives everyday, that my blog is called “Horn OK Please”.
[Note: You may sometimes find that bits and pieces of these posts are similar to some emails you have received. It is not a coincidence, as I get inspired from emails I write on the fly to put these posts up.]
I already love everything about Mumbai. From what I have seen of it so far, it is amazing and crazy at the same time. I feel that even New York, which is such a dynamic city, cannot beat the level of energy that permeates every aspect of life here: You can always find a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam to be stuck in at midnight; Vibrant street markets remain open until at least 11pm; People from all walks of life speaking a hundred different languages constantly bump into you on the street; Food from all over the sub-continent can be had at all hours for under a dollar. And this energy manifests itself all the way to your doorstep, where neighboring families always leave their doors open, making your building look like a giant dorm full of people aged 10 to 100 years old.
Yet, despite all this madness, I can always find something around me that will put me at peace and make me even more excited to go out and discover new things every day. And one of these things is that I can see parrots from my bedroom window! :)
Numbers are the only way I can give you a full picture of what I am witnessing here (courtesy of Lonely Planet India):
- Nb. of black taxis: about 40,000 (13,000 yellow cabs in NYC)
- Pop. Density: 29,000 people per sq. km. (10,000 ppl p.sq.km. in NYC)
- Avg. Annual Income: Rs48,900 (US$1000, or three times the national avg)
- Nb. of public toilets for every 1 million people: 17
- Percentage of ppl living in slums: 55%
- Nb. of people passing through Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus daily: 2.5 million (compared to 125,000 in Grand Central)
- Nb. of people in an 1800-person-capacity train at rush hour: 7000
I just landed in what I am finding out is one of the craziest places I’ve ever been to. Multiply Cairo’s hecticness by a thousand, add some garam masala, and you get Mumbai.
After an endless stream of mad men, 30 rock, and two and a half men (go Qatar Airways!), I arrived at dawn to find out that my new colleague who just picked me up had absolutely no intention of going back to sleep.
So I got a 3-hr tour of mumbai (from 4am to 7am), followed by delicious southern indian breakfast, a few hours of unpacking at my new home, some catch-up emails from the office, then went and hung out at a colleague’s place, chatting away about work, life, and everything in between, until 1am.
Needless to say, full first day :)
Just trying to figure out if I can connect this thing to Facebook and Twitter… Long live social networking!