Day 86: Mumbai
The fan whips above us, rocking like an unhinged psychopath propelling himself into a frenzy. Before it has a chance to fly off the handle, however, Marnie and I peel ourselves off the bed, out from the line of potential fire and away from the only cool breeze we’ll feel for a while. I zone into my phone screen right away, feverishly attempting to book a bus ticket to Hospet for tomorrow. Every time I put my purchase through, however, the website sabotages my efforts and fails to book.
We go to reception, where a procession of disgusting sounds seep from below the bathroom door out to the desk where we stand. The hotel manager emerges from it shortly after. He assures us he can book a bus easily, but it’ll cost us twice as much as booking online. That’s not exactly within our daily allowance. So, sticking to the budget theme, we pack up our bags, check out at the front desk and move into the Salvation Army dorm room across the street.
It’s breakfast time. There is a marble-walled restaurant a few blocks away with misleadingly fancy decor but non-frivolous prices. The cheese omelette strokes our palette with eggy orgasms. We scrape the last bite of daring dairy onto our tongues and pay our server some cheddar for the fromage-y affair.
But we still need to book that bus. There is a Starbucks down the street (one place with guaranteed wi-fi). A security woman at the door gives us a pat-down and checks our bags for suspicious activity as Marnie and I enter the coffee shop. An hour and a half later, after many online booking attempts and phone calls, I am teetering on the lip of a quarry of frustrated tears. Organizing transit in India as a foreigner could test the patience of a monk. Most busses and trains must be booked online, using an Indian phone number and often, an Indian credit card. This is where the daily budget becomes a capricious, arbitrary guideline–this booking business may have to be handed over to a local. Marnie sits in the chair opposite and, as she watches the stupid phone get the better of me, her giggling tugs me back from the quarry’s edge. Ninety minutes is a good effort; it’s time to extricate ourselves from the caffeination chain before I melt into a puddle of online-induced anxiety.
So, to the Gateway of India we go.
Throngs of people push close to the waters edge, where a fleet of ferries bob in the acidic waters of the Arabian Sea. Men stand at the top of the stairs, waving tickets, yelling. We hand over some rupees and descend the steep staircase to a ferry bound for Elephanta Island.
We slide in to an edge seat nearest the salty, toxic soup, to discover the hour long ride is but a nautical photo shoot; families surround us with their cameras to take a series of pictures in every variant possible as they interview us about our trip. We attempt an escape to the top deck, but there is a charge to sit on the upper level. We take a seat at the stern, away from the photo-happy families. A group of boys sitting nearby look over at us.
The boat finally docks at the end of a long pier, which boasts a toy train transporting passengers to the end. Zooming past the chugging train on foot, we reach the base of a mountain and begin the ascent through a blue-tarp tunnel lined with merchants selling jewellery and trinkets.
At the top we turn left and face a string of caves, stamped with the title of a World Heritage Site. Gigantic stone carvings of Shiva, among a slew of other godly statues, dominate the caverns like monstrous, man-bunned heroes. Pillars the size of hundred year old trees staccato the caves. As we grotto hop, Marnie and I begin to feel like just another tourist attraction–every ten minutes, we are stopped by someone.
“Can I take a picture ma’am?”
“One photo please.”
‘One photo‘–that’s a lie, every time. They turn the camera at different angles. They want one shot with their sunglasses on and one without. One with us holding their screaming child, one without. One with only the wife and one with only the husband shaking our hand, nice-to-meet-you-Mister-President style. It’s rather hilarious, it’s slightly annoying, and it’s really cutting into our time. We start turning photo-opportunities down, foregoing hand shakes and excusing ourselves from ‘selfies’. We have a mountain to climb.
At a fork in the path, there’s a sign–‘Watch out for monkeys’. We turn down a canopied trail, finally free from the curious crowds. Branches shake around us. Langurs scamper by on the path ahead, gathered in tiny ferocious gangs. As the only humans around, all of those black, beady eyes turn to rest on us. Marnie digs her nails into my arm, whining with terror. A monkey must catch a whiff of fear, because he charges forward. Marnie panics and chucks the one litre water bottle in her arms to the ground as a distraction. It works. He reels for the plastic vessel as we veer around him and, over my shoulder, I see the monkey unscrew the top and slurp from the opening as water trickles out. Unscathed, we reach the top of the mountain, with panoramic views of Elephanta Island and the smoggy Bombay skyline.
We book it down the mountain to make the 5 p.m. ferry back to the mainland–along the path, through the glowing tarp tunnel of junk, across the pier. An impressively-horned cow challenges another for a roasted cornbread dropped by some careless foodie. One of them runs in for the mealy loaf, while the other charges sideways, with Marnie in his direct path. She dodges potential puncture as swiftly as an injured cat, thus making it to the ferry without any extra orifices.
Our voyage hears us reciting lines from ridiculous movies until we can barely make it to the bathroom before peeing on the boat deck. The polluted waters splash us as we roil through the sea, and the whole surface is littered with tankers and oil rigs and boats and garbage. Seagulls flock the ferry, following it in feathery flight as we tug along, looking like crazed paparazzi waiting for the perfect shot. The onboard celebs toss crumbs out to sea, inducing the gulls into a frantic state of greed as they dive bomb the minuscule offerings.
The boat pulls into the harbour, we elbow our way through the mob and head back to our neighbourhood, where we find a hole-in-the-wall diner with chicken curry and draft beer and . . . wi-fi! Still, the whole bus-booking business is proving to be endlessly frustrating, but this time I laugh. We’re going to have to make it happen some other way.
“Hello,” a man approaches us from the table over.
His hands fidget as he stands there, looking vulnerable. He introduces himself. He is visiting from Turkey.
“Please, may I have the honour of paying for your dinner?”
Appalled by his formality and gesture, but not ones to deny a man his honour (or forgive the daily budget), we accept. We invite him to join us for a beer later at Cafe Mondegar.
Back at our hostel, we take some time to relax. The front desk says they can book a bus for us tomorrow morning. No more online booking struggles (I feel my Starbucks tears blush).
In the dorm room, a Spanish girl introduces herself to us, who is currently looking for a place to live as she job hunts in this Indian metropolis. She walks with us to the bar, but says goodbye when we reach the entrance.
“I don’t drink in India,” she says.
The Turkish guy arrives shortly after, followed by a crew from our hostel, and we fill up a big table in the back room and share some pitchers of beer.
A couple hours later we stumble back to the hostel. I sweep the dead bugs off my sheets and fall face first onto my pillow, not bothering to switch my pants for pyjamas.