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Passage to India - Cairo, Egypt to Mumbai, India

Hello and greetings from India which has rejuvenated the tired traveler. When we last wrote, we were headed to the Pyramids of Egypt with a bad case of the ABC's. Another bloody castle, another bloody cathedral another bloody crumbly. We were homesick and it just crept up on us. All of a sudden, we found ourselves having a Big Mac at McDonald's because it reminded us of home. We stayed in our air-con hotel room with one English channel, BBC World and watched it continuously all day, just because they were speaking English, even if it was in a funny accent. 

All these supposedly amazing sights were starting to blend. When you've seen one, you've seen em all. So much so, that the pyramids when we were finally there were ... OK. It probably didn't help that Ann was quite sick and on Egyptian antibiotics. But it was our last day, and darned if we were going to leave Egypt without seeing them. Up close and personal, they actually look like a nice neat pile of rocks. The ultrasmooth limestone covering has long since eroded away, leaving a very rough heap of stones. And the sphinx, poor guy, not only has no nose, but most of one side of his face is blasted off as some infidels used him as target practice. And the baksheesh was as bad as ever. It is so hard to appreciate ancient Egypt with modern Egypt tugging so persistently at your arm. And the final straw for us poor lone souls, taking local transportation to the Pyramids and wandering in on our own, was that we could not go inside. Seems you have to purchase a ticket and there are a limited number of them. Well, the big tour groups of Americans, Japanese and Germans gobbled them all up long before the sun even dawns on the Pyramids. There was nothing left for us, the individual traveler. So we left, defeated...

We left Egypt at 3:00am in the morning to head to Bombay (Mumbai as they like to call it) India. And we were bit anxious. Not sure what to expect. Already homesick. And the horror stories we had heard.

Well India has been everything we did not expect. For one thing, it has completely cured our homesickness. Everything is so different and so new and exciting. It started at the airport, when we got a taxi to the city. The mini-taxis (no such thing as a full-size car) were sitting outside in the dripping humidity. Drenched as we got into the back seat, our driver who spoke no English, tried to start the car to no avail. Well, rather than move us to another taxi, he had all his taxi-driver friends push us while he tried to jump start the engine. Well, when we were pushed almost halfway to the city, it finally started, and away we went. First of all, they drive on the left, well theoretically, but actually it is more of the middle of the road. There appears to be no lanes and this congestive stew of mini-taxis, auto-rickshaws (motor scooters with backseats), people, trucks, scooters and of course, the ubiquitous sacred cows move through the city streets with seemingly few accidents but many near misses.

But what really struck us as we drove into the city, was the people, so many people crushed into very small places. India is poor, unlike you have ever seen. Home is a relative word. Do you call a lean-to made from corrugated tin painted with a pepsi logo, a home? Do you call the gutters in the streets, toilets? Well, India certainly makes you think, or rethink maybe. Immediately, the begging began. Whenever the taxi slowed even a bit, we would be mobbed by scraggly kids asking for a rupee, the equivalent of two cents. They stick their arms in the car and tugg at your sleeve. Sometimes, they would be joined by their mothers, who would be breast-feeding at the same time. One must remember that India is a country of almost one billion people. Compare that to America which has a population of 250 million. But of course, this is but one facet of an incredibly complex country.

Everywhere we go, we see the British influence. Having colonized the country for two hundred years, India finally achieved independence in 1947 and is now the world's largest democracy. In fact, we are watching election mania overtake the country, as elections last a month (getting a billion people to vote!) But the British have left a lasting legacy including the architecture, the administration, and the Indian passion for cricket! We had cable in our room and watched ESPN, albeit not quite the same as home. It is non-stop cricket, badminton and ping-pong. Quite exciting stuff. One day, as we were wandering around Mumbai, we came across a large park and many games of cricket were being played in the traditional 'whites' - white pants, white shirts, and white sleeve-less v-neck sweaters. Very elegant, until you fall in the mud! The pitch (field) was not in the best condition. As we have finally learned the basics of cricket, we are actually becoming fans.  

But first things first. We had to do laundry... we decided to try the famous dhobi-wallahs- the laundry people! Your dirty undies are whisked away from your hotel and come back spanking clean, but what happens in between is India's greatest mystery. First off, they don't go near a washing machine. All of the city's dirty laundry is collected each morning and taken to a dhobi-ghat (series of steps that lead into a lake or river and reserved for the washing of laundry.) Upon arrival at the dhobi-ghat, all the clothes are separated by colors and types- whites shirts in one area, blue jeans in another etc. If this were home, your clothes would either be hopelessly lost or need a bar code to keep track of it.  They are soaked for a few hours, following which the dirt is literally beaten out of them. No miracle of technology can wash as clean as a determined dhobi-wallah. Once clean, they are hung out to dry on miles of line, then finally a visit to the ironing shed where your undies come out with knife edge creases. Then the miracle occurs. Somehow, your clothes are separated back out and delivered to your door that same evening, utilizing a mysterious system of marking clothes known only to the dhobi- wallahs. They say that even criminal can be tracked down by the tell-tale dhobi-marks. All my time in India, and I never did discover the dhobi-marks. After a few visits to the dhobi's your clothes do start to look a bit threadbare, but at least they are CLEAN!  The largest dhobi ghat in Mumbai was a miniature city in itself, its dhobi-denizens scurrying here and there, beating clothes to within an inch of their lives. Passages wove between rows upon rows of washing tubs and troughs. And miles of miles of billowing clothes densely strong on crossing line. All of India must come here to do laundry. 

Largest dhobi-ghat in Mumbai, rows upon rows of laundry

Mumbai itself, is not so much a tourist destination. It is India's financial capital and home of Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world (by volume.) It was actually very refreshing because the city is not so reliant on tourism and we could just relax and take it all in. One afternoon, we took in the few 'sights' that there are in Mumbai. We saw Gandhi's house, which is now a little museum in his memory, retelling his non-violent struggle for independence. Then there  is the Parsi's Tower of Silence. The Parsi are followers of the ancient religion of zoroastrianism and as they believe in the purity of the four elements, they cannot bury or cremate their dead. Instead, they lay the body out atop a large tower for the vultures to pick them clean. While we saw the towers, artful landscaping keeps out peeping tourists.

Mumbai is actually a peninsula off India, and the harbor is immense. One day we took a boat ride out to Elephanta Island, and had our first direct experience with sacred India, home to Hinduism and Buddhism. Elephanta Island is home to 8th century cave temples dedicated to the Lord Shiva in all his incarnations. While Hindus believe in one god, the many gods and goddesses (at last count, 330 million) are just different facets of the one. The main players Brahma, the creator god, Vishnu, the preserver god, and Shiva, the destroyer and renewer. Shiva, appears to be the most popular, along with his consort, the beautiful Parvati, and their son Ganesha, always shown with an elephant head. 

At Elephanta, we saw some incredible cave rock sculpture especially the bust of a triple-headed Shiva. Each head was forty feet tall yet the delicate carvings gave it such a peaceful and tranquil expression. But the most entertaining aspect had to be the wild monkeys that owned the island. Those naughty guys would drop down on unsuspecting tourists and steal whatever they were carrying. We watched one monkey take some guys plastic bag, take it up to the tree, where he proceeded to go through the contents, throwing them down one by one since souvenirs are usually not edible. It was hilarious to watch the tourist run around collecting his stuff as the monkey tossed it down. Here as in all parts of India, the wildlife is a part of the fabric of life, not relegated to a zoo. Monkeys roam the streets, and cows always have the right of way. We have seen incredible birds and warthogs, and wild pigs and dogs, geckos, monitor lizards ... all seem to take no notice of the humans in their midst. But all this takes a toll on the cities and villages. Every street becomes an obstacle course of cow dung and auto-rickshaws nearly mowing people down. Good fun indeed!

In spite of all our apprehensions, we are enjoying India very much, especially the FOOD! As we are both avid lovers of the Devon Ave. Indian buffets back in Chicago, we were excited to try the real deal. And it is delicious, spicy and cheap to boot. As many people are vegetarians for religious reasons, many restaurants advertise PURE VEG. A typical dish here is called a Thali, which consists of a metal platter with small serving bowls around the outside or the platter itself may be divided into small compartments. Waiters come by and fill the metal bowls with whatever vegis they are cooking that day (usually 2-3 kinds) swimming in some fabu sauce, dhal (lentil curry), some sweet item, maybe a potato samosa, and in the center they heap rice and chapatis. Many thalis are all you can eat and they will keep filling your little bowls til you cry uncle. And all this costs just fifty cents! The food especially at the places with no English signs is just the best. Unfortunately, we ate once at a tourist place and the food was horrendously bland, so now we head to where the locals dine, and our stomachs and pockets are the happier for it.  

The street food is also good, although we must be a bit more cautious as Indian water can wreck havoc on your digestive system. The best street food snack in Bombay is Bhel Puri, an addictive blend of green chutney, tamarind sauce, chili paste, fried vermicelli, puffed rice, potato, tomato, onion, green mango, and coriander. The vendors mix it up and pour it into a newspaper cone and give you a chip to scoop it out with, all for ten rupees (25 cents). In fact, the food had been so good, it seems to have cured our digestive woes picked up in the Middle East, but no need for details on that.

And from Bombay, we will take our first journey on the legendary Indian Railway System, inherited from the British, but more on that interesting ride next time. 

Ten four good buddies

Ann and Doug


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