Mumbai Part I

February 9, 2011

While visiting with a man who was born, raised, and spent 50 years of his life in Mumbai,  I was asked on more than one occasion to reconsider my trip and fly elsewhere. After assuring him that I had no such intention, he offered some more practical advice: don’t drink the water, don’t eat home-cooked food, and don’t pay the police. Needless to say that by day two, I had violated all three of these rules.

I knew this would be a unique trip as soon as I learnt that my place of stay would be one block away from both the most expensive house in the world (USD$1billion), and a Parsi temple where the dead are left to rot in the sun and eventually be picked away by large birds of prey. I would be staying with the 75 year old mother-in-law of my Mom’s friend Shobha, who lives in a south-central Mumbai district called Tardeo. Her name is Mrs. Gujar but I was soon told to call her Aji (grandmother in Hindi).

Once landing at Mumbai International Airport (certainly not on any ‘Top Five Airports’ list) shortly after sundown, I quickly ran through the intimidating gauntlet of taxi drivers and hired cars in an attempt to find the one which had been arranged to meet me. No luck. I ran it again, but still could not find a sign bearing any resemblance to a ‘Mr. Peter Lampard’. There must be a mistake, I thought. The trip just started, I don’t need this already. I decided to wait a few minutes before I searched again but already, the whole arrival hall was focused on the one white boy who was so obviously lost and confused. Making one last pass through the signs, I headed over to the prepaid taxi line and got myself a driver to take me to Tardeo. Four hundred rupees and two hours later, I somehow arrived safely at my destination.

coming from the airport

Some locals say that the billion dollar house built by the second richest man in the world was the biggest waste of money in India, but I disagree. I now believe that the biggest waste of money in India are the traffic lights. Never in my life have I seen such a blatant  disregard of a system designed to save lives. If there is one place where traffic lights are needed the most it is Mumbai, where a two-lane road features 3 cars, a motorcycle, and a two men on a bicycle all dodging the children running between them trying to sell strawberries to those stuck in the inevitable traffic. I was an unfortunate witness to the result of ignoring traffic lights when a motorcyclist, using only one hand to drive while talking on his cell phone with the other, turned left through a red light and hit a teenage boy walking through the intersection. The motorcycle immediately spun out of control and slipped while the boy simply dropped to the ground and grabbed his leg. I was on the back of a motorcycle with a newfound friend watching the scene and as we drove away, I was only able to see a crowd of people rush over to the boy. I hope he survived but I’m certain this type of incident is not at all rare.

sneaking up on an indian wedding

My friend was a 24 year old man named Nitesh who during the day is an assistant to a math tutor, but occasionally comes over to help Aji clean her apartment and buy groceries. Aji’s flat consists of one room separated by a half-wall. On one side is a sofa, a small television in the corner, and a padded bench against the wall. On the other side of the wall is a sink, stovetop, microwave and cupboard. The bathroom is connected to the kitchen and has only a sink and toilet. At night, Aji brings a straw mat out of the cupboard and positions it on the floor by the television. She gave me a pillow and I was to sleep on the padded bench while she insisted on sleeping where she always does, on the floor. When it is bedtime, Aji turns on the ceiling fan, opens the window and door (a metal grate prevents any would-be burglars), and it is quite nice. There is no air-conditioning but even when it is 95 degrees during the day, the cool breeze keeps the apartment comfortable. After a cup of tea and a few milk biscuits, Aji lies on the mat and I make myself at home on the bench. Despite the awful symphony of noises coming from outside (a mix of Indian music, crying babies, and horns honking) I couldn’t stave off the exhaustion for long. Before I finally shut my eyes, Aji reminds me that I will be woken up at 5:30 to start the day.


Hai mm hai teem?

March 24, 2010

It finally happened. After almost 10 months in Hong Kong, I’ve successfully had my first completely intelligible and productive conversation in Cantonese.

The venue: my local bakery. The reason: needed bread for dinner. The antagonist: my friendly baker.

My baker with a customer

Needing to buy some bread for dinner that night, I wandered a few doors down from my apartment to a hole-in-the-wall bakery I had seen before. Needless to say, the owner didn’t speak a single word of English. Outside his shop were shelves with different kinds of bread, some covered in a glaze and some plain. I wasn’t interested in any sweet bread, just some plain ole white bread.

I began, “Lei ho!” (Hello) I pointed to the sweet bread, “Li go hai mm hai teem, ah?” (Is this bread sweet?)

He replied enthusiastically, “Hai, hai.” (Yes it is.)

I countered, pointing to another loaf, “Gum, li go hai mm hai teem?” (So, is this one sweet?)

The baker replied, “Li go mm hai teem” (This one isn’t sweet.)

Mm goi, ngo yiu lok go li go.” I said. (Thanks, I’d like 6 of these.)

He bagged up six pieces of bread and finished the conversation with “Doh je, doh je.” (Thank you for your business!)

As simple as this conversation was, it felt amazing to finally be able to communicate exactly what I was thinking without taking 15 minutes to think about it. Moreover, it was some pretty damn good bread.

As it turns out, parking in Amsterdam is a nightmare. Chris and I found out firsthand why you don’t want to take a car into this city of canals unless you plan on paying through the nose or taking measures to get out of paying full price. Accidently, we chose the latter.

There are really only two ways to park a car in Amsterdam and both are inconvenient. Meters on the street cost an outlandish  €5/hour ($7.50/hour) so unless you budget several hundred dollars for parking, your best option is to park in a public garage. Only experience (and perhaps knowledge of the Dutch language) will tell you that the word “VRIJ” in big bold letters next to “Parking” doesn’t literally mean free parking. Unfortunately, the lack of context clues in our question of ‘what does vrij mean?’ resulted in us being told simply, ‘free’. Being a couple of optimistic travelers, we naturally assumed this meant that the Dutch were giving us the Christmas present of free parking in their garages.

After spending the last hour walking around in below-freezing temperatures in sludge and snow trying to work out the logistics of parking, we considered ourselves pretty damned lucky to have found a free parking garage. We were told by our hostel concierge that we should expect to pay about €6 a day for the parking garage and then we would need to take a bus or a tram back up to the hostel which was a ways away, but free is better than €6 a day. We went back to the hostel, bragged about how we found a free garage, and continued on our vacation.

Fast forward two days to Sunday morning when we arrive at the parking garage to get in the car and leave for Germany. Having the parking ticket in hand, we walk to the automatic paying machine and put it in, expecting a €12 charge, €18 at most in case we got charged an extra day.

There is no doubt that you could have heard a pin drop when we saw a €58 ($87) charge come up.

Looking at each other, then back at the machine, then back at each other with open mouths, we take the ticket out and immediately walk to the attendant in his booth a few steps away. Since it was a busy morning for the parking garage, we waited in line for a few minutes before we got up to the window. Chris handed him our ticket and told him that there must be a mistake because the machine told us €58 and surely, that couldn’t be right. The man scanned the ticket and looked back at us, about to give us some bad news.

He told us that normally it would be €6 a day to park in the garage but we made the mistake of not going up to an attendant when we parked to get him to validate our ticket, thereby somehow incurring a €29 a day charge. We were stunned. Not only had the hostel concierge not included this tidbit in his instructions, but there were no signs anywhere that told us we must do this. He saw the looks on our faces and told us to wait a moment while he called his ‘boss’ to see what he could do for us. In the mean time, we waited next to the window, still in shock. After a few minutes of him calling a number and apparently not getting through to whoever he was calling, he motioned for us to come into his office while a line of people waited for him outside. At this point, I knew something was fishy.

He turned his back to the line of people and told us very quietly that normally, his boss has no sympathy for people making this mistake but in contrast, he was sympathetic to our situation. He pauses.

I suppose this was our opportunity to ‘make him an offer’.

Having no experience in bribery, I flat out asked him, “How much do you want?”

Sounded very sympathetic, he says, “Oh I don’t know, it’s whatever you want to throw out there….”

I look at Chris for any ideas. We both knew at this point that we had less than 10 Euros in cash between the two us so this was going to have to be a slick deal.

We threw out €28 as an initial offer to him saying it was half of the total price. Surprisingly he agreed and told us to pull the car around to wait for him and he would come around and collect.  Hurrying back to the car, we pull out all the cash and change we have in any currency. I found 6 Euros in coins in a couple different pockets of my bag and Chris got together 8 or so Euros in coins. Knowing this was not going to cut it, I pull out my US Dollars and find a $5 bill and a couple of ones. Chris gets out two $1 bills and we agree that this will have to do. Instead of the €28 we initially said, we now only have €14 and $9.

Putting together an impromptu acting class, we decide that we need to act desperate and completely out of cash. Chris takes his two dollars and crinkles them up into his pocket and I take my $7 and fold it up into my wallet, taking out my Hong Kong dollars and hiding them. Chris drives up to the window and out he comes. Looking as desperate as possible, I give him a handful of Euro change and then reach into my wallet to find only $7! He counts up the change looking disappointed and then turns to the dollars saying, “What is this, American dollars?” Chris then quickly reaches into his pocket pulling out the two other dollars and tells him, “Sorry man, this is all we’ve got!”

The bribee looks quickly back at the line of people, then turns back to us saying “Okay okay, just get out of here.” He opens up the gate and off we go to leave Amsterdam.

the night hike

August 20, 2009


Victoria Peak sits at 1,810 feet, the highest point on Hong Kong island. Tonight, Ed and I hiked from the bottom to the top in 40 minutes flat in pitch black. Stopping only twice for about 15 seconds each to get a look at the brilliant view, I used those 15 seconds to catch up to Ed who at 60 years old, was absolutely kicking my ass on the hike. I thought I was in peak (no pun intended) physical condition up to that point in my day but the farther we climbed up the mountain, and the farther back I would fall behind, I was starting to have real doubts about my fitness.

Finally after getting to the top just five minutes after Mom arrived by bus (after leaving at the same time), every piece of clothing on my body was soaked in sweat. Im not even sure Ed wiped his brow once during the hike. Pausing a moment to catch my breath, I then followed Ed inside to the ever-welcome air conditioned store to grab a couple of beers and cool down.

Im not going to start making up excuses for my lack of spryness on the trail, for example how I was carrying both a large camera and tripod on my back, or how I had already sweated out my body’s weight in water earlier that day going to the Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery. Regardless, it was another adventure in Hong Kong that keeps reminding how much I love it here.

Skyline at night

How many smiles do you see?  With more than 7,000,000 people living here, you would think it would be a little easier to find a happy face.

Village Hike

August 14, 2009

A few days ago, I went on a mini-hike to a small fishing village on the outskirts of Kowloon. Despite the somewhat crummy weather which actually added to gloomy environment, I was able to get a good idea of what life must have been like before Hong Kong became the ever-bustling metropolis it is today. From this village, you could look just across the water to the other side which has already experienced the type of growth that is destined to reach all corners of this beautiful country. Walking back into ‘town’ to catch the MTR back home, we were greeted again by the bland skyscrapers that have torn up the countryside. It was an eerie experience still being in ‘Hong Kong’ but seeing nothing around but marshes and forest. It is a side that I would like to see more often of, but unfortunately has been pushed out to the far edges of the territory.


June 17, 2009

Yesterday I hired a taxi driver to drive me an hour and a half south today to a coastal town called Tagaytay, wait for me, and drive me back. Just outside of the town there is a volcano out in the middle of a lake, with its own lake in the center of the pit The driver showed up this morning at my hotel at 5:30 sharp with a buddy of his that he shares his cab with. The way taxis work here is that the driver leases the car from the taxi company and in order to make enough money to pay the lease and then earn a living, the driver must be on the road 24 hours a day, no breaks. He then finds a partner who drives the cab every other day so that the first driver has those days to sleep. In essence, the car is being driven 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

So the two drivers show up, with the one I negotiated with (Mr. Ernesto Toca) telling me that since he has never been to Tagaytay, he would like to come along on his day off and sleep on the way there and back. I agree and off we go with Mr. Bong Toyoto driving and Mr. Ernesto getting comfortable in the passenger seat.

The hour and half drive to the town allowed me to see the Filipino countryside and just how different it is than anything else I had seen. Every so often, we would pass a cow grazing in the ‘median’ in the middle of the road or a driver taking a bathroom break on the side of the road in the bushes. With no painted lines on the road, cars and motorcycles pass freely dodging in and out of the moving traffic. My two drivers kept insisting that they were like Manny Pacquiao (their national hero) and would gladly fight off anybody for me like bodyguards. Once we got closer to the town, the roads got steeper as we drove up the mountain and the fog was thickening. About 15 minutes outside, we started passing men on the side of the road with hand-painted signs advertising boats for hire to take me to the volcano. My drivers told me that if I wanted to do that, it would be at least half as cheap at the water than these guys, so we went on. Getting closer, the number of guys with signs increased and at one point we were stopped in the road by 3 men standing in the middle not letting us pass. We quickly locked all the doors and Mr. Toyoto just barely cracked his window to tell them to step aside. Despite being told we weren’t interested, a few of them hopped on the back of scooters and proceeded to follow us closely. At times, they would drive right up to the side of our car and yell in Tagalog.

Fortunately we got to the peak of the mountain without further incident but on the way back down, we were boxed in by 3 scooters with yelling men pointing us towards their boat stand. We were driving about 40 mph with a scooter in front and on either side of us, the driver looking getting as close as he could to us while his passengers in the back kept pointing to their signs and motioning for us to follow. This kept on going for at least 3 miles until they finally got the picture and swerved off going back.

One thing is very obvious to me here, these people will do absolutely everything they can to get a chance at earning your business. They will risk their own health and safety just to get the slightest look of interest in your face. It is this kind of relentless enthusiasm that keeps them alive, as I’m sure if they had the passivity of much of the working youth in developed countries, they would not survive. I am not saying that they have a better work ethic or a stronger desire to succeed than their counterparts in the west, they only know one thing and that is that perseverance.


June 17, 2009

A sense of security is very important when traveling, as it allows you to actually enjoy the place it is that you are visiting. At times, however, the lack of this sense of security is what will keep you out of harms way and on your toes. In Manila, it has been hard for me to find a sense of security.  Although I am very travel conscious, this city is quite intimidating and it is a struggle to relax here. Despite feeling like I am constantly being watched and sized up, there are certain things albeit small and relatively unimportant, that I now will never feel the same about.

Take the store Seven-Eleven for example. Walking in to a convenience store in the US, you might never feel ten times safer inside than outside. In fact, often times you might feel safer outside the Seven-Eleven than in. Here in Manila, security guards armed with a nightstick and a loaded pistol are positioned outside most every business including McDonalds, Starbucks, and Seven-Elevens. At the banks, there are constantly two guards, each with a shotgun. Each guard has a notepad and a pen and he makes note of everyone that comes in and out of these stores.

Walking down the street I am constantly bombarded by beggars, taxi drivers, and pimps looking to give me a good deal on his women, all the while I have both my hands in my pockets to prevent the little kids from sticking their hands in and grabbing my wallet. Nothing feels better than walking in to these stores where I know I am safe, away from the pickpockets and thieves. It is so unfortunate that this city is that way because I can tell that it has so much to offer.

manila pt 2

June 15, 2009

Intimidating at first, I now realize that Manila is on a completely different level than anything else I have seen in Southeast Asia. The poverty is blatant and awakening. The boundary between the have’s and the have-not’s is more evident than even Laos. I may have a biased opinion on Manila because of my location but I believe this may just be a small taste of the rest of the capital city. It has been a common sight to see that brand new 3 Series drive down a street lined with corrugated metal-roof sheds that function as an entire family’s home.

I don’t think that 6-foot, blue-eyed, Caucasians come around these parts too often because the looks I get from every person on the street is the same one I think I would have if I walked into the corner Starbucks to be served by Kobe Bryant. Just as strange, I played a game of Scrabble against a local Filipino in a park. He won. We were using English words. Embarrassing? You bet. Even more so when about 20 of his friends showed up to watch once we got started.

I was in the famous Rizal Park walking around when I came across an area with picnic tables and about 100 old Filipino men playing chess and Scrabble. I was taking pictures here and there when one of the men in a wife-beater shirt and torn jeans shouted to me “You wan play Scrabble?” I thought to myself, this would be a good way to interact with the locals. “Sure! Lets play!” I sat down with him and immediately a crowd gathered. We decided on putting a little money on the game, 20 pesos to the winner. To me this meant a possible 50 cents to be lost or won. To him, I’m sure it meant a pack of cigarettes, judging by his tooth.

His buddy, a guy who looked like he was approaching 90 years old, pulled out a yellowed board and the obviously very used letter pieces, telling me with a cigarette butt hanging from his lip that it would cost me 10 pesos to “rent the stuff” from him. No problem. The game started with my opponent placing the word “QAID” down, getting oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Feeling smart, I snapped, “Challenge! You have to use a ‘u’ after a ‘q’!” Everyone got silent. The 90 year old pulled out a tattered green Scrabble dictionary (where does he get this stuff?) and carefully thumbs towards the A’s. Dead silence. He puts the book down and what do you know, QAID is right there. The crowd goes wild. They knew it all along; apparently I was playing the grand master of the park. I was getting hustled at Scrabble! A few turns went by and I was losing fast. It was like, 125 to 80 when he started to really pull away with words like XU and LEAKY getting double and triple points. The more I was losing, the more people showed up to see this American getting completely owned by a Filipino at his own language. At the end, I finished with EON getting a record 8 points for me. A round of applause for the grand master. I shelled out his 20 pesos and the 10 to the 90 year old for his equipment and shook everyone’s hand. They were all smiles as I walked away, completely embarrassed but nevertheless happy that I got to experience that.

I think I’m going back tomorrow for Round 2.

manila pt 1

June 15, 2009

Manila wants your money.

In those four words, I believe I have accurately summarized the entirety of my experiences here in the capital of the Philippines. Scamming is the name of the game here and everyone can do it extremely well, from the youngest children running around barely out of diapers to old men who should be sitting back doing crosswords instead of hustling seemingly naïve tourists. This is no exaggeration, as I have been approached by anyone and everyone for money in one form or another. Little kids with dirt on their face and torn Batman t-shirts will carry their infant siblings around in their arms and yell, ”Give me coins! Baby no food!”

As sad as that is, it gets much worse. As I was walking out of my hostel, I turned to ask the security guard where I could find some authentic Filipino food. No more than 10 seconds later, an old man popped up to my side and offered to “show me a good place”. Knowing exactly what he was doing, I allowed him to take me a few hundred feet down the street to a place where I got some mediocre beef strips in some kind of red sauce and heap of steamed rice. Average at best. I knew that at any moment, he would be asking for something or want to take me somewhere else.

His questions started getting more personal so I decided to take him on a little ride. He asks, “You here by yourself?” I reply, “Nah, I’m here with two of my football buddies. You know, those really big guys you see on TV?” He asks, “Which hotel you stay at?” I reply, “That one over there with the two security guards outside”. At this point he starts to tell me about a bar that has girls for “really, really cheap” and hands me their business card. What a classy guy. He tells me he can get me a “young one”. Absolutely disgusting. I think it’s time to end our little conversation. “I’m gonna head back, my friends are meeting me at the room to get coffee.”

He starts to look worried, maybe he wont get this tourist. “Wait wait wait, let’s wak down to bar, I show you now.” “No, I’m heading back.” “No I showed you place to eat, now we go to bar.” He is getting upset. I start walking back and he follows quickly. Now his tactics change, he realizes he wont get me to his bar but maybe he can get a little change. “You have small coins? For coffee.” I tell him I don’t drink coffee, it stunts my growth. He is confused, normally tourists don’t put up this much of a fight. “No not for you, I want coffee. You have small coins?” I bluntly tell him no and he then stops talking immediately and instead walks directly behind me, following me. I can see that he is going to try and find out where I am staying so I realize that this has gotten a little out of control. I walk into the hotel where I told him I was staying, two doors down from my actual one. I walk in and look behind me to see him trying to see where I am going. Fortunately the guards stopped him at the door. I walk around the corner and out the back door, outside, and through the back door to my place. Got him.