Thursday, October 21, 2010

Greatful we are without a driver

Today was the second Mumbai Explorers excursion to Mani Bhavan (Gandhi Museum). I left my flat at 9:30am, armed with the Lonely Planet and Mumbai Maps book to help me find the museum. Very happy I had rupees on my smart card, I went to the small computer stand, got my ticket without waiting in line, and walked over to the 5th platform - the fast train - to head off to Grant Road station. At this time in the morning, there are loads of people heading into the city since most businesses don't open until 10 - 11am. As the train came to a halt, I pulled myself on, trying to push the woman in front of me further into the train as another woman was barely hanging on behind me. The train started up. As women started to shift to exit the next station, I was tightly crammed between other bodies, all of them women since I was in the ladies' car. I was sweating like a pig, so all I could do was go to my happy place and smile at the situation. Then we started moving, a group of ladies started singing and they serenaded us the whole ride. It was wonderful! Brought me back to Kingston, Jamaica where there was always thumping beats blaring on the buses. At Dadar, the most bustling station, loads of women exited, creating more room and I took a seat for a bit until my station came up. I squeezed my way to the door telling women I was getting off at Grant Station and they stepped aside to let me by.
Once off, I meandered until I found the exit of the station and stepped out into the bustling street with my map book out. It wasn't a far walk, but figuring out which road to take at an intersection where five roads met was slightly disorienting. I asked a policeman who pointed me in the right direction. I arrived as the Mumbai Explorers headed inside.
It's a wonderful museum and I hope to go back when I have more time to explore. For lunch, we took a walk around the block to see a couple of other significant sights. One of the ladies stated to me. "Wow, walking, it feels so good. You just don't get to see as much when you are in the car, right?" I laughed to myself and thought, "honey, you don't even know the half of it." This moment made me truly grateful that I can't rely on my air conditioned car, driven by a driver, who takes me wherever and I end up having no clue about anything. Here's to sweat, crowds, singing and India! I earned my fresh lime soda, damn it!
As we left the lunch spot, all the other ladies turned right, calling their drivers and I turned left to head back to the train station...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Our Hero Bicycles

Finally, the long awaited blog about our Indian bikes from Hero! We've had them about a month or so and have been getting use to their "special" nuances. Both were about $70 and are solid as a tank. Greg's bike is the same that millions of Indians ride each day to commute or deliver any type of goods you can think of. After riding my bike around Bandra, I have a new found respect for the balancing act these men go through every day. Wow!
One of our mishaps has been with the tires. Both of our tires went low, so Greg bought a standing bike pump to get them back into shape. The only problem was...what the heck is this? The valves on the tires are not Shrader nor Presta. They are unique to India? Maybe these are the same valves in China? All I know is when Greg went to use the bike pump he ended up pulling out the valve thus causing opposite effect of the hoped outcome. Oops. Now he was able to practice changing his bike tube. This was quite a fun project for him, which took about two and a half hours. He's not going to be winning any races in the near future I can tell you that.
Changing the tire involved taking half the bike apart since most of it was connected to the rear axle: heavy duty kickstand, rear rack, brakes, bike lock, fenders. All connected by bolts. All this was preformed in our car port in the evening hours in the humidity and with mosquitoes buzzing around. Greg LOVED it! When I came into this scene I immediately thought, photo opt! Thus, we now have photos to show off our heavy metal beasts.
There aren't very many females out riding the streets, so my bright pink, "Miss India Gold" is quite a sight. Actually two foreigners using their own steam instead of a driver is quite a sight. It is assumed that we have a driver by everyone. For example when asking directions to an expat function, "Oh, just have your driver call mine. They'll figure it out."
Since fixing his tube, Greg has been to the bike shop to have his tires pumped up and he has assured me that he watched closely and "thinks" he can pump mine up. Ha! On my list of things to do today is taking Miss India Gold and bike pump to the shop for a lesson. The other adjustment she needs is a taller seat. Women's bikes come in "one size fits all." When I went to raise my seat, it was only a few inches long. Sorry, but I'm just slightly longer than the average Indian woman. Wish me luck. Right now my leg can't go straighter than 45 degrees. Not a very pleasant feeling on my knees.
Our next goal, once everything is fitting right, is decking out the bikes in bling. I was very excited to see another bike recently with lights placed on the spokes of both tires. I exclaimed, "I must do this!" (What could be cooler than multicolored lights spinning out from all directions of my bike)? If I'm going to be drawing attention to myself, I might as well go all out!
Probably the most important feature both our bikes came with was the bike bell. My thumb is placed square on it at all times, as letting the world know you exist is key to survival. Bikes are low on the totem of importance on the road. These things are LOUD. Greg also has his Incredibell (his friendly bell) and I will soon be putting the honker I purchased along with Krissy Steele in Salida (I heart Salida) during Ride The Rockies 2009. You can never make too much noise in Mumbai.
Riding in Mumbai has been an adjustment of technique. The most obvious is getting use to riding with the flow of traffic on the left side of the road and making turns into the correct lane. Traffic being what it is, we've learned to get right in there and do what we need to do to get through it. The one-foot-push-off-the-sidewalk to pass all rickshaws and cars works wonders...all the sudden you're at the front and we can go through red lights too. Ha ha ha ha! Take that traffic!! It can be sweet bliss sometimes. I'm just waiting to use the foot-into-the-side of-the-rickshaw-kick. I keep visualizing that one. I think if I kick hard enough it'll scare the crap out of the driver and make him think twice about cutting off Miss India Gold.
Don't worry, we both have helmets.:)

(While taking these pictures, I realized Greg's front gear had "Hero" worked it there. They don't spare anything in India. Only the best, baby)!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bombay Hash Hound Harriers

I first heard about Hashing from Nat Cook back when I was nineteen and in Anchorage at home for the summer from my first year in college. It sounded like a running scavenger hunt with all sorts of crazy characters and ended up with a reward of drinking your socks off.

When I arrived in Mumbai, my bible for the first week was a book called "Namaskar Mumbai." It had loads of resources about Mumbai. Under the section of recreation, I ran across the Hash Hound Harriers. I have to try this! I told Greg about it, though he was open to it, I don't think he realized how up his alley this group was going to be. After missing several invites to hashes, this weeks hash started two blocks from our flat. I told Greg I was going to fulfill my curiosity and would love it if he joined. Greg ran 14 miles Sunday morning for his long training run for the Mumbai Marathon. He wasn't sure about running again. I assured him that a lot of people walk and that he would get a couple beers at the end. Five minutes before I left, he decided to join. We walked over to the Pebble Bay Cafe and Bar, which we had never heard of before. It was this upscale place tucked away near an intersection of six different roads. Needless to say, it was crazy just crossing all those busy roads to get to the place, but we made it without any mishaps. There were a few guys hanging out front in t-shirts and shorts, so we introduced ourselves. As more people arrived, it became apparent how much hashing is a way of life. Everyone had t-shirts from different hashing events, trips to the hill stations on the weekends were for hashing, and there were tales told of national, regional, and international events. Wow! I tried to find out a bit more of what we were in for, but no one was giving up specific information.

Once everyone was there, a bugle was sounded and a guy in an orange shirt, one of the "hares," let us know that the other "hare" would meet us at the train station for tickets for the skywalk. Cockney Wanker (once you've been hashing long enough, you are given a hash name) made sure we knew to look for the red electrical tape, always on the left, which marked our route. Then away we went. We followed the crowd to the train station and waited for our tickets (no one was happy about waiting and made sure the hare knew this). Then we headed off. Greg and I were up front with three other hashers. We ran on the skyway that made its way above some slums over to the entrance of the area where ASB is located. We ended up in front with another new hasher, this was his second hash. At one point we lost the trail for a bit, so we turned around and found our way again. Lesson one, be up front at your own risk. We reached a point where one of the hares was located and we were told to run back to the last hare we saw. What?! so we turned around, giving the news to other hashers. The hare was walking the route, so we didn't have to go all the way back to the beginning. Then we were told to turn around again and go back. (later we learned that this goes against a rule of setting the trail. "You can never go back over the same trail." when this was announced, Greg gleefully yelled, I went over my trail twice! Give them two cups of ice! The hares were being punished with ice down their pants). The trail ended up back on the skywalk. At this point, Greg was really tired so the three of us walked the rest of the way back. We found out that just the first five were turned around.

Back at the restaurant, we were greeted buy three guys who were drinking at the bar and who we never saw after the train station. They had totally cheated and two of them were outted for this later. I think there ended up being a handful that had cheated. We had some beer and socialized until everyone was back. Then the end of hash rituals began. The hares were punished, Greg and I were recognized and teased as newcomers, the cheaters were pointed at, the next hash was announced, and we closed with a vulgar rendition of "swing low, sweet chariot." We had a lot of fun and though we won't be around for the Halloween Hash, we hope to join again in November. There will be an urban hash and then a country hash each month. It would be great to run outside of the polluted city. "On On!"

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Greg had his first three day weekend a week ago. We headed to Matheran, a hill station about two and a half hours away from Mumbai. The wonderful thing about it is no cars, except for one ambulance, are allowed. A break from car honking and having to be so aware of vehicles when walking down the street! Our friends and upstairs neighbors, Jen and Brian, planned on going too and allowed us to tag along. Drew and Wacuima also joined. We met early Friday morning, piled into two taxis and headed for the Dadar train station. We decided to take second class for the train ride, which ended up being 17 Rs (20 cents). We waited for the Deccan Espress to wizz us to Neral, where we would catch a taxi to the entrance of Matheran. We got on a train car we thought was second class, but quickly realized that these were reserved seats. We asked a man sitting on the uncrowded train and he said not to worry and just sit. When he found how much we paid, he was not happy because it was so little (typically its about 67 Rs). He tried telling us we needed to get on a different train because this one was not going to Neral. Brian assured us this was the correct train. The train got increasingly full and we kept getting bumped from our seats. But, we made it and no one came by to check tickets. In Neral, there were taxis lining the roadway. Brian bargained for two taxis since we would not fit into one. The one that Jen, Wacuima and I took was...mmmmm, I questioned its ability to take us up the winding mountain. Bald tires, a bit of rust. I think if it had been raining it would not have made it. The road was very steep in some places. Looking at where we were headed, it was hard to see how there was a road up the mountain side. Again, we made it, passing private cars along the way. I kept wondering how Greg was doing with the windy roads since he tends to get car sick. At the car park, we paid our 25 Rs entrance fee and hiked up the steep, rocky road. We passed groups of 5-8 men pushing large carts full of bricks. It was insane! I don't know how they did it. Greg said at one point, he imagined the cart rolling backwards at a point where Jen and I were behind the cart. He said he realized he wouldn't be able to save us from the cart rolling over us. He'd only be able to shout for us to run. What a happy thought, Greg.
The hotel we stayed at, Woodlands hotel, was set back on the thickly wooded hillside, off a side path. I really had the sense that we were at camp. All the hotels and homes were far apart, the paths and roads pretty rocky, a thick forest, fresh air and I could hear birds and insects filling the quiet air. Woodlands was rustic, had large, open porches, and a friendly staff. We enjoyed the wonderful food that was included. The manager had stocked up of beer for us and I brought some wine. A nice relaxing weekend. The only issue for me were the sheets and the uncomfortable bed. Next time, I will be bringing sheets with us. I think this might end up being a rule for us, always travel with your own bed never know.

Our first introduction to the potentially aggression of the Matheran monkeys, which were roaming everywhere, was during our light breakfast we had in town. After getting settled at the hotel, we walked into town, which was one dirt road lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. There were horses clip-clopping along. It felt "old west" in a colonial India sort of way. Matheran was a popular destination for the British and when they left after independence, they gave their land to the Parsis. The Parsis (Hindi for Persians) came from Iran in the 6th or 7th century and have remained a non-partial group, living their lives without upsetting Hindu-Muslim tensions. Their population is declining because they don't marry outside of their community, but they are still very financially powerful, owning about 1/3 of Mumbai's property.
At the restaurant, which was one story above the street and open-aired, we ordered our food. Then the waiter handed Drew a long PVC pipe. This was to fend off the monkeys. At some point, the tin roof came to life with banging as the monkeys jumped on it and ran around. A couple paws appeared from the roof and then a head, peering down. All it took was seeing the pipe, they had learned before what that meant. The pipe was proudly displayed on a chair in the middle of the restaurant during our meal. At Woodlands, they had air rifles to scare the monkeys. They were not loaded, much to the males' disappointment in our group. But they still enjoyed shooting it off when given the opportunity. The other funny thing at this restaurant was what Brian ordered. He decided to have the French Omlete. When it came, it was an omlete covered with french fries. We were all laughing our heads off and decided we all wanted to add "French" to our orders since the potatoes were tasty.
There were many points to hike to in Matheran. Both mornings, Jen, Brian, Greg and I took a morning run to different points. Then we hiked to several others. It reminded me of Hawaii - lush, steep mountainsides with watrefalls gushing down everywhere. The waterfalls disappear as the monsoon becomes more and more a distant memory. For the most part, I felt like there were very few other people around except when we went to Porcupine point at sunset Saturday night. The crowd kept building and building. It's a spectacular place to see the sunset and everyone knows about it. The walk back to the hotel was a bit crazy, dodging people riding horses and slower walkers. I was thankful that was the only time I realized what a popular place Matheran is for Mumbaikars. Besides hikes, the rest of the time was spent lounging, lounging, and more lounging. It was a great relaxing weekend.

For the trip home, we piled into a taxi that took us back to Bandra. Immediately, the driver blasted techno music and was encouraging us to groove to it. All westerners love techno, right? Brian, who was sitting in the hatch back trunk of the van, lost a bit of his hearing since the speakers where right next to him. Greg and I decided next time, we will probably opt for a train ride back. It was just too soon to be back in the craziness of traffic, stopping and going, honking, and near misses. We will be heading back soon.

Internet down, grrrrrr

I'm pleased to say that there is consistency with internet and phone companies all over the world - they pretty much suck. Last Wednesday our internet stopped working. This can happen in India at random times, but usually within a day it's back up and running. It was not running on Thursday and we were leaving for a long weekend, so I wanted to get the ball rolling with having it fixed. I called the company and they said that we hadn't paid our bill. I let them know we had not received a bill yet for this month. Then Greg called when he got home from work. So, they sent a person to collect the money over to our flat. The bill was for three months because their records showed we had not paid our bill for three months. (grrrr) I explained we gave the money to the school and they paid the bill. He showed me their online records (the internet worked for him to do this?!) which showed it had not been paid. (During this time I tried to keep my cool but I couldn't. Then when Greg rang that he was at a friend's having a beer and did I want to join, I was pissed. He's having a beer while I'm dealing with this!! By the end of the money collector's time at our flat, I think he couldn't wait to get the heck out of there. Poor guy, he was just sent to collect the money). I rang up Manish, our go to person for many things, and he spoke to the company guy. Manish let me know he had the receipt but it was at the school. (School was closed early Thursday due to an impending verdict about land - Muslim or Hindi. The whole country was worried about riots. The streets of Mumbai were empty, which was great for Greg and I to bike around. The judges could not agree with a verdict, so it's put off for three months). So, Manish said he could deal with it on Monday and we should just pay the bill. Monday comes, Greg took our receipt of paying the full amount to Manish (our internet was still not on after paying the full amount three days earlier) and handed it over to Manish. Quickly, Manish, not the internet company, figured out the company had not canceled the previous occupant's account, so two were open for our flat. It was corrected, we were assured that we would be credited for three months of service (only time will tell but I'm not holding my breath) and our internet would be back on. Mmmmm, nope. It was still not working on Tuesday. A technician was sent over on Wednesday afternoon. He tried a bunch of things and then called another person. That person told me I'd need to call the call center to get a new password. (I was over ranting at this point). I asked for the number, he didn't know it. I asked the technician and luckily he knew it by heart. Just as the woman said hello, the technician had it up and running. It took another two minutes to explain to the woman on the phone it was all fine. She still wanted a record to show that I had called and things were fine, so I gave her my account info and humg up. The Technician had "found" the correct password. Ahhhhhhhh! This company did not keep good records, shut off our internet before the bill was due and before the bill even arrived. Shutting off our service had cost them man hours and us disatisfaction. Was it worth it? In a country where so many things don't work well, this company has turning off services down pat. You just have to smile and say, "ah, India." BUT I've realized I've been frustrated with communication companies for YEARS. My conclution is communication companies all suck equally. At least we have internet again...and thankfully there is such thing as the internet. OM.