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Revenge of the Beggars – visiting Bombay.



“New age bliss ninnies say that life is filled with choices. That’s bullshit. There is only one choice: will you live for comfort or adventure?” / Joe Quirk


I’m standing with Miss Joyful in Bombay’s stifling pre-monsoon heat, trying to negotiate reasonable cab fare to the hotel Ian recommended so long ago in Beijing. We’re sweating like pigs, stooped under the weight of our backpacks, and terminally exhausted after the hellish train ride from Delhi.


After being in India for 3 months, a Dylan line keeps running through my head: “…how much do you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice…?” Place is unimaginably bizarre - if you don’t relish pain, frustration, and grief, India ain’t for you.  


But if you crave adventure, it’s perfect. Every day, with every step around every corner, excitement waits. Some days you’ll wanna hit somebody with a chair - but hey, ya can’t have everything.

Typical Bombay street scene


On a Delhi street, Miss Joyful actually did hit somebody with a chair. Sexually repressed Indian males think all Western women are hopeless nymphomaniacs. Guys’ll grab or pinch anything that looks even vaguely female. Derrières are favored, but sometimes a lust-haze overwhelms them and they clamp onto breasts, twisting them like hose nozzles. One afternoon, MJ loudly snarled “you asshole,” grabbed a plastic chair, and bashed a guy who’d grabbed her boobs. Other Western women applauded, while the guy simply slunk away, accompanied by the derisive hoots of his buddies.


Pulling to a shuddering halt inside the once-beautiful-but-now-fatally-decrepit British Raj era Victoria Station, we casually swat away luggage wallahs who’ve death-defyingly leapt aboard well before the train began to slow. Each more anorexic than the next, they stack heavy loads of baggage in high teetering piles atop their heads - then trot off briskly. Agree on price first - and keep wicked-sharp eyes on them. They can disappear faster than chips on a double-zeroed roulette wheel.




Bombay train station during rush hour


Off the train, we shoulder through a shifting maze of waiting passengers, sleeping families and farm animals - heading for what we think is the front. Ended up in back, surrounded by dozens of cab drivers, each eyeing us like dessert on a Las Vegas buffet table.


First fare offered was ridiculous. No problem. Turned to another – then another and another – till with the fifth, we were only a scant few Rupees apart.


Still not satisfied, I muttered “fuck it” under my breath and made to turn to the next in line…


“Bullshit!” Miss Joyful suddenly spat at me.




“You heard me. The fuck you doin’? Get inna cab!”


 “…hey, Ian told us the fare. Guy’s rippin’ us off…”


“… listen, shit-for-brains; we’re standing here sweating to death, and you’re arguin’ over a fucking quarter! Get in the goddamn cab!”


So off we went.


One joy of Asian travel – other than in Japan, where an apple may cost US$6 – is how inexpensive it is. Try not to carry that to extremes. But it is always best to think in the local currency. Yet staying aware of exchange conversion rates and the actual value of things – much like understanding time zones or reading a map – is a difficult skill for some to master.  


It’s madness to calculate exact conversion values in every daily situation. Simply round off to a whole number. For example, it’s a lot simpler to think of 50 Rupees - rather than 51.3 Rupees - to the US Dollar. The difference, even in very large amounts, is really too small to matter.


Try role-playing with the local currency before you actually use it - make change, count, handle it. Get familiar with bill shapes, sizes, and colors. It may seem like Monopoly money - its not.


Cabbies in Bombay have their own irrepressible methods. Horns are blown non-stop. Place sounds like a giant, Godzilla-sized car alarm. Naturally, nothing – most certainly including the cows plopped down all over the roads - pays the slightest bit of attention.


View from the rear window of the cab


Stopping for more than 15 seconds, a cab’s motor is immediately turned off. Offer an opinion on this unique practice, and you get the cabby’s patented, another-foreigner-lacking-any-knowledge-about-Indian-taxicabs stare. Drains the battery? Destroys the starter? Creates pollution? Wastes fuel? “Cram it, Sahib.”


Despite withering heat and no air con, rear windows are best kept closed. Keeps beggars and vendors from reaching in. Worst, are the bedraggled women pressing seemingly dead babies against the glass…later, you learn the babies are drugged, not dead. More pitiful makes for better begging.


MJ spots a McDonalds. “Hey, let’s take a look.” A wide-spread rumor about fries cooked in beef tallow – whatever that is – caused devout Hindus to riot and burn several restaurants. Hmmmm. 750 million Hindus are forbidden to eat beef, and 300 million Muslims pork. Just what the hell’s on the menu?


McDonalds, but you can’t eat the beef


Hah - knew it all along: lamb quarterpounders.


At the hotel, almost through the front door, I’m accosted by an itinerant ear-cleaner guy. He quite proudly shows me a rusted, whale-sized fish hook with a cracked wooden handle. Wants to stick this Spanish Inquisition-like relic into my ears. “Remove wax, sir. Cheap.” Well goodie! Just what I’ve been looking for. When you’re done, we can talk about that vasectomy I’ve been thinking about…


Check-in formalities completed, I savor the moment, before triumphantly uttering the most orgasmic words in India: “please, send a barber to my room.” Nothing beats the sybaritic indulgence of a shave in your own room. Of course, you can always crouch down on the street and get one from the ear-cleaner guy’s brother…


Barber on the street as a must to avoid


Barber they send arrives with a small leather bag and a happy smile. Swiftly arranging his stuff on the counter, he waves me into a chair near the sink.


It’s important you see a fresh blade inserted into the razor. A heated towel, lather, and slow, careful strokes - finger tips gently probing for stubble. Soothing coolness of a glistening astringent stone, light dusting of aromatic talc and a sure-handed neck massage. Finished, a softly murmured request: “again in the morning, sir?” All for the price of a small drink at Burger King.


For a new experience, I’m gonna try to be a movie extra. India makes a lot of movies – nearly twice as many as Hollywood. Bombay’s the center, and Western faces are often used. However, watching your performance on screen is another story. Westerners generally find it impossible to sit through an entire, 4 hour, must-be-seen-to-be-believed typical Indian-style film.


But for another of those once-in-a-lifetime events that makes India what it is, watch a movie at a local theater. Don’t matter which or what - they’re all uniformly the same. Claustrophobics need not apply – sit on the aisle for ease of exit. The audience’s joyful exuberance, the smells, the sounds, the gooey stickiness that covers the floor – think Rocky Horror on bad acid – is a best bet.


If you are lucky enough to be in a rural area when a traveling cinema sets up in a field, don’t hesitate…just be sure to watch where you sit.


Back in the cab, we pass through the raw ugliness of what is almost certainly the world’s largest red-light district. Kamatipura - row after miserable row of tumble down buildings leaning crookedly against each other. Most with stout bars installed on doors and windows. The odor-filled, garbage-strewn streets are choked with throngs of people. Pictures are decidedly not welcome – cab driver became seriously agitated when he saw a camera in my hand. I hunkered way down and surreptitiously shot some hit and run quickies.



Brothels with bars on the doors and windows



Girls - sold by their mostly from Nepal, dirt-poor rural parents - are kept as animals in cages, little more than slaves. Lives are generally short and brutal. Heroin addiction is universal. HIV rates estimated as high as 70%, means customers put a premium on “fresh” girls. Brothels simply trade girls - to give the appearance of new and thus disease free - additions.


Forced by International media exposure – think 60 Minutes – Indian Government periodically makes a desultory, half-hearted effort to clean the place out. Sorrowfully, the selling and enslaving of girls is deeply engrained in the Indian psyche. Attempts to eradicate this practice - without concurrent cultural and economic changes - are most certainly doomed to failure.


Last stop is the nightly frenzy of Chowpatty Beach. This narrow stretch of garbage-strewn sand is totally empty during the day, but erupts in dangerously charming chaos at night. As the song goes:… you can get anything you want…drug vendors,  prostitutes, pickpockets, gaffed carnival games, food stalls, dancing transvestites, amorous couples without rooms, head-rubbers, snake charmers, acrobats, beggars of every type, and most amazing of all, human-powered Ferris wheels.


Low-watt lighting twinkles in stalls along waters edge. Much of the rest is covered in deep shadow.


As I got out, Driver handed me an ornately decorated cane. “Beggar stick,” he said.


“For what?”


“Keep beggars back.” He made poking motions. “You use.”


I looked at it doubtfully; made a gesture. “Like this? Won’t they get mad?”


“No sir. Is ok.”


Sure they won’t get mad?”


“No problem, sir.”


We trudged onto the sand, quickly attracting the attention of an odd assortment of beggars.


At first, with firm hand gestures, we easily shooed them away. As the group swelled, they became more reluctant to give way. Some began plucking at our clothing…


We were becoming engulfed in a clamorous sea of beggars. Overrun and surrounded.


I grew concerned. We began moving faster toward the lights. The only Westerners on a dark section of empty sand.


The crowd around us grew – the circle tightened further


“Use it,” Miss Joyful said. “Gotta use the stick.”


“You sure?”


“Yeah, use it. What he said it’s for, right?”


Tentatively, I reached out to poke someone. He backed up. I figured, ok, its working, and poked another. The tiny space I created was instantly filled by others. I could smell the ocean, mixed with many unwashed bodies. The noise level grew.


“Fuck this,” I said. “We’re getting outta here.”


We turned to head for the cab, but by now were tightly surrounded.


MJ clutched my arm tight. “I’m scared.”


Me too, I thought, me too.


“Ok, I’ll clear out some’a the motherfuckers and we’ll run for it. Ready?”






I whacked three hard and we bolted through the opening. I was viciously swinging the cane, yelling ferociously.


We almost got clear. But hands reached out, grabbing me, grabbing at the stick. I fought to hold it, but couldn’t. Angry voices were rising, rising.


But that’s another story…

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