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FEAR OF CHOCOLATE -  BOMBAY PART II

 

"There are but three things worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior & the poet. To know, to kill & to create." / Baudelaire

 

I'm standing with Miss Joyful at the entrance to the Taj Mahal Hotel's world famous All-You-Can-Eat-Gluttonorama. After four months of eating rice with my fingers, the food's making me salivate like a Pavlovian experiment. I lunge at it.


The 5-Star Taj Mahal Hotel

 

"Barbarian," Miss Joyful hisses loudly.

Tearing past baby lamb chops, salmon steaks and shrimp scampi, I aim for glistening chocolate éclairs. Snatching one, I cram it whole into my mouth.

Miss Joyful just gotta inform me, "chocolate's the worst thing. Gonna get sick."

"Don't-give-a-shit," I mumble around a mouth full of indescribable chocolaty goodness.

"When you get the runs, no whining."  

Damn woman - looks like Barbie, sounds like a nun. Worse, she was absolutely right...

First stop this morning was Bombay's central laundry. I got up early for this? Look at huge piles of dirty clothes? Nah, not for me. But Gupta-the-Driver insisted. Pulling up onto a small bridge, he gently shooed us out for a look at the sprawling, chaotic spectacle spread below us.


 

A riotous swirl of colors and noise and motion and smells. Hundreds of guys stood up to their knees in soapy water, washing stuff by bashing it against rounded concrete barriers. Not a place for delicates. Everything is hand ironed. A secret code handed down from Father to Son is written on each item, so it gets correctly back to its owner.

Gupta-the-Driver led us down a serpentine, crumbling stairway, for an up-close look into the maelstrom. Our presence drew the usual excited crowd of gawkers. In India, folks cluster around foreigners to stare at them. Stop to read a map? Tie a shoelace? Look at a wall? You'll draw a crowd. After a while you get used to it; but at first, it's like being on exhibit in some kinda weird ass alternative-universe menagerie.

I took out my camera, had Gupta ask for approval, and started snapping away. This created the customary melee, as people pushed and shoved to be in the picture. But that's not always the case when taking pictures in Asia.

Sometimes photography is forbidden - especially in religious or museum settings. Sometimes payment is required or aggressively demanded. Sometimes people simply don't want their picture taken. Do not make the mistake of taking this lightly. Ugly scenes with serious repercussions - including smashed cameras or physical injuries - can result.

If you are willing to pay, make sure you understand what you are paying for - quoted prices are often per single picture. Some places charge different rates for still vs. video cameras.

 

There is also some thought to not paying, especially where the subject might be exploited. An example is the Long-Neck Women on display in Northern Thailand. Members of the Karen Tribe who fled for their lives from Burma, they are kept as virtual prisoners, providing income for Thai "bosses." If they don't co-operate, they're threatened with being tossed back across the border.

 

Stinking of laundry powder and bleach, we headed for the "Towers of Silence." Built by members of the Jain Religion, these are buildings with high fenced roofs, where dead bodies are laid out for disposal by scavengers. The belief is, the dead must return to the natural world through natural means. Holding that all life is sacred, devout Jains wear surgical masks and sweep the street before them as they walk, so as not to harm even an insect - either by accidental inhalation or stepping on one.


One of the "Towers of Silence"

This sounds more damned interesting than it is. The buildings are architecturally insignificant and it turns out only members are allowed on roofs. Miss Joyful was content about the whole thing, as she didn't want to see dead bodies being eaten by vultures. Watching folks wearing masks sweeping the street as they walk? Yeah, well. like Thai temples or slasher movies, if you've seen one you've seen 'em all.

Walking back to the car in the escalating heat, I noticed what looked like loaves of bread drying in the sun.


Loaves of "bread" drying in the sun

 

"Hey, lookit that. Gupta, what kinda bread's that?"

No response.

"Yeah, Gupta," says Miss Joyful, "can we taste some?"

Gupta still doesn't respond - instead walks faster.

Annoyed, I stop and ask louder, "c'mon, man, what kinda bread's that?"

Embarrassed and hesitant, Gupta haltingly explains, "sir, not bread. Make fire for cooking."

I don't understand. "Cooking? They use bread for cooking.?"

".wait a minute," says Miss Joyful, who's walked on ahead, "I can smell it now. That ain't bread."

"Yes madam is cow dung. For fuel for fire. To cook."

I laugh out loud, "there's a taste treat we haven't tried - rice cooked over a cow-shit fire." Still chuckling, "ok, where to next?"

"Tomb of Haji Ali, sir," said Gupta. "But must hurry. Tide comes soon."

I did a double-take. "You say tide? He say tide?" looking at Miss Joyful. "Kidding right? Some kinda joke? After yesterday?  You forget about the damned boats already?"

"Will you please grow up," Miss Joyful says. "Christ, what a baby.it's a shrine. We read about it! There's a walkway that floods when the tide comes in. right, Gupta?"

Gupta looks confused. "Yes. Must hurry. Tide comes soon." He turns to continue walking back to the car. I follow, muttering to myself, ".better not be any damn boat, that's all I gotta say."

Arriving back at the by-now sweltering car, I'm still hesitant about continuing. "What about some lunch? You hungry? Maybe the tides high already? How 'bout we eat first?"

"Just get in," Miss Joyful demands, elbowing me into the back seat, "and be nice to Gupta."

I huddle in the corner, sweating and muttering. I ignore the beggar-ladies holding dead babies up to the window, as we edge our torturously slow way into the horn-blasting, cow-strolling, people-clogged mayhem that is normal Bombay traffic.

 "Are we there yet?"

After a long while, a white building, seemingly suspended atop the water of the Bay, comes into view.

Pointing, Gupta happily announces, "Tomb of Haji Ali."

As we draw closer, I understand about the tide and flooding. A walkway, built from the land to the Shrine, sits alarmingly low. Quick-rising water could easily inundate the thing and trap people.


The Tomb of Haji Ali

Hundreds of what turn out to be beggars - lining it from one end to the other - don't seem that concerned. All manner of poverty, illness and suffering is on display. The lame, crippled, and halt - ranging from the merely horribly disfigured, to folks in the final stages of leprosy - are assembled here.

Traditionally, as they make their way along the walkway to pray at the Shrine, worshippers hand each beggar a small monetary token, as a sign of devotion and belief that good luck will result. At first glance, given the hundreds of beggars, this seemed like an awful lot of money. In reality, each beggar received less than a pittance. Little girls made change, sitting on the ground with stacks of Paise near at hand. Each cheap metal coin was worth 1/100 of a Rupee. Each beggar got one. At current exchange rates, each US Dollar was worth about 2,500 Paise.

This amount seemed so ridiculous; we started our walk by giving each beggar one Rupee. Gupta, seeing this, became concerned and hollered out that we should stop. We were "giving too much." People would rush at us.

I walked slowly - avoiding looking into the ravaged faces - dropping the cheap metal coins into each waiting basket or outstretched hand. The sense of tragedy was overwhelming. The sheer number of physical horrors on display eventually became deadening. Despite my abhorrence, I began walking slower and slower, making certain that each meager coin went safely into the correct basket or palsied palm.

I felt unbearably grateful to be me.

Miss Joyful seemed under a spell as well, stopping every few feet to communicate - to look closely into each face, to maybe offer some sort of psychic commiseration? We made our slow way in the broiling sun, myself gradually drawing further and further ahead of her.

About half way along, the spell was broken as a small wave lapped the walkway, getting my shoes damp. This was followed quickly by another. Holy shit! The tide is coming in. Man we better haul ass if we wanna make it out to the Shrine and back to dry land.

I started to walk faster, suddenly not that concerned if the coins got into bowls or not. The water sluiced over my feet more frequently.

I looked back and Miss Joyful seemed oblivious - still spending time with many of the beggars, making little progress, inching along.

"Hey, c'mon," I yelled at her, "we gotta go faster. We're gonna get stuck out here!"

She didn't seem to hear me, or more likely, if she did, care. Looking around, I noticed that the beggars themselves were making a mass exit. Well, jeeze, if the beggars are leaving, it seems time for the rest of us to get off, hey Gilligan?

I dumbly decided, for some now-insane reason, that I could easily make it out to the Shrine and back with no problem. The fact the beggars were leaving, meant I wasn't going to be slowed down making donations. But the water seemed to be sweeping in a lot faster than I figured.

Making it to the Shrine, I noticed I was all alone, with water rising well above my ankles. Looking toward land, I could make out Gupta wildly waving his arms. Miss Joyful? As usual, she'd correctly judged the situation, turned around, and almost reached land.

I started a mad dash back. The water quickly rose above my calves and almost before I realized it, half way up to my knees. It was impossible to move quickly while sloshing through the water. I reached down and yanked off my shoes. Each step more and more difficult, I was desperately out of breath - and almost out of time.

I wasn't afraid of drowning. No, I was afraid of having to swim in that horrid cesspool of polluted filth. Some of the world's most toxic, disease-ridden bodies of water exist in India. This is especially true of a Bay like this one, where huge volumes of raw sewerage and all manner of dangerous crap flows into it daily. If I swallowed even a little of the stuff, the least I could hope for was serious amoebic dysentery; serious long term illness or death were not out of the question.

Forced to move slower and slower, it looked like I wasn't gonna have a choice - I would have to swim for it.

 

But that's another story.

Faxless Payday Loan



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