The Pilgrim Path The Cardinals Brother

The Pilgrim Path

The Cardinals Brother

Tomorrow May Never Come

Truth, disception and the magic of Bollywood

Mumbai to Goa, India
22nd March, 2004

"You liar!! You lied to us you lying liar!!!"

Cultural sensitivity means trying to understand other people in the context of their own lives, of the culture that shapes them.

"No! No! Don't you understand 'no'?? No!! I don't want it! Go away! Jao! Jallao!!"

A traveller should remain respectful of locals, polite and courteous at all times. A little good humour can go a long way.

"You bastard! You little shit! I'll cut your head off and wear it on a stick!!!!"

India scratches away your liberal self-image, and find what lurks beneath.

Collision of Errors

Jenny had gone back to lead her next group. We were finally on our own, Janice, Jordan and I. That was OK. We could do our own planning. We had done it before. How hard could it be? We wanted to go from Rishikesh to Mumbai. We planned and booked it all, every step: taxi to the private bus stand, bus to Delhi, rickshaw into town, taxi to airport, flight to Mumbai, taxi to hotel, two rooms reserved in Mumbai.

Evrything was planned to perfection. And everything went wrong, every bit of it.

The lying taxi driver hired to bring us to one specific 9.00AM bus by our lying travel agent brought us first to the railway station, then to the public bus station, then to a private bus that was to depart, not at 9.00, but 10.30.
Our (now) 10.30AM bus didn't bother leaving till it was full, at 1130AM
Our 1130AM bus deliberately dropped us in Delhi down a side street for rickshaw wallahs who wanted five times the going rate. We fought one down to a mere double rate.
Our airport taxi swore that he had taken us to the right terminal. He lied.
Everyone at the airport smiled and pointed us in the right direction. They, too, lied.
A rickshaw wallah offered to drop us at the right terminal, 2 minutes away - for 10 times the proper rate.
Screaming.

Mumbai. We spilled out onto the airport carpark at 1.00AM, humid, tired, at breaking point. I pitied the children of the next man who tried to mess with us. We were ready to run wild, screaming and naked, down the highway, wearing his flayed skull as a trophy.

The police control the taxi rank at Mumbai airport, forcing the drivers to use meters and possess a valid charge card. So they can't cheat you as much as they might like. But they aren't forced to know actually where you want to go, either. So that evens out.

Finally, our hotel. Asleep. Our two room reservations. Gone. Harsh voices raised in the night. Luckily, they had a single room that the four of us could share.

"Normally the price is 860Rp", he said. We waited to hear what he would offer, having fouled up our reservation.

"Four people, price is 1200Rp..."

Screaming.

Mumbai Orderly

Mumbai has a very different feel to Delhi. The colonial streets, the old-fashioned shop fronts gone slightly to seed, remind me of an aging European city, like Lisbon or Centro Havana. The traffic, amazingly, keeps to lanes. There are no cows. I missed their look of placid reassurance.

The greatest difference struck me after I ordered a cheese and ham sandwich. I was half way through it before I realized - this was pig-meat! I almost choked in shock. Pig-meat in a restaurant would provoke a stoning in Rajasthan.

Our little group now had a fourth member, Kim. She had only nine days with us on our journey south. She therefore lost no time in penetrating to the heart of ancient traditions, such as laughing at my dress sense. I had my revenge, of course. We went to see a cricket match at the Oval Maidan and I offered to explain the rules. Half an hour later I thought she would never laugh again.

We sailed to Elephanta Island. Ancient Hindu kings had cut an entire Shiva temple from the living rock of the mountainside. The artists had carved subtleties in the stone caverns to express all the sides of the god - so that he could, at the same time, be compassionate protector, loving husband, or enraged Destroyer. They probably saw him in different stages of a Mumbai taxi ride.

Just Tell Me the Truth, Man!!

Bollywood.

That's what we wanted. Irrepressible feeling, forbidden love, tear-sodden scenes with angry grandmothers set in traditional ways, dangerous fat men with a gun and moustache, and more than anything, thousands of extras dancing and singing for no good reason on an Austrian mountain side.

Bollywood.

We went to see a modern production, Kol ho naa ho - "Tomorrow May Never Come". Set in New York, it recounts the old story of boy-meets-girl, girl-loves-boy, boy-sets-up-girl-with-his-best-friend, boy-drops-dead-of-heart-failure in the middle of a song and dance number.

It was brilliant, it was funny, the streets of New York have not burst into synchronized dance so much since Fame, and the last hour was filled with so much weeping I almost cheered when the hero finally croaked.

As the film used the modern middle-class Hindi, the kind that intersperses English phrases at random throughout each dialogue, we could understand most of it. So when we heard hindi hindi hindi She Loves You!! hindi hindi hindi What a Day!! hindi hindi Just Tell Me The TRUTH, man!! hindi hindi hindi You can't die!! we could figure out if we were meant to be crying at this point or not.

The traditionally-minded grandmother was deeply angry all right, but we never found out why.

Lying To be Kind

All the taxi drivers in India must be out-of-work actors, just like in New York. They are all practising for Bollywood, for a world of make-believe, improbable circumstances, and gushing endings that somehow come out all right in the end.

Why do the travel agents, taxi drivers and hotel managers in India mislead you so often, so outrageously, without even a shred of bad conscience? There could be several reasons. They want the business. They need the money. They don't like to disappoint. (Indian people rarely say "No". They don't want to let you down.). Above all, Indians like to be optimistic. They say "Yes" now, and maybe it will be all right in the end. Tomorrow may never come.

At the end of the day, they must find it hard to give the definitive answer, because they just don't know themselves. They are at the whim of chance, of the thousand chaotic events of India as much as you. The best answer a travel agent could probaly offer is "Hopefully this will work out. It often does. Or if not, you'll be a thousand miles away and I'll still have your cash."

Of course, they can't say that. Tourists demand a definite answer. They demand reassurance. So the travel agent hums a Bollywood hit and kindly says, "Yes, of course I can do that."

And, "Payment in cash?"

By the Bones of St Francis

Overnight train to Goa...

Where are we?

"This isn't India." We stared around us in wonder. It was as if we had overslept on the train and ended up in the Caribbean. Lush tropical vegetation, Portuguese architecture, laid back people, Catholic churches, and very few cows indeed. They eat them.

Old Goa was once a great city. Now only a few cathedrals remain of the gem in Portugal's crown. The Basilica de Bom Jesus contains the relics of St Francis Xavier. Going in, I could see that the site was as popular with local Hindus as much as Catholics. They left their shoes outside the door as for a temple, and used the holy water in the font to wash their hands and head in the ritual way. For a Hindu, it is only natural to appease as many gods as possible.

We stayed in Panjim. The Portuguese names only added to our sense of dislocation. Revelling now in our break from northern India, we had to guzzle the local delicacy - spicy pork sausages.

The Truth about those India Photos

And then Palollem beach. What can you say about a beach? We lay down, and we ate. Occasionally we moved, but not far, and then only to complain about the heat. All around us lay other backpackers, slumped on the beach, slumped in their palm-tree huts, slumped at the bar. It was like a elephant's graveyard for sarong-clad, frizzy haired westerners. We were all exhausted, glad to have a break from the lying kindness of the 'real' India outside Goa.

As the sun went down, a golden orange against the soft green Arabian Sea, local fishermen brought in their nets, strung between outrigger canoes. They hauled on the nets together, tyring to pull their sardine catch onto the beach.

As one, all the backpackers rose, ran for their cameras, and spent the next twenty minutes in pandemonium, trying to elbow each other out of the way, trying to get a shot of the net, the fishermen, the sunset. Trying to capture their own true slice of India. Without any other fat Western tourists getting in the picture. That would be too honest. That would make it look fake.

 

 

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Bollywood

 

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Mumbai Cricket

 

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Beach Huts

 

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Family Carrier

 

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Shiva

 

 


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Hat & Spoon

 

 

The Facts

Where I stayed
Mumbai: Hotel Kishan. They forgot our reservation, which led to an argument at 2am. However the rooms were clean, the fans worked, and better value than Bentley's round the corner.
Panjim: Afonso. Lovely colonial Portuguese house.
Pallolem: Walk down the beach and pick your hut.

How I got around:
Jet Airways to Mumbai. Indian Railways to the south. The rail reservation system works very well.