Sunday, June 7, 2009

Bikers in Mumbai buy you Balloons

As it was Saturday, and as none of us had our internships to go to, and as we all wanted to get out of our apartments, we all headed out for South Bombay. Now, I say all, but I really mean everyone who actually got along. The seven of us wandered Colaba (the tourist district) for hours, buying souvenirs and trying to find a store where we could buy saris. By evening we were all starving and headed to a hookah bar that the students from last year had recommended.

A word on street vendor: the ones who have actual stands stay by them, shouting at us in broken English (for we are very obviously American) and trying to flatter their way into a sale. Those who carry their wares on their person are more persistent. In this part of the city we encountered the drum sellers – young men who drape themselves with small drums and pursue you around the streets, banging them in your ear until you give in just for the silence. This is a failed attempt however, as upon purchasing a drum, you continue to be followed, in the hopes that you will suddenly want to buy another drum. Lizz, Nya and Madeline bought drums, and so we were followed for close to a mile with repeated calls of “pretty lady, buy a drum! *bang*”.

We finally arrived at the hookah bar, after having walked past in three times, not knowing that we should be looking at the tops of buildings for the sign. We took the rickety elevator up to the roof of what may very well have been a hotel, and stepped into Koyla.

The ambiance was stunning. The establishment covers the entire roof of the building and is quite large, with at least a dozen brightly colored tents. The walls of the tents are open so you can vaguely see the people around you, but everything is lit by candle light, so it is all thrown into shadow. Wisps of smoke sail through the air, coupled with the most delicious cooking smells. Under the tents were low tables and couches, allowing the patrons to recline and smoke or sit and eat at their leisure.

Being allergic to tobacco, I had no interest in the hookah, so I busied myself with the menu. We each ended up ordering a dish or two and ate family style – passing plates around and eating a little of everything. It was, undoubtedly, one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The food was fresh and cooked to perfection, an interesting mix of Indian, English and American. The palak paneer (creamed spinach with Indian cheese), always one of my favorite dishes, was the best I have ever had, and I could have eaten a pound of the American sweet corn. We were there for hours, eating more and more food, the rest of the girls smoking, and all of us contemplating the impending end to our trip.

At about 11:30 we decided it was time to head home, as it would take about an hour to make the trip. Andrea, Kate and I got a taxi, and the others followed in various other taxis and rickshaws. We soon lost the others, and were rushing through late night Mumbai traffic. We were all dressed nicely, hanging our heads out the windows (to keep cool), and suddenly two me on a motorcycle were next to the taxi, smiling and waving and asking for our phone numbers.

We all laughed and drove on, and they followed. And followed. For miles. Another note on street vendors: the traffic in Mumbai is very odd – there do not seem to be lanes or speed limits, or at least not ones that get paid attention to, and the lights last for about 5 minutes at a time. In these long pauses in traffic, young men and women walk among the cars, selling strings of jasmine flowers, books, rubber balls, mangoes, feather dusters, umbrellas, toys and balloons.

As we stopped at a light, a teenage boy ran around with a bunch of balloons so large, we were surprised he was not levitating. These were not normal balloons either – they were the size of beach balls, with four or five smaller, multicolored balloons inside. I turned to the other girls to say how funny it would be if our followers bought us balloons, and turned back to the window in time to get hit in the face with one. Paralyzed with laughter, holding a balloon the size of a toddler in front of me, we began driving again.

The amusement of being followed lessoned as we drove and got farther and farther from what was bound to be the men’s’ original destination. At one point they asked our driver where he was taking us, and to our horror, he told them. We were at that point worried that they actually thought we wanted them to come home with us, which, for many reasons, we did not. We were close to panicking as we got to our apartment complex, where we realized why we should appreciate the gated community.

As one guard checked our taxi for stowaways, we asked the other to prevent the men from following us to our building. Seemingly delighted at an actual mission, our hero stood in the path of the motorcycle, arms akimbo, and channeled Gandalf in his refusal to let them pass.

We made it home unmolested, had a laugh with everyone else about the balloon incident, and now I’m going to bed.

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