Monday, February 5, 2007

In Bombay Looking West

Friday we decided to jet-set it over to Mumbai, the coastal capital of Maharashtra known as Bombay until it changed its name in 1996. It's the home of Bollywood, the putative New York City of India, financial and business center, and one of the the most notorious cities in the world for its crowds. Sixty percent of its 14+ million inhabitants live in slums that are heart-wrenching and troubled while the other half (or almost) live in places with the prices of Palo Alto.

The apartment in which we stayed had a beautiful view looking westward over the Arabian Sea, but as far up and down the Malabar coast as could be seen, dilapidated apartment towers loomed over the tin roofs of coastal slums. We spent less than $0.50 on a street vendor's bhelpuri lunch, and $100 on a dinner fit for Brad and Angelina. It is, like every city, one of extremes.

When traveling, I always have what I call "Thomas Friedman moments." The first came when I ordered a green-tea latte and a tall regular latte at the exact same time in Tokyo and Washington DC. A latte at a Narita Starbucks, a direct ANA Tokyo-DC flight, and another upon arrival landed me in two Starbucks restaurants on two different continents at the same time on the same day(with receipts to prove it)... but I digress. My Tom Friedman moment in Bombay came while drinking scotch, and listening to salsa music.

We were, as the story goes for many, asked to act in a Bollywood film. Approached by a "foreign model scout," he promised us 500 Rs and a day on the set. With a 4AM start, the opportunity cost of lost sleep far outweighed the $11 salary that our Bollywood good-looks promised, so we assured the scout that our agent would return his call... right.

We spent Saturday meandering the city and seeing the old British sites. The Brits inauspiciously constructed the "Gateway of India" sometime in the early 1900s, but did leave a number of beautiful buildings along tree-lined boulevards in the Colaba and Fort districts of South Mumbai. While the bygone buildings stand grandly aside cricket pitches, encircled by buzzing streets, the more modern financial area was surprisingly dilapidated. Despite police presence, the Mumbai stock exchange housed sleeping dogs on the steps, and opened to a razed dirt/gravel road.

Sunday we decided to splurge on the 25 Rs entry to the Indian Derby horse race tracks. The supposed second home to many Bollywood stars, I put 10 Rs down on "Gorgeous Blue" to win it all. My odds were not bad, but others were onto our tactics. A man in line casually asked if I, "liked the horse's name," in reference to my bet. "Yes," I responded, "and that's MY exact science... there will be no copying of strategy." Gorgeous Blue and Master Planner, my two horses, came in nearly dead last and dead last respectively. Needless to say neither was a cash cow, but then again maybe that'd be obvious to others.

After two races and no Bollywood sightings we returned home for another sunset over the Arabian Sea, the placid water sloshing against the backyard tide pools of the hundreds of brightly-dressed kids who'd emerge from the warren of corrugated-roofed homes to chase a cricket ball or fly a kite. India may be China's analog, but Mumbai is not Shanghai. In contrast to China's politically stoic feel, Bombay's vibrant democratic voters took the streets in their parties colors, thumping drums and lighting fireworks. It's hard to know what will ultimately improve the lives of those in coastal shanties... China's cold order, or India's impassioned chaos.

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