Monday, June 2, 2008

Campai Mumbai

When I arrived into Mumbai on Friday evening, I was giddy with excitement, and in the dizzying heat I commissioned a taxi to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel & Towers for 300 Rs, a 90 minute ride that cost $8. Inching by Marine Drive in the back seat of a Bombay black and yellow non-AC taxi in 42 degree C 8pm heat, I could not have been happier. Bombay has become one of my favorite global cities. Watching the skyline inch higher over the past year, I can tell that this is a city of the future, if not the present. If I were to describe Bombay, it's the pace of New York, the glamour of Hollywood, and the immediate access to local cuisine, street food, and real-life that one finds in a back-alley neighborhood. Even the richest people seem to know the best place for 20 Rs street chaat. It's grit and urbanity, a kaleidoscope incarnate.

We decided to splurge. The Taj is perhaps the nicest hotel in which I've stayed, save for the KL Mandarin Oriental. Host to movie stars and innumerable presidents, it's waterfront location just before the Gate of India is spectacular. In appearance it's similar to the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Inside, a dip in the pool conjures notions of swimming in an Ivy league quad, with victorian balconies, lush greenery, and the sound of birds surrounding. This weekend there was an added benefit; The semi-final Indian Premier League cricket teams were also staying in the hotel. At the pool, at breakfast, and in the bar we were surrounded by Aussies like Shane Warne who, in the world of cricket, make guys like Kobe Bryant seem like nobodies. Flanked by beautiful women, and illuminated by the flash bulbs of paparazzi, their presence added wickets of fun.

Friday evening we ate at Wasabi in the Taj, an acclaimed Japanese restaurant run by Masaharo Morimoto, the Japanese iron chef. Over a sake bomb, in a private dining quarter in which we sat seated at a round table nested in a dome windowed alcove looking out over the India gate, we cheered Japanese style, "Campai, Mumbai!" Saturday night, after rooftop drinks at The Dome, an incredible glass-walled belvedere atop Marine Drive's Intercontinantal Hotel, we visited a restaurant called Khyber for delicious frontier style food, and Sunday brunch at Olive Bar was fitting for Bollywood. In the posh Pali Hills suburb of North Mumbai, we discreetly pulled up in our dilapidated non-AC taxi into the languid Prada-clad melange of Bombay's in-crowd. We were inside, but more obviously on the outs.

And in between our opulent culinary endeavors, which seemed to be the running theme of the weekend, I strolled the sweltering streets of Colaba and Fort, entertained the adventures of Shantaram in Colaba's famous Leopold's Cafe, and read the entirety of One Thousand Splendid Suns poolside on Saturday. Contrasts such as these make one appreciate moments.

Boarding our delayed flight from Bombay on Sunday evening, the runway end was crowded by hundreds of people sitting on rooftops and loitering outside a nearby mosque. As the plane rounded the tarmac, I realized that they were all onlookers. There was no cricket match, and there was no entertainment except us, those people fortunate enough to board planes to other worlds, far away from the poverty and squalor that exists for most of Mumbai's 12 million residents. As the engines roared, the rushing wind gave lift to our wings, and in our escape we became but the fleeting entertainment of a hapless mass, making ends meet in the shacks that line the runway's end. The activities of my two days were vacation, but fuel the perspective on opportunity and fortune that must impel us to be cognizant of the disparities that are globally ubiquitous. That which makes us content without also making us good is selfish.

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