January 14, 2013 by Louis Ritzinger
Its been a wild few weeks, but I’m finally settled down. After two days of crisscrossing South Delhi in search of the right apartment, I’ve finally put my suitcase down in the corner of my new room. Its nice to be home again.
More on this a little later – there’s a lot of catching up to do. My normal Sunday writing routine has been interrupted over the past few weeks by my hectic travel schedule – a temporary lapse that I intend to correct as I move into a normal rhythm of things here in Delhi.
As I alluded to in my previous post, I spent the last week and a half of my mid-year break (up until last Thursday) seeing a bit more of India with my longtime friend, Raleigh, who joined me on my flight back to India from the States. We landed in Delhi on the 31st of December – just in time for New Years celebrations, which, as many of you probably heard, were a bit subdued this year given the nature of recent events.
My friend Raleigh, being the talented computer programmer that he is, has managed to land a highly sought-after job at the Web Services division of Amazon.com. I say this only in the context of explaining that this little vacation was quite the stark departure from the more modest (although by no means insufficient) accommodations I have grown accustomed to here. Checking in to the Taj Palace, New Delhi, for instance, was to enter yet another world – one that could be every bit as overwhelming as the dust-strewn mayhem of the old cities, despite representing the very opposite end of the Indian social spectrum.
The dinged-up Tata Indica taxi we took from the airport turned more heads than the Mercedes and BMW sedans that lined the heavily-staffed entrance-way as we sputtered up to the hotel’s imposing edifice. Bearded men in traditional Sikh military costume swung our car doors open before we even had the chance, and greeted us kindly with a warm “good day sir.” Others briskly wheeled our luggage inside, where it would mysteriously reappear in our room. Men in pristine pinstriped suits spoke to us in flawless English as we passed through the security station in front of the door, asking if there was anything they could get for us while youthful women in uniform saris apologized profusely for any inconvenience caused by the metal detector and brief pat-down.
We made our way in, greasy, tired, and bleary eyed from our long journey from the other side of the world.
The cavernous white marble lobby was immaculate and bustling with stately guests and cheerful staff. The solid glass rear wall looked out onto the pool deck, lined with high green shrubs, where well-dressed men and women dined and sipped cool drinks from delicate stemware. A crisp floral sent emanated from the place, as we passed vases of pink flower pedals floating on crystal clear water and were welcomed happily time and again by various hotel employees, as if they had been waiting for us to arrive this entire time.
A young woman in a saree led us to our room with a view overlooking the entrance-way, making small talk in a way that seemed simultaneously professional and unrehearsed. She showed us a few of the features of our room: master light controls by the side of each bed, motion-automated nightlights, rainfall showerhead, complimentary robes and slippers, etc – and giggled when I expressed my concern about the clear glass walls surrounding the bathroom before lowering curtains hidden within the ceiling with the touch of a button.
After she left Raleigh, noticing, as I did, the same floral sent from the lobby, bent down to the floor and sniffed.
“I think they perfume the carpets,” he said with the laugh.
After a much needed nap we took a rickshaw to Haus Khas Village – a small enclave of upscale restaurants and coffee shops popular with young Delhiites – for dinner before returning to the hotel for New Years celebrations at the hotel bar. There we had some time to catch up while mingling amongst Delhi’s sharply dressed upper crust – a mixed-gender crowd (a rare occurrence in conservative Lucknow) that sipped cocktails and beer and swayed to the western pop beats spun by a live DJ in a second-floor booth.
The next day I took Raleigh to Chandni Chawk – Old Delhi’s most famous market – opposite the magnificent Lal Qila (Red Fort). Given Raleigh’s morning bout with the infamous Delhi Belly, I probably could have chosen a place that was a little easier on the senses, but with our time constraints (our flight to Goa left the next evening), it was either then or never. I took him on a brief tour that included the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Jama Masjid, and, of course, the Red Fort. Despite claustrophobia-inducing conditions, deafening horns, and an abundance of urine, Raleigh held it together quite nicely. He was a champ.
On our second (and last) day in Delhi, a cab driver from the hotel took both of us (for what I thought to be a surprisingly reasonable rate), on his suggestion, to see Humayun’s Tomb. As the driver waited in the parking lot, Raleigh and I meandered through the complex, breaking away from the crowds for a while to explore the ruins of what was once the housing complex for the tomb’s builders, before making our way to the tomb itself, an absolutely stunning example of early Persian architecture in the Mughal Empire. Centrally located within a meticulously organized geometrical Persian-style garden complete with several kilometers of man-made water channels, the monument was commissioned by the Emperor’s wife (well, one of them) upon his death, and is considered to be one of the inspirations for the Taj Mahal, built by Humayun’s great-grandson, Shah Jahan, 80 years later. Despite the cold weather, it was easily one of my favorite parts of the trip.
That evening we boarded a discount Indian airliner (which, I have to say, I can’t exactly recommend to anyone) to Goa – a tiny coastal state in South-Western India ruled by the Portuguese until it was fully integrated in 1961, 14 years after Indian independence. The State’s unique colonial history has contributed to very distinctive Indo-Portuguese mixtures in dialect, food, music, as well as religion. Along many of the streets, for instance, crosses and images of Jesus replaced the usual Hindu deities to which passersby offered puja throughout the day. Known as a popular tourist destination for Indians and foreigners alike (particularly, as we learned, for Russians), Goa is famous for its long stretches of sandy beaches and lively party scene. Goans – or at least the ones we met – have a certain tolerance, if not an acceptance, for the hordes of (largely western) tourists that fill the hotels, guest houses, and clubs lining the beaches, even as most continue to live in a simple, rural fashion.
The Goan landscape is hilly, filled with palm trees, dotted with small ponds, and strikingly beautiful. Our trip from the airport in the dead of night brought sweeping overlooks of the light-speckled coastline as we rode rolling hills up and down to a soundtrack of thumping trance – compliments of our cab driver. Despite my general distaste for the genre, I have to say it felt oddly appropriate. What in Delhi and Lucknow would have been completely obscured by fog and haze was suddenly visible once again including, much to my delight, a few stars. Once we arrived we made our way to the beach – a pleasant 15 minute walk – for a fresh seafood dinner at one of the many thatch-roofed bar/restaurants perched on sand dudes just out of reach of high tide. We would spend the better portion of our time in Goa walking up and down the beach, trying to sample food and drink from as many different places as we could, pausing occasionally to take a dip in the warm water.
We did take some time away from the beach to explore a bit of Panaji, Goa’s pastel-colored, Mediterranean-inspired capital city, as well as Aguada Fort – a 17th century Portuguese look-out post and dock with spectacular coastal views of the sea below, dotted with small fishing boats and tourist rigs.
From Goa we took an 11-hour train ride up to Mumbai (or Bombay, as many Indians still call it) – India’s (undebatable) economic capital and (slight more debatable) most cosmopolitan metropolis. Once more we took a run-down taxi (this time an old van with its petrol tank mounted in the trunk) to a hotel lined with luxury sedans (this time a JW Marriott) and set out to explore. We took a commuter train, leaning out the open doors in true Indian fashion, downtown, walked along the Colaba Causeway (a center of Mumbai’s famous nightlife), visited Chowpatty Beach, took a ferry to Elephanta Island to see ancient Hindu cave sculptures, and gazed at center-city’s magnificent British-constructed (by which I mean, of course, designed) buildings. Mumbai really was a remarkable city with a laissez-faire attitude at once in the Western fashion and yet all its own.
It is also home to the strangest bar I have ever been to in my life.
On our second to last night Raleigh and I were looking for a place near our hotel to grab a few Kingfishers. The concierge at our hotel mentioned two places nearby: “Bottom’s Up” and “Lovebirds.”
“I’d recommend Bottom’s Up,” he told us. I now know why.
The place was more or less your standard bar/restaurant. Quiet. Filled with tables. Nice. We had a drink and decided to head on down the road back to the hotel. Along the way we passed Lovebirds. We stood outside and debated whether or not to go in, when the very short doorman enthusiastically beckoned us forward.
“What the heck?” I said, “let’s go.” Big mistake.
The moment we entered, the owner, a large mustached man in a suit looked us over, noticed we were foreigners and, wide-eyed with excitement, ordered his waitstaff to have us seated. Three men frantically set up a table, practically falling over themselves to straighten out the napkins and plates just so, wipe off a few crumbs that happened to remain on the glass tabletop, and bring us some salted peanuts. We ordered two Kingfishers and, as the waiters rushed off to retrieve them, I had a minute to take a look at the place while the owner continued to stand about five feet from our table, watching our every move. The place was poorly lit, with the exception of a few rotating multi-colored stagelights and flashing strobes whose reflections were cast off mirrors placed around the room. Deafening music pumped from a set of speakers positioned on either side of a stage, on which a young man and woman stood, taking turns belting out Hindi lyrics.
“Oh, this must be a Karaoke Bar,” I thought to myself.
I continued to look around and noticed three Indian women dressed in saris standing in the middle of the bar. They looked uncomfortable and bored – like they didn’t want to be there. One stared up at the ceiling, her chin resting in the palm of her left hand, while her right hand reached across her body, clutching her elbow. Another fiddled with her cellphone. I put two and two together and realized that these girls were decor. I hoped it wasn’t worse.
My eyes shifted back to the stage, where I noticed that same look of apathetic boredom in the eyes of the singers whose voices, in hindsight, were far too good for this to be a karaoke bar. The two, were paid employees.
The beers came, which the waiters promptly poured into glasses resting in front of us. The owner kept standing there. Watching.
I counted the customers in the bar to be 5, including us. Staff, including the 3 girls and 2 singers had to be at least 12, not including any cooks they had in the back. That’s when things got really weird.
As I sat there with my beer, trying not to burst out into laughter at the ridiculousness of our situation, the owner took a few steps towards one of the girls in the middle of the bar, reached into his pocket, pulled out three stacks of 20 rupee notes (about 35 cents each) and began throwing them, in the “make it rain” fashion, on the girl, who continued to stand there and look uninterested, playing with her phone. The waitstaff came swarming from all directions, this time equipped with brown plastic bins into which they heaped the wads of 20s. They scoured the bar, searching under chairs and tables for runaway bills. One even stirred the air with a broom to coax one down that had come to rest upon a darkened light fixture hanging from the ceiling. They did so with such earnest urgency that I assumed they would be keeping their bounty.
Then I saw them neatly restack the bills and hand them back to the owner, who, 5 minutes later, repeated the process on another girl. Then on the singers.
That was about all I could take. I burst out laughing, uncontrollably. Then, not wanting to offend the owner, waitstaff, girls, or any of the other three customers, I composed myself and turned to Raleigh.
“We have got to get out of here.”
“Yep,” he said. “We do.”
I hope to never have to drink a Kingfisher that fast again.
The owner looked disappointed, but obliged us when we asked for the bill. A wave of relief hit me as we walked out to the relative peace and quiet of the darkened street. We laughed uncontrollably the entire walk back to the hotel, and then some more back in our room, reliving the utter bizarreness of the night.
All good things must come to and end though, and two days later Raleigh was bound for Seattle, and I paid a brief visit to Lucknow to tie up some paperwork before making my way to Delhi to start over in India one more time.
If I’m ever in Mumbai again, though, you can bet I’m going back to Lovebirds.