Mumbai’s endless creativity (II)

Remember I told about Mumbai’s endless creativity a few months ago, that ended with a picture of a little man with carrot-colored hair in front of the famous Dhobi Ghat laundry?

Well, I’ve finally finished the following post to that story.

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Ajay (57) approached me while I observed the public laundry from the bridge above it. As much as he understood the whole thing was a spectacle to me, he took his time to tell me how hard the people worked down there. He told me that the washers, locally known as Dhobis, work in the open to wash the clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. He found it amusing that they’ve become a tourist attraction, to which I agreed and tuck away my camera. Still, the bridge on which we were standing was an apparent hang out place for locals, so I figure there’s something with this place people like.

Ajay told me that he, like many others in Mumbai, also delivers his clothes to laundries. He even suggested I should deliver my clothes to the laundry he uses down the road. Having little to give away part from what I wore that day, we agreed it would be a bad idea, but I liked his manners and so we became friends.

He proudly stated to often work as a private driver for tourists, and asked me whether Id like him to be mine that evening. Loving the idea of having a local guy show me around, I agreed to it. For a moment there I was like: Solo traveling, in your face.

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A short drive from Dhobi Gat, you’ll find one of the oldest and most popular antique markets in Mumbai: Chor Bazaar. As it’s located in a muslim area, most of the vendors are muslims, thus many of the antiques are inspired by the Arabic world.

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I absolutely loved this place.

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The man on the above picture was a ‘friend’ of Ajay, whom he meant had the best prices in the market. I know, Indians are creative in their ways of getting commissions from taking customers to each others’ businesses too.

The man had a lovely gramophone for sale though.

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Not to forget this random beauty. Note that all the jewelery and textiles in the “painting” are real textiles and jewelery! Hah!

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In the car on our way back looking for a recommendable food market I had asked Ajay to show me, he couldn’t resist but suddenly lay his hand discretely (creatively?) on my thigh. His wife gave him so little, he said. This made a rather sudden and sad – yet pretty necessary from my side – end to our friendship that day, and so I went back to solo traveling!

After eating downtown by my hostel, I went for a stroll by Taj Mahal. There I found to my biggest surprise there are illuminated horses and carts everywhere along the walking promenade. My eyeeees!

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Walking home, I finally had the pleasure of chatting to a betel nut vendor on the Colaba causeway, the main road of downtown Mumbai. Thing is, when traveling in India, it’ll take you less than a day before you realise that it can’t only be due to bad mouth hygiene why so many men have brown- or reddish colored teeth. Then you start seeing the red spit on the sidewalks in addition to men – and some women – spitting more than what’s normal. And chewing more than what’s normal. All the time. What is it?

It’s Betel nut mania. Betel nuts are often sold in stands like these.

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The gentleman above told me that Betel nut chewing (Betel paan, in India) is “an old tradition” in India. Why, I asked. “We like it,” he smiled. Logical, I thought.

Although he already had nearly fifty beautifully prepared “betel paans” on his table, he agreed to show me how to make one. As it’s common in India to add flavours to the betel nut to enhance the taste, he asked me which flavour Id like: Tobacco, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, aniseed, coconut, sugar, syrups or fruit extracts?

I picked coconut. He said tobacco and cardamom are the most popular. In fact, I should consider to add tobacco he said. No thanks, I don’t smoke, I replied. Now understanding why everyone goes around chewing betel nuts.

So, to my coconut betel nut: First the Betel nut craftsman slices the nut into thin strips and lays it on a green leaf. The leaf is already soaked with lime or lime powder, he told me. After sprinkling some coconut on top of it, he rolls the leaf together.

I managed to both suck, chew on and keep the betel paan – tucked together in one ball – inside my mouth for like four minutes. The desire to spit even after fifteen seconds is remarkable. I went spitting all the way home. I’m still sorry I didn’t get a picture of the red path behind me.

Reading about the Betel nut mania later, I realise it’s an important cultural practice in many regions in south and south-east Asia and the Asia Pacific. So, chewing Betel nuts is basically a tradition  important role in social customs, religious practices and cultural rituals. And highly addictive. See more.

Another late night, as I started to feel ready for bed after a long day out, I still chose to take a new road back to my hostel. It was 1.30 in the morning, but what the heck: traveling solo means any street is an adventure. And as always, adventures pay off. There; just around the corner from my place, I discovered a pitch dark narrow street full of holes in the walls that revealed there were life and lights behind them.

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As I approached the lights, I found out the street I was walking in was full of neighbouring night open workshops. Workshops full of working men. Doing laundry. Being mechanics. Making rubber. Like I wrote about in this previous post, it amazes me how friendly and welcoming people are. These guys for instance, was more than happy to tell about their job, how business is doing asked interestedly about my thoughts of India.

So let it be said; despite of the incident with my private driver, which to be honest was rather innocent in all its rudeness after all, Ive felt nothing but secure and taken care of as a solo traveling woman in India. It’s an important point to make, so that more women dare to travel this way in the future. The sense of freedom and possibilities solo traveling gives us to grow as a human being, is much more worthy than one man’s desperate, impulsive or sleazy ideas will ever be.

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I hope you noticed the veteran scooter being fixed in the above picture. See what I meant in the initial post about Mumbai’s creativity?

Talking of fixing cars, and of uhm… sleazy men: There’s one more moment, that by looking back at it seems too crazy in all ways. One evening, when I was going out to meet one of the couples I met at the shooting of the Bollywood commercial,  I jumped into a cab without hesitating to only realise I was inside of the world’s kitschest looking car.

Rather stunned, especially by that lamp in the ceiling, I forgot everything about agreeing on a price for the trip, and instead went on complimenting the driver for the look of his car…

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As I realised he wasn’t keen to talk about such superficiality, and demanded a three times higher price than what’s fair, I began to worry about being inside of a cab in a city I hardly knew together with not one, but two men. Luckily they stopped the car shortly after I politely asked them to.

Happy to have met them and to be let out of the car without hassle, I asked to take a picture and they were like: Sure, ma’am. But smiling is sooo 2008.

PS. Why not read about my day as a Bollywood-star too?

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