Saturday, December 5, 2015

India: Bombay to Bhuj

Bombay to Bhuj
November 5th - 16th 

We arrived in Mumbai on December 5th and as we walked off the plane we braced ourselves for the the craziness that is India.  Except it was unnecessary.  The Mumbai Airport was practically empty and there was hardly anyone around.   We strolled at our leisure past the “largest public art installation” (read ‘Public” as those who can afford to fly) and as we made our way to the immigration counter there was no one in line.  We paused at the lineless duty free to buy gifts for our hosts to the relatively empty luggage carousel and skipped through customs with no trouble.  Pausing for a breath before walking out the doors we emerged into…serenity.  It was eerily quite.  We wandered over to the “pre-pay taxi” stand paid for our taxi and then walked, unmolested, right out the front door to find it ready and waiting.   We should have appreciated those moments of ease and simplicity.    As the taxi pulled from the airport we were instantly surrounded by motorbikes blaring their horns as they tried to edge further up into traffic, fearless pedestrians walking in front of the car as we continued to roll along,  men strolling with massive carriages loaded with vegetables,  huge brightly painted trucks with tassels hanging from every possible corner,  cows snacking indiscriminately as they heedlessly wandered through the hustle and bustle. And all of this on the road.  No distinction between drivers or walkers. Everyone in the same lane going (mostly) in the same direction.  

Our first foray into Mumbai traffic lasted only 30 minutes as we were staying with friends at the IIT Powai Campus.   Crossing the gates of the campus we were again back in tranquility and ease. (aside from the occasional wandering cow or racing motorbike).  
Our hosts in Powai were a delightful couple named Kadambari and Prabhu.  They promptly fed us and then pretty much made our plans for us for the rest of our day.  They booked us a taxi to visit Juhu beach and made reservations for dinner at a great restaurant near to their house.

The beach was packed!  But not with people sitting around and looking at the ocean.  It was rare for someone to be sitting.  Everyone was standing. Talking selling things. playing cricket or soccer, wandering.  Jamie and I had to be careful not to stop for too long or we'd be accosted with offers for Henna, Chai, popcorn, squeaky balloons, fruit or photos.  It was a really exciting walk. I'm sure the ride back through Mumbai at night was interesting too, but both Jamie and I fell asleep. 

As Diwali was fast approaching, we only had one night with them and the next day we set off through Bombay traffic (2.5 hours to go 16 or so kilometers) to visit Aarati’s other friend Swathi in South Bombay.

Again, another generous host who had a meal prepared for us upon arrival!  We should have figured that this was going to be a theme.  In fact, for the next 10 days I don’t think Jamie and I once experienced hunger.    Staying with Swathi was exciting because we got to experience city life and living.  We went to the bar, a comedy show, the movies, and out to eat.  It was a great way to be in Mumbai.   When we said we wanted to do some sightseeing she called up a bicycle tour company that she knew of and convinced him to run a tour for us the next morning so at 6:00am the next morning we were on our way to bicycle around Bombay. 

Our bicycle guide, Jay, was great!  He was so passionate about biking and history that you couldn’t help but be enthralled with him and the tour.   His support staff, Govan, rode ahead of us and got action shots of our cycling and we stopped for Chai as least twice before we made it to breakfast.  The tour was only supposed to last 4 hours, but because we kept asking questions and derailing his stories, our tour lasted 6! We visited all the major sites in South Bombay: The gateway to India, Taj Mahal Hotel, Flora Fountain, Kala Ghoda, etc.   At first we were terrified of riding bikes through such crazy traffic but it was fine for two main reasons.  1.  It was Sunday.  2.  The work day in Mumbai (and it seems much of india) doesn’t start until 10:30am.    We asked about this late start to the day and he told us this started years ago when business men would stay up late to get the latest stock reports from New York. Because of the late nights, the would subsequently have a late start to the work day and this carries on to today.    We also asked how he feels about biking on workdays in the height of the traffic and he got really enthusiastic.  “It’s great!,” he said and then he told us about his “Mad Mumbai” tour where he takes groups out on bicycle to ride in the traffic.  I was, I won’t lie, interested in trying it but Jamie, the voice of reason, said no.  Check out his website here.  He does lots of adventure travel too.  

The next day we were off to finally see Aarati in Pune (pronounced Poona or Poon-ay).  We would stay with her through the upcoming Diwali holidays.    Getting to Pune turned out to be a bit hilarious. We booked a bus ticket online with Neeta Bus lines. Huge mistake.  Our supposed 3 hour bus ride ended up taking 5 hours because they stopped EVERYWHERE to let people off the bus and to try to get more passengers.   Even getting on the bus was a bit of an adventure: 

We bought our tickets to get to Pune (our next outside of Mumbai)  online and took a taxi to the bus station.  When we got there-literally the instant the cab arrives, two guys come over and say "going to Pune? come. come" and they take our bags and start walking us to this small bus.  I'm trying to tell him we already have tickets and he says "yes, yes. tickets to pune". did i mention he's taken and carrying one of our bags?  I'm trying to get Jamie to pull out the phone to show him the tickets while trying to not follow him and simultaneously snatch back our bag. When Jamie finally manages to pull out the e-ticket, the guy sees the ticket and is says "oh" and then points to another bus.   So we go to the other bus (and now that we can look at something other than our bags being carried off by a stranger, we see that it is clearly the official one) and show him our ticket.   He looks at it and points to another travel agent (the one we bought our bus ticket through).  We see the name of our bus company on this tiny stall (in a sea of stall) and go over there.   I feel confident this is the right place and the guy writes down our confirmation number and then points us to a bus that has the name of the company on the front. My confidence flags a bit as this bus is definitely not a bus that you'd take a three hour ride on. It looks like an airport shuttle.  But we got on and ascertain that it's going to bring us to the bus that will take us to the bus that will take us to Pune. (that to a while to confirm)  Part of our comfort came from the fact that the Indian customers were also mildly annoyed at this. Our departure time comes and goes.  Finally,  half hour later, we start moving- but we just loop around the area barking for more customers.  A guy is leaning out the open door hollering "NEETA!  PUNE!"  (neeta is the name of our bus company).  Ok, so we go back past the bus stall, pick up another passenger  after half hour of hollering for more customers, we start driving.  20 minutes later, we finally arrive at our bus that's on the side of the road next to the highway and we are shuffled off the shuttle to get on the bus.   I try to ask multiple people if our bus is going to the stop I want and they all seem to say yes but I can't be certain because none of them actually SAY "yes". They give the Indian head nod (which I haven't yet learned to decipher) and wave me to my seat.  So.   I ask to borrow a phone from some random guy (great thing about India?  plenty of english speakers-more than enough).  I call my friend and explain to her that we are just leaving (an hour late), tell her our bus company and then explain that while I'm sure we're going to Pune, I'm not certain we're going to the right stop.    so I bring the phone to one of the 4 men sitting behind the front curtain with the driver and she asks him and gets a confirm. GREAT!  We're on our way!  Except that the whole bus ride (with a 20 minute stop in the middle at a rest area) is not 3 hour and 30 minutes like the website says. Instead it's 4 hours and 15 minutes. (don't forget about the hour delay at the beginning)  We arrive and my friend has been waiting for 1.5 hours with her dad but she's there and she's not surprised.  Despite all that, we arrived in Pune safe to Aarati and her dad Anand and they whisked us back to their house and promptly fed us. (for all the adventure, never a hungry moment) 

Anand, Shubha (Aarati’s mom) and Aarati were generous with their time, attention and space.  We stayed in their “in-law apartment” and they had stocked the fridge with Kingfisher (the Indian beer of choice, it is quite nice)! We really enjoyed being able to be part of their family for a week.   The Halbe’s live in a community  were they seem to know everyone.  We spent the week visiting all the neighbors with them, pretending we were long lost cousins of the Halbe clan. It was great fun.   And an excellent way to spend the week.  

We ventured into Pune with Aarati a few times and even went out sightseeing in the country side.In Pune we went to the Kelkar museum, a private collection of various artifacts and we convinced Aarati’s aunt Nilima to take us on a walking tour of downtown.  Jamie’s favorite part was seeing a small group of kids being chased off with a bag full of pigeons that they had hunted, quite skillfully, with a slingshot - fluttering bird still in hand.  He accidentally got a picture of this.  For our countryside adventure, we went out to see the Karla and Baja caves, 1st and 2nd century buddhist caves.   It was pretty impressive. 

During out stay we were treated to various culinary delights (too many Diwali sweets to mention!),  a great lesson in cricket, sports on TV, a tour of Nilima and Dileep’s (Aunt and Uncle) home and collections, fun with the pup Tasha and an exceedingly relaxing and welcoming time.  In return for the hospitality we happily ate all the food we were given, drank all the drinks we were offered and sang songs and taught juggling.  I hope everyone was happy with the trade! 

On our final morning we had a fantastic outing with another community member who happens to be a naturalist.  Rashid took us on a great local tour of some wetlands to do some good old fashioned birdwatching.  It was great fun and something that we have always wanted to do, especially when we were hiking through national parks during our Appalachian Trail hike.  We think we identified about 40 species, and if we had come a little bit later in the month it might have been higher as many migratory birds come south for the winter from the north.

When it was finally time to head out, we hopped on a plane to Ahmenebad, spent the day being pampered by a friend of Aarati’s there (fed again) and then took an overnight bus to Bhuj.  
 Juhu Beach! 
 The view of Mumbai from the Nariman point. 
 This building, Watsons Hotel, is a great example of why so many buildings are falling apart but still standing.  The building gets bought with the agreement that it will be kept for a "lifetime" before something different can be done.  But "lifetime" doesn't reference the person but rather 99 years and the buildings have a fixed rent.  So the landlords aren't making enough money to make it worthwhile fix it up so it stays there just falling apart.  

 This is the place where all the little fishing boats put into the water and come back to unload the fish. Immediately to the right of this is a little village were all the fisherman work/live.  We couldn't walk through it because in 2008, the terrorists who bombed the city came ashore here. The villagers are now very mistrusting to strangers walking around in this area.  
For Diwali, people draw stunnin designs outside there houses. They are made of colored sand so any wind or errant step can ruin then.  They're beautiful and delicate.  Often times there are tiny little oil lanterns in them or around them that get lit at night. 

More pretty designs.

Me and our two guides for the bike tour. It was a private tour-Just Jamie and I! 

Chai all the time!  A little cup of chai costs between 7 and 10 rupees.  It's tea dust, milk and lots of sugar. delicious! 

On our way out to Pune, the rest stop we rested at had the colorful shop with lots of treat options.  Jamie face here is saying "how can you expect me to choose"?


We took a trip out to the Kelkar Musuem with Aarati.  The Kelkar Museum is a private collection of artifacts across India.

Kelkar Museum. 

The inside of the Karla cave. 

Baja caves. These stupas (15 in all) are carved right from the stone of the mountain and are memorials to various Monks that lived here. 

Nilima on our walking tour.  Nilima is an architect so our tour involved a lot of architectural tidbits an asides. For example: you notice the brick work on this building has a design in it. That's for reinforcement. Also, the bricks are thinner than normal bricks because the clay in this area works best if it kept at this skinner version.  

This picture is supposed to be of the blue houses. People paint their houses or door blue for good luck and security.   However, Jamie also inadvertently got the sling shot kid. He's standing to the right of the lamp post, beneath the yellow sign and the soon to be dead bird is sitting atop it. 

Why wouldn't we take a picture of this? 

Dilip and Nilima,  Aarati's uncle and aunt are on an "eating leaves" fad. For the past year, they eat a plate of leaves before breakfast. They harvest them from the leaves of the community they live in.  I wanted to try it so Nilima collected me some things.  The big leaf on the left is a Paan leaf. It was very spicy.  The long stem above it is neem.  Incredibly bitter.  Below that is a flower-sweet.  Next ot that is something mellow and pleasant.  Under that are four little green balls-bitter and pulled all the moisture out of your mouth but when you sip water after taking a bit it's quite sweet. The three leaves in the middle tasted like parsley.   To the right is a leave that dried up over night so it was kind of flavorless.  Under that is basil.  

Jamie participated in this culinary adventure but a bit begrudgingly. 

I think I did pretty well....clearly I could have done better. 

Nilima, Dileep and Tasha.   Aarati's Aunt and Uncle. They live right next door. 

Teaching Anand and Shubha how to Juggle!

And then we took a plane to Ahmenebad and a sleeper bus to Bhuj! 


  1. Looks like a fantastic adventure! The designs on the street are stunning!

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