One year ago…mumbai

It’s hard to believe that a year ago I arrived in India. Back then, if you were to tell me that we would be in “lockdown” in 2020, with a ban on international travel and limited movement on our own doorstep, I would never have believed it. But here we are in a state of virtual living.

The photos popped up on FaceBook, one year ago today I was at the beginning of my three month journey. So I thought I’d retrace those steps and elaborate on the experience with a bit of perspective. I’ll start with a piece about that day in 2019 and then follow the journey in parallel. I hope you find it an interesting sojourn.

a gin at the airport

17th April 2019

If this part of my life could be known as the ‘Om diaries’ then part one would be ‘OMinous’. When I arrived in Mumbai it was a hot dusty afternoon in April and it took longer to organise a taxi to the hotel than it did to actually drive there. We turned off the motorway, down into a warren of tree lined avenues, decayed buildings and hundreds of people. The moment I opened the car door and left the air conditioned interior, the cacophony of sound and smell of squalor hit me. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated. “I can do this solo travel malarkey!” My new mantra.

The hotel was clean and functional, a calm retreat from the Bandra district outside. I freshened up and decided to explore. Just walking down the road was a mission, pavements buckled and broken, a stream of humanity flowing past on all sides.  I joined the throng and drifted in one direction. The small street ended, butted against a freeway six lanes wide with an overpass raging and rumbling above me. I watched my peers for some cue as to where and when to cross and took their lead, stumbling to an embankment halfway. The stench of urine, sweat and fetid food reached my nostrils through the dust and I realised that people were living under this motorway. Cardboard and plastic sheets formed squat, square shapes, making ramshackle accommodation for those with little or nothing. I kept walking with the throng, almost a light jog. People looked at me, constant stares, jostles and whispers. I smiled politely and walked on. Then I realised. In this crowd of people, in the hundreds I’d passed, there was not one western face among them. I found a neat, clean cafe, sat and ordered a chai tea. It came ready made with milk, poured from a kettle with a patina of dents. The spicy, rich drink cleared my mouth of dust and soothed me. They were all staring, smiling but staring. “I can do this solo travel malarkey!”

I made my way back to the hotel but was diverted by a sign for an Indian buffet. I followed the arrow left, around the corner and into a pristine hotel, valets with turbans and gold brocade vests parking a stream of shiny cars. Immediately a young man, a teenager really, came to my assistance. I asked for the buffet but he shook his loose head on firm, fixed shoulders, an ambiguous cross between yes and no, “Madam needs to go to the seventh floor, very nice view of the city and pool” I followed him to the lift and he interrogated me on my marital status, number of children and a fast patter of impertinent questions. He was almost bereft at my singledom and fruitless womb, I half expected tears before the lift stopped.

We arrived on the rooftop and I admired the stucco nooks and overstuffed cushions.  When I asked about the buffet, another head wiggle, “Oh no Madam, rooftop is better, no view with buffet, no looking at city, we have bar snacks…” and I conceded with a smile. It was my first night, what the hell!  I ordered some pakoras and dips and a gin and tonic, Bombay sapphire of course. I had decided to quit smoking during this jaunt, the travel would be a break from routine and therefore break a habit that I’ve had for way too long. I rolled three cigarettes before I left and I decided that there, on a rooftop in Mumbai, I would smoke one. I asked for an ashtray and I was told I’d have to sit at the bar and smoke. I moved to a high stool, apologised to the barman and sparked up. He was very friendly, smiled and proceeded with his own form of flirtatious interrogation. I had decided to wear my grandmother’s wedding ring on my finger just to deter this sort of thing but I forgot to lie about the ‘sick husband in the hotel room’ and I answered politely. He offered to make me a house cocktail and persuaded me by saying he was training as a ‘mixologist’ and would I oblige by trying a concoction. I reluctantly agreed. By now the alcohol was outweighing the food and I felt a little buzzed. I smoked another cigarette. I then proudly took out my metal straw, I’ve seen ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where Julia Roberts is told “… this is India, nothing touches the lips!” I was prepared, a worldly wise traveller.

The cocktail tasted a little tangy and I smoked another cigarette to compensate. The bar tender handed me his business card and asked me to join him on a trip out of the city. I smiled politely and finished my drink but it was only as I drained the glass that I realised I didn’t see him mix it. I had no idea what he’d put in it and by this time he was getting a little touchy, grabbing my hand when I reached for the ashtray and looking at me intensely. He was roughly thirty and I have my boundaries. No matter how good looking a guy is, if he was too young to party during the millennium then I’m not interested. I needed to get out, NOW. I asked the waiter for the bill and coughed up thirty pounds for two drinks and a plate of fritters. I turned to leave but he came around the bar and grabbed my hands, almost begging me to meet again. I laughed flippantly and made my exit, smiling and waving and breathing a huge sigh of relief as the lift doors closed.

Outside it was dark and although I needed to walk less than two hundred yards, I had to pass a group of men who shouted ‘taxi’ and clicked their tongues at me like some animalistic catcall. No street lights, only the light from the cars that passed by. Finally, I made it to the hotel and into my room, rushed to the bathroom and threw cold water on my face. I looked in the mirror and repeated the mantra, ” I can do this solo travel malarkey, I can do this solo travel malarkey!” and then I realised with utter dismay, I’d left my metal straw in the cocktail glass.

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