Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The two fifteen year old British girls flounced into the seats next to mine, all coltish arms and legs, arranging themselves this way and that. One plaintively commented she couldn’t wait to get home and the other agreed as she yanked out her earphones, elbowing me in the process. She then pulled something from her purse and picked up her u-shaped neck pillow and before I could stop her, squirted perfume FOUR TIMES onto the pillow. The noxious gas, in a closed airplane cabin, quickly enveloped me. Coughing pointedly at the girl (who pointedly ignored me) and waving my in-flight magazine, I knew I was in for a looooong flight.

Mostly uneventful flight, I did take notice of Belgrade and Beirut as we flew over them in the darkness. Funny how in the dark cities could be anywhere in the world, Beirut could be Detroit, hard to tell.

As the sun came up, sparkling blue, we approached Dubai, which could give Los Angeles a run for its money in the smog department. I asked Miss Perfumes-a-lot if it was from dust or pollution. Mostly dust, she said. Sandstorms.

The world’s tallest building is literally twice as tall as the next building in the city. I contemplated reenacting my classy Sears Tower as…um…nevermind… photo but decided if kissing gets you arrested in this city, perhaps pretending its architecture is genitalia is worthy of execution.

I slowly found my way out of the airport through passport control where men in white Arab garb and white sandals with one inch heels ushered us past and quickly found a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (it was almost midnight in NYC afterall). I paused to take a picture to show my mother when I noticed a guy near me doing the same thing. We were the only ones around and got to talking and it turns out we were both on the New York flight and he also lived in Los Angeles for a time (and most of his family is still there) and was pretty excited to see the ol’ Coffee Bean on foreign shores. He was going to his hotel downtown so I figured we could share a ride. It turned out the metro was cheaper so we opted for that. However, finding the metro turned out to be more difficult. Let’s just say that the Dubai Airport is unnecessarily complicated.

Finally aboard, I dug the incredible cleanliness and futuristic soundtrack playing softly. Turns out Jerome missed his stop entirely so when we got to mine (at the Burj Tower), we wandered over together, admired the tower and then jumped in separate taxis. I took mine over to the beach where the ridiculous six-star Burg Al Arab stands like a giant sail out over the beach. Unfortunately, you need a reservation to go inside, which could take 15-20 minutes and I was on borrowed time, so I just plopped myself down in the sand for a bit.

The water was incredibly blue and the beach very empty. In fact the whole city felt empty. Now I realize it was only 10:30 in the morning, but it was strangely quiet. Everywhere you looked there were skyscrapers halfway built. Cranes litter the cityscape. It’s bizarre. I caught a cab over to the train with a quick peek inside a nearby mall. Women in black veiled garb giggled as they passed me.

Back on the train, I initially got on the women and children’s car but it was too crowded so I went to the front and spent the ride back videotaping the landscape surrounded by staring men. The population of Dubai seems to be more Indian and Southeast Asian than Arab. Jerome told me that most of the lowpaying jobs are done by the South/Southeast Asians and the good jobs go to the emirates.

Made my way through the gigantic airport and back onto the plane for my last leg of the trip. Sat next to a nice young man who was from India but has been working in Dubai for the past 2 years and hadn’t been home in the meantime.

I was seriously fading by this time. Tried to sleep a little. Plane was delayed taking off due to a family not showing up and so they had to offload their luggage.

Arrival in Mumbai by daylight but it’s dark by the time I get my luggage. Prepaid taxi to the city is about 8 bucks. I feel more confident this time. Construction is done on the airport so it is very modern looking. Still it’s a shock when we pause at the outer gate so the taxi can pay the toll to get out and instantly I have a young mother with baby and child knocking on my window for money.

Drive to hotel takes about an hour. We take the new Sea-Link drive, which goes along the ocean, and much like the lake in Hanoi, is lined with motorbikes every few feet on which sit necking couples. It is pretty adorable – couple after couple after couple all either sitting on their bike or on the wall making out.

Finally make it to the hotel and I’m just blown away by how familiar the smell is… in a good way. The airport smelled the same – slightly mildewy and something flowery. Same at the hotel but with more incense and spice and decay. I don’t think I could ever pinpoint any of the fragrance. You’d need a true sommelier’s nose.

It was too early to go to sleep so I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I found the nearest internet shop and was startled to learn I needed to give them my passport number now, as a defense against future terrorism. My hotel, by the way, was in Colaba, a few blocks from the Taj Hotel.

Next, I trekked out to find some food. I wasn’t terribly hungry but I remembered that the reason I felt poorly my first few days in India last time was because I wasn’t eating. It became a bad cycle: not eating, then feeling badly because I wasn’t eating, then not eating because I was feeling badly. It was now getting late so my food options were limited. I found myself in front of Leopold CafĂ©, which was hopping and decided to go in. It was the first place I went on my first trip so might as well keep up tradition. A man with a rifle at the door searched my bag. Two more men with rifles guarded the other entrances. I was seated in a corner and ordered a chicken masala khati roll, which was like a little Indian soft taco. I got to talking to my waiter, Salim, who asked me if I was familiar with the events of 26/11. Yes, I told him. I had been glued to the television. He reached up behind me and removed a small picture frame, which hid a bullet hole the size of a golf ball. Then pointed to another in the corner of a painting, and another near a light switch. Suddenly, my khati roll wasn’t so tasty. I of course knew what had happened at Leopold’s and was hesitant to return but also didn’t want to be kept away because of terrorists. I finished my meal, chit-chatted with Jimmy from Zanzibar and then headed back for some sleep. Unfortunately, now I was a bit jetlagged and fidgety and couldn’t fall asleep until 2 a.m.

I’m usually pretty good with knowing pretty close to what time it is. Usually with in ten minutes. But when I woke up in my windowless room after what I thought was a fairly goodnight’s sleep, I had no idea. My ipod was on New York time and my brain wasn’t functioning yet to do the math correctly. I ended up going forwards instead of backwards and thought it was 11 a.m. I got up and started sorting my luggage and flipped on the television… which said it was 5:30am. Which meant I’d been asleep for a little over 3 hours. And considering I’d had maybe 3 hours the night before I left followed by a grand total of 2 hours on the planes, I thought it best to go back to sleep.

Woke up again thinking it was 11 a.m. got up, took a shower, got dressed, ordered my free breakfast and discovered it was just past 8.

Again took my time before leaving the hotel as I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with myself that day. I didn’t feel much like doing anything touristy. I needed an adapter and a phone SIM card (which would require a copy of my passport and visa to obtain, another terrorism related issue). I bought these and then found myself wandering near the Gateway to India and the Taj. I thought I’d take a peek into the Taj and, again, went through some serious security in order to get in. Metal detector, bag scanner etc.

Lunch was a strange falafel sandwich… then started to feel rundown. Headed back to hotel for short nap. 5 hours later… (boy is this blog familiar). Wandered out to find food – headed to a restaurant that was recommended for good chicken biryani. At the take-out counter, I ordered and waited. When I got my food, the bill was slightly higher than expected. I asked the cashier guy and he said, “Tax.” I shrugged and walked back to the hotel where I realized I had the wrong food. Chicken kadhai. I went to the hotel manager where I called the restaurant and talked to the Take-out guy. He said, no, I had ordered chicken kadhai, everyone had heard me order chicken kadhai. I said, “I ordered biryani. I don’t even know what chicken kadhai is.” “No. You ordered chicken kadhai.” And he HUNG UP. So I called back, this time with the hotel guy doing the talking. The hotel guy meekly hung up the phone a minute later. “He said you ordered the chicken kadhai.” “Call the manager,” I said. I got some guy on the phone, asked if he was manager, he said no… and he hung up on me.

Boy… I had forgotten the legendary “the customer is rarely right” way of India.

Miffed, I picked up my food and stomped off to the restaurant. Clearly, the take-out guy was surprised to see me. I was pretty pissed off but I remembered that angry arguing gets you no where in India so I pasted on a smile, waggled my head, and insisted that I didn’t order kadha chicken. Eventually the take-out guy gave me the right food (hopefully minus any retaliatory bodily fluid). As soon as he handed me my food though, of course his demeanor changed. “Why didn’t you just call us?” he asked, sweetly. “We would have brought you the food. You didn’t have to come all the way back.” ::sigh:: Customer service AFTER the fact.

The chicken biryani was awful, by the way.

*I wanted to post pictures but I'm having some issues with them at the moment. Check back tomorrow!

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