March 28, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/ Geronimo Madrid

 Bombay's Gateway
Geronimo Madrid's travels through Bombay

New York-based writer, Geronimo Madrid quit his job in August to travel the world for one year. This article is the second of a series he is writing about Indians he meets along the way.

My girlfriend and I are sitting in Café Leopold, a hip bar in Bombay's Colaba district. It is our first afternoon in India, and I can't think of a better way to ease ourselves on to the subcontinent: We are drinking ice-cold beer, savoring the smog-free air-conditioning, and listening to a rundown of recent Western hit songs. Britney Spears, Marc Anthony, Natalie Imbruglia, Madonna, and Enrique Iglesias figure prominently in the rotation.

The hot, sticky city with its manic rickshaws and honking taxis and its troupes of dirt-smudged beggar girls, making a tourist show of their poverty, seem a million miles away. In many ways, this insulation from Bombay's grit is the allure of Colaba's bars and restaurants for tourists and locals alike.

Sitting and chatting around us are Bombay's college-age well to do. The young men wear the casual chic of skater gear or jeans and cheeky T-shirts that's favored everywhere from London to my own New York City, and the girls look striking in skin-tight pants and their curve-hugging tops.

Similarly, the Leopold interior is as modern and cosmopolitan as its crowd. The bar is sleek, minimalist, and metallic. The chairs and tables put a modern (and thankfully not uncomfortable) twist on the classic combination of chrome and wood. Stained glass reflects and refracts what little light there is in the place, and something resembling one of those lightning balls that was all the rage in the 80s pulsates above the shelves of liquor overlooking the bar.

With several beers in my jetlagged body, I'm feeling cheery and extroverted. I turn to a group of young, good-looking kids at the next table and say hello. I ask them how they're doing.

"Quite stoned," one of them responds, and now they are apparently going to drink the afternoon away.

I tell them that my girlfriend and I are happy to be in Bombay and drinking beer, especially since we've just arrived from bone-dry mid-Ramadan Egypt. Then, I proceed to tell them about my life: How I was born in the Philippines but moved to the United States when I was seven, how Jessica and I left our jobs and an apartment in New York City to travel the world, how the nail of the littlest toe on my left foot has been barely hanging on ever since a grueling hike in Tanzania.

Politely, one of the kids points down the length of the bar and says they have to greet some friends who've just arrived. I watch them move to an empty table. Other attempts to chat with people end in similar brush-offs.

"What? Do I still smell like airplane air?" I ask Jessica.

She tells me to lower my voice. She then asks me what I would do if we were back home in Brooklyn, at our neighborhood bar, and a drunk, sloppy foreign tourist started talking to us super loudly.

"I am not drunk," I insist, but I know the girlfriend is right. These kids came to the Leopold to enjoy each other's company, and to chat in cozy intimacy about the dramas, romances, and injustices that are assailing their young lives.

I flag a waiter down. Though I'm a beer kind of guy, I am curious about the quality of their cocktails here, and I order a Leo's Pride, a concoction of white and dark rums and creme de banane. I get a condescending smirk from the waiter, who then struts to the bar and fills out the inexplicable amount of paperwork required by each drink order, reminding me that I am after all in India.

It is only after the drink arrives that I realize why the waiter gave me the look. Leo's Pride is the most effeminate drink I've ever seen! It comes in a svelte champagne glass, wears a lacey top of cherry and origami-sliced orange, and the drink itself is pink of all colors! After each sip (it's good)I push it over to Jessica's side of the table.

"What's the matter?" I ask her. I've just noticed she's sulking. Jessica says she is thinking of the little girl who asked us for money as we made our way to this bar from our luxurious accommodation at the Salvation Army. The girl had in her arms her little brother, who couldn't have been more than five days old; his little hands were tiny as snowflakes, and his eyes were still glazed over and blind.

I tell my girlfriend, who grew up in suburban Maryland, that we just have to toughen up. I also tell her that to teach that little girl a lesson (she shouldn't have been dragging her newborn brother around in the midday heat and smog), I should have taken what little change she had and thrown it into the middle of the street.

"You have a hard heart," Jessica says. I tell her that I'm joking, that it's the beer talking, but that because I've spent a lot of time visiting the Philippines, I know all the begging tricks: foodstuff on babies' heads to attract flies, dirt smeared everywhere to connote a desperate homelessness, and using your newborn brother as a prop is about as low as one can go.

Jessica narrows her eyes and points a finger at my face. "I think that's what well-off people tell themselves in the Philippines so they don't have to think about anybody else."

"Touché," I say, and I order us another pitcher of beer. * * *

The next morning I wake up late, hung over, still jetlagged, and wheezing from a pollution-inspired bronchial infection that will plague my first two weeks in India. The Salvation Army's breakfast of a hard-boiled egg, untoasted white bread, and tea fails to soak up the night's excesses, and so we hit Colaba Causeway, the main strip, in search of something greasier.

It is Saturday, about noon, and the street is full of bustle. Indian families and teenagers and a handful of foreign tourists pore and haggle over the silver rings, batiks, cotton pants and shirts, and wooden backgammon sets of the ubiquitous sidewalk stalls. The restaurants and cafes are full, and waiters hustle to bring chai and coffee and eggs and toast and pakoras to the crowded tables.

Oddly, the whole scene reminds of New York City's West Village (minus the bohemian history). This is another big-city neighborhood with a safe, tempered kind of grunginess that's palatable to skittish tourists as well as suburbanites.

After eggs and strong coffee, Jessica and I head down to the Gateway of India, the massive stone arch that has been welcoming visitors to Bombay since it was built in 1924 to commemorate a visit to the country by King George V and Queen Mary. After a couple of snapshots, with the bay as a smoggy backdrop, Jessica and I dodge the sellers of postcards and giant balloons (a bargain for me at five rupees, but what would I do with it?), and duck into the Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel.

Legend has it that the Parsi industrialist J N Tata built the Taj after being snubbed by the posh but whites-only Watson's. The Taj is indeed fit for a magnate, I say; or a visiting Hollywood star, Jessica quips. Though we're not the kind of backpackers who stop bathing as soon as we leave home, we can't help but feel underdressed in the opulence.

Imagine the health spa, clothing store, and restaurants you've always wanted to patronize but could never afford, and install these in a lavish interior with prim porters and wait staff to boot, and you have the Taj.

My girlfriend and I exit and gaze up at the building from across the street. Even in mid-repair and under a massive bamboo scaffolding, the stone facade radiates wealth. I can't help but wonder whether my own country's first lady of excess, Imelda Marcos, could find nothing lacking during a stay here.

From the Taj, my girlfriend and I stroll to the Prince of Wales Museum at the northern terminus of Colaba Causeway. In line with Colaba's bars, hotels, and restaurants, the museum, aside from functioning as a museum, also serves as an oasis within busy Bombay. Once in the leafy courtyard and in the shadow of the imposing Raj-era building, the street noise fades and the city heat eases.

We wander through the exhibits. There are displays of Indus Valley civilization artifacts, Indian painting and pottery from different periods, and stone busts and facades of Hindu and Buddhist gods, which actually provide a helpful introduction to the motifs we will later encounter in temples and monuments across the country. When we enter a room of ancient Buddhist thangkas, I can't help but think like a tourist and imagine how these venerable prints, which depict the very tenets of Buddhism, would look on my apartment wall.

Jessica and I also experience one of the unique aspects of traveling in India. Overwhelmingly, the tourists traveling around India are themselves Indian, and we meet Indian families who, like us, are visiting Bombay. They've come from distant states -- West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh -- and they insist that big, bad Bombay (not "Mumbai," mind you) is as foreign to them as it is to us. Sure, the occasional hormonal teen addresses us in Hindi, and I can tell by his bulging eyes and cheeky grin that he's saying something like, "Can I borrow your woman," but overwhelmingly, people are just curious about us, an interracial couple from New York City.

That evening, after our day about town, Jessica and I visit another bar on Colaba Causeway, Café Mondegar. Whereas Café Leopold is chic and smart, Cafe Mondegar strives to be a kind of Cheers! by the Arabian Sea. Cafe Mondegar T-shirts adorn the bar; one boasts the "Only CD Jukebox in Bombay."

The seating area is brightly lit, and a slightly preppier crowd of young Indians knock back beers. The walls are covered by an entertaining mural depicting in skillful, but lighthearted caricature, the Cafe Mondegar crowd. The artist (who, according to my guidebook, hails from Goa) is very much like yours truly -- a fan of cleavage, and busty line drawings hang over us as we drink.

The net effect is the same: I feel like I'm seeing only one side of India, that I haven't really left the waiting lounge yet. Getting drunk again, and still mildly jet-lagged, the feeling culminates ever so slowly into the realization that I've acclimatized, that I'm ready to leave Colaba, that I'm now hungry to visit other parts of the country. I'm ready for the hot, dusty, and hard-to-get-to.

Madrid's earlier travelogue: Made in Africa: Encounters with Indian-Africans

Photographs: Geronimo Madrid
Design: Dominic Xavier

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