The Rise of Asian Cities
Board: Macro Economics
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It has been correctly pointed out that I am not completely (and even potentially not even accurately as some of my impressions are, no doubt, subjective) describing the countries we are visiting. I have lived my entire life (other than the odd trip, now and then) in New York City and am still discovering new impressions as I sightsee in my own town. I generally budget a week to see the highlights of any large city and at least a month to scratch the surface of a country. Cruises offer a cost effective means to touch a wide variety of spots over a short period of time, but little chance to see any of them in depth. By generally not taking organized tours, while we limit ourselves to a lack of formal verbal information, we substitute a greater chance of interacting with the local population. While my descriptions are no doubt incomplete (especially from the standpoint of a resident), they are simply my impressions. The thoughts I jotted down in the last segment were based on short visits to eight locations scattered across part of Indonesia and, while not a complete overview of the country, do give a bit of one guy’s insight about a country which I suspect 99.9% of American will never set foot in.
It is interesting to watch the growth of Asia’s cities. We have visited some cities, such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo repeatedly over the last four decades and watched them develop, but have only more recently Singapore and Indonesia (among others) and left to this trip our virgin visits to India, the Persian Gulf and Malaysia (so the following thoughts in this case are implied).
The major cities of Asia have, in many cases, metamorphosed during that time from dusty, dirty, primitive crowds living in poverty to what Westerners would recognize as modern cities. While the blossoming of Tokyo took place even earlier in their expected fashion of adopting the mantle of mimicking the West (but under that veneer, in a style that is definitely Japanese), but the modern appearance of Shanghai is an indication of China’s strength and organization and designed to be a showplace (much in the fashion of their awesome display during the opening ceremonies when they hosted the Olympics in Beijing). Cities such as Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong (and, to a lesser extent, Dubai) have successfully planned their infrastructures to be as good as any found in the world yet left enough vestiges of their past to give an authentic flavor and differentiate themselves. KL has consciously tried to pace Singapore, but despite its concentration on tall buildings (presumably trying to compensate because of an inferiority complex), is still rather far from its goal. Bangkok is somewhat behind KL, but bears little resemblance to the Pnam Phen sort of place it was in the 1970’s. The Indonesian cities suffer from what seems haphazard planning and implementation of modernization and end up as hodgepodges of urban blight. India seems to have just thrown its hands in the air under its density of humanity, corruption and lack of organization (or maybe just abundance of red tape) and is still far from achieving a modern infrastructure (from the few points we’ve visited).
Despite these differences in city planning, what is difficult to describe is the almost universal attention in Asia to the feelings of others. While the Japanese may formalize “face” in a structured manner which is easily recognized by outsiders, each of the other cultures has an equally imbedded way of making visitors feel welcome. Acts of gratuitous kindness are commonplace and acts of aggression or crime are rare (except occasionally by those who deal frequently with foreigners and have found them to be dumb and easy prey). To be honest, I don’t know if it is the underlying Buddhist concept of karma, or just that we, in the West, have not been brought up right, but the attention shown by nearly everyone in Asia to taking care of the traveler is very rare in the West.
We left Surabaya late as the immigration officers required to clear the ship were delayed. We are now heading at the ship’s top speed for Singapore. The ship is disembarking 505 passengers and picking up 535 in Singapore so we are going through another lifeboat drill today in order to maximize the time we have ashore tomorrow.
50 01 Mar 2013 Singapore
Pint-sized Singapore is a mosaic of contrasting cultures. It's easy to be dazzled by Orchard Road's wall-to-wall malls, but it’s more fun to simply walk along Arab Street looking at bolts of fabric cleverly draped over mannequins to simulate dresses and exploring the Sultan Mosque, past the gold shops and Hindu temples of Little India or the small shops selling all sorts of products in Chinatown.
We equipped ourselves with MRT passes ($10 each, plus a $10 deposit to make sure you return the electronic pass at the end of the day. While individual tickets would have saved a few bucks, the time saved in using the pass rather than fighting with ticket vending machines was worth it) and headed to the Bugis station (which required a change of lines) and then walked to Arab Street. Venders on both sides specialize in an infinite variety of fabrics and rugs. These run the gamut of those produced in Asia and Europe. The Sultan Mosque is around the corner as is a street recently renovated into a pedestrian mall by Oman.
Rather than take the MRT, we walked towards Little India and “happened” to see the Sim Lim Center which is a huge multi-story mall specializing in all things electronic (where you can find anything that attaches to a wire, computer, network or A/V mixer). After trying to beg (unsuccessfully) permission from The Boss to spend the rest of our time here, we headed towards Serrangoon Road and (lo and behold) into the same gold shop we bought gold bangles for my wife last time we were here. Gold has dropped in price over the past 10 days and everything is a bargain (‘nuff said).
Serangoon Road is a long strip where the local ethnic Indians come to buy spices, flowers, Bollywood DVDs (you can hear the music blaring out into the street), saris , and all kinds of ceremonial items. This is one of the few old neighborhoods in Singapore that hasn't been "Disney-fied" by the government.
Along Serangoon Road, Mustafa's is a crazy Indian emporium. While many of the goods are pretty standard, we looked for all the neat India imports. The basement sari fabric department is supposed to be one of the largest in Singapore. Mustafa's also has three floors of the most elaborate 22K and 24K gold jewelry we've seen this side of Dubai.
We popped back down into the MRT and headed to Chinatown. We attempted to find the Maxwell Center, renown for its food hawkers (Singapore has preserved its ethic aura by taking its hawkers off the streets and licensing them into permanent stalls alongside of shopping malls), but got lost and ate in another similar place. There were hundreds of small restaurants to choose from, so, in a fashion that goes against the grain of any New Yorker, we waited on the longest lines (with the assumption that the food would be both good and cheap – it was both). We settled on a prawn/chicken over noodles dish from one booth, some assorted deep fried things from another (I make it a policy not to ask what Chinese food is made from – so I won’t get upset) and iced coffee made from incredibly good/potent dark Indonesian coffee mixed with condensed milk over ice cubes.
After lunch (eaten along with a few hundred thousand of our closest friends “family style” in front of the hawker’s booths) we wandered around Chinatown’s markets (picking up a string of pearls on suggestion of a fellow shipmate) and ended up in the century old Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple with its immense, ornate gopuram (tower gateway) flamboyantly graced and covered in multi-colored gods and goddesses and where incense plumes filled the air.
We headed back to the ship a bit early as we had invited some friends (one of whom is an occasional poster on METAR) who live here to join us for a tour of the ship and a meal in the “fancy” restaurant of the ship (on this ship it is called “The Pinnacle”). The procedure to get them aboard was a bit daunting and, at the last minute, I found out that I had to be escorted by a policeman, with their passports, to the basement of the Cruise Center building to get passes to get them through Singapore Immigration. There were four passes required and they cost $2SD each. I had left all my money aboard the ship and the policeman insisted that he pay for the passes with money from his wallet. When I asked how late he would be there (so I could get the money from my room) he said “I leave in five minutes, this is between you and me and I insist that you let me pay” (thus saving me face of asking my guest to loan me the money). Anyhow, it is just another example of how nice people can be.
I had buttonholed the ship’s Captain a week or so earlier and gotten him to agree to a tour of the navigation bridge (something which is simply not done any more) so that the two children in the party could get to see the area. The navigation officer let our friends’ 10 year old son turn the steering wheel (only about 8-10 inches across) and their daughter play with the binoculars. He took his time explaining the interaction of all the video games up there and how they linked to the engineering department. The kid had researched the ship ahead of time and came prepared with questions :- ). Afterwards, the meal was lovely.
The architecture of this city state is awesome. As we sailed away, I found myself swinging my head (and camera) from side to side trying to capture each unique and spectacular building. Again, like Hong Kong the density of building is tremendous, with the difference that there are landscaped horticultural parks and gardens everywhere. Even when they do construction here, there are potted trees to beautify the worksite.
From the financial district to the impressive Waterfront Park the esplanade heads towards the Singapore Merlion (Singapore’s statues of its national symbol), the famous Casino which is comprised of 3 buildings connected with a building resembling a ship on top as well as having an infinity pool and the Ku Da Ta restaurant on its roof (where we ate last time we visited), the giant Ferris wheel, and the Science Building shaped like a lotus flower. As we pulled away from the pier, river boats plying the waters (blowing their horns and playing “chicken”) raced to gain a spot in the area we had just vacated.
As the ship “spun on a dime”, we watched the cable cars go over to Sentosa Island, the huge "Disney World like" amusement park. We didn’t visit the island this time, but look forward to seeing the beaches, monorails and attractions (such as indoor skydiving, luging, etc. ) here when we return next fall.
51 02 Mar 2013 At Sea
The ship’s travel guide, who is supposed to present useful information about each port before we visit them has consistently been an idiot. She is a font of misinformation and, while a very nice young lady, is completely incompetent. Ah, youth.
Some things are apparently flexible. Last week, we passed the equator in both direction, but today is the celebration as pollywogs turn into shellbacks. On Holland Americas, this ceremony is limited to passengers as spectators to participating crew members. It’s less fun, but I guess they are afraid of the liability to having octogenarians (and older) participating.
Tonight was a formal night and I arranged for our table to be hosted by the ship’s environmental officer. (We had previously, a couple of times in the past been hosted by the IT officer, but I figured I’d mix it up a bit). Both he, and his wife had fabulous senses of humor (and of course he was budgeted to supply the table with wine) and, along with the “fancier” than usual food that a formal night brings, it made for an entertaining evening (of course followed by the ship’s entertainment in the theater).
52 03 Mar 2013 Penang, Malaysia
Once owned by the Sultan of Kedah, Penang is now one of the thirteen Malaysian states. Fort Cornwallis’ weathered walls are the focus of colonial George Town.
A fascinating fusion of the East and West, Penang retains its traditions and old world charm while striving to modernize. These are reflected in its multiracial populace and well-preserved traditional buildings which led to George Town recently being accorded a listing as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
George Town has is a magnet for Malaysians and Singaporeans seeking to indulge in its vibrant food scene. It has also attracted the type of world traveler for whom street culture and charmingly decrepit period architecture trump the availability of a well-made cappuccino.
While every taxi bears the notice on its door that “This is a metered taxi. Haggling over the price is prohibited”, each ride has to be negotiated (sometime practice trumps theory).
We got our bearings with a stellar view atop 2,750-foot Penang Hill. The easiest way up is by funicular. The slightly white-knuckle ride in new Swiss-made air-conditioned coaches takes five minutes or less. Up top, the air is fresh and cool, and the vistas unparalleled: to the south, George Town’s neat rows of clay tile roofs; to the north, undulating hills backed by a turquoise sea. We took a taxi down a little-used jeep trail which ends at the Penang Botanical Gardens at the foot of Penang Hill, a 30-minute taxi ride back to George Town.
We dismounted and walked to a pair of ornate Chinese temples, crowded with worshipers holding handfuls of joss sticks and purchasing birds to release for good luck. Walking past a Chinese funeral (where much of the traditional music was generated by a hand carried Casio keyboard) we headed down Jalan Penang, the main shopping street in Chinatown. After first stopping at “Sam’s Collections” at #159 (a huge emporium of Indian clothing and fabrics), we headed to the blocks large markets selling clothing, foods, fabrics and almost every imaginable item. We ended up buying two large Indonesian “Batiks” (machine made, but fantastic all the same) for about double what we would have paid a week ago, but still good buys here. From there we headed to the mall and the interesting part of the day (at least for me, as I have no interest in women’s shoes) ended. I had five Malaysian Ringgits left as did our friends. The cab we walked to wanted 10 Ringgits (a little over three bucks) to bring us back to the ship. No point in haggling and we returned penniless.
53 04 Mar 2013 Phuket, Thailand
The traditional Thai greeting is Sawati Krap if you are a man or Sawati Kra if you are a woman (or Sawati Ha if you are from the LGBT spectrum which has a presence in Phuket) accompanied by a “wei” – the placing of the fingertips together as if you were preying. Depending on your relative social/political position compared to the person you are greeting the “normal” position of the thumbs resting under the nose and the fingertips against the forehead can be adjusted higher to give more respect.
We almost never take the excursions offered by cruise ships. A number of our friends are taking one today to Phang Nga Bay which has sheer limestone cliffs that jut out vertically of the emerald green waters. The trip was advertised as going to “James Bond” island where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed. Well, we took a bus for a couple of hours to Wat Tham Suwan Kuha, a Buddhist cave temple a couple of hundred years old which was pretty cool. The deep cave included dozens of differently posed gold leaf covered statues of Buddha, including a large reclining figure. We climbed high into the cave exploring the place.
We then boarded a long boat (as compared to the much cooler long tailed boats I’m more familiar with in Thailand – though there were many of them around) which took us through the bay with admittedly fantastic rock features (reminiscent of those on the Li River near Guilin, China). After circling (but not landing on) “James Bond Island”, we headed to the fishing village of Koh Panyi. This is built on stilts and was referred to as a “Muslim” village. While it’s filled with fish restaurants, this was our 20 minute stop to shop (I bought a chambered nautilus shell). While getting back onto our boat I suffered a Willey Coyote moment. As I walked across the dock, a boat hit its edge, tearing off a face piece which held a plank in place. At the same moment, I stepped on the end of the plant which pivoted up – sending my right leg through the dock and into the water as the other end of the plank whacked me in the top on my head (I had bent my head to protect my face and the Australian flavor of cowboy hat I was wearing somewhat protected my head). We then took the boat to a hotel for lunch.
While the trip was interesting, it certainly wasn’t worth the money we paid ($120 each) and only reinforces my view that there is little efficacy in taking the excursions offered by cruise ships (unless the ship picks up the tab) rather than doing things on your own. Four people could have taken a taxi round trip to the (world renown) beach in Phuket, lounged under an umbrella, had an hour massage and eaten a seafood curry lunch for about $35 a person. Not cultural and maybe a bit hedonistic, but does fit the character of a vacation. While the tsunami of a few years ago devastated this area, there are few vestiges of the destruction and the area is covered with rubber plantations. Rubber is tapped from 3AM until the day becomes warm (and the flow slows). A tree has to be seven years old before it is tapped and can produce until it is 40 years old. Its bark is cut on a cyclical basis to allow it to heal in each section before it is re-cut.
Commercial harvesting of coconuts is done by monkeys who were trained to gather the fruit and can produce at the rate of 400 coconuts per day. They work for half an hour and then rest for half an hour (I presume their minimum wage is measured in bananas).
Thai’s express a love for their king. In fact it is an offense, punishable by jail time to criticize the king in any way. Both the red, white and blue flag of Thailand and the yellow flag with the coat of arms of the king appear everywhere. Thai names are incredibly long. Sometime in the 1920’s the government, administratively challenged by multiple people with the same name, assigned unique names to every citizen (leading to some very long convoluted ones). The alphabet used is based on Sanskrit which came to the area millennia ago along with the Buddhist and Hindu religions.
While it doesn’t seem to affect tourists, there is an insurgency in southern Thailand by Bahasa speaking Moslems wanting to break away from the country and there is a military presence. Ethnically, these groups are the same Malay who live in Malaysia, but there doesn’t seem to any wish to join with Malaysia. While the country is 60% Buddhist and about 20% Hindu, Moslems make up about 85% of the population of the southern provinces.
While the area used to attract lots of Japanese in their heyday’s of the 1980’s, when I asked about a couple of Russian signs I saw, I was told that there are now “too many Russians” (who now seem to be migrating towards Phuket from the other resorts in Thailand that they currently frequent).
54 05 Mar 2013 At Sea
Off topic discussion about toys:
Samsung rules over Apple in Asia when it comes to tablets. While owning an iPhone is something most Asians aspire to, in these lands where phones are purchased outright, while even peasants always carry phones, relatively few can afford smartphones. That said, Samsung rules the tablet world.
While there are a small number of Apple stores in Asia, every mall (presumably through the liberal application of co-op advertising) has a dozen stores with enough Samsung signage to rival the Samsung company stores also found everywhere.
I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7 inch tablet (at Costco’s on Black Friday) for $170. The US version doesn’t have a SIM chip socket (a SIM chip is the “guts” of a GSM phone – the type used in almost every country in the world (and by T-Mobile and AT&T in the US). The Asian version of this tablet, available in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia does have a SIM socket and sells for about $330 (or about twice the price of the neutered US model). In fact, it sells for more than the Apple iPad Min does here! When I asked “why?”, I was told, in a way that told me I should have known better than to ask, “Well, it can make phone calls as well as handle data and the Apple can’t”.
Samsung phones are also expensive here with the popular Galaxy IIIS costing $600 and the larger Note II at about $700. The price of the larger 7 inch SIM enabled tablet sounds more reasonable in this context (at half the price of the Note II).
In countries where minimal phones (including SIM chip) cost $20, but people are used to buying their phone equipment (and purchasing SIM chips in 7/11 or kiosks), getting an Android tablet which makes phone calls at half the price of an equivalent smartphone makes sense. From Samsung’s point of view, doubling the price of the US unit and simply adding a SIM socket seems a profitable path as well. Since few Americans use prepaid SIM’s (especially for data) and since Samsung realizes that Americans favor low cost over value (and further, Samsung doesn’t want to instigate arguments with AT&T or Verizon), we end up with a real cheap version which has been technologically crippled.
55 06 Mar 2013 At Sea
This was a good day. Our team got every question right in the daily Trivia contest. Then I made two grand slams in bridge.
Tonight, the ship’s premium restaurant served the menu of the Dutch Michelin three star restaurant “De Librije”. I thought this was just another ploy to “nickel and dime” a bit more as the meal cost even more of a premium than this place normally does. They hyped it by saying that they had been preparing and cooking for three days. Well, you know what? It showed. The presentation, imagination, taste and ambiance were all there and in fact, compared to what this sort of food would have cost in its original venue, this was an extreme bargain.
56 07 Mar 2013 Colombo, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon is a country of 220 million people who live on a small island resulting in 300 people per square kilometer. Again, when we got off the ship, dancers greeted us.
The country has a history of many invaders who conquered and ruled. Recently they have suffered from a civil war sparked by the Tamil Tigers which is over, although there is still unrest in the north. While this insurgency was instrumental in developing the suicide bomb and cause havoc, the final government push to wipe them out a few years ago also killed between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians. Eighty percent of the population is Buddhist. The Tamil's are Hindu (and associated with India’s southern provinces) and India (and China) supported them until they assassinated a number of Indian officials including a former Indian prime minister. The Tamil Tigers were not able to continue their fight after India pulled their support. There is also a small Catholic population.
The British introduced tea, coffee and rubber which grow in large plantations and each, along with coconuts provide a large economic revenue stream. When a family builds a home, the first thing they plant is a coconut palm. The number of products that are produced from this one tree to the home owner is prodigious: thatch, baskets, rope, coconut milk, coconut, coconut water (to name a few). Walking under these trees is not too bright during the season when they drop their fruit.
There are 22 varieties of bananas, and we saw lots of pineapples, durian, watermelon, and papayas for sale along the road. Ground black tea is served with milk or without. Besides black tea, low ground, green, and gold and silver tip (very expensive) are also produced.
“Ceylon” (the old name for Sri Lanka) is also famous for its gemstones, especially sapphires, one of its major exports.
(Incidentally, there are five types of poisonous snakes – including cobras and vipers)
Colombo is no longer the capital, which has relocated in the 1980’s to a suburb southeast of the city known as Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte. It has a colonial past and that is evident in some of the port buildings, although they are long past their heyday. The port itself is a large container port and one of the largest container ships we have ever seen was docked here.
We had a bit of an adventure hiring transportation. I hired a couple of tuk-tuk’s for five bucks a piece to bring us to the Kelaniya Eraja Maha Vihara temple, about 10 KM out of town then to the Gangaramaya temple back inside Colombo and finally dropping us at the World Trade Center so we could visit the commercial Sri Lanka Gem & Jewelry Exchange on the 4th and 5th floors. The bargaining session was very aggressive with the tuk-tuk drivers trying to set up sight-seeing routes, increase prices and so on. Once in the tuk-tuk our driver said he was also going to take us to a jewelry store. I told him I absolutely didn’t want to go there and that if he did this against my wishes that I wasn’t going to pay him. He pulled over and asked us to get out of his cab. I pointed out that our friends were in the other tuk-tuk and he caught up with them. A bit of discussion in the local dialect and they were chucked out as well. Well, at least we didn’t have to pay to get the two kilometers between the port and the town :- ). We asked a tiny elderly man who was selling shell necklaces for directions to the Gangaramaya temple and, after a bit of haggling, I hired him to guide us there for a couple of bucks. It was further than we thought and frankly he was worth the price because the route was not straightforward. It passed a military base and an air force academy. As in similar places, there was a jet fighter on a pedestal in front of the entrance, like a large paper airplane pointing skyward. Interestingly, I noticed the label “Kfir 2” under the cockpit which indicated that the plane had been manufactured by Israel, rather than the more common US, Russian or British arms that one finds scattered around the world. When we passed a church, David (our guide’s name) genuflected and admitted to being Roman Catholic (but then he also made the appropriate gestures in the Buddhist temple we went to, so his choice of religion might have been a matter of convenience, depending on context).
I asked our apparent guide about the Jewelry Exchange at the WTC and he told us it had “moved away” and he could show use jewelry stores if we wanted. I dropped the subject.
We entered the Gangaramaya temp and entered a different world. While we have been in many serine mosques and boisterous Hindu temples, this Buddhist temple was an adventure. The large compound is cluttered with golden Buddha’s, ivory and golden gifts, what looks like an antique printing press collection, a couple of rickshaws, roughly a hundred stone Buddha’s and stupas going up the side of a hill and the largest stuffed elephant I have ever seen. There is also a live baby elephant chained to a post. All of a sudden, three turbaned musicians – two drummers and one playing a reed instrument like a snake charmer would use – started playing on an upper level. Here we found a long line of posters, which looked like comic strip frames, highlighting excerpts from the teachings of Buddha along with warnings to those who didn’t follow those precepts. The level also was cordoned off by a “room divider” made from strings along which jasmine flowers had been tied at about six inch intervals. On the other side was a wedding. The bride and her mother were dressed in wonderfully decorative saris and we asked permission to photograph them. We were then invited in to the wedding to have tea and sweets. After tasting the exceedingly sweet pastries, we congratulated the families and were on our way. David was waiting for us and told a long story about his wife and children being drowned in the tsunami. This conned, I mean convinced our Canadian companions to give him 10 bucks and buy one of his necklaces.
The temple also has a pavilion across the street on a lake where, for a dollar, one can take a walk around the building and admire the views. David offered to take us to a jewelry factory across the lake which I politely refused. He offered to negotiate tuk-tuks for a dollar apiece to bring us to the Petah shopping district (explaining that they would try to charge us more without his help) and as the taxis took off, jumped into the ones carrying our friends (I guess staying close to the mark). He then stuck to us like a coat of paint. When our friends asked about an internet café, he dropped his armload of necklaces (along with the US dollar our friend paid for the necklace) in the lap of a woman who looked like a beggar and led us to the fourth floor of a local building to an internet café. This had been air conditioned, but the owner opened the door and let the hot, humid air fill the place. The rates were the usual $.40 an hour found in the third world.
From there, David guided us to the Pettah shopping district near the main train station. He pointed to a batik factory where the “clothes are cheaper” which I refused. As we wandered through the bazaar, he seemed to know most of the merchants and chatted or joked with them as we passed. At one point, I thought I had finally outsmarted him and lost him in the crowd. I pulled everyone down a side street only to find him waiting for us at the end (he must have run like an Olympian to pull that feat off :- ).
After roaming around the vast market for a while (though it had slim pickings for us), David guided us to the World Trade Center, but peeled off a block before we got to the fancy building and finally bid us farewell.
Sure enough, there are about 40 retail/wholesale dealers of loose gems of all description, as well as jewelry lining the fourth and fifth floors of the east tower of this dual tower set of buildings. This is not the sort of place that tourists generally go as it is focused on the wholesale export trade. The prices are rational though, as expected, haggling is in style here. My wife ended up with a gold plated silver choker with multiple rows of brilliant cut round semi-precious stones (which sparkle like colored diamonds) for what costume jewelry would cost at home.
From there, after the traditional haggling, we hired a couple of tuk-tuks to head to the Galle Face Hotel. This elegant old hotel, dating back to the days of the British Empire is located on the beach and its veranda offers a pleasant way to pass the late afternoon. Of course we were clueless how to find the veranda and when we walked in we were faced with the drama of a number of simultaneous weddings. After some photo shots of brides, mothers and kids we “borrowed” a manual elevator whose operator had apparently gone on break and left the keys in the “ignition”. This brought us deep into the hotel and after wandering around a bit (and after asking directions a couple of times) we located the veranda. Our friends treated us to snacks and drinks. While the girls had lemonades (and banana splits), the guys had beers. The local brew is “Lion” brand and comes in 667 ml bottles (which, doing mental math seems about 4/5 of a quart, or about the size of a standard bottle of booze). Gerard’s lager was 4.4% alcohol, but my stout turned out to be 8.8% alcohol. I drank a second one (on a sort of challenge from Gerard) which made the next few hours a bit interesting.
After a bit of haggling with a couple of tuk-tuk’s at the hotel entrance (where I guess they felt they could gouge a premium), we decided to hire the hotel limousine and go back in style (for $10) and got in while listening to the entreaties of the tuk-tuk drivers that they would now accept our offer. The limo didn’t have a pass to get into the port so it would have been a bit of a walk from the gate to the ship. Fortunately, a guy in a pickup truck stopped and offered us a lift (it turns out he was the ship’s port agent). While my three partners in crime were concerned, I figured (probably the beer doing its thing) “why not?” and piled in, with the others following, and took advantage of the generous offer.
In an attempt to kick-start the economy, the government, a few years ago, had offered international businesses free land and infrastructure if they would establish their businesses here. They could in addition take all profits and dividends out of the country. The only goal was to get employment for their young people. Many international apparel manufacture brands have located here. I would imagine that they employ children, even though education is compulsory. That said, the literacy rate is 95% and even the street beggars we asked for directions could read our maps.
57 08 Mar 2013 At Sea
We opened the Colgate tooth paste we bought in Jakarta (I think). It has a pinkish color and a slight clove/cinnamon taste. I guess it’s a local thing.
58 09 Mar 2013 At Sea
UGGG! The trip is about 2/3 over already !!!
59 10 Mar 2013 Mumbai (Bombay), India (DAY 1 of 2)
I think I’m in love with Mumbai – or at least in extreme toleration with the place. Mumbai is a city of great palpable energy. Bombay was renamed Mumbai – an older name for the city, in 1996. Millions of people are on the go all the time. Overall, we felt very safe here even when we were in crowds (though of course normal prudence dictates being careful of pickpockets and the like).
Everything in India can be safely taken to the extreme. Extreme clothing colors, jewelry, food flavors, odors, traffic noise – everything is enhanced to levels which janggle the nerves of the Westerner. Being a reformed caffeine/adrenaline junkie (well, maybe not that reformed), this place gives me a rush like a quadruple espresso to start the morning off right.
The literacy rate is 95% in Mumbai. India is now the most populous English speaking nation in the world, and almost everyone speaks the language tolerably (and in some unexpected cases incredibly well – it’s strange to hear a beggar or vender speak in unaccented North American English for your attention). It is easy to do business here. Central Mumbai is also surprisingly clean – at least certainly much cleaner than Agra and Delhi! The streets have no litter which was in contrast to what we had seen in the other cities. Of course there was garbage in some alleyways, but by and large there is evidence of a more modern, city moving into prosperity.
The caste system in India has been outlawed for many years. That said, it is a part of everyday life with high-castes running the place and generally reaping most of the benefits. Low-caste and untouchables still are generally relegated to various menial jobs. There is still a stigma regarding marrying below one’s caste and while fewer marriages are arranged (and generally at an older age than before), rules are still rules. Similarly, dowries are outlawed, but still almost universal. There have been numerous cases each year of men killing their wives for their dowry and the government is trying to eliminate this temptation.
To successfully drive in Bombay, you need to be a good driver, have good brakes, have a good horn and have a lot of luck. While the traffic rules here are ignored, it is in careful balance against the cost of a traffic ticket (or bribe to the policemen). While traffic lights seem to be for suggestion, the banning of tuk-tuk’s in the central city means that traffic seams saner than in Delhi or Cochin (but, this is a relative comparison as it is still an order of magnitude more chaotic than most in the US would likely imagine).
There are many beggars in India (everyone needs a job in order to eat and this is simply one of them). Many of the women beggars carry babies and look, in their colorful sari’s, indistinguishable from some of Europe’s “Gypsies”. Some beggars have almost unbelievable deformities and there is a temptation to think that at least some of these are contrived. In the fashion of David (of Sri Lanka fame), many of the beggars (especially the children) work as sub-contractors for employers who accumulate all of the takings and give back a salary and a place to live. As a matter of principle I never give to children beggars because they should be in school (and because I know from experience that if I give to a lone beggar in the middle of the desert, within thirty seconds I will have hundreds of clutching hands, pleading eyes and begging voices surrounding me).
Mumbai is divided into two districts, South and North Mumbai. South Mumbai is known as the elite district and is called "Town." The stock market, luxury hotels and high rises make up this area with its many wealthy residents. North Mumbai is more of an area for technology. The area grew because of its population increase. It was never part of Mumbai but today has about the same landscape as South Mumbai.
Years ago there was a moat here that protected the city - and now there is this wide beautiful boulevard that has these very large colonial buildings on what would have been shoreline of the moat. This is the most expensive real estate of the city, and for those of us used to the pristine condition of western buildings it is a shock to see the condition of these - which again is more often than not, marred with mold. There are impressive buildings from the British era - the Gateway to India, built for King George V's and Queen Mary's first visit to India, the Victoria Terminal - the railway, the library, - to name a few. There is also a very large, new modern beautiful Safe Hospital built by the Muslims.
The layout of the city is also quite compact - with the beautiful circular Marine Drive, known as the Queen's Necklace at night, ringing the bay. Chowpatty Beach and the many old Victorian buildings facing it are charmingly illuminated at night. Cowpatty Beach has a Ferris wheel that does not have a motor, but is powered by young men climbing on top of the wheel, then jumping on the next rung down making the wheel rotate. But it is at night when this district comes to life as people come to Chowpatty (technically the “Beach” is redundant and will confuse many locals) to escape the heat and patronize the food venders hawking their wares. There are some tours of the city’s “red light” districts, but we aren’t going to take these :- (.
I am a firm believer that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess and the buffet of sights to see and places to go in Mumbai have to be crammed into the two days we are staying here. While I’m sure we’ll be back for a longer stay in the next year or so, I am like a starved glutton at a banquet.
After a reasonably painless visit to Indian Immigrations, we begin again by stopping at the Gateway to India, the Indo-Saracenic archway, built in 1911. It is an impressive structure. Although it was originally constructed to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary, it was conceived as an entry point for passengers arriving on P&O steamers from England. Today it is remembered for the departure of the British in 1948. There were monks, and hawkers aplenty here trying to get us to part with our money, but not in an objectionable manner.
After a few photos we boarded a rickety wooden ferry for the hour ride to Elephanta Island (named this by the Portuguese because of a large stone statue of an elephant which has since been relocated to a Mumbai museum). There are large caves here with columns reminiscent of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt and large bas reliefs of the Indian guard Shiva, the destroyer, carved in the stone. We are in luck (in one sense at least) that today is a festival dedicated to Shiva. The long path to the caves is lined with venders of all sorts of chatkas and souvenirs. There is some sort of small tourist train whose tracks reach partway, but it doesn’t seem to be functioning. There are probably over 100 steps on this path, but the angle is low enough that the steps are about ten feet apart on this mile long route. There are hand carried sedan chairs available (at $14 one way – up only as the down direction is deemed too dangerous) for those who are too frail to walk. This place is mobbed. The entire path is filled with people jostling in both directions. The caves are filled with men women and children and the bright colors of regional sari’s from all over India. Flashes of gold come from ornate earlobe chains attached to earrings. Flames shoot up from ignited offerings, garlands of marigolds drape everything. After spending some time in the temple, we fought our way back through the ever thickening throng. As we walked back to our ferry we saw smaller boats which looked like they had standing room only – with an almost impossible number of people standing in a crowd and literally filling every inch of the boats. This looked like these pilgrims were intent on becoming a statistic.
Our ferry was “rafted” with others and we had to cross a couple of other boats to get to ours. After the hour boat ride back, we headed off to an Indian buffet at the “Indian Summer” restaurant (80, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate) which was very good (at about 960 rupees).
Nobody likes dirty laundry, but I was fascinated by the Dhobi Ghat. (This is the same name as a major subway station in Singapore where, I guess, sometime in the clouds of the past there was a similar establishment). The Dhobi Ghat is on the banks of the local river. We saw 1,000, of the 2,000, stone cubicles, where 10,000 men labor to pick up dirty clothes from homes all over Mumbai to be soaped, soaked, boiled, beaten and thrashed. The next day, after being aired, pressed, folded and wrapped, the bundles are delivered to their owners. The secret that keeps the operation running smoothly is the coded symbol that each dhobi-whallah places on every item (since many of the workers here are illiterate). Invisible to the untrained eye, this mark ensures that nothing is lost. You just cannot imagine this sight until you see it. Each vat belongs to a family who acts as a small general contractor with a different family member doing each task (pickup, washing, wringing, drying, delivery, etc.) and paying separately, by government meter for the water in their particular vat. We were there at the high heat of the day, and although the workers were laboring in water, it certainly, once again drove home how manual much of the labor remains in this nation. I guess because it is late on a hot day, a number of young boys are swimming BA in unused concrete vats. Since it is Sunday, there are a vast number of cricket games going on – some of which are here (and some of which are played in the streets). This is the largest laundromat in the world with over 1 million pieces of clothing being washed daily (including the row of red Delta Airlines blankets hanging here in their hundreds.
We headed to the Taj Hotel. The hotel was invaded by (Pakistani) terrorists a few years ago with a great loss of like (and reputation. Nowadays, security is very tight. Cars are inspected for explosives and barriers are let down to let cars pass, and each guest also goes through metal detectors, and there are security guards crawling all over the premises One used to be able to enter the Taj from the back, but now there is only one entrance. The hotel was amazing with large fountains, beautiful paintings, and fabulous stores. This is one of those joints where there is a fellow in the washroom to turn on the water (adjusting the temperature), squirt the soap and hand you a towel.
We traveled along Marine Drive which is Mumbai's graceful seaside boulevard and promenade that sweeps from the skyscrapers at Nariman Point to the foot of Malabar Hill (and whose lights, at night, form the Queen’s Necklace). We proceeded to Malabar Hill which is Mumbai's ritziest neighborhood. Its forested slopes, sea Mantrabreeze and panoramic views have made the area popular since the 18th century when merchants and colonial governors built mansions and bungalows on the hillsides. Since then, luxury highrises, home to politicians and movie stars have dominated the scenes.
Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum is a two-story building where Mahatma Ghandi once lived. It is now a museum, library and research center. It is all about Ghandi's life and the many struggles that took place for India to receive its freedom peacefully.
We went to the Hanging Gardens (which now cover a huge cistern which stores water brought by pipes from the mountains for use as drinking water – and frankly don’t hang) to see the people of India spending time among the flowers, visiting with friends, and walking the track around the gardens. The hedges were carved into animal shapes here. We could also see a billion dollar, 27 story home, that is not lived in by the owner (though 65 servants live here full time), the richest man in India, because the astrologer told him it is facing the wrong direction. Astrology is still big here, and is used after children are born, for weddings, business, etc.
There were hawkers here selling purses for one dollar and bracelets, which many bought. There were also children begging for money and I wondered why they were not in school, which is compulsory. Maxine told me that if a child can contribute to the household income, they are taken out to beg, and that women routinely "borrow" children and babies to beg. One must always remember this is about eating or not.
One woman selling silver-ish bracelets used what I now call tuk-tuk math. She offered her bracelets at $1 each, three for $4 and four for $5. I am sure there havd been tourists who took advantage of here quantity discount program.
We passed a Zoraster place of final termination (?). This small religion believes that, when when a person dies they should be left for the crows and carrion birds to eat. There are three pavilions for this purpose on the top of a hill (one for men, one for women and one for children).
We stopped again at Victoria Terminus and we viewed the terminal from the street. Victoria Terminus is the main railway station of Mumbai and was built during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year. The first train began its journey from there in 1853.
The world's largest movie industry, Bollywood, is located in Mumbai. The "B" in Bollywood is derived from the city's former name, Bombay. Like Hollywood, Bollywood is the center for entertainment in India. The ship has brought on a large troupe of Ballywood dancers for the evening’s entertainment.
Tomorrow will be yet another day in Mumbai :- ).