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© Simon Strijbos

Mumbai day 5: Elephanta Island

By Simon Strijbos on Thursday 6 May 2010

Yalong and I had agreed to meet at the Gateway to India at 8am to go to Elephanta Island.
Me and the woman from the hotel went for breakfast at about 7. Her name was Yael and she was born in Israel but lived in the United States.
The owner of Manglore Naaz recognized me from the night before and greeted me amiably. After we had been examining the menu for a minute, the owner came to our table. While Yael studied the menu for a little longer, I ordered some appam bread, an onion omelet and chai. The restaurant owner assumed we were a couple and, with me being the man, took my order as being for both Yael and me. He disappeared into the back of the restaurant without waiting for Yael to decide. We laughed in amazement.
I went on my way to the Gateway at 7:30.

Wednesday January 27th

Yalong already strolled around the Gateway as I got there, having fun with Indians who wanted their picture taken with him.
A local photographer showed us some polaroids and asked if we wanted him to take a picture. We said no thank you. He moved on to a couple of Indian men who promptly patted Yalong and me on the shoulder and asked us to pose with them. A few other Indians followed suit now they had seen that we were willing to pose.
At the dock right behind the Gateway to India, we took a ferry to Elephanta Island costing 120 rupees. For another ten rupees we could go to the upper deck. Being the only non-Indians on board we received a lot of attention from the other passengers. Yalong however, was fascinated by the flock of seagulls that followed the boat. Even though he lived in Shanghai, he had apparently never seen seagulls before.
On the upper deck with us was an Indian mother with her 3 sons and her sister. The oldest of the sons was very interested in us, especially when he heard I worked in IT. At age 12 he was a few years away from college but already he knew he wanted to work in IT as well. He asked me if it was hard to make a career. I told him no, if you're good, and this answer pleased him a lot.
Then the boy invited us to take our picture together. His aunt tried to make a photo but her camera's batteries were dead, so I gave her a pair of my spare ones.

The ferry took a good hour to get to Elephanta. On the way we passed a lot of naval industry: supertankers being filled through offshore pipelines that could well be miles long, huge container terminals, but only a few fishermen. Elephanta Island appeared in the distance, a small green and quiet oasis amidst the heavy industry. The island is home to several sacred Hindu temples which have all been carved out into a mountain. These so-called Elephanta Caves are the main, and pretty much the sole, attraction besides a pair of sea cannons left behind by the British.
The ferry docked at a long pier along which goats and chickens rummaged through piles of garbage. A rusty old steam train was there to take tourists to the end of the pier, but it cost 15 rupees and that didn't seem worth it considering the distance. We started walking and about halfway to shore the train chugged past us at a marginally faster pace.
At the end of the pier there were three more hurdles. The first one was a gate where we had to pay 5 rupees in state tourism tax (for which we received a receipt). After that came some 300 meter long stairs going uphill. The stairs were lined with souvenir stalls and since it wasn't a very busy day, every tourist was sure to become a target for all the salespeople. We did some preliminary looking and bargaining to determine a base price for which to negotiate on the way back.

Then atop the stairs, past a few restaurants and food stalls, was the last hurdle: the main gate. The sign said: "entrance fee: Indian citizen 25 rupees / foreigner 250 rupees".
We gathered the money and stepped up to the ticketing booth where a portly Indian man sat, flanked by another man who had his feet propped up on a wooden box. Both of them wore khaki uniforms.
The man at the window greeted us and said: "500 rupees." Then his voice turned to a whisper and he continued: "But I make you a deal, ok? Each of you, " he emphasized his words by pointing a finger at both Yalong and me, "each of you one hundred fifty rupees."
This generous offer baffled us so much that it wasn't until after we handed him 150 rupees each and walked through the gate, that we realized the man hadn't given us a ticket or receipt of any kind. A sign on a nearby wall taunted us: "Persons found inside the national park without a valid entry ticket will be fined up to 2000 rupees".
We looked back at the guards by the gate who had let us go inside without asking to see our tickets, and we shrugged off any worries about the arrangement.

Now we found ourselves on a cobblestone courtyard, the hillside to our left and the entrance to the first cave to the left. I wanted to proceed to the first cave, but Yalong's attention was drawn to the large number of monkeys that roamed freely around the area. Though they were all plain and simple macaques, a family of monkeys found across all of Asia, Yalong had never been so close to monkeys and was enthralled by the new experience. Ever since visiting the city of Lopburi in Thailand and being attacked by monkeys in Malaysia, I'd had more than my share of close encounters, but Yalong seemed more interested in the monkeys than by the temple caves. He studied the behavior of the monkeys like a real biologist, throwing sticks towards the monkeys to see how they would react. Most of the sticks got no more than a disinterested glance and the macaques went about their business. This business included searching trash cans for food, fighting or frolicking with other monkeys or just lazing around in the sunshine. Yalong observed it all with immeasurable fascination.

Anyway, on to the caves. The first cave was also by far the most impressive one: about 6 meters high and perhaps 100 meters deep, most of it consisted of flat, undecorated floor and ceiling with rows of pillars for support. The back wall of the cave, however, was covered in bas-relief carvings, not unlike those in Angkor Wat, and some larger sculptures of various Hindu gods.
The other six Elephanta caves were increasingly more uninteresting, the last one being no more than a hollowed-out natural cave with a simple altar inside. A few withered flowers lay on top of the altar.

To get to the two cannons, we had to climb much further uphill, no easy task in 35 degrees. By then it was 1pm and the sun was at its most merciless. A local woman sat beside the dusty path with two baskets beside her on the ground. Most tourists ignored her but when she hailed us Yalong stopped and asked her what was in the baskets. She pointed at one basket, which contained green berries, looking hard and glazy, and said: "For eat." When Yalong asked if he could try one she thought he had misunderstood her, but he persisted and picked up a berry, asking her if it was ok. She made a relenting gesture. Yalong made a sour face when he bit into the fruit. I asked him what it tasted like but he told me to try it myself. The berry tasted very sour and seemed unripe, but it was juicy and I could see it making for good nutrition if you had nothing else on hand.
Yalong pointed at the other basket. "For monkey," the lady explained. The basket contained what might be the ripe version of the fruit in the first basket, only these berries were softer and red. Despite the lady's insistence that these berries weren't for human consumption, Yalong couldn't resist the urge to try. "Not that bad, " he reported, but I decided against trying the red berries.
Yalong negotiated with the lady until he had a price to his liking. He bought some green berries as well as some red ones and the Indian woman wrapped them separately in pieces of old newspaper.
While she was doing this she explained to us that she lived in the nearby village and depended on the fruit bearing trees around the hill for her income.

We ate some of the green berries on our way up the hill, but I gave up after three of them. They were just too sour.
The cannons were a bit of a letdown. Both were disabled and basically nothing remained except the bare gun barrels on their mounts. We strolled around the hill some more, going off the beaten path where we ran into two Indian men who were admiring a tree in full bloom. Loads of white flowers grew on it, and one of the men told us they were edible. He immediately proceeded to demonstrate this. We politely declined when he offered us some of the flowers.
After another ten minutes we went over the hill's ridge. The illusion of the quiet, peaceful island we had so far was broken by the view of a large container transfer terminal on the other side.

It was about two o' clock when we headed back downhill. At a vegetarian restaurant we had thali lunch. Several monkeys prowled around the restaurant looking for an opportunity to snatch some food away from an inattentive tourist. The owner of the restaurant was vigilant however, so when two monkeys slowly made their way towards our table he chased them off with a slingshot and a lot of shouting. The monkeys made for the trees screaming and hissing.
Yalong was still fascinated with the monkeys and didn't want to leave just yet. When his bottle of lime soda was almost empty, he screwed the top back on and threw it towards a group of monkeys. One of them quickly grabbed it and made off into the trees. At first, to Yalong's amazement, the monkey worked on opening the lid. After a while it gave up and simply bit a hole in the bottom of the plastic bottle. Yalong was disappointed.

On our way back to the pier we got some good deals on souvenirs. I bought a wooden figurine of Ganesha for 80 rupees and a bronze figurine of Hanuman for 200.
Back on the boat we opted to pay ten rupees to sit on the upper deck again. Both of us fell asleep from exhaustion but woke just in time to see the Gateway come into view.
We went back to Baghdadi Restaurant for dinner and afterwards I walked Yalong back to the Salvation Army hostel and bid him goodnight before making my way back to Fort.

As I walked along the Colaba Causeway a broad shouldered Indian man with buzz-cut hair, a rare sight, hailed me: "Hello my friend, you want to be in a Bollywood movie?"
Perfect! That was one of the things I was hoping to do while in Mumbai. I didn't even mind changing my plans to go to Sanjay Ghandi National park, or to Haji Ali Masjid. The man introduced himself as Imran, scout for foreign models. He needed western guys to serve as background dressing for a commercial. I asked him what the commercial was for and without saying anything he took out his cell phone and called someone.
"Yes, hello?" he said when his call was answered. "The commercial with the football match scene, what is it for? What product?"
He nodded and hummed "Uh-huh" while the man on the other end of the line explained. Then he hung up and turned to me: "It's for West. The cigarette brand."
I was disappointed about being in a commercial instead of a genuine movie but figured it was better than nothing. I told Imran I was okay with it. He handed me his card and told me to meet him on the far corner of the street in front of the Salvation Army.
"Not Salvation Army itself," he stressed, "the other corner."
I told him I understood. Imran put out his hand and I took it. I shook his hand while he practically squeezed mine to a pulp. What is it with Asians and hand shaking?

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