We arrived at the tourist office separately and left deciding to travel to Aurangabad together to see the religious caves of Ellora and Ajanta and possibly climb up the fortress of Daulatabad. Within a few hours of meeting, I felt like I'd known him forever. We shared some common interests (I was delirious upon finding out he brought a guitar on his travels and would actually like to sing hymns with me!) and we had many interesting (and heated!) discussions about spirituality among other things.
We walked around Colaba, a compact and energetic area in the south of Bombay and then an amazing thing happened - we came across the start of a Hindu festival when nightfall reached: the 9 day festival of Navrati. It was the intoxicating beat of the drums that drew us to the procession, consisting of drummers, a keyboard player, people carrying the statue of a goddess and joined by dancing children at the front of the line. The kids drew us to the dancing, teaching us to move in various ways. The procession was sometimes accompanied by firecrackers adding to the festivities. It took us through the polished 'slums' of Colaba, the narrow streets so well hidden behind the big busy streets that we would have otherwise missed it completely. At the end of the procession, friendly faces crowded around us, eager to talk to us and offer us a drink. We were told about the next 9 days worth of a dance involving sticks called Dandiya. It was to be celebrated everywhere apparently, sometime in the evening, and I was determined to catch it in Aurangabad.
We left the group and found ourselves in a market square, still bustling at 8pm. All the produce you could need, fish, fruits, veg, buckets, brooms, electronics… all were sold in this open space. I fell in love with the image and felt compelled to take a photo. I asked the women selling fish and they were sadly unimpressed with my request. Then a woman in front of me asked in very fluent English, "I'm also wondering why you want to take a photo?". The tone was accusing and harsh. I explained that I thought the scene was beautiful and I wanted to capture such an image that also reminded me of Vietnam where I was from. Her expression and tone softened immediately. She smiled with understanding and said that she had to ask because many foreigners who wish to take photos have the intention only of capturing what they call the 'slums' of the city to show to friends back home how dirty and poor these people and places were, and as a tourist token to say "I've been there!". The people there did not want that image nor the pity. I understood completely and felt sad that the action of me capturing these moments that speak to me could be so misconstrued. Bastien explained to the woman behind the fish counter and she happily let me take her photo. The other women too left behind their hostility. Bastien and I continued to chat for a while. She pointed out her home close by where her children were looking outside. She was also a Catholic and we talked about the Bandra festival for Our Lady. So many things about that conversation made me feel warm inside.
Tom and I parted ways for dinner, arranging to meet later. On my way, I came across a Pan Asian restaurant and stopped by to ask for the toilet. Seeing the waitresses there was somewhat of a shock. I couldn't stop staring at the oriental features that were so familiar to me while knowing that they were also fully Indian, from the northern regions bordering Tibet and Nepal. I felt like they were the link between me and this foreign land.
I stopped by the Taj Mahal hotel to have a look inside. The scene is of course of lavish richness. Two interesting men in their forties walked past and asked if I played the piano then told me to sit and play on the beautiful grand piano in the front hall insisting it was fine. I couldn't resist, though wasn't surprised when the guard came over. But it was worth it! We had a fun conversation after that where I discovered that they were both from London but whereas one lived and worked there, the other is in Hong Kong.Once a year, they decide upon a destination roughly half way between their cities to meet at for a week or so. Last year it was Columbo, Sri Lanka; this year, Mumbai. It was a boy's week, with wives and kids at home. They were fun and jovial throughout and seemed to take life easy out there. I was somewhat touched by that friendship.
On the way to dinner, I bumped into a familiar couple who I had past by twice before in various parts of the city. We recognised each other again and this time stopped to talk. We eventually figured out why we were so familiar to each other - they also went to Warwick, Gal and Dominic (I think). Again, small world. I'm sure I will say it again many times over.
At the hotel, I met Patrick and invited him to Not Just Jazz By the Bay with Tom and I. Patrick was stopping in Goa the next day. I recall he's from London also, or just outside of, and was travelling to take a break before joining the army next year. Even better, he was planning a 5-month rafting trip on the Amazon with friends (also army applicants), rafting from the source to the mouth of the river. How amazing! If it all works out, I might be able to see the end of his trip in tentatively July, when I will also be in Brazil and can capture that last moment. Very unlikely to happen, but worth bearing in mind nonetheless.
Jazz club was lovely. Music is such a powerful source and to be in the midst of it, especially a live performance, makes you feel whole. But anyway, pleasant evening.
Next day was Bandra with Tom for the final day of the festival for Mary's birthday, which started on the 8th September. The crowds numbered thousands! But the thousands of pilgrims queued mainly to offer gifts to Mary, very few went to the mass which I found strange. Afterwards, I headed to the OD centre to meet the numeries there, Blanca and Maria. Tom waited nearby so I couldn't stay long, and unfortunately the two other numeries I've heard about, Dot and Maribe were in Goa for an emergency. The area where the centre was in seemed very suburban. Big houses by shady streets gave it a very western feel. I later found out that Bandra was the number 1 area for many of the top Bollywood stars.
My last evening in Mumbai (or so I thought) was spent with Nishant, a friend of a friend of a friend who I'd been trying to meet up with for a few days but failed to for various reasons. I was told he was an editor, and was preparing to have interesting discussions about the different literature in India. But to my surprise, he is an editor not in books or magazines but in films, and Bollywood films at that! What a dream! His break through feature was one, GHAJINI, the biggest grossing movie of all time that I'd watched on the plane.
Conversations flowed easily and I found myself wishing there was more time. I've always said that my loose plans can easily be changed and so we decided on a plan of action. I was to return to Mumbai after Aurangabad. I would stay with a friend of his, Arunima, while our mutual friend, Navneeth (whose introductions brought this about) would also be around and visiting from Chennai. It was random but felt right! With that, I headed to Aurangabad with Tom.
Our 2 days in Aurangabad was wonderful. We went to Ellora, a place containing a fantastic array of religious caves of different sizes and majesty. The 34 caves were excavated from hard rock on the hillside, each detail carved out with painstaking labour. The first set of caves were Buddhist, followed by Hindu caves when Buddhism came to decline. This included the amazing Kalaish temple, huge and was a standalone from the rocks around it. Jain caves were the last to be excavated. We followed the trail backwards and didn't manage to finish because we stopped for quite a while in the first set of temples, allowing for picture taking, prayers and interesting discussions between Tom and I about prayers and spirituality. We told each other how we prayed, his in the Buddhist light, myself in Catholic terms, and it was amazing the similarities and overlap of our two systems.
We met Amy along the way - a free spirited traveller who had been on the road in India for 10 months. And she's still not had enough! She had decided to come out here and stay until the money ran out. Next was Australia to start earning back some money. We all paused to swim in the nearby lake, fully clothed and under the watchful eyes of a big crowd of Indian boys who gathered to witness the spectacle.
The Dandiya dance I had wanted to see in Aurangabad became the highlight of the evening. Groups gathered under a large tent and pairs formed a double circle around the centre. Each holding two sticks, the pairs move in a synchronised way, swapping places in an elaborate fashion and hitting the sticks together as they pass each other. We were immediately dragged in to join them. It took a while to get the hang of it, but once mastered, it was a fun-filled, frenetic and exhilarating ride! I didn't want it to end!
The next day was Bibi-Ka-Maqbara, dubbed Mini Taj Mahal. The building was breath taking from afar but was unfortunately poorly looked after so close details were disappointing. We had come with book and guitar in hand, wanting a relaxing afternoon on the grounds of the monument, playing and singing, composing a song, reading, drawing. This became an impossible dream. Almost as soon as we entered, we were surrounded by swarms of boys and young men, all eager to have a look at us and take pictures of and with us. The crowds grew as we walked on. Politeness or anger didn't help. Running away was fruitless. Sitting down on the grass to bore them and begin our relaxing afternoon only drew a bigger crowd, creating a circle around us that was 4 or 5 layers deep. The intentions of these youngsters were by no means malicious but their curiosity was exasperating! I felt like a celebrity with all the hassles and non of the perks, mine and Tom's claims to fame being little more than looking a little different. We eventually found a way out - "Cholo" (or something like that" meaning to go away, or walk on. When they saw us pleading with them, they understood and told each other to disperse. We eventually managed to sit, I reading, Tom drawing, but small groups kept coming over. I implored them with a pleading expression, mouthing Cholo and indicating for them to leave. Most did. Eventually. The experience left me absolutely withdrawn. I didn't want any more interactions with any locals, interesting or otherwise. I hated that feeling but found myself unable to open up when a group of friendly guys came over and talked to Tom. They had an interesting conversation and I would have ordinarily joined in, but felt myself unable to le my guard down. It's an awful feeling. Tom takes all of this in his stride and maintained his good humour throughout. I wish I could be the same.
We spent the evening in wonderful relaxation mode, lying on the train station floor with our bags and sharing each other's music while I recovered from my random stomach seizures that come and go. I'm glad Tom changed his ticket to join me on the later train. The train came an hour late. We got to the platform eventually with me in increased pain. I lay on the floor with all the bags around me, looking in a pitiful state. Tom chatted happily with those around him, using the opportunity to learn some Hindi pronunciations. It was a beautiful sight from my view, and I wished I had the strength to take out my camera to capture that moment. Train journey in our non-AC sleeper class (same as journey out) was comfortable and I managed a good sleep. AC is certainly not required!