India 6: Mumbai “Beer Bars” and Extreme Culture Shock
As you may have already gathered, after a week in Ahmedabad we still hadn’t been able to do the work we set out to do, so we were told to fly to Mumbai and do some installations there. Mumbai is a different world from Ahmedabad – a global metropolis – but that’s for another post. This post is about a strange experience we had on the Friday night after we arrived. My Indian colleague Lakshmi and his friend Puru took us out “on the town” in Mumbai to show us how Indian guys enjoy themselves. The first stop was a place called “L.P. Restaurant Bar” in Andheri.
However when we got upstairs we found something that wasn’t quite what we expected. We were ushered into a small room about the size of a pub function room. On a raised stage in the corner, an Indian band played and sang something that sounded like a blend of karaoke, Bhangra beats and europop. Disco lights flashed around the room. We were shown to our seats on upholstered benches which lined the walls of the room. In front of us was an oval glass table with ornate gold-painted metal carvings for legs, of Adonis and Aphrodite like figures. At various locations around the room stood about ten waiters dressed in beige Noel-Coward lounge suits.Read More
India 5: Is it a temple? Is it a tomb? No, it’s a stepwell
Just outside of Ahmedabad on our way to the Nature Park we visited a small plain looking temple, at the driver’s suggestion. It was a square building made of white bricks, nicely decorated inside with bright coloured garlands and mirrored. As we were about to leave I noticed some steps down through an iron gate. What I saw then was absolutely breathtaking and I realised this is what we had come to see.
Descending five storeys down into the ground, but open to the sky, was a series of pillars and arches on a huge scale. It felt like something you might see in ancient Egypt or in an Indiana Jones film. I certainly had some slight nervousness as I descended down the steps and it got darker and darker.Read More
India 4: Strangers in a strange land
From the first night Steve and I went for a walk around Ahmedabad, we noticed that people were looking at us a little strangely. Not with any kind of negativity or judgement but more a sort of genuine fascination – the way you might find your eyes drawn to a person with bright green hair or an unfortunate birthmark. It took a little getting used to. After a couple of days it struck us – we were the only white people in town – even in the hotel. It seems the local people rarely see any non-Indians.
It turns out that Westerners rarely come to Gujarat, so in a way it was the ideal introduction to India. We realised just how rare it must be when we asked a rickshaw driver to take us to Le Meridien and he’d never heard of it or been there, even after we got there (Le Meridien is the most expensive hotel in town).
But it was also interesting to realise that we’d been there a couple of days without even realising we were in a minority. I found that quite weird at the time – my last experience of being in a minority was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA where everyone was black. I felt quite nervous and like I stood out, I was acutely aware of being different. Not so here. There’s something about the people and their attitude that makes you feel very safe and at ease. It would take me a couple more weeks of being in India to really be able to put it into words.
On our first evening as we sat in a restaurant a little Indian girl of 10 or so years old and said in her best attempt at English. “Hello. What is your name?”. Her mother stood behind her and looked on proudly. We introduced ourselves, asked her name, exchanged smiles and she went away happy. This sort of thing happened all the time.. Children would call out “Hello How Are You” in the street as we walked past. We even had a few shouts of “Welcome to India!” which was really touching. But this was nothing compared to what happened to us at Lothal.Read More
India 3: “Dry County”
The first time we went out for a meal in Ahmedabad, Steve and I were in for a surprise. Steve tried to order a beer and we were told that alcohol is illegal in the state of Gujarat! Gujarat was the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi in 1869, and he believed that alcohol was a major social evil and a cause of many of the world’s problems. In deference to that, the state of Gujarat made it illegal to possess or consume any form of alcohol.
Fortunately we found out that as a foreigner in Gujarat, it is possible to obtain alcohol. Here’s a handy how-to guide, from our experience:
India 2: Welcome to Ahmedabad
Le Meridien in Ahmedabad is a little odd. It is simultaneously amazing and disappointing. It is beautifully decorated with marble pillars, polished brass railings, glass chandeliers, and bowls of water with floating flower petals adding colour to the lobby. At first glance it looks like no expense has been spared. But once you get past the surface layer the reality seeps through, that this is just a facsimile of an expensive Western hotel, where something got lost in translation.
The bedrooms are large, with 2 beds, a desk, a comfy armchair and a large (42”) flat panel TV. A small table sits in front of the window with two fruit vaguely resembling an apple, and a knife. The first thing I noticed on walking into the room though was a damp smell, like laundry that hasn’t dried properly, which has not gone away over time. I think it’s something to do with the air-conditioning system. I started to unpack and found that there was only one small drawer, barely large enough for a couple of T-shirts. Maybe they don’t use drawers in India. The room itself is just a little bit dark and dingy. Looking out of the room I could see the river with a bridge over it, and between the hotel and the river I could see a cluster of run-down shacks that appeared to be some sort of slum settlement. I was struck by the contrast between the plush hotel and the poverty below, and felt a small pang of guilt.
After settling in we went for a swim. The indoor swimming pool (why they made it an indoor pool when it’s 35 degrees outside in October I have no idea!) is a magnificent affair, a long room with light marble floor and walls, and white Greco-Roman columns lining the poolside. At the end of the pool is a white stone carving of a mermaid sitting and holding a seashell from which streams of water trickle into the pool below. Between the columns are art deco painted murals of half dressed cherubic figures, much like you would see in an art gallery. A spiral wrought iron staircase takes you down from the changing room to the poolside. Five minutes into the swim, I discovered just how impractical this excessive design is – marble and water do not mix!Read More