Migratory Indian flamingoes are spending the remaining days of May in the Thane creek, an hour and a half from Mumbai. They are from the state of Gujarat in western India. Every year, in the month of November, the flamingoes fly south to the waterways in the Greater Mumbai area. They return to Gujarat at the end of May.
Here, the flamingoes put on a performance against the mangroves in the Thane creek. They had no dress rehearsal for today’s performance, nor was there one for the amateur photographer observing them.
It was a long, plodding ride in bumper to bumper traffic on a tropically hot Saturday afternoon. I was on my way to the Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Centre in Airoli, Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), an hour and a half from Mumbai. To see flamingoes from a boat in the Thane creek. Before they head back to Gujarat, the state in western India where they will stay until winter.
The Thane creek is the largest in Asia, extending 26 kilometers and separating Mumbai from mainland India. Part of the creek has been declared an eco-sanctuary and is home to life-sustaining mangroves, and host to hundreds of migratory birds each year including the iconic flamingoes, which were lovely to watch from my boat.
Today though, I will not document the beautiful, graceful flamingoes or the egrets or the rare bird species I witnessed up close.
Today is dedicated to an unknown man, a working class toll-booth attendant in a blue shirt who stands in the hot Mumbai sun in the middle of May, readily offering his warm smile to motorists along with the change he dispenses.
After a long day on the road from Mumbai to Dharamkot, I sleep soundly at the backpackers hostel. The outside temperature has dropped below freezing overnight, turning some of yesterday’s melted snow into black ice. Inside, I sleep like a baby, under a thick blanket and a heater beside the bed. Though a bit of a night owl, I tend to wake up early when traveling and feel refreshed even with minimal sleep. It’s the exhilaration of being on the road, perhaps, and in a new environment.
Last night, the hostel manager told me I could use the exclusive shower outside the dorm – it has instant hot water, he said. Well, he kinda lied. The water is hot but turns freezing cold in a few minutes. Exclusively for me! I burst out laughing at the comicality of his sincerity.
All showered, I head to the dining hall for breakfast. One of the hostel staff is seated by the door, furiously sending text messages, laughing at his screen. I inquire about breakfast. Without looking up, he calls out to the kitchen, Eh Prakash, koi aya khane ke liye. Eh, Prakash, someone is come for breakfast.
From the dining hall, there’s a view of the lower end of the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the lower Himalayas.
In a couple of minutes, Prakash, the cook comes out, a big, well-fed, bearded man with a full head of hair. We have a bit of verbal tussle. He’s trying to push the preset Indian breakfast, pav bhaji, I want an omelette from the a la carte menu. Pav bhaji is buttered bread that you dip in a heavy, greasy gravy of overcooked vegetables, overcooked potatoes and boiled out of their mind green peas. Prakash has determined that I’m not quite fully Indian – from my AmerIndi accented English, perhaps (I’d like to take credit for inventing the word, but it was a friend of mine who did). He’s talking to me like a street vendor selling overpriced goods to tourists, and pushing that pav bhaji like it’s nirvana. You will love it, saar. Come, come. Delicious. I switch to my anglicized Hindi and ask for an omelette. Apparently thrown off by my ability to speak Hindi, accent notwithstanding, Prakash returns shortly with an excellent omelette. Breakfast done, I’m headed to Tushita Meditation Centre, a renowned Buddhist meditation center not far from here, and after that, maybe a hike.
By the front desk, two young women are waiting to check out, one apparently Chinese, the other apparently Caucasian. I overhear the manager asking why they’re checking out. You just checked in last night, going so soon? The women reply there’s no hot water. I commiserate with the women, Emma and Jess, who, to my ear, sound either English or New Zealanders, I can’t tell. They help me out – they’re half Swiss, half Chinese and live in England. Best friends, it appears. Just come from a three-weeks long Panchakarma in Lower Dharamsala. A Panchakarma, they explain, is an Ayurvedic detox of the body which also strengthens and rejuvenates the immune system. Ayurveda, which originated in India between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, is a system of natural healing that approaches health and illness holistically, addressing balance of the mind, body and spirit. The word Ayurveda translates from Sanskrit as “knowledge of life” or “science of life” (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge). I have just been edumacated.
Emma and Jess are headed down to McLeod Ganj to look for new accommodations before going to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara (Sikh temple). I accompany them as the Tushita Meditation Centre is on the way to McLeod Ganj. We navigate treacherous black ice down a gravel slope near the main gate and are lucky to escape without injury. I get the sense I won’t be staying here another night – it’s near where the hiking trails begin but too isolated from everything else.
On the way to Tushita, my new found friends tell me they are sisters – fraternal twins, one has inherited more of their Chinese father’s features, the other, their Swiss mother’s. I learn more about Panchakarma. Emma has been studying Ayurveda for quite a while, is a certified yoga teacher and works in the fashion industry, while Jess is in the performing arts and entertainment business. We discover much in common in spite of our different geographic and apparently different cultural backgrounds.
In a little bit, we’re at Tushita. A mini-motorcade with an apparently important Buddhist teacher is leaving the center. Everyone at the center is waving at him, and benevolently, he waves back. The Pope and his pope mobile come to mind. Someone hurries towards us and whispers we are to observe silence because meditation programs are currently in session. Then he hurries back to wave at the departing Buddhist teacher.
The daily meditation sittings at Tushita and chantings by Buddhist monks I hoped to attend have been canceled for a week because of full-time programs. The three musketeers then walk down to McLeod Ganj, along a concrete and slowly winding road. The center of McLeod Ganj is busy and buzzing with activity. It looks chaotic but cars, auto rickshaws, scooters and motorcycles all manage to squeeze past each other in a coordinated disorganized manner. It looks like it could give Mumbai a run for its money. The intersection has five to six of McLeod Ganj’s main arteries meeting at one point, with a single policeman monitoring all the traffic on this overcast morn.
Each of the five to six streets has a different market place. Fruit and vegetables here, a butcher there, electronics on another street, alcohol and laundry on this corner, and restaurants, chemists (drugstores) and tourist shops on all streets.
We walk down one of the main streets, taking in the sights while looking for a place to grab a bite.
None look inviting. The ladies suggest the Four Seasons Cafe. Didn’t know there was a Four Seasons in McLeod Ganj and it’s not quite my lifestyle but sure, I’m up for it. It’s just a few doors down. When we get there I look up and laugh out loud…it’s Lobsang’s Four Seasons Cafe, a Tibetan cafe. This is going to be fun. My first time in a Tibetan restaurant. It’s a pretty busy establishment but we manage to get seats. Lemon ginger and mint teas for my friends and Tibetan tea for me. The Tibetan tea is milky and buttery with light spices. Later I find out it might have been yak butter. That’s a first!
It’s nearly noon, we are hungry, but the options here don’t quite suit my new found friends, so we sit there chatting and nursing our teas while we wait for restaurant inspiration from the gods. After about fifteen minutes, an older gentleman, maybe in his seventies, stops at our table and asks us if we like Mexican food. I recognize him as the diner who was at the table across from ours. He has a Tibetan companion and an American accent. He tells us the owner of the Four Seasons cafe also owns a Mexican restaurant across the street, a few doors down. We say we might check it out later but Emma and Jess and I are looking for accommodations as our hostel stay wasn’t quite a match, hot water, etc. Introductions all round. Michael is from Portland, Oregon and has been living in Dharamkot, north of McLeod Ganj with his Tibetan wife, Tashi for the last year and a half. His landlord runs a homestay with rooms for 500 rupees a night (approximately $7) and they come with hot water. Exciting. A place to stay. And the promise of hot water. The little things, the little things. I ask for directions and though he’s American, Michael is giving me directions like an Indian. Up to Dharamkot, make a right at Tushita, next to the Himalayan tea shop, on the lane above Trek and Dine restaurant, then a left for two minutes, then a slight right for a minute, then a left near the stones and finally a right. And a left. Got it? Ummm, nope. Can I find it on Google maps? Oh yes, there’s Himalayan Spice and there’s Trek and Dine. I’m all good, I tell Michael, see you this evening.
Emma, Jess and I walk down to the Snow Lion Restaurant for lunch. Several of the diners there are foreign tourists, many of whom have probably come to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj for Buddhist teachings, meditation and yoga. A couple in their sixties smiles peacefully at me. Another diner ask us to shut the door behind us. As we’re looking around for seats, a woman who’s been watching us moves her belongings and asks us to join her. She has a bus to catch and time to kill. Our lunch companion is Dutch, not to be confused with the Germans, she gently warns us, and has been living here for several years. She tells us how much she likes and feels connected to India, mostly through angrily declaiming how the West has decayed and is rotting. She also makes it clear she’s not too keen on Indians and their confounding ways. It appears that in addition to lunch, spiritual growth is on my menu. The lunch is long, but life is short so I refrain from adding fuel to her fire. Lunch over, we head back into the bustle of McLeod Ganj’s streets, looking for a hotel. I might join Emma and Jess if we find a good hotel but I feel I’m going to hold out for Michael’s palace in the sky with hot water.
We look at a couple of hotels but they’re overpriced and dumpy. And then, third time’s a charm. Emma and Jess are lodged in their new place and I take a 70 rupee ($1), ten minute rickshaw ride to Dharamkot to meet Malkeet, Michael’s landlord.
I tell the rickshaw driver I’m going to Himalayan Spice. Himalayan tea shop?
No, Himalayan Spice, next to Trek and Dine restaurant. I show it to him on Google maps. Google maps is wrong, he says, so he’ll drop me off at the Himalayan tea shop. I suddenly remember that Michael told me to mention Malkeet’s name to my rickshaw driver and I’d be fine. Oh, I’m Malkeet’s cousin. No problem, I’ll take you there.
Small world or have I just fallen for a tourist scam? Not sure. I’ll find out. He calls “Malkeet” to say we’re on the way. He hands me the phone and I speak to Malkeet. Apparently Michael had already told Malkeet about me, so it feels more legit. Let’s see. In ten minutes, I’ve met Malkeet. The room is good enough, hot water, blankets, a view of the hills. Michael also happens to be around and steps out to greet me, along with his wife Tashi. It’s all good. I’m relieved I have a reliable place for tonight. I retrieve my bags from the backpackers hostel, not far away, and return to my new room. I’m all set for the next few days.
That night, over dinner with Emma and Jess, we exchange more stories about life, about travel and different cultures. Between them, they’ve been across India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, China and the Philippines. I’d never thought of visiting any of these countries but now I’m intrigued. We continue talking till late. On the rickshaw ride back to Dharamkot, I reflect back on this eventful day, unplanned and full of surprises. Feels like the start of an unknown adventure. Pretty cool, pretty cool. I check in for the night at Malkeet’s. It’s quite cold and I take an extra blanket from the empty room next door. There’s no heater, so I keep on my sweater and thermals. My eyes are closed but sleep is just not happening. After an hour of tossing and turning, I realize I’m cold and I’m not going to get sleep. My weather app says the outside temperature will remain below freezing until morning. It’s going to be a long night. I almost second guess my decision to leave the hostel but something was just off there, so no regrets. I toss and turn all night, no sleep, no sleep. Pretty cool. Pretty cool.
His roadside stand is outside a tourist shop in McLeod Ganj, a half hour above Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. He’s alone on this side of a busy tourist street with no other vendors next to him. A general store to his left is shuttered for the night. The painted letters on the front of the stand says Momo – chicken and vegetable dumplings popular in towns across the lower Himalayas. Almost every restaurant and street stand in McLeod Ganj sells momos. The chicken or the vegetable is mixed into a batter in small batches a couple of times a day and then steamed or fried to order. I’ve already eaten dinner, but I wouldn’t mind a small bite.
He’s got a grown out buzz cut, fullish face concentrating on the potato fries in his iron karahi – a circular pot similar to a wok. The wind from the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is particularly fierce on this wintry night in March. I’m wearing layers under a heavy jacket, thermals and boots to keep me warm. He’s wearing a t-shirt and old trousers, a light North Face jacket and a pair of worn sneakers.
“Any momos?” I ask him in Hindi.
“All gone, sir, it’s late now, but you can have soup and fries,” he replies.
I’ll pass on the fries, but the man intrigues me. All by his lonesome self at nine o’clock at night on this busy street in McLeod Ganj. Across from him is a Buddhist temple, its prayer wheels silent for the night, absent worshippers. A few meters away, on the other side of the street is a musician, wailing into the night, accompanied by generous amounts of hash and dancing puppet dolls.
Tanzin Thapa is the momo man’s name. From Dharamshala, he says. He’s been making momos in Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj for the past fifteen years.
Before that, “Bahut kuch kiya, labor kaam kiya, khetibadi mein kaam kiya, bahut kuch kiya — I did many different things, I was a laborer, I worked on farms, many different things.”
He’s worked in numerous places, he says, including Mumbai. At Grant Road station in South-Central Mumbai. Three months managing a small restaurant, two months with his own pav bhaji stand at the train station. Pav bhaji is a roadside snack for those on the go – a thick curry of mashed vegetables served with toasted, buttered bread. Light on the pocket, heavy on some stomachs.
Tanzin has also worked as a laborer in the famous Haji Ali mosque off the coast of Worli in South Mumbai.
He’s forty-eight years old. Of Nepalese origin, and a Pentecostal Christian. His family lives in Dharamshala, a wife and two children – an eleven-year old daughter and a fourteen-year old son. He works around five to six hours a day.
“Seven days a week?” I ask.
“No, I work six days. On the seventh day, I take a rest, like the Lord,” he says with a smile.
Five to six hours of work each day is enough to get by, Tanzin tells me. Some days are better than others. Some days are tough. “Today I made only a hundred rupees. What to do?” He laughs. A hundred rupees is the equivalent of a dollar and a half.
A stray dog comes up, familiar to Tanzin. It gets a couple of fries and goes on its way. A couple more dogs come by, but they’re shooed away.
“Business is bad today, but I can’t give it all away to the dogs,” he says as he chases them away. “Tomorrow it could be a busy day and I need to have fries ready for customers.”
He waves at me, head tilted to the side with satisfaction, even with a hundred rupees from a full day’s work. I take his leave and wander off to the wailing musician with the dancing puppet dolls.
It’s a grocery store not far from where I live in Juhu, a suburb of Mumbai. I’m there for a short afternoon trip, just eggplant and lettuce. Oh, cashewnuts, and almonds. Yes, please. By the vegetable section, two store employees, stocking the shelves. One perched on a ladder, stocking the upper shelves, the other hands him stuff from a big cardboard box below. Yogurt is on sale, sir. Two for the price of one, he tells me. I’m all set, though, and head to the checkout register.
A short, older man is behind the counter. Slim built, in his late fifties, glasses, a slender salt and pepper mustache, salt and pepper hair combed to the side. He’s in a back and forth with an employee who calls him mama (uncle – mother’s brother) out of respect, deference, salary. Maybe he’s one of the store owners.
Mama, I’ll just go fifteen minutes on my bicycle, just fifteen minutes, the employee says in Hindi. A taller man, in his early to mid forties, average built with a belly, longish, wavy, black hair, thick black mustache, stubble, tired eyes. Here only I’m going to see my uncle. I just need to talk to him for a few minutes.
No, you’ll stay here. No deliveries for you today. You work till 8 pm and then you can leave.
But, mama, I won’t take that long. Please understand. My uncle needs to talk to me.
No means no, beta (son). If you go there, you’ll sit on your ass and you won’t come back. Why don’t you tell your uncle to come here to see you? I want to see who this mysterious man is, for whom you have to leave in the middle of the day everyday. Bring him here.
But, mama, you know how it is.
Yes, I know all of how it is. I know everything about your afternoon trips to your uncle. You go and god knows what happens. No, you stay here. Now step aside, I need to ring this man up.
The employee moves away from the counter, a bewildered look on his face. I’m rung up. As I leave the store, the attempted negotiation resumes.
It’s a quiet ride in the rickshaw this morning, relatively quiet on the way from Juhu to Bandra, my daily routine for a week now. Suddenly, horns blaring all over. A red Mercedes is causing a traffic jam on this one way road, going in the opposite direction. I’m reminded of the words of a rickshaw driver from a few days ago – For the rich people, they can do anything and nothing happens. I make one wrong turn and I’ll have to pay a policeman.
Looking forward, I notice my current driver has agarbattis – incense sticks lit at the front of his rickshaw. And an arm-sized fire extinguisher behind him. I wonder if the one has ever had to meet the other. It’s a very brief ride, not much traffic outside of the traffic jam earlier. As I pay the man, I notice his right hand has two thumbs fused together. I ask him if it’s an inconvenience, and how was it as a child. He says he’s right-handed, it’s not a problem. As a child, he would be upset, but now this is normal.
“Abhi, sab theek hai – everything is fine now,” he says with a smile.
As I take a picture of him, I learn his name is Saroj Nair, from Bihar in eastern India. His next fare arrives before I can learn more.