Friday, August 25, 2006

Jewel Beach


“I have a few hours to kill”, I say to the well dressed bloke beyond the hotel desk, “Can you give me an idea of where I might spend it constructively as a tourist?”. The answer comes back “Jewel Beach. Take a riksha taxi, it should be 50 to 80 rupees for the ride”.

It’s 10am, a wave of air slaps me like hot damp towel as the turbanned doorman lets me out onto the busy street in Andheri. I’d prefer not to look like a tourist, but clearly there is no disguise that would really work for my 6 foot 1 Caucasian carcass. I catch the eye of a 3- wheeled auto riksha driver as he hoots and idles down the street looking for custom like a horny hooker. He is young, clad in muddy-olive khaki outfit. “Jewel Beach”, I yell to over the noise of the street. He nods quizzically but I hop in and in moments we are tootling down the road, dodging potholes and the general mayhem of the street.

The primary traffic rule, I hear, is that if your bumper is in front you have right of way no matter how you managed to get your bumper in front or which direction you are coming from. So whether you are crossing the traffic, doing a U-Turn, changing lanes all you need to do is edge your bumper in front of the traffic that is impeding your desired path and you are the winner. To achieve this however, you need to have nerves of steel and a loud hooter. The concept of politely waiting your turn or for a gap in the traffic does not apply – you’d still be waiting.

Anyway, back to my trip to “Jewel Beach”. About 30 minutes passes with me not knowing whether I was vaguely heading in the right direction. My life and fate in the hands of the driver. We get to the sea, and there is not a jewel in sight. The occupants of the area are stirring from their crude shelters in the mid-morning heat. My driver again quizzically asks me if this is my desired destination? How the hell should I know? I haven’t a clue where I am. I look around, clearly I’m the only whitey in miles and certainly the only person with a few thousand rupees in pocket.

I see a small sign, mainly in what I assume is Marathi script, with a small English annotation: “Juhu Beach”. Ah, no wonder the quizzical looks, Juhu not Jewel. I am in the right place but do I want to be here? What the hell. I hop off and give the driver the 50 rupees (divide by 6 and a bit to get Rands) as indicated on his meter. I have no idea whether I should tip him over and above that but hand over 3 small coins that are cluttering my wallet anyway.

My first sense is a strong draft of urine as I near the beach, it’s clearly the local latrine. The beach is decorated with two backhoe loaders clearing litter and monsoon flotsam off the beach. This is not the Cote d’Azur! I have two wide eyed ragged children asking for alms and tugging on my trouser leg, but I dismiss them in the hard-hearted manner that comes with paying too much 3rd world tax day in and day out.

OK, so the beach is not the destination. I toss a mental coin, it lands on “head left”, so I head left and up the road, clearly feeling rather conspicuous in my clean pressed shirt and pale white skin. I pass the well-walled hotels and navigate over the puddles and rubble that constitute the “pavement”.

I come across a SPAR of all things and head into its narrow aisles to grab a Coke.  Anthony Burgess was right when he wrote in his autobiography about the attributes of the substance: “with quarts of chill Coca-Cola, against which let no man say a word.” I think the pleasure of a cold Coke goes hand in hand with life in former colonies.

I’m still a little lost but enter a small shed full of displayed trinkets and fabrics. I haggle, not too successfully, with the proprietor over the price of some rather attractive bed throws and pillow cases. I walk out with 2 sets of them feeling a little short-changed, as if I could have got them cheaper – but I’m not sure if I will get a similar chance again and at Rs1500 for the lot its not exactly going to break the bank.

I trail a bit more, randomly wandering past apartments and tenements that haven't seen paint or a maintenance man since the Raj, trying to look as if I know where I'm going. Confidence being my only defence against being mugged, although I certainly don't feel too threatened by the residents here.  Time to head back as this is clearly not the most entertaining place to be, especially doing this solo. I hail another riksha, he nods at the mention of my hotel name and suburb. I hope it’s a nod of recognition and off we go. I arrive back, at the hotel, square up with the taxi driver and yes I’ve killed a few hours but now have the honest knowledge that I can get myself from A to B in this city, and more importantly that I can get myself back to A. Primed for more adventure I start paging through the city guides in the hotel room. Where to next?

2 comments:

VallyP said...

Hats off for a really superb and evocative piece of writing, not to mention some touches of dry dry humour here and there. I was there with you every step of the way. You're living up to your name - wit!

Congratulations too on navigating your way around too. It must be literally awesome.

ATW said...

Thanks Val.It is fun. It's a pity I don't have my days at leisure to explore more.