Street of Colaba in the Palace of Rags

The streets are full of color and pride

The air conditioning works well in my room as I wake up chilled, and turn off the windy contraption only to wake up again later lathered is sweat. It’s near mid-day and already blistering hot. I’ve made no plans except to start the day at Leopold’s for coffee and breakfast. I’m grateful there are only ceiling fans stirring the warm moist air at as I begin to start writing these words. I feel a bit like a Hemingway or Marco Polo writing about my travel adventures sitting at this legendary cafe.

Guffy had invited me to dinner at his home in the Colaba slums. He had shown me the excesses of wealth at the dance club where women were showered in money and promised to show me a contrasting view of Mumbai, The Slums. I was exhausted from the days past adventures and decided to take an afternoon nap in preparation for more sightseeing.

He met me at Leopold’s promptly a five PM. “Are you hungry man? My father has prepared goat stew for you”. I’ve never had goat stew and was hungry. Stepping out of his taxi, he takes me through a city park where he’d play when he was a boy. It was a pretty park with a basketball court and kids kicking footballs around the concrete field surrounded by lush vegetation. We cross a large avenue and enter the slums, also known as Washing Laundry. I’d been here a few days earlier, and Guffy explains the workings of this slum industry. Men were still slapping laundry in the basins and the ancient dryers churning sheets and pillow cases for the thousands of residing tourists. The slums are a maze of life where families and children scurry the tiny paths. Beautiful boys and girls wave at me offering “Hellos” and “How are you sir” with beaming smiles of excitement. We are deeper into the slum when Guffy suddenly stops before a half open green door when he says “Welcome to my castle”.

Proud invite in Gufran's home in The Palace of Rags

A proud guest in Gufran’s home

The room behind the old door is about three by three meters, a TV is blaring a Bollywood movie and clean clothes are hanging on the wall. A ceiling fan is dangerously chopping away at the hot air above my head which Guffy makes me notice. I am considerably taller than the residents of this humble dwelling. On the floor is a mat covered with a colorful tapestry where Guffy’s father is sitting. He immediately gets up to greet me with an extended hand. He is a handsome gentleman dressed in torn tank top and baggy pants loosely fitting his thin corpulence. His hair is full and beneath his dark mustache is a greeting smile. He’s missing a few teeth which does not hinder his smile and obvious affable character. He invites me to sit next to him on the mat which I realize is also his bed. Another young man comes into the room, he is Guffy’s cousin and I see the family resemblance in his wide round eyes. Behind him is the kitchen, which is part of the room. It consists of two gas burners and a wall rack with kitchen utensils. The house is as big as my kitchen back home, which is humbling. On the stove is the stew which has been cooking for some time to tenderize the goat meat we are to share. It looks and smells quite good as Guffy’s dad gives it a stir showing me its contents.

I had asked Guffy if I could bring something for the meal, like we do when invited to a dinner party. They do not drink, so wine was not an option, so I brought a framed photo of a Swiss Narcissus field left over from an photo expo I’d had back in Switzerland. The father seemed touched. It was the least I could do. While the stew is simmering down we talk and take a few pictures together. I don’t want to be intrusive in their home, but when I show the digital capture on the camera screen, the father beams with delight. I guess they are proud that a white man is proud to be in their humble home. I truly am.


Guffy’s dad was real proud of our selfie

We sit on the floor for our meal as there is no furniture in the house apart from the sleeping mat. Guffy offers me a bottle of water as he comments that the water they drink is not suitable for my Caucasian system. Looking at the two large jugs of water sitting to my left, I do not argue. “Do you want to wash your hands?” ask Gufran. I’m torn. Do I wash my hands with potentially lethal water? Or do I take my chances as is? We will eat with our hands as they are Muslim. There is no indication of their faith apart that they do not drink alcohol. There are no effigies, flags, statues or pendants around their neck to display their religious preferences. I find that Mumbaikers are first Indians then Hindi, Muslim or Christian. There is religious harmony in this giant metropolis.

The stew is actually delicious. The meat is tender. The sauce spicy but not too hot. The bread soft and useful to use as a utensil, and the rice filling and perfect with the sauce. I have seconds, and feel quite satisfied. Another young man has joined us. He’s the younger brother. A brooding teenager with that teen attitude that exudes an I- don’t-wanna-be-here character. Reminds me of my teenagers of past. Guffy confirms that his brother just wants to be out and hang out with his buddies. But before he can do that, he’s relegated to doing the dishes. There is no sink or running water. The sixteen year old washes the dishes in what is their shower stall with the water from one of the big plastic jugs.

Guffy want to go. He has more to show me of his Mumbai. First a night time visit of his slum. The term Slum is derogatory yet descriptive. The physical nature of the place is what it is. Tiny dwellings criss-crossed by skinny walkways. Dangling wires delivering electricity and satellite TV. Pipes and puddles loosely covered by wood planks beneath my sandals. But the energy that circulates and enlivens the slum is intoxicating. It is bright and alive with scrambling kids, food sellers, booming music, Hindu shrines and Muslim flags. There is even a shinning jewelry store firmly anchored like Fort Knox in the middle of the slum cacophony. It does not belong here, but yet it is part of the community and filled with clients. I could gladly just sit and watch, absorb all the positive human energy as if I were sitting on a beach chair taking in the goodness of the sun’s rays.

Markets are well stocked and thriving in the slum

Markets are well stocked and thriving in the slum

Walking out of the slum, we pass by a large vacant lot. A giant space surrounded by tittering shanties where slum dwellers traverse the open space to and from. It’s owned by one of the city’s wealthiest residents and will undoubtedly be the grounds for high-rise luxury apartment building with views on the bay and down on the slums. What will become of the thousands of tiny homes I ask? That is the question which is keeping this project on hold. No one really knows when it will happen, but it will. And will it mean the end of the Colaba Slum? There is no clear answer. The slums are an eyesore, dirty and overcrowded, yet it provides homes and is part of the community framework employing many and supplying the surrounding hotels with clean laundry and a regional labor force. As well as being a tourist attraction that is as popular as famous building landmarks. I hope to return to the Colaba Slums someday unchanged – except for a better water system.

Guffy treats us to a glass of sugar cane juice in the Palace of Rags

Guffy treats us to a glass of sugar cane juice

Guffy wants to show me something he believes I’ll enjoy this evening in The Palace of Rags, but on the way to his taxi, one of my sandal gives out. He’s more upset than I am, because he knows I paid too much for the cheap footwear. On the way to our next destination, he stops at a street vendor with racks of plastic sandals. Not the most stylish foot wear, but in five minutes my feet are soothed by soft foam sandals at one tenth of the price of the previous ones. A fellow with rolled up maps of the city sees the tourist opportunity and tries to sell me a map. I decline using the argument it won’t fit in my bag, then Guffy intervenes and asks the man if he’d like a glass of fresh sugar cane juice. “Have you tried sugar cane juice?” he asks me. No, I’ve never had it. There is a wheeled stand just in front of us. The stand has a heavy two cylinder press where sugar canes are pushed through to release their nectar. These bamboo like sticks are crushed a few times over until our glasses are filled, surprisingly without any added water. The three of us toast and down the sweet water, the map seller is grateful and offers me a map for free! This was another demonstration of a random act of kindness sparked by Guffy’s modest generosity. Perhaps a true form of Karma. The man gets a free drink, I get a free map, and Guffy gets a loyal customer for the night. The circle of giving and receiving is complete. Beautiful.

Now he wants to take me to a penthouse bar on top of one of Mumbai’s skyscraper. It’s a great idea, as I would love to have a shot of the city at night. But once there, we find out the bar is closed for renovations, so Guffy takes me to a favorite place of his customers, The Blue Frog. A fabulous old forty’s style dance venue. A big stage facing big soft cushion booths with a dance floor in between the stage and audience all in blue tones. We just want to have a drink, but there is a cover charge for the evening’s entertainment, a tribute to Elvis Presley. Not in the mood for that tonight. I ask Guffy if he likes Elvis, and for the first time in my life someone tells me they don’t know Elvis. How could I explain? I tried to mimic Jailhouse Rock and Love Me Tender, but nothing stirred in his mind. Our next destination is the Hard Rock Cafe Mumbai.

There is quite a crowd outside lining up to enter the club. We decide to investigate, and we find out a Coldplay cover band is playing. There is a cover charge which I pay for. I’ve been to other Hard Rock Cafes in America and like many other American franchises, this place looks just like the others I’d seen in Boston and New York, but bigger.

Hard Rock Café Mumbai in the Palace of Rags

Hard Rock Café Mumbai is big, airy and cool.

It’s packed inside as we struggle to get a drink at the bar. Guffy is intimidated by the crowd, “These are the rich people of Mumbai” he says. I tell him not to be impressed, as they are just people as we are, and no one knows us. We finally get served and move away from the bar near tables where people are eating American favorites such as burgers and mashed potatoes. The portions are US size, big and generous, and I think about our simple meal back in the slum. Given the choice, I’d stick with the goat stew over a burger. The show is about to begin, a radio show host is getting the crowd excited by giving out free CDs with Coldplay trivia questions. It is very American in style, the host speaks English with a US accent and I feel like I’m back in America. Finally the band comes on with the unmistakable piano notes to “Clocks”.

The band is from Bangalore, and their renditions of famous Coldplay songs are spot on. The singer is pretty close to hitting most of Chris Martin’s notes and could consider stepping in as a Queen cover band front man as he closely resembles Freddie Mercury even with his shirt on. Guffy now knows who is Coldplay and is firing away messages and pictures of the gig on his smart phone. The place is now completely on its feet, the singer has gotten off the stage and is snapping selfies for his Facebook page with adoring fans. Guffy is no longer intimidated by the Mumbai’s rich and beautiful, but swept up by the musical monsoon dancing to another British invasion. India has declared itself independent of British rule, but is still charmed by Anglo Saxon culture. The West has conquered the hearts of Mumbaikers with movies, music and social mediums. Wealth and economic dominance makes Mumbai the New York of the East. The London of India. The Palace of Rags.

Fan thakes selfie with singer in Hard Rock Café in The Palace of Rags

A fans want her Facebook selfie

It’s past midnight when the band ends its successful Mumbai performance. Gufran has been my driver and companion for the past several days. I have been paying for his services, but he’s also been quite generous with his time with me. His taxi is his business and although he and I are now friends, he most likely needs some fares tonight, so he takes me back to my hotel. “Do you want to see the Fishing Market tomorrow?” He asks. I’m open to anything he proposes, he is my Mumbai pilot so I agree. “I will come and get you at five-thirty.” It’s past one in the morning and he wants me to get up in four hours? “Don’t worry man, I will come to your room and get you. Deal?”