Mumbai Couchsurfing, Diwali, and Caves, oh my!

From Varanasi we bumbled along by overnight train to Mumbai. I exchanged smiles with the couple sitting across from us and unlocked the generosity of an Indian auntie. She soon insisted on feeding me a plate of bitter melon, chapati, and pickles.  Another boy who had been observing Julian and a Julian devotee (who was telling Julian that with his Hare Rama Hara Krishna shirt on, he looked like a bonafide sadhu) sat with us.  He wore the Congress Party’s white cotton scarf with colored fabrics stitched on the edges swept over one shoulder.  He spent the next two hours translating the conversation between all of us and teaching me more Hindi.  He disembarked and the train fell quiet.  Soon it became dark and we ordered some rice and mix veg subji for dinner from the train food walla.  After dinner, the beds unfolded from the wall, we spread their plastic covers with our personal allotment of starched sheets, and began more intimate conversations.   At some point we were also joined by a Muslim grandfather and his friend.  This man seemed gentle and humble but in a self-assured way.  He was curious about our travels and our background and we, grateful for the chance for an easy English conversation, indulged in answering him.  His questions turned more difficult though as he inquired about our religious views, our views on marriage, veganism, the politics of the US and war.  In the middle of this friendly interrogation, we all shifted seats so that he would have a full seat on which he could perform his evening prayer.  Afterwards, we continued sharing until Julian invited me to play cards.  No one else wanted to play so we climbed up to his top bunk and played until it was time for lights out.  

The next day, I got to know the sweet auntie and uncle who also shared our sleeper compartment.  Chandra R, the man, worked for the railway so was very knowledgeable about where we should get off to meet up with our couchsurfers.  Before I went to brush my teeth, he gave me a neem stick which he called an Indian toothbrush and he demonstrated how to use it. He also explained pan, the mixed spices (often with tobacco) on a banana leaf sold on every street corner, and the cause of much absent-minded chewing and sidewalk expectorating.  This couple was actually going to their house near our couchsurfers, so we alighted, purchased more tickets, and got on the local Mumbai train together.  With this help, the transfer took much less time than it would have had we relied on signage and strangers for directions.  
    
As in Delhi, Kathmandu, and Pokhara, we had great luck with our Mumbai couchsurfers.  Pooja is a writer who, at the same age as me, has already published an Indian history book!  She is also a Gemini like me, and we had fun discussing how we can never decide what we’d like to do in life, and how life feels more rich when we’re on the move. Ankit is a  research equity analyst; I still don’t understand his job except that he took off time so that he and Ankit could make a vegan Indian lunch for us. What a nice treat that was to eat immediately upon dropping our bags!  After lunch, we decided to go walk around Sanjay Gandhi National Park, right behind their apartment complex.  We stop for some fresh cut cucumber slices sprinkled with chili and salt.  They told us about a train that goes around the park and we decide to give that a whirl.  The yellow train is packed with Indian families as it’s Diwali time so families are celebrating being together.  Our journey begins and the train loudly makes its way through the jungle, most likely scaring away any wildlife.  The view is mostly closed in by lush vegetation anyways so the four of us just talk and get to know each other.  It turns out that we have a lot in common like our belief in environmentalism and alternative healing.  

The train finishes its circuit and we decide to go on the paddle boats next.  The paddle boat man turns out to have an incredible mullet so Julian snaps a photo while I explain the “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle.  We paddle around discussing books and I feel like Pooja and I could go on forever about our favorite stories.  We seem to have identical taste in books so we then decide to visit the nearest mall to tour the bookstore, Crosswords. Once we’re there, Pooja, Julian and I are comparing our favorite Indian authors and Ankit disappears for a little.  Soon he returns and presents a gift for Pooja.  He somehow got a beautiful illustrated calendar and journal for her to write her Reiki healing appointments and notes down in. He even wrote a little card to her about her gift with healing others and how lucky he was to be married to her. Wow. I was blown away by his sweetness and sincerity!  Their love was such an inspiration to me. 

The next day, Julian and I go out on their recommendation, to the caves at the National Park next door.  We’re joined by lots of monkeys but only a few tourists who decide, unwisely like us, to brave the intense midday heat. There’s over 108 caves so we knew from the beginning we wouldn’t see them all but we attempt to see the ones that are most notable. I could look up the details on Google, but I’m going for a more zen approach: Buddhists monks from a long time ago lived in these cool caves and meditated. They had lots of different versions of the cave, some with Hindu deities and some with Buddha images. They also had neat cisterns to hold water during the dry season. 

That night, we were staying with a friend of Pooja and Ankit’s since we were there during Diwali, and they were required to attend their family celebrations. Luckily for us, their friend was also into CSing and his family was cool with letting us participate in their festivities. We ate an awesome Diwali meal with lots of new flavors, and jaggery candy! Then we watched his parents read prayers to Laxschmi and Ganesh while fireworks popped loudly outside from all of the surrounding apartment complexes. 

The next day we went to see more caves at Elephanta caves outside of Mumbai.  To get there, we took the train into the city and explored Colaba, the area of Mumbai where Shantaram takes place.  I was totally starstruck even seeing Leopold’s restaurant. We looked at the massive structure that is the Gateway to India, though I mostly remember chiding Julian for accepting a sadhu’s blessing and giving him money.  Then we hopped on the ferry to the caves.  We then found out that the caves were 250INR to enter, which was more than half of our daily budget.  Whoops. We decided to still enter and I’m glad we did.  The caves were very impressive, though only 5 this time.  But wow, the carvings of Shiva and his friends and lovers, and his lingum, were incredible.  Luckily, the loads of tourists meant that Julian and I could eavesdrop on several tours to learn the history of the caves.  

After a few hours, we had seen all we could see, and we headed back into Mumbai to meet back up with Ankit.  He met us at the metro station and we headed back to their apartment, collecting supplies for Diwali on the way.  We got brightly colored powders to make a puja, cotton wicks and little tealight holders to burn oil in, and some veggies with which we could make dinner. We enjoyed our last evening together with conversation and Reiki sessions for each of us.

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