For Mumbai, ‘Good Bay’ in Portuguese, the air was shockingly clear. Everything was visible from our berth: jack-up drilling rigs, parked down the Bay to the south, to the skyscrapers of the financial district to the northwest. The sky, still smazy, was struggling to be blue and a nice sea breeze cooled us, fresh from the Indian Ocean. Warm and humid, for Mumbai the weather was pleasant.
We stepped down from the intra-port bus, no walking allowed in the port nor would one dare to, across the street from the ‘Green Gate’ and fished into our pockets for our ID cards and shore pass. It would be the third time we displayed them, Indian customs and immigration services being a bit overstaffed. We braced for the onslaught as we stepped through the gate. Not disappointed.
White shirted taxi drivers, touts, tour promoters, beggars, all descended upon us with a crescendo of offers, questions, pleas. We simply wanted a ride the mile or so to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel but that was not one of the offers. All were going for the prize: the tour of Mumbai – ‘I make you best price!’. The word ‘no’ was not in the lexicon of any. We continued down the sidewalk hoping to outdistance them but, instead, the volume increased and the distance from our ears decreased. The First Mate suddenly stopped, threw up her arms and yelled: “Get away from me!”. It had the salubritory effect she sought. The vendors slunk away like kicked dogs.
Down the block a short, bearded taxi driver quietly approached us and asked if we needed a cab. Minor negotiation later we launched off into the infamous Mumbai traffic. Today traffic seemed to move more smoothly than usual, at places we accelerated to almost 15 mph. As four lanes of traffic compressed itself into three lanes of road, the horn protocol prevailed. One beep – I’m passing on your right. Two beeps – passing on your left. Everyone was passing so everyone beeped. Welcome back to Mumbai.
Alighting at the Taj we decided, since the light was right, to get a few photos of the Gateway of India Arch immediately adjacent. The Arch was erected on the landing point of most European passengers from their ship from Europe. The immigrants walked up the stone steps, crossed the hundred yards or so of park and entered back into Europe at one of Mumbai’s most opulent and famous hotels: the Taj Mahal Palace. Old, exquisitely maintained, formal, courtly, wealthy, a throwback to a different century.
The Gateway Arch had been erected to commemorate the state visit of the King and Queen of England. Today it is a symbol of Mumbai, photographed endlessly and basically serving as shelter for stray mongrels. Mobs of people course around it headed for their luxury ferry boats taking them everywhere in the district. The waterfront is constantly in action and crowded. But all of India is crowded. Never mind, the populace is, by and large, docile and polite, minding their own business. We contemplate the condition of the Bay’s waters and step back, making sure none of it gets on us. Too many people, too little refuse disposal.
Back at the entrance of the Taj we are greeted by smiling and polite door men, bell men, greeters and service staff. The marble lobby floor is covered with a thick oriental carpet upon which a large table of cut flowers, arranged in bowling balls, grabs the eye. All very understated, all very posh. In the older part of the hotel we pass a staircase, fit for an empress: carpeted, wrought iron railings, crystal chandeliers, inlaid ceilings, we can only wonder how many of the quality have made their entrance down those steps. We now get to work.
Our task is to parse the shops in the Taj seeking a new rug for our flood ravaged floors at home. But. As opulent as the Taj is as a hotel, it surpasses itself in its shops. Bangles and bobbles as big as baseballs dangle from displays along the shop corridors. An emerald the size of a small rock is offset by diamonds, gilding the lily. Clothing shops, men’s and women’s, offer the latest of fashion.
None of the shop offerings have price tags attached, leading us to naturally conclude we can’t afford anything. A stern faced, dark suited security guard obviously agrees as he watches us intently, keen to stifle the least act of impropriety on our part. We depart for the other, cheaper, wing of the hotel where we torture a rug merchant in a tiny shop. We ask a minimum of questions while he insists on pulling out rug after rug to display. All are too small for our needs, his shop is too small, and are silk from Kashmir, with prices which suck the air from our lungs. Reconnaissance completed we head back out into the real world.
Behind the Taj a major avenue courses: the Colaba Causeway. Crowded, dug up, congested with every bus and taxi in town, it is also a major shopping area. But not today. Today Mumbai is relatively quiet, at least among the shops. We eye the various shops, all of which offer ‘rugs’ among other wares, shrug and plunge in. The young tout in front of our selected shop is startled from his slumber and his chair by our actual agreement to enter his shop. He stumbles up the steps flipping on lights and yelling, in Hindi, for salesmen. We are not disappointed.
As veterans of Turkish carpet wars for years, we have an idea what to expect. Sure enough, rug merchants world wide are cut from the same cloth. We rest on a large divan on the side of the room while the salesman directs his minions to unroll carpet after carpet on the floor in front of us. Soon so many carpets cover the floor that we have lost track of what we have seen. Reds are dismissed to the right and blues are dismissed to the left. The concept of ‘earth tones’ does not completely translate but by process of trial and error the picture begins to clear for the salesman. Naturally we see the silk rugs first, the finest of Kashmir, until we inquire about wool rugs as silk will be beyond our budget. So we think.
Oh, yes, of course – double knotted! Look here! Look here! This medallion carpet is more beautiful than the square but the square pattern is tradition, you will love it! The patter goes on, each rug is a unique masterpiece we absolutely need. We consult with each other by gaze. It’s time to get serious and talk price or walk down the street to the next shop. I turn the floor over to the First Mate, the family negotiator and heartless nemesis of rug merchants everywhere.
‘Yes, yes, I must eat but I make you a fantastic price as business is slow today’. Out comes the calculator and a price is tapped in, handed to the FM. She studies it quietly. Shaking her head, she taps ‘erase’ and types her own number. We both are biting our tongues to keep a straight face. The rug of interest is a double knotted silk and wool Kashmir prize, hand knotted. The price proposed is incredibly cheaper than those thieves in Turkey would demand, and it is of excellent pile and workmanship. She hands the calculator back to the salesman who blanches and pleads that his children must eat. How can they eat at that price? Please! So sincere.
Back and forth we go – does that price include shipping? Look, look, I charge you no GST on this purchase! No, no, I must talk with the boss, you saw her earlier. He confers with a young woman in the next room, probably about the dinner menu, comes back shaking his head. Impossible! But if you will give just a little more, anything, just a little more! He hands the calculator to the FM, who adds a dollar, taking him at his word. He finally realizes he is up against a hard case. He switches to the ‘surrender and double up’ strategy: ‘OK, OK, I am not making any money but you can have that price. Now, you mentioned another room – which carpet do you want for that room?’
The First Mate is having none of it, she has her prize. We step to the back room and discover the real boss, the Chief, holding the credit card machine. He smiles graciously while another of his minions swipes our card. We are all friends now, we have the rug – they have the money. Tahir, our salesman, insists on walking us to the door, reminding us that should we need more rugs we can always shop online with them at http://www.mahadjoo.com. He sends one of his retainers to rustle up a taxi for us and negotiate the price. Interestingly, the price to the port negotiated by a local is 50 rupees versus the initial offer we had at the Green Gate of $10. So, 85 cents versus ten dollars for the same fare shows the negotiating spread in Mumbai. Bargain or die in Mumbai, what a sport.
Still, we are well pleased with our purchase and the concomitant dance with the rug merchants. Nothing like travel to hone one’s negotiating skills. Our cruise continues.