Friday, October 31, 2008

The GUS Guide to Surviving a Few Days in Mumbai
(Part Two of the Mumbai debacle)

Upon hearing that i was taking a trip to Mumbai, i was deluged with all sorts of well-intentioned (and ill-conceived) advice from friends. For example, someone actually told me to wear a face mask, while another friend reminded me sternly to get vaccination shots beforehand!

Rather overkill, don't ya think? If my memory serves me correctly, the only positive reaction came from my bodacious friend from the tennis courts, Nx, who remarked excitedly what an exotic place Mumbai seemed to be and how she wanted the chance to go there in the future.

I've decided to write a by-no-means complete travel guide for would-be first-time visitors to Mumbai, so they would have a clearer idea what to expect. Here goes:

1. Getting Around

As my friend JPL put it, "Be prepared to overpay for transportation. The motto is, if they can screw you, they will."

Upon arrival in Mumbai, avail of the prepaid taxi coupon service at the airport. DO NOT just go out to the arrival area, and accept offers by the numerous touts to take you to your hotel for a cheap price.

Why? To put it succinctly, tout offering cheap transpo + gullible, unprepared tourist = circuitous route taken by taxi driver + possible extortion.

Yep, i am not kidding. So, while the official
black & yellow airport taxis do not inspire much confidence, being 1970s-era Fiats, they are your best bet.

In general, taxis are classified either as "regular" (no Aircon) or "special" (with Aircon). Avoid taking a "regular" taxi at all costs, unless you want to sweat like a pig from the heat, or have a wizened, bent-over beggar reach her crooked arm through the open window to wheedle some rupees from you.

Upon getting inside a taxi, immediately instruct the driver to turn on the meter. Nine times out of ten, he will refuse and try to convince you that the rates are fixed, depending on distance and destination.

Insist he use the meter. If he again refuses, make (an empty) threat that you will file a complaint against him. If he still refuses, get out of his cab and find another one (and tell him to "Go to hell!" in Hindi, while at it. Haha :D).

2. Drinking water

Most common advice given to us was, "Do not drink water from the tap!" Not even when gargling while brushing your teeth! Stick to bottled water all the time.

A friend of mine even made the following distinction: Buy bottled water only from 7-11 outlets, not from local groceries; and buy only international brands such as Vittel, Evian and Perrier, not local Indian brands.

In his case, he had made the mistake of buying a local bottled water brand, and endured 2 days of diarrhea as a result.

3. Eating

Stay at a 5-Star hotel and eat your meals there. Yes, this will be quite expensive. As JPL wryly commented, "There is a high cost to staying healthy."

It is best to avoid dairy products, raw seafood, fresh salads and the like. Much better to stick to food which has been thoroughly cooked. Hence, i think we ate all sorts of kebabs during our meals, which i liked very much.

Regarding drinks, do not pour your soda or juice or whatever to a glass full of ice! A thousand times no!

4. Shopping

Due to some rioting in the streets, we were not able to go out and do as much shopping as we had time for.

Prices are always negotiable, even in those pricey hotel souvenir shops. Bargain hard!
That old trick of pretending to walk away if you're not happy with the prices does work. Once in a while, at least.

Oh, if you ever walk into a shop selling Turkish carpets and have no intention of buying one, get out before the proprietor has taken you by the arm and snapped his fingers for his underlings to roll out various carpets on the floor and extolled their respective design, craftmanship and thread count virtues. Believe me, these people WILL exert more pressure on you than a turbo broiler!

5. Customs

A sense of humor goes a long way. Accept that things do not run like clockwork, and you're half-way towards bearing all sorts of craziness with some degree of grace.

Try not to pass things or eat using your left hand, as this hand is considered unclean. Locals do not really expect foreign tourists to be aware of this, but doing so does help build some goodwill.

So that they don't try too hard to fleece you!!!!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

(Part One of the Mumbai debacle)

That old saying comes to mind: When in Mumbai, do as the Mumbainites (Mumbaiers? Mumbites? Bombay bombers??) do.

The sun was shining unbearably hot during the middle of the afternoon. Having finished the day's work, my friend JPL and i were looking for a way to get back to the cozy, airconditioned confines of our hotel, Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

Having been fleeced big-time by a taxi driver earlier that morning, who refused to use the meter and insisted on charging us a fixed rate, JPL and i paid no heed to the taxi drivers clamoring to take us back to our hotel. Heck, if i knew how to say "Go to hell!" in Hindi, i would have done so.

So we decided to take a chance on a tuktuk, basically a souped-up tricycle (see above pic).

Unfortunately, the drivers were quite tricky and wanted to charge us a fixed fee as well, instead of using their meters. After some half-hearted protestations and muttered curses underneath our breaths, JPL and i capitulated due to the searing heat and agreed to the sum of INR150 (around US$3.00).

"Well, what can we expect? They're all Indians!" I shrugged resignedly.

There was some confusion with regards to our destination. According to Samit, our driver, "There are two Hyatt hotel, the Grand Hyatt and the Hyatt Regency. One is near domestic airport, another near international airport. Which one you in?"

JPL replied, "Grand Hyatt."

With a rather diffident look on his face, he started again, "There are two Hyatts. . . ."

I cut Samit off, "We are at Grand Hyatt!"

After so more back and forth exchanges, the terrible truth dawned on us: Samit didn't know which Hyatt was near which airport!

He asked, "Can you call them [the hotel]?"

Quite annoyed by now, i retorted, "We don't know the number!"

He persisted, "Address? Is it near Sahar airport?"

JPL and i looked at each other quizzically. We didn't know our hotel's address, nor had we heard of Sahar airport! I hesitantly replied, "It's off the expressway. . ."

But this was no help at all. Fortunately, JPL was able to fish around in his pockets for the hotel key card; and finally, it became clear to Samit where he was supposed to take us.

Samit turned out to be a whirling dervish on the road, wheeling in and out of traffic as though his pants were on fire. With all the overtaking and swerving he did, we came within inches of colliding not only with other tuktuks, but also with motorcycles, taxis, trucks and even a bus or two.

Check out the pic below, showing the view from the backseat of the tuktuk:

Of course, our ride would not have been complete without the obligatory tourist chatter. Samit asked, "First time in Mumbai?"

After hearing our assent, he smiled and asked further, "You like it?"

"Hell, NO!! Your city stinks to high heavens, the roads are dusty and full of beggars and all you taxi and tuktuk drivers are nothing but a bunch of cheats and the traffic is horrible and the heat is even more horrible!!!" was what went through my mind and was at the tip of my tongue.

But playing the nice tourist for once, i merely said, through gritted teeth, "Yes, nice place." Hell, i felt my nose getting longer by the second. Grrrr!!

Samit asked, "You from Nepal?"

I wanted to give a sharp retort, "No, we're from Timbuktu!" But JPL, being the kind person that he was, set him straight as to our country of origin.

Upon JPL's inquiry, Samit informed us that his tuktuk used Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and oil, not gasoline or diesel.
Efforts to have a continued conversation were hampered by the honking horns, rumbling motors and street noise.

Which was just as well. We pressed him regarding exactly what type of oil was he using, but dropped the matter, as Samit had the disconcerting habit of taking his eyes off the road and tilting his head to the right side, so he could look at us while talking.

"Look out!" i cried, as we barely missed falling into a roadside ditch by inches.

Eventually, we arrived at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai a bit shaken, not stirred, happily with all limbs intact.

Oh, as i reached for my wallet to pay Samit the agreed-upon sum of INR150, he smiled and said, "INR200 [around US$4.00] please, due to long distance."

With our comfy hotel room beckoning, i did not even bother to argue and handed over the Rupee notes. (Sigh) Fleeced again!

Friday, October 17, 2008

G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 19)

NAGOMI Japanese Resto

I had always felt that there were two types of people in this world: those who eat sushi / sashimi, and those who don't. Of course, we all know that the people in the latter category are no fun at all, right? :D

So it was, that my
maldita friend KK (who absolutely adores sashimi!) and i arrived at this resto's doorsteps yesterday night. NAGOMI (meaning "Harmony" in Nihongo) has been around for many years already, but somehow i've overlooked it and this was the first time i was eating here.

Presence of a Japanese family dining at a nearby table was reassuring. The staff were uniformly friendly, even cheerful. On the downside, i detected a slight musty smell inside the resto.

NAGOMI has this thick menu with loads and loads of bright, chirpy pictures of the food. Honestly, it was actually quite hard to decide what to order, as the array of choices was simply dizzying! From sushi to teppanyaki to yoshokuya . . . it goes on and on and on! In fairness, most of the choices did look appetizing.

Check out this page of the menu, "A Variety of Attractive Sushi".

Quite vivid and attractive, isn't it?

KK and i spent no small time discussing what to order. We both felt that the pictures were very helpful, but somehow the lack of descriptions can be a hindrance, too. Like for example, what was the difference between the Dynamite Roll and the Fire Cracker Roll?

Finally, we decided on the ff: Tuna and Ika (squid) Sashimi [pictured below], miso soup, Dynamite roll, rice and Gyu Koro (beef) Teppanyaki.

The food was uniformly very good, with the sashimi firm and tasty, and the beef teppanyaki tender and juicy. Even though KK proved to have a hearty appetite (which i really, really appreciated, since i can't stand girls who are too diet-conscious), we were undone by the Dynamite roll [pictured below]. We were simply too full to finish it off.

NAGOMI, in my opinion, is not quite a fine-dining Jap resto, but i would rank it in the same tier as Sugi. A return trip (with maldita KK) is definitely in the cards.

Oh, one minor quibble though. Lest i be accused of being totally shallow and petty (which i am, anyway. Haha! ;-D), the dull salmon-pink-colored tablecloth really doesn't do it for me. A colossal eyesore! I hope the management replaces them ASAP!

(NAGOMI Japanese Restaurant is located at the El Pueblo Complex, Pasig City, right across the Podium)

Friday, October 03, 2008


(The Greatest Love Story Ever Sung)

RENT-head (or RENThead), n : someone who is obsessed with, or at least a very big fan of Jonathan Larson's rock opera RENT.

I certainly consider myself a RENT-head. It is my favorite stage musical, having watched it 4X in total, and having listened to the 2-CD original cast recording more times than i could remember ("Another Day" and "Without You" being my favorite songs).

Hence, my excitement at watching the Philippine Opera Company's first full-length opera production, La Boheme, on which RENT was loosely based on. After all, this was the original source material for RENT. . . the mother spaceship, so to speak.

For a brief synopsis of La Boheme, and comparisons between it and RENT, please check out Karla Gutierrez's (POC Artistic and Managing Director) Multiply site and this link from Our Awesome Planet. The plot is more or less the same, with the names a bit changed: Marcello is Mark, Rodolfo is Roger, Colline is Collins, Schaunard is Angel, Benoit is Benny, Musetta is Maureen, and Mimi is. . .well, Mimi.

I corralled my caustically witty friend Wd. to watch the opening night with me, although i must admit some misgivings entered in my mind. After all, who really watches opera in this country? Cultured geriatric high-society types, of course, but who else?

I guess that by staging La Boheme, the POC was trying to capture a broader and younger audience for opera. And La Boheme was the logical thing to stage, since its storyline was familiar to the numerous RENT-heads like me.

So there we were on opening night, perched on the front row of Balcony Center, looking down below and scanning to see how big the audience turnout would be.

Initial results were not encouraging. Wd. and i estimated that at the start of the opera, only 40% of the Orchestra and Balcony seats were filled. The Parterre boxes, in particular, were virtually empty.

On to the show. National Artist Bencab's presence was acknowledged; Helen Quach, the conductress of the orchestra, was introduced, and La Boheme duly began.

Unfortunately, this is where things kinda fall downhill. From our section at Balcony Center, the sound was rather weak and the actors' faces were barely recognizable. No matter, i thought, i was intimately familiar with the plot anyway, and should have no problems following along.

But try as i might, the arias sung in Italian proved to be too much.
The novelty wore off after a few minutes, and my mind started drifting off to mundane matters, like whether i prefer to eat peanut butter or strawberry jam for tomorrow's breakfast, that sort of thing.

Something does really get lost in translation, in my opinion. There is something to be said for knowing the ongoing dialogue
line by line.

We didn't know exactly what the actors were gesticulating about at any one moment. For example, in Act 2, Mimi was standing and embracing Rodolfo. What was she exactly singing about? Professing her undying love towards him? In what way? Or was she merely instructing him to order for her the pancit canton? WHAT?!!?

The bloggers who had attended the special preview/dress rehearsal night on Oct. 1st gave generally high marks, one of them even writing that “the fact that the show is conducted in Italian does not detract from its enjoyment. Music is the only true universal language and Italian, one of the most mellifluous, romantic, and beautiful languages in the world, certainly does not hurt the show, either.”

Sorry to rain on everyone's parade, but really?! I feel like a dunce who forgot the password to Alibaba's cave when i say this, but really?!?

I really wish the POC decided to make use of opera supertitles (i.e. simultaneous English translation of the libretto on a horizontal video screen somewhere above the stage) for La Boheme. It would have made it much easier to understand and appreciate what exactly was going on during each act.

(I had watched 'The Romance of Magno Rubio' a few years ago at CCP Little Theater, staged in Filipino, and they did have English supertitles) Granted, while supertitles make it easier for the audience to follow the storyline, they can distract from the performers, as excellently discussed in this article from the New York Times
here, titled "So That's What The Fat Lady Sang".

Let me put it this way: The perfect audience for La Boheme would have been people who could understand and/or speak Italian, not people like me whose command of the language is limited to "ciao", "grazie" and "pizza quatro formaggio".

But since only a tiny minority in the audience likely understood Italian, and not everyone can relate to two hours of singing in a foreign language they cannot comprehend, the POC would have been much better served by accommodating majority of its audience through the use of supertitles.

All in all, our eager anticipation at the start of Act 1 turned into restlessness by Act 2, then to tedium in Act 3; and by Act 4, Wd. and i were flat-out bored. It just seemed like the thing wasn't simply going to end, and Mimi was taking so long to die (oops, sorry for the spoiler!)

I was already having fantasies of rapelling down from the balcony ala Tom Cruise in 'Mission Impossible', and sticking an imaginary balisong into Mimi, to put an end to her suffering AND MY misery.

Wonder of wonders though, when La Boheme ended and the lights came on, roughly 80% of the seats were filled by then.

(Check out for updates on future productions)


During Act 1:

Guy seated at row behind us (in Fookien dialect, and in a lecturing tone of voice), to his female companion: "You don't come to see them [actors] act, just to listen to the singing...."

During Act 2:

Same guy seated behind us (in Fookien): "There's just one good song in this opera."
- perhaps he was referring to Musetta's Waltz?

Woman seated at row beside us, to her companion (in Fookien): "I heard that the star gets paid PHP2,000 to PHP3,000 per night." - could this be true?

During Act 3: (while Musetta and Marcello are kissing and groping each other)

Woman seated at row behind us (in Fookien, and in a shocked voice): "Is that [kissing and groping] real? Really? Hah..." (sharp intake of breath)

During Act 4:

Woman seated 2 rows behind us: "ZZZZZZZZZ" [snoring, in perfect Italian]