Canary and tangerine salwar suits; saris in coral, turquoise and royal purple, ribboned with silver and gold or spangled with sequins. Colors of sapphire, topaz and electric red... Most women here dress to kill, dripping with heavy, intricate jewelry of silver and gold and often wearing the tikka powder spot on their foreheads which marks them as Hindus.
And, it must be said, their hair is one of the wonders of this country, falling thick and lustrous in raven black tresses, always looking freshly washed.
Im starting this column with a pleasant image of India because it has taken me a week to begin looking past the poverty and squalor to begin seeing this legendary land in a clearer light.
Nearly two weeks ago, my jet dropped out of the clouds in one of those nosedive landings Air India is famous for, hurtling toward a vast forest of rotting high-rise apartment towers, smeared in colors of tea and gray. I saw people scrambling on the streets below and then a landslide of slums tumbling for miles around the airport.
Welcome to Bombay, baby.
The first thing I saw as my taxi rounded the corner from the airport was a baby crawling just a foot from the curb of a five-lane highway where thousands of three-wheeled tuk-tuks and old beater Fiat taxis stampeded in a mad rush.
The babys family were chatting on the sidewalk, their ramshackle home built of odds and ends spilling to the edge of the curb. No one paid the baby a lick of attention as we sped past, but it looked happy enough, crawling around in the grime.
I practically jumped out of my skin on the hour-long ride into town. The sensory overload of sight, sounds and smells seemed almost too much to bear. The route looked like it had been through an aerial bombardment, with people lounging without a care in the filth and trash lining the tin roofs of their homes and the crumbling sidewalks. But these were some of the better homes, because soon there were warrens of ghastly slums with kids running naked through dirt lanes, and then the homeless street persons, propped up against walls with all their possessions spread out on the sidewalk. There looked to be thousands of these folks, bedding down for the night on the sticky, black sidewalks. I could see other toddlers playing in the street, jumping around amid the reckless traffic.
Outside my three-star hotel, in what I later learned was an iffy part of town, there were people sleeping on the street just outside the door. I saw a young mother, as thin as a beggars chicken, with the look of a kicked dog in her eyes. At her feet were her two daughters, the same ages as my granddaughters -- about one and three-years-old -- sleeping on rags and a mat of cardboard.
I spent three days in Bombay -- known today as Mumbai -- joining the throng of millions and marching for miles around town. I came across many other homeless street people and beggars, some of whom were still nursing the raw wounds of amputations. Ten rupees went to a leper with no fingers on the stubs of either hand -- not much, but enough to feed him for a day.
By the way, my apologies to Cairo for calling that pristine city filthy in a prior column, because that jewel of Egypt is impeccable compared to Bombay where there are no trash cans anywhere, not even in Colaba, the classy tourist part of town. People just toss litter wherever, creating a patina of grimy trash, excrement, urine and sticky stuff, cooking in the dense smog and 90 degree heat.
With 20 million people or more, Bombay is home to Indias biggest slum. Some of these folks are recruited into its notorious mafia -- the city is said to be packed with gangsters, pickpockets pimps, whores, religious fanatics and hitmen who will kill for $5 or less. I managed to dodge these characters, even though I was the only Westerner I saw for hours at a time, walking for miles around the city far outside the tourist zone and into the night.
Instead, I ran afoul of those I call the Helpful Harrys. Sir, would you like to buy a toy whirlybird helicopter? No thanks. A spirograph to make lovely circles on paper, sir? Nope. Postcard? No thanks. Are you sure you wouldnt like a postcard, sir? And so on. One guy even tried to scoop wax out of my ears with a metal spoon as I was walking by, producing a loud squawk on my part.
Then too, in the hotels, there is a room boy, a laundry boy, luggage carriers, doormen and at least 10 waiters hovering over you. I dont have the heart to tell them I can spoon my own rice onto my plate, or push the elevator button by myself. Theyre dying for something to do.
Traffic? You bet. The driving technique here involves blasting the horn the entire way, whiplashing through a maelstrom of junky old buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles, motorcycles with whole families onboard, pedestrians and other taxis, while veering into oncoming traffic at breakneck speed every so often just for kicks. Potholes the size of bathtubs, roller-coaster pavement and rotting concrete come standard, along with a plastic Jesus on the dashboard, or Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good luck.
But its not all filth and anarchy here. Beyond Bombay, the countryside opens up in a lush, lovely green of palm trees, rice fields and grazing cows, raising your spirits. Misty blue mountains rise like Hindu gods in the distant haze.
Slowly, I see past the blindfold of my Western viewpoint to discover a booming middle class in India, with many new cars, motorcycles and SUVs on the road. The boom is driven by the information technology and call center industries, with manufacturing also on the rise.
Im 1,000 miles south of Bombay now, visiting towns with exotic names such as Ernakalum, Udhagamandalam, Mysore and Pondicherry. Its much cleaner here and there are wild elephants by the road in the jungles of the Blue Mountains, along with water buffalo, monkeys and deer. And of course, each town has its contingent of goats and sacred cows, munching trash in the busy streets.
Most tourists visit northern India to see the Taj Mahal and such, but Ive opted for the slower pace of the south for my long trip around the world. My itinerary will take me 1,500 miles in a circuit around the tip of India, wrapping up in the ultimate beach party hangout of Goa.
I imagine that each of you readers has an ultimate travel goal in mind for sometime in your lives. Mine has always been India. When I started traveling as a young man, India represented the end of the long backpackers trail through the world that started in London and Amsterdam, running through Istanbul, Afghanistan and this faraway land to Goa.
On the other hand, Ive found that India is not the kind of place you visit for a fun vacation. Its a bit more like an ordeal, with the heat, the crowds, the hustlers and Delhi Belly being the price you pay to see one of the strangest lands on earth. Is it worth it? Ive got three more weeks to find out.