Having had lunch there a year ago November, it was especially sad and disturbing to see the puddles of blood on the floor of the café in the TV coverage of the Mumbai massacre. Ten people died on that scuffed and dirty floor, with at least 20 wounded as the terrorists came through the wall that opens to the street along what is called the Colaba Causeway.
Its all the more disturbing because Leopolds reminds me of our own hangouts, which take the edge off the winter in Northern Michigan during the long, cold sleep of the season.
Leopolds is the kind of friendly place we all know in Northern Michigan, even if youve never gotten any closer to India than Alpena. It seats a little over 120 people on flimsy wooden chairs at cheap, tippy tables. Its no different than any other watering hole in Traverse City, Frankfort, Petoskey or Manistee; just a rough-around-the edges place where people feel comfortable in their come-as-you-are clothes. And, believe it or not, you see some of the same faces behind the bar in southern India as you do in Mancelona or Buckley: Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Bud Weiser... funny how these guys get around.
Like many of the famous hangouts of Northern Michigan -- Sleders, the Mitchell Street Pub, the U&I Lounge, Dinghys and Boones, to name a few -- Leopolds Café is a must-visit for those passing through the burg of Mumbai, a place that has a population of somewhere between 15-40 million. No one knows the actual number of people living on its streets because at least half of Mumbais residents are undocumented refugees streaming in from the villages of India in hopes of finding a job in the city.
Speaking of which, these days, youll find people in our own hangouts, gazing in their beers and wondering where their own next job is going to come from.
If you were Madonna or Bill Gates passing through Mumbai, chances are youd catch a bowl of curry at Leopolds, rubbing elbows with tourists from every land, Bollywood movie stars, and members of the Bombay mafia. Leo‘s is also one of the most famous backpacker bars in the world, packed with tattooed gypsies. Its here that the druggy hero of Gregory David Roberts novel Shantaram wheeled & dealed with gangsters, warlords and pushers (soon to be a major film starring Johnny Depp, by the way). Everyone knows Leopolds.
On my visit, I enjoyed a volcanic red curry over noodles with a mango lahsi yogurt drink and some garlic nan bread. My table mates were a couple of urban planners -- a young American woman and her Italian boss whod just flown in from Milan, Italy to attend a conference. The place was packed with people, smiling, laughing, waving to friends, having a good time -- no different than here in Northern Michigan.
It makes you wonder if the institution of the hangout is endangered in the New Dark Ages of terrorism. These days, theres always some angry person out there with a chip on his shoulder and easy access to bombs and automatic weapons. And theres always some ignorant, illiterate dupe who can be manipulated into murdering innocent people for a cause, a religion, or an ideology.
And theres always someone who knows that a popular hangout makes an easy target and a way to crush the heart and soul of a community. Weve seen places like the Leopold Café blown to smithereens in Baghdad and Kabul over the past few years -- theyre targets. Until the human race takes a stand that terrorism is an unspeakable taboo on par with cannibalism, human sacrifice and slavery, no one will be safe in this angry age, not even in the places we love that are close to home.
Check out Robert Downes‘ new book, Planet Backpacker, on sale now at local book stores. Read an excerpt at www.planetbackpacker.net.