Zachary Mexico is the director of Baby’s All Right and Elvis Guesthouse in New York City. He also writes things, usually about China.
Wake up in a comfortable bed in the middle of a dream. Completely confused about where I am. Look at the clock on my bedside table and remember that I am in the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai. They bombed it back in 96 and there are still metal detectors outside. Arrived here last night on a direct flight from New York to spend a couple days at the invitation of my old friends and business associates Jarrett and Candice, before we travel together to Bangkok, where they live.
Last night after the three of us had dinner and they went to sleep I was not tired and drank duty-free Bombay-Sapphire-and-tonics with lime and orange slices. Video called a couple people on the Internet. Ended up sacking out around five-thirty so I only slept for three hours but I feel pretty great. I wonder why this is and consider many possibilities, not least among them that I may still be a bit buzzed. I am coming off a sober phase and although I didn’t drink that much last night my tolerance seems to have gone down.
My room is on the eighteenth floor, and I open the shades and stare out across the bay, past a line of skyscrapers on the horizon and out to the Arabian Sea. It is my first time in India. I have wanted to come here for many years.
I check my email: sloppy videos from friends at Coachella saying hello. A photograph of a gallon container of chicken soup I had delivered to a sick friend. The requisite slog of stuff for Baby’s and Elvis. Someone sends me a link to a Dick Diver live video from a record store in Brisbane. They’re a band from Australia that I really like and I cannot wait for them to play at Baby’s this summer. I listen to the video and sit in a comfortable green chair and look out the window and watch the movement of the water.
On the table next to the chair, there is a small red bowl filled with water and two rose petals. Sweet mystery of life. Put the bottle of gin from last night under the desk and the extra bottles of tonic water back in the fridge. Decide to exercise and sweat it out. I sniff my T-shirt before putting it on. It smells like curry and gasoline.
Go on the elliptical. A woman brings me a pair of headphones and a towel on a tray. Watch a program about the opening up of Cuba and get sweaty. A crow lands on the windowsill and we look at each other and then after a while it flies away. When I am done a man with a mustache in a white suit brings me a dark-red vegetable juice in a glass bottle.
Back in my room, set the timer on my phone for ten minutes and sit on the floor with my legs crossed. Focus on my breath. As usual, get distracted and start to think about work. Stop thinking, and end your problems! Take a shower.
Billy texts with a report from our new place Elvis Guesthouse in New York: Alix just dropped Shakedown.
Breakfast in the lobby with Jarrett and Candice. More vegetable juice, three cups of coffee. Masala scrambled eggs. A bowl full of almonds, raisins, yogurt, and pomegranate seeds.
I feel like an asshole writing this because it annoys me when people write the contents of their salad on social media. “Arugula, blue cheese, salt, pepper, squeeze two lemons and sprinkle Raisin Bran on top, delicious!”
I have a general suspicion that things that other people do that annoy me are just reflections of hidden negative beliefs I have about myself. Is it the conflict of forces between my understanding that no one gives a fuck what I eat and the part of me that thinks other people should give a fuck what I eat? And then how about my self-resentment at my own ego-weakness and feelings of self-importance?
Whatever, Jose, we’re all dust in the wind anyway.
At breakfast, we discuss one of our friends who I have a hard time connecting with sometimes and Jarrett says: he had such a fucked up childhood that in order to survive he has to set his emotional response level to zero. Makes a lot of sense and I am glad to have a new and compassionate way of thinking about that person.
Go back to my room to change clothes. I am standing naked staring out at the city. There are vultures and black eagles flying high in the sky. I kind of zone out and close my eyes for a minute and when I open them again a window washer in an orange jumpsuit is standing on the ledge outside my room looking at me. I cover up with a towel and hit him with a smile and a shaka. He is standing on a one-foot-deep ledge on the 18th floor. He must see so many naked people, all the time.
I look at the Internet. Get followed by a spam twitter account whose only tweet is:
When life hands you lemons, tell everyone you’re crying because you got lemon juice in your eye NOT because nobody will hold you.
Take a swim in the outdoor hotel pool. It overlooks the bay. The tiles on the bottom are dark blue, almost lapis-lazuli colored. They are beautiful and it makes the whole swimming experience more emotionally resonant. I take a deep breath and swim a length of the pool underwater.
I ask the housekeeping concierge for some toothpaste. He looks at my chin pubes and asks if I need a shaving kit also. I tell him why not.
The toothpaste never materializes so I go down to the lobby to meet Jarrett and Candice. Our friends Patrick and Pailin, journalists in Thailand, have shown up to meet us for lunch. There is a woman playing “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus on a bright red baby grand piano. I ask Jarrett if I can borrow some toothpaste. He gives me his room key and tells me his room number. I go up to my room first to get my toothbrush. There is a kid in the elevator wearing a T-shirt that says WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT ELECTRICITY.
Once I have the toothbrush in my hand I have forgotten Jarrett’s room number so I have to go back down and ask him again. In his room, I try to brush my teeth mindfully but end up thinking about artificial intelligence and the eventual and inevitable extinction of the human race. I think about this a lot but in a very detached way. I suspect this feeling will change if I have a child.
There are two kinds of taxis in Mumbai. The old-school black and yellow Fiats, which are not climate-controlled, and blue ones that have air conditioning. The blue ones are called Cool Taxis. It’s hot – about 85 degrees Fahrenheit – and we take a couple Cool Taxis to the restaurant. The traffic here is a nightmare. Passenger cars, taxis, trucks, motorized rickshaws, motorcycles and scooters all kind of just pushing forward in a big gloopy mass with no defined lanes. Pedestrians walking helter-skelter across the road. Constant honking of horns. The horns here seem especially loud for some reason.
I ride with Patrick and Pailin, Patrick has just spent a month in Hanoi, and he tells me about the story he was researching and reporting. The Vietnamese traditionally eat dog, especially in the north, and the Thais do not; since there are so many stray dogs in Thailand, they would round them up and sell them to Vietnam, where they would be eaten. However, after this conduit attracted international attention and Thailand put a stop to the export of dogs, there was a shortage of dog meat in Vietnam, and people started to started to steal pet dogs and sell them to butchers. Villagers took matters into their own hands and started vigilante justice lynch mobs to beat suspected dog thieves to death. He made a twenty minute video called “Dog Thief Down.” Amazing title.
We arrive at Café Britannia, a restaurant specializing in Parsi and Iranian-influenced food. In the entrance of the restaurant there is a cat sitting on a chair with a little sign in front of him that says DO NOT DISTURB. We take photos of the cat, disturbing him. The restaurant is full and the elderly host, who has a classic mustache and big white eyebrows that look like caterpillars, tells us to come back in ten minutes so we take a walk around Colaba, which was the colonial center of the city, first for the Portuguese and then for the British. Now it seems to be the main tourist neighborhood and there are a lot of beautiful historic buildings on wide, tree-lined boulevards. It’s Saturday afternoon and the streets are crowded with all kinds of people, mostly men. Everyone stares at us. The energy is very male but more curious than threatening. There are a lot of tight jeans and Hard Rock Café T-shirts. I’m excited to experience this massive and bizarre city.
Back at the Brittania our table is ready and we sit down inside. The restaurant has been operating since 1923 and it feels like not much has changed in the interim. Green-and-white checked tablecloths, peeling paint on the walls, dusty wall clocks and framed pictures of Gandhi. Enormous, potentially broken chandelier. A life-size cardboard cutout of Prince William and Princess Kate. There’s a mezzanine level in the back and hanging from it are signs that say:
DEBIT CARD AND CREDIT CARD NOT ACCEPTED
PLEASE DO NOT ARGUE WITH MANAGEMENT
MANAGEMENT HAS RIGHT TO CHECK ANY ARTICLE
OR INDIVIDUAL ON SUSPICION
CUSTOMERS ARE REQUESTED TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR BELONGINGS
It’s a classic, the kind of place interior designers spend a fortune trying to recreate but can never quite get it right. There is no substitute for time. The restaurant’s logo is a chicken with the words around it in a circle: THERE IS NO LOVE LIKE THE LOVE OF EATING.
An old man – who we later find out is the proprietor, Boman Kohinoor, who inherited the restaurant from his father Rashid, a Zoroastrian immigrant to India, who founded it almost a hundred years ago – comes up to our table. He’s 93 years old but is still quite charming and vital. Once he finds out we’re American he says that we are from the home of “former president George W. Bush” and tells us that Hillary Clinton will be our new president. He shows us a picture of Hillary with two government functionary looking dudes who he calls American VIP customers and says that they personally passed on his message of goodwill to Hillary. He produces a laminated letter from one of the American VIPs, who is some dude named Daniel Sternbergh from Palo Alto, California, telling the whole story. This guy really loves Hillary Clinton.
We ask him his name and he says: I have many names. The Hindus call me this, the Christians call me that, the women call me a good man and my grandchildren call me Batman.
We have Bombay Duck, which is actually not duck but lightly fried lizardfish, as well as the restaurant’s signature dish of chicken and berry pulao, which is kind of like a Indian rice pilaf. It is all very good. I tell Jarrett that I want to visit Goa on my next trip and he says to stick to the small Portuguese towns and stay away from the beaches which are full of Russians and hippies and British lager louts and shitheads.
We leave the restaurant. The street outside is packed with people waiting for a table. We had good timing. Experience a feeling that could either be the remnants of a hangover or the initial onset of dysentery. I ask J if he has gotten sick on his previous trips here. He says: yep, I got dysentery twice. He pops a low-grade antibiotic. I decide that I am not going to get sick on this trip. Wash your hands, kid, all the time!
We walk through the charming, dilapidated-colonial chaos of Colaba, past enormous flowering ficus trees. There are a lot of different smells: piss, shit, old fish, flowers, perfume. Cows are walking in the middle of the street, their udders swollen. I look at the cow’s giant asshole. A man throws a lime at a cat. People are everywhere, selling drinks and snacks in makeshift wooden huts, sleeping on benches, just hanging out on the streets. A man wearing white from head to toe pushes his taxi down the street. The women are dressed in colorful saris and the men in slacks and rumpled collared shirts. A naked boy asks for our empty water bottles and we give them to him. A man begging for money has a crude sign that says PLEASE HELP ME EDUCATION. A shoeshine man wearing no shoes takes a nap on the ground next to his shinebox.
Go to the museum which recently changed its name from the Prince of Wales to the less colonial but much harder to remember Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya.
Check out the collection of ancient Hindu and Jain sculptures on the ground floor. The audio guide, tells me through headphones in a boarding-school British accent that Brahma is not as popular as Vishnu or Shiva because he created the universe but then took a step back to let the other people run it. Jarrett says that’s what he’s trying to do with his business and I feel the same way. I’ve been working in the bar industry for 13 years now. Probably have another couple years of day-to-day management left and then I’ll have to think of something else to do. Go into the tea business? Study Daoism? Live in a monastery? Have a baby?
Upstairs there is a collection of ancient Tibetan statues. All my favorites are here. Maitreya, who is enlightened and beyond suffering but remains in the world to give solace to the suffering masses. Milarepa, the poet saint of Tibet who wrote a hundred thousand songs.
A statue of Padmasambhava, the tantric exorcist, engaged in yabyum. In Tibetan, yabyum means the honorable father in the company of the honorable mother. The statues consist of male and female deities engaged in sexual intercourse. The goddesses represent insight and the gods represent compassion. Padmasambhava tamed the demons obstructing the path of Buddhism with his dick. If only we could all be so lucky. Sexuality as the vehicle and not the destination. Attainment of true spirituality the ultimate goal. The jewel in the lotus! The mind of enlightenment!
I get busted by the security guard taking photos without a photo pass and have to buy one for forty rupees.
We leave the museum. It’s hot and I’m sweating out curry. We pass a well-manicured cricket grounds with a bunch of white-suited players engaged in a match. I check it out for a few minutes but don’t understand the rules. It is one of the coolest-looking sports though. A man walks by cradling a Netgear wireless router in his arms like an infant.
A city hygiene truck thunders by and I get a deep breath of whatever chemical it is they’re spraying around. Feels like a stomachache, but in my brain, and I remember all those times in college when we’d buy nitrous oxide from the Yemeni bodega across 109th street. Can’t believe I ever thought that was a fun thing to do. I am thirty-five now. Those days seem so far away.
We get a cab back to the hotel and pass the High Court. I ask the cabbie if that’s where you go to get high and he starts laughing. I’m glad that people here speak English. It’s fun to joke around with cab drivers.
Take a shower, brush teeth, write in my journal. At Chinese New Year I threw all my black underwear away and replaced them with red. It’s the Year of the Sheep now. I was born in the Sheep year, and the custom is that during your own birth year you wear red underwear to protect yourself from bad luck. I also bought a nice journal at a store in Tokyo and promised myself that I would write in it every day. I’ve missed a couple but am doing better than usual. I’ve tried to keep a journal so many times and never stick to it. Lazy and undisciplined! This year will be different!
I’m going to make a record this year and I recorded two tracks a few weeks ago at my friend Graham’s house. Listen to the instrumental tracks and improvise some lyrics over them, write down the couple lines that are not bad in my journal.
Our old friend Tony, a business magnate and amateur hypnotherapist who splits his time between Saigon and Bangkok, has put us in touch with an old friend of his in Mumbai named Adi, who picks us up at the hotel in his black BMW. The radio is playing Europop and he’s wearing a T-shirt, track pants, black and gold Adidas. Adi owns an advertising agency and is as local as local gets: he was born here, went to high school here, went to college here, all of his friends are here, and has lived here all his life except for five years spent in Vietnam, which is how he knows Tony. We stop to get some petrol which is a pretty funny affair, there are six or seven guys working at the gas station, with big bellies and grease-stained coveralls, and they all surround the Beemer and start pointing and talking in Hindi at different little spots on the car. Adi gives them his credit card and we get some gas.
He says: if you grew up here, you know how deeply fucked up it is. Ripping apart at the seams. Huge infrastructure problems. The problem with this city is it’s not planned well. Asians suck at planning cities with the exception of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore but then again Singapore wasn’t planned by the Singaporeans.
We drive back to Colaba and end up at a bar called the Woodside Inn, which is kind of like a reconstructed English pub, with low ceilings, lots of old wood, vintage door hardware, and order a round of a local microbrewed wheat beer called White Zen, which is kind of a clever play on words. Candice has a Negroni with a nice big ice cube.
Jarrett tells a story about how he accidentally took a roofie once in China and ended up feeding ice cream to a bunch of children. Adi is gregarious and charming and is telling us about how it goes down in Mumbai. Apparently all the kids are taking some kind of dirty speed called meow meow. We talk about how much Thai people hate Indians. They have a saying: if you have a snake and an Indian, kill the Indian first. We talk about the Chinese massacres in Indonesia. Adi says: sometimes they do it for religion. Sometime for other reasons. The world is going to shit.
He tells us how four years ago they banned elephants on the streets. There was a famous elephant called Lakshmi. You would pay her handler, bow to her and all that shit. She was fat and had arthritis. The city came together on social media, Facebook, Twitter, and we got her off the streets. That was the one time I can remember everyone coming together and agreeing on something.
Ten years ago, he says, they had dancing bears. They yank the bear’s nose, that’s how it dances, their noses are really sensitive, man. Golden Brown by the Stranglers is playing on the stereo. Patrick and Pailin show up again. We switch to Asahi. Easier to drink.
Adi tells us that we’re lucky that we came when we did. A few days ago there were dust storms that blew in all the way from the Middle East. It is now the hot season, which will continue until June when the monsoon begins. It can rain for four or five days in a row without stopping. Everything is fucked and there is no respite. Walk on the Ocean by Toad the Wet Sprocket comes on the stereo.
There are two Indias, Adi says. The first is India, modern and educated, and the second one is Bharat, which is what Indians call India. Opposing forces. You can make the right decision and hurt your parents or you can make a bad decision and please your parents. He tells us we’re lucky not to have Indian mothers: it’s emotional blackmail, man!
Cannot find a Cool Taxi. There’s a small chubby cabbie standing on the street with his hood open to air out the engine and we say goodbye to Adi get in his yellow and black with Patrick and Pailin. Jarrett and Candice get in a different cab and we head north towards Bandra, which is supposed to be the yuppie/hipster neighborhood where we’re going to have dinner.
Patrick says Adi reminds him of Turtle from Entourage.
Patrick and Pailin are thinking about relocating to Burma. I haven’t been there in about a decade and they tell me about how the scene in Yangon has changed after the opening up.
Some boys on the side of the road are playing ping-pong with a badminton shuttlecock. A LED sign above the road says:
DON’T BE NAUGHTY IT’S FOR YOUR SAFETY.
We drive for an hour through urban sprawl that doesn’t seem to change much. This city is really massive. The traffic is insane and the dust from the streets is blowing in the window and the smell of shit and piss and gasoline and everything all fuse together to create a pretty heavy situation. The driver is sitting next to me and he doesn’t really speak English but I am trying. He has a nice smile and even though he doesn’t understand what I am saying he just laughs and his eyes sparkle.
We get out of the cab on the side of the main road at a rendezvous point which apparently has been set up by the drivers beforehand. Patrick finds a place to take a piss and comes back and says: this is the best thing that ever happened to me. A couple cats jump out of a tree. The cab drivers are arguing because they don’t know where the place is when some random guy comes out of an alleyway and gives us accurate directions.
Jarrett’s cab driver looks at me, taps his sternum, and says: I am a good man.
We arrive at the restaurant, called Fresh Catch, which to our great dismay does not sell beer. My friend Himanshu, an Indian-American musician in New York who performs under the name Heems, introduced me over email to his friend Kini, a Bombay native who lives in Bandra, and he meets us for dinner. Kini owns a company that makes websites. He’s a hip dude, well-put together, calm and self-possessed, and we order up a mess of Goan seafood and talk shit. He’s brought us a chara of hashish from the Himalayas. It looks like a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie.
Kini recommends that we drink some Sol Koddi, which is made from the dried peels of the kokum fruit along with coconut milk and salt. It’s delicious and goes well with the food that Jarrett has ordered: crab in butter sauce, mutton vindaloo, prawns in green curry, more Bombay Duck. Jarrett says that a Goan restaurant would go over well in New York and I agree. Would love to eat this food more often.
Kini tells us that they just banned beef a month ago but now they’ve eased the ban. You can kill a buffalo but you can’t kill beef. Jarrett tells a story about how he vacuum-packed some beef for a dude from Luxembourg who was planning to smuggle it into India.
Mumbai is the place that people come to find work or stardom, Kini says. Kind of like Hollywood. He recommends a book called Taj Mahal Foxtrot, about the jazz age in Mumbai.
The restaurant was actually just south of Bandra so we take a cab there. Seriously fading from jet lag. Stop at a coffee shop for a double espresso.
Kini takes us across the street to Bonobo, a nightclub on the top floor of a commercial building. There is an inside room, which is completely empty except for a DJ playing electronic music from Ableton through a good sound system. I can feel the bass come up through the floor into my perineum and solar plexus. The deck outside is crowded with affluent young professionals in their late twenties and early thirties.
The kids in Mumbai take a lot of drugs, Kini says. MDMA, coke, meow meow. We get a beer and a shot of Jim Beam then decide to check out another place.
Another bar, the Elbo Room, which is probably called that because it’s very small and crowded. Get a bottle of Kingfisher. Love its sweet and formaldehydey taste. European DJ spinning Pitbull. In the video on the screen I somehow mistake Marc Anthony for John Leguizamo. There is a very long line for the bathroom. Patrick and Pailin take off.
Walking through a back alley behind the bar with Kini, we see a black shape that at first I think is a medium-sized cat but is actually a very large and fat rat. It is enormous, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. I run away like a frightened child.
On the boulevard outside there are more big ones poking their heads around next to the curb, sniffing around plastic bags, looking for something to eat. I’ve never seen rats move so slowly. In New York slow rats usually means that they’re poisoned but here I just think they’ve got swagger. Walking into the saloon with hands in the pocket of their tight jeans. Kini lights a hash joint next to a luggage store. We smoke it and watch the rats.
Try to get a Cool Taxi but none of them will take us, so we get in a black-and-yellow and head back south to Nariman Point. The driver is severe-looking with a white beard and we have some laughs. We take the Sea-Link bridge and for a moment are transported out of the general chaos of the city. An orange Lamborghini speeds past us going 100 miles an hour. Big boss. The hash is nice and easy. Not stoned, just right on the level. Eventually we get back into the snarl of traffic. A sign says:
MOTHER BORNS YOU ONCE BUT SAFETY BORNS YOU ALWAYS
The bars are closing and everyone is headed to the beach. The driver seems to think that the Muslim prayers just ended and it caused a traffic jam. Another sign says:
DON’T BE NAUGHTY, IT’S FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY.
. A man in a tuxedo walks through a busy intersection and towards the water. We go through the security checkpoint outside the hotel and up to our rooms.
Jarrett knocks on my door for a nightcap. A waiter brings a tray of limes, ice, and tobacco and we fix weak gin and tonics. We talk about business and life and the future. We listen to Dick Diver again.
Check my email and last night’s numbers from the business back home. Take a shower. Lie down in bed. Purple and white flowers. It’s over.