Warning: This post is not a positive one; it portrays a popular Mumbai tourist attraction in a fairly negative light. If you do not wish to go to Elephanta Island with preconceived notions of what you will find there, stop reading. If you want to hear about monkeys and stupid tourists, read on. It’s also extremely long; don’t say I didn’t warn you. Get a cup of tea first.
Elephanta Caves; the real tourist trap, where everyone wants their share of the white girl’s wallet. Every step of the journey finds a foreigner fleeced of a little more cash, only to become increasingly disappointed with the whole experience. Nevertheless, I was unaware of this beforehand and regardless of the shaky weather during monsoon season, I was determined to clamber aboard a trusty old boat and make the 11km journey across the water to the Elephanta Caves, home of religious statues, pillars and deities carved into the landscape and a statue of an elephant. There are no elephants, but you knew that already, didn’t you? To get a ticket to Elephanta, you need to dodge the touts and sellers pushing their day tours on you every three steps of the walk across Apollo Blunder. I don’t like to be rude; this is their job, but some will simply not take a polite ‘no thank you’ for an answer and the fiery white westerner comes out every now and then. I am not proud of it. Finally the ticket booth was within my reach and some guy tries to sell me a ticket on the boat from beside me, rather than behind the counter. I avert my attention, explaining that I’m going to ask the gentleman about the trip, only to be directed to buying a ticket from the nondescript man standing next to me. Enabler.
Boarding the boat, a ‘helpful’ man shows me where to get on, but not before relieving me of 150 rupees for a guidebook ‘because everything is in Hindi and the guides there will try to rip you off’. I sigh and hand over the cash, knowing I’m wasting my money and getting ripped off in advance, but I was tired of trying to argue about it. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t all have bottomless wallets. I could relax finally, once I was on board the boat, and sat to peacefully people-watch for the journey. The trip was surprisingly calm, and the breeze preciously relieved me from the humidity for just a while.
The green, grassy island was a delight to behold, peppered with vendors selling corn freshly cooked over an open flame and luscious fruit, sliced up and ready to devour. Oh, how I longed to be able to eat the fruit, but instead settled for a bottle of water and milky, sweet coffee that barely tasted of coffee. Still, after two days in Mumbai, I hadn’t encountered anyone making masala chai, other than the chaiwallas selling on the streets, and made a mental note to look harder for my sweet chalice of joy. As my coffee returned my sparkle, the heaviest rains I’d seen yet came crashing down around my shelter. Locals worked hard to keep tarpaulins up while the water was unrelenting around them, vendors braced their wares against th assault. The sound was so powerful and I had the urge run out among it and hold my face to the sky. Sweet, cool, life giving and chaotic RAIN.
Cursing my stupidity of not changing my camera battery, I began to climb the 120 stairs to the caves, with the battery light flashing its warning, declining the offer of being carried on a seat mounted upon bamboo ‘to help me get up the stairs’. Tarpaulins covered the entire ascent to protect market sellers along the way, but captured every ounce of heat and humidity, so that by the time I reached the top I am sure every pore of my body had melted. Yet, when I got there, it all faded away as I spied a juvenile monkey clinging to its mother and feeding. The tiny little being seemed so perfectly formed and alert, constantly checking its surroundings and watching the world go by. Sadly, my moment was broken by women trying to give me water or take my picture with the monkeys. They don’t care which, so long as they get money.
I pressed on and spent a few minutes watching as more young monkeys moved around the area with their mothers. Large male monkeys play watchful guards and I can’t help but notice how like us they are. The juveniles move around, looking for opportunities to explore, fingering the ground for worms and seeds in the grass, eyes moving like ours, hands moving like ours. I may as well be watching a toddler. A male sits nearby, genitalia hanging out freely as he watches the goings on of the day and I stifle a giggle as I think of Andrew back home, probably doing the same.
Finally, I make my way to the entrance of the caves, and am relieved of another 250 rupees, for what I am not sure, yet I do know this is the fourth person I have paid to get to the same destination. The caves are indeed impressively huge, and I had taken the time to read up on the statues while traversing the waters. Detailed carvings of deities dancing, frolicking and posing lined the walls. There is much reference to lingam, a giant phallic symbol that I keep finding in explanations of one particular God. To be honest, there are so many phallic symbols in ancient hostorical carvings, I’ve started to take it as standard practice. Huge columns line the entryways (also phallic) and ‘guides’ continue to offer their services in negotiating the large room, while I continue to decline. The statues are marred by history, missing large pieces, robbing them of their grandeur and I find myself wandering out of the first and notably largest cave of the seven on the island.
As I walked away, sweating profusely once more, I randomly pondered the fact that I’d never had to use a public toilet since I arrived in Mumbai. Every ounce of fluid was leaving my body through my pores and I decided I should sit for a moment to throw a little more H20 into my system. I casually sauntered along the pathway, looking for a dry and reasonable place to sit, drink and write. I wasn’t really paying attention, lost in my own world, when there was a tugging at my side. My water bottle was being pulled from my grip and I turned to brush off the beggar I expected to find. Instead, I was brushing off one very aggressive monkey who very much wanted my water bottle. It hissed, bared its teethed and growled. I wanted to kick it, but read recently of what happened to another lady who tried that, and didn’t fancy getting rabies this week. It snatched at the bottle once more, and I bolted for a couple of metres, getting well away from my assailant.
I looked ahead and another monkey was sitting in the middle of the path with a discarded Coke bottle, upturned, pouring the dregs into its mouth. I sighed. We were responsible for this; we were responsible for their atrocious behaviour. This was learned from years of poor human behaviour and nothing else; how did we lead them so awry? I found a dry patch under a tree, on a stone surrounding and scrawled out my thoughts when a middle-aged Indian man approached me. Another guide; here we go.
“Excuse me,” he says, without a hint of Indian accent, “do you speak English?”
I nodded cautiously, unsure of where this was going. He seemed relieved.
“Can you tell me what there actually is to see here? I mean, are there even elephants? I don’t understand a scrap of Hindi and I’ve got no idea what’s going on here.”
Poor guy. I laugh inside and smile, explaining that it’s only named Elephanta Island because of a statue found on the the other side of the island, resembling an elephant. I suggested Kerala or Thailand for some pachyderm action and thought about how he got to this point. He looked like an Indian, so the touts ignored him, and no one had really explained anything about the place to him in their attempts to sell anything. They just assumed he was another one of them. Bonus for him, he got in at 1/25th of the price. He smiled gratefully, folded away his camera and wandered towards the exit, not the only disappointed tourist to ever arrive, I am sure.
Once more I paused my writing, snapped my Moleskine shut and turned to give a man, who was getting too close for his own good, a well earned death stare. He finally stopped creeping towards me, returning to his friends and mimicing my action, regularly looking back at me. Bite me buddy; you’re on par with the monkeys. Meanwhile, the family sitting beside me, who were on the same boat as I, were using an umbrella to battle with an aggressive monkey in the tree above us while they tried to share their packed lunch. Between the heat, monkeys and off-beat tourism standards, I was nearing the end of my tether and clearly in need of my nanna-nap.
I moved on to check out the last caves before leaving, and spotted a white tourist feeding biscuits to the monkeys in order to hold them long enough for pointless photos. The poor creatures were gorging themselves, not sure of when they would be given their next snack, filling their cheeks with sugary mess and scrabbling for more every minute. I sighed but walked on, but turned when the man let out a cry. A very large male was growling, hissing, climbing his shorts and scratching his arms, attacking him for the biscuits. He pulled a handful of them out of his pocket and threw them at the ground, in an attempt to avoid being bitten. Stupid, stupid tourist. He looked to me for support, saying ‘Oh my God,’ and all I could muster was ‘that’s why you shouldn’t feed them.’ He muttered ‘yeah, you’re right’ before moving five metres ahead and feeding more juveniles alongside wild dogs.
I walked along to the last caves, but they seemed a little undeveloped, unsupervised and generally unsafe for one such as myself. Dark places and young females do not a good situation make. I turned back only to see another monkey having acquired now a half full bottle of coke, beginning to open it while Indian and foreign tourists alike whipped their cameras. It appears none of them thought it would be helpful to stop the situation and I am thankful I don’t intend to go to the zoo if this was a sign of the animal culture.
I stopped to think about what I could take away from the experience, other than disappointment. I learned that I didn’t have to see every attraction, no matter how popular it may appear to be, that I often turn into a part of the attraction myself, and that humans can have the most absolute capacity for being idiots. I decided I’d much rather be in Colaba, people watching, taking photos in the markets and wandering through art galleries. I stopped at a vendor on my walk back to the dock, argued over the price of a peanut and sesame bar, and boarded the boat heading back to Mumbai. We left the coast, the breeze picked up once more and I rested my head on my arm, thankful that the sweat on my body would start to dry.
Then, the boat broke down.