Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Tag Archives: Mumbai

Yangon – bridging moments

The landing point.

The landing point.

There is a ferry landing, made up of lashed together floating docks and barges, that juts out into the Rangoon river, away from the centre of Yangon. Through an early morning haze, dozens of small motor boats ferry in workers from the cheaper villages on the south bank of the river, threading their way between the fast-moving freighters that supply this former colonial city.

The ferries themselves

The ferries themselves

There are no intermediate steps or stages, so the passengers help each other to scramble over the sides of the barges and cross the planks that span the gaps between them, before they reach the bridges that lead to dry land. Two women spread food and sundries across stalls in the shade of a shed built on one of the barges. As I watched, they are passed by a small group of teenage monks, laughing in their freedom from early-morning disciplines.

Boys will be boys

Boys will be boys

Standing there, I felt a first connection with the land and the people of Myanmar. Even though the immigration official returned my smile as she handed back my passport (sorry – immigration official? smile? – yes – it happened) it didn’t really create much of a bridge. Completing this writing a week later, the feeling of that first day’s connection is less tangible, but still there – the people have a cheerful buoyancy that was a great contrast to the hurried urgency of Mumbai. Bartering is still done hard but with a smile and a shake of the hand, whereas there was always a more desperate edge in Mumbai. It’s not that Myanmar isn’t poor or that people don’t need the money, but it is not so overwhelmingly overcrowded and the extremes of poverty are not so evident, at least in the city centre. But I owe the people of Mumbai a bit more than that – they have their dignity and their courtesy, too, as I found in the slums by Bandanga. Perhaps it is under more continuous and corrosive threat in Mumbai, and therefore it has to be more fiercely held and defended.

By the entrance

By the entrance

Back in Yangon, close by the landing, is the small monastic compound from which the teenage monks had come and across the road from there, is the Botataung Pagoda. The entry-way is thronged with early morning supplicants, and I wonder a little at what chance there might be for quiet contemplation, as I pay my $3.00 to the government official who guards tourists’ shoes in his hut[1].

The pagoda from the dockside

The pagoda from the dockside

Around the central spire of the pagoda, there is constant movement; young and old, city workers, school-children, labourers and the like, pausing for a few minutes or staying the whole morning, to meditate and pray in one of the dozen halls and shrines that are dotted around the site. A few monks are in evidence, here and there, but these are Theravada Buddhists – their approach to enlightenment emphasises individual dedication and development; so only a party of school-children and the odd group of Europeans has any obvious guide or leader. All is covered in gold, including the hollow pagoda[2], which is reputed to hold a hair of the Buddha himself, within its walls.

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

One of the shrines, across a pond full of terrapins

As I turn towards the gates to make my exit, I realise how quiet I have become – whatever its outer bustle, something about this place allows me to relax into the peace of my inner self. This peacefulness stays with me for much of the rest of the day. I wonder where it really comes from and what I might do when I return from this walkabout, to make such connection more conscious.

Dedication, family style

A family cleaning one of the shrines, as you do…

The main meditation hall

The main meditation hall


[1] Foreign tourists are expected to pay entry fees at each of the great temples. I am quite happy to do that, but suspect that much of the money goes into the dubious pockets of a government that has been described as amongst the most corrupt in Southern Asia.

[2] Nearly all other Buddhist pagodas and stupas are solid structures many reputed to contain offerings and relics of either the historic Buddha himself or one of his kind. After the Botataung Pagoda was fatally damaged in bombing during World War II, many such objects were found an are now openly displayed inside the rebuilt structure.

Down Malabar Hill

As I first looked over a map of Mumbai, I spied a word that held a strange magic for me – Malabar. In my childhood, HMS Malabar was the name of the Royal Naval station in Bermuda; the last remnants of its dockyard were part of a boy’s paradise of real and imagined dangers, amongst the abandoned buildings and rusting cranes, deep moats and empty magazines of Britain’s fortress of the Atlantic.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

The view South East, to Old Mumbai.

So, before I even really knew what it was, I was determined to visit this other Malabar and discover what might have linked the two places. I have to say that I haven’t yet discovered that link – it may after all have been no more than (navy) gin fuelled whimsy – but my afternoon walk provided some intriguing glimpses of life in one of the oldest parts of greater Mumbai.

The “Hanging Gardens” lie close to the summit of Malabar Hill, which turns out to contain the highest natural point above the city. Here, young and old stroll through flower beds and winding paths that give haze filled glimpses of the heart of the former capital of the Raj, below. The first steps away from these summit views took me through a children’s playground – there were certainly children around, but the swing area was entirely occupied by a group of young women, thoroughly enjoying an afternoon amongst friends.

Girls on the swings

Girls on the swings

A roadside cobbler - to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse - a huge palace.

A roadside cobbler – to his left the entrance to the Government guesthouse – a huge palace.

The main road down the hill is a broad avenue between huge buildings, each with high gates and very serious looking security guards. Aware of how tense city police still after the terrorist attacks in 2010 and the riots in 2011, I refrain from transgressing public rule number one – no photographing government buildings. So, I have no pictures, save for this of a roadside cobbler.

But, with the help of a passing cab, I eventually reach the entrance to a narrow alley that I am told leads to the Banganga Tank, a large, open fresh-water reservoir, reputed in some local stories to be the centre of the earth, itself.

This gave me another small set of photos, making too many for this single posting, but see my second post of this series – “By Banganga Tank”.

Then, as I skirted around the side of the tank, I saw this small alleyway off to my left, through which I could just see the sea. As I walked down it, an older man, sitting with his family, caught my eye. Instinctively, I performed a Namaste, bowing slightly. At first surprised, he returned the traditional greeting to the spirit, and then rose to shake my hand, welcoming laughter in his eyes.

The alleyway to the sea

The alleyway to the sea

This mutual ceremony of dignity respect was, I think, the reason why no further heed was paid to either me or my camera as I took these last shots in the failing light of my first day here.

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

Sunset at the bottom of the hill

The other beach life of Mumbai

West along the shore

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