Less than 72 hours after landing in Dubai from the USA, I got on a plane again. I must have had a very good reason to do so, right?
My beloved agent and friend, Priya Doraswamy, is celebrating the 5th Anniversary of her literary agency, Lotus Lane Lit. She’d had a party in NYC a few months ago that I missed, so when she mentioned a party in Mumbai on August 3rd, I decided to go no matter what.
So here I am.
Besides celebrating Priya and Lotus Lit – and working on a proposal for a new book – I had one important mission to accomplish in the city formerly known as Bombay.
GET A MASSAGE.
Before leaving Dubai, knowing I’d be knackered by the time I arrived in Mumbai, I booked a reservation online for a spa that appeared to be located near my hotel. I never received a confirmation of the appointment, but I wasn’t thwarted. I’d just show up at 10 a.m. and demand to be rubbed with lemongrass by someone. The best panacea for jetlag squared.
Hello today! I left my hotel at 9:30 a.m. and headed in the direction of my dreams. By 9:35, I was lost — or else the spa was lost. We couldn’t find each other. Perhaps I hadn’t received confirmation of the appointment because the spa no longer exists. I had to revert to Plan B: locate another spa. But how? Where?
By 9:37, at least five street hawkers had tried to sell me a package of gargantuan rattle-shaped balloons. They seemed absolutely shocked that I wasn’t buying what was obviously the best product on the market. I had no doubt there would be ample opportunity to reconsider my decision not to purchase one of these lovely novelties.
By 9:39, an old woman was walking alongside me for a short chat.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“USA,” I answered, without hesitation.
“I thought so,” she said. “You walk like a man.”
At 9:45, I walked (like a man) into the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and asked the concierge to direct me to spa services. Surely, I’d be able to get a massage at the finest hotel in the city — a place also known as the location of a horrible terrorist attack in 2008. Once inside, I was glad to see that the hotel has made a full recovery.
At 9:50, the Palace Spa receptionist informed me that in-house services were for hotel guests only. Sensing that I might fall down on her spotless marble floor and cry, she made a phone call to a sister location. She happily informed me that the Jiva Spa at the Taj Wellington Mews had an opening at 10:15! She gave me a map to the destination — less than 2 kilometers away — and sent me on my way.
In many, many, many places in the world, INCLUDING MUMBAI as I discovered by 9:55 a.m., street names on signs don’t match up with the street names on maps. By 10 a.m., I was quite ready to buy an inflated gargantuan maracas-shaped balloon and hit myself over the head with it. Would I find the spa by 10:15?
I kept walking (still like a man) in the hopes that I’d just get there. Along the way, I took in the great contradictions of Mumbai: an extreme spectrum of poverty and wealth; remains of a colonialist history alongside a modern film industry. I might have ruminated more on these things if I hadn’t been completely fixated on whether any dengue-carrying mosquitoes were coming to life in the small pools of standing water on every dual-named street.
At 10:14, I turned a corner – in every sense. The Taj Wellington Muse was standing before me, like the Pearly Gates.
At 10:22, my feet were being washed with great grace in warm rose-petal water inside the luscious space. The tall, gentle man assigned to fix my feet and shoulders and back and neck and face and brain, seemed as much of a Mumbai misfit as me. He’d introduced himself as “Tenzing,” which is not a typical name in India.
“May I ask where you are from?” I said.
“I am from Tibet, but I am settled in Mumbai now,” he answered.
Upon hearing the key word, “Tibet,” I suddenly knew a lot more about Tenzing. He’s part of the Tibetan diaspora – several hundred thousand people who have fled the threat of persecution by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in occupation of Tibet.
I tried not to worry about Tenzing while he rubbed my privileged woes into submission. By 10:30, I was on a higher plane (one with no jet lag) of existence. Tenzing was massaging the world’s troubles right out of my tight muscles. Some serious Buddhist magic in his touch and in that jasmine oil. Best massage I’ve ever had, bar none, anywhere in the world.
As Tenzing massaged my elbows – by which time I had no idea what day it was or where I was – I thought about the random twists and turns that led to our paths to cross. If I’d found the original spa and Tenzing had not settled in Mumbai, I’d probably be walking around with a gargantuan papaya-shaped balloon and he might be in a Chinese prison in Lhasa.
This is exactly why I travel: To intersect with other lives, in places where neither of us intended to be.