Toweling Off in Mumbai


Who knew a good towel could be so hard to come by? I arrived in Mumbai on Friday morning to begin my work at 1298, a private ambulance company. I’m staying temporarily in an apartment in the suburbs while I look for more permanent housing, and I quickly realized one of the items I’d forgotten to bring—a towel. Mumbai is a city of over 15 million people, so I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find one.  On Sunday, my day off, I walked around my neighborhood, but no luck—it’s a middle class suburb of multi-story apartment buildings, but not much in the way of shops. So, I figured it was time to try out the Indian train system and take a ride to downtown Mumbai.

After the half-hour trip, I got off at the end of the train line in historic south Mumbai, filled with old Victorian buildings and, like the rest of the city, tons of people and vehicles.  Just outside the train station, the sidewalks were filled with vendors selling every sort of clothing, from shoes and sandals to sweaters (can’t imagine wearing one of those in the tropical heat here…) and jeans.  I figured I was in luck—it shouldn’t be too hard to find a towel here.

Within a couple of blocks, I spotted a towel vendor on a street corner.  Among the brightly colored models depicting strange cartoon characters, I found a few standard towels and settled on a dark blue one.  This is when I decided I’d try my hand at bargaining.  The vendor offered 100 rupees (about $2.50); I countered with 60. He explained that there’s one price for the medium-sized towel I wanted, and that it’s 100 rupees. I told him I thought that was too expensive and repeated my 60-rupee offer. He again declined, at which point I thanked him and made a move to walk away. Usually at this point the bargaining begins, or so I thought. Instead, he called my bluff and let me walk away.  No big deal—there would surely be another vendor just around the corner.  After a half hour of walking past every conceivable clothing item for sale (more pants, more shoes, underwear, socks, etc.) and many non-clothing items, and still no towel in sight, I caved and returned to my towel guy, paying the full 100 rupees.

Proud of my purchase (if not of my bargaining skills), I tried out my towel this morning after showering.  When I was done toweling off, I looked like a smurf. Completely covered in blue lint and blue dye.  So I decided it might have been wise to wash the towel first. I pulled out a bucket, added some soap, washed the towel, and found that the water had turned a deep blue in color—along with my hands. A second wash produced just as much blue water. Lessons?  Don’t buy a blue towel—go with white or something skin-colored.  And while things may be relatively inexpensive here, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be of high quality.  There’s a cost/quality tradeoff here as elsewhere.  As clichéd as it is, you often do get what you pay for…

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