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Got the Bombay Beach blues and pinks

While road-tripping in California, a familiar name on an unfamiliar map results in a surreal discovery

Rusting cars at Bombay Beach, California. Photo: Alamy
Rusting cars at Bombay Beach, California. Photo: Alamy

I was nearly there, when a fast-moving black and yellow locomotive shot past on the track adjacent to the road, curiously like one of Mumbai’s kaali-peeli taxis. Fitting, I thought, to remember kaali-peelis right here.

I had found the name on my map and knew immediately that I had to visit. Whatever it took to get to this town on the eastern shore of the great lake in southern California that’s called the Salton Sea, I was going to do it. Part of the task is a descent of some 200ft. Not that you would notice the drop, but the cool thing is that Salton Sea is actually that much below sea level. So, if you were in Los Angeles, say—on the shores of the Pacific and thus pretty much at sea level—and you drove the 3-4 hours east to Bombay Beach, you would have descended 200ft in altitude. The height of a 20-storey building. There’s a thought, along with kaali-peelis, to keep you going.

But I know the question is on your mind too. On that first trip—yes, I’ve been twice—I spied a young couple strolling with a pitbull. I caught up with them, rolled down the window and asked: “Out with it, why is it called Bombay Beach?"

They stopped. The woman looked at the man. The man, at the woman. The dog, at me. Then she said, with a nod from him (the man): “The navy used to be here. Well, up in those hills"—she pointed in the direction of some nondescript mounds in the distance—“and they used this place for bomb practice. You know, BOMBS? So somebody called it BOMB-ay Beach and the name stuck."

The Indie band This Providence shot ‘Keeping On Without You’ at the beach.
The Indie band This Providence shot ‘Keeping On Without You’ at the beach.

Bomb practice? They bombed this place? Traipsing in my mind, the line from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia: No one would want to drop an atom bomb on Patagonia. Surely, not on Bombay Beach either? Still, I looked around with an involuntary frisson of fear. The scene was of bizarre, even sad, devastation. Here a house lay abandoned and crumbling. There, something that once was a van. Beyond that, an oven. Tyres, boxes, a truck, a TV…really, all manner of paraphernalia, all rusted, falling apart and slowly sinking into the mud and salt on the shores of the Salton.

Bombs did all that?

No, the Salton did that. This was a flourishing holiday destination in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes compared to the French Riviera. There was swimming, water-skiing and plenty of partying. But a series of floods in the 1970s sent the Salton’s waters flowing into Bombay Beach, inundating several houses. This was no ordinary occurrence, especially because the Salton is salty. You can imagine the havoc that tide of brine wreaked before the waters receded. Many residents abandoned their homes and fled, leaving behind the artefacts on display today, stuck on the shore; leaving behind something of a ghost town, population just 295 in the 2010 Census.

Today a berm hugs the western limits of Bombay Beach, protecting it from any further Salton depredations. You might think that knowledge of safety would bring back those who fled, but no. The remaining 295 people notwithstanding, the town has a desolate, derelict, deserted air.

Yet that’s just why it has become something of a magnet for photographers and film-makers looking for the surreal. Google is positively awash with efforts to capture on camera the strangeness of this place. My favourite might be a woman who is pole-dancing or doing malkhamb or something with a pole that sticks out of the mud. Holding on only with her hands, her legs make a “V" and her blue dress is the sole splash of colour. Her unabashed exuberance only emphasizes the bleakness.

In recent years, the town has seen a revival of sorts. Artists and writers have moved in, making it a hip playground for the arts. There’s a museum, an opera house— and, in April 2016, even the first annual Bombay Beach biennale. Vienna, Kochi, why not Bombay Beach? Yes, and why not an annual biennale?

The couple whom the author met. Photo: Dilip D’Souza

We stopped at Ski Inn, the town’s bar. Watching us silently were several wizened old men, including Peter the bartender and Wacko the regular (he goes by that name and no other). We were driving, so we declined Peter’s offer of a beer. Over a Coke, we told them of our slightly different and possibly even stranger Bombay. That brought smiles to some faces. Peter tottered off to find a Ski Inn T-shirt for our son.

Speaking of clothing, as we drove out of town, another train rumbled past and we stopped at a road sign that was pink all over. Pink? Yes, for someone had draped a pink athletic top over it. Why, you ask? Who knows? Wife got out of our Mustang convertible and posed against it, looking fetchingly into the distance. Under a partly cloudy blue sky, her hand on her hip, the muscle car in the background, it’s the photograph of her that I am fondest of, and we love explaining its provenance. Surreal, in pink.

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