Feeling at home in the marvellous metropolis of Mumbai
Saturday 13th August 2016
The guidebooks warn travelers of Mumbai's enormity, its traffic and its vast numbers of people. It's a fast paced, eclectic, polluted metropolis, housing everything from the country's largest slums to millionaire mansions. It's India's financial hub and the epicenter of the Indian film scene, giving birth to a new generation of movers and shakers, dreamers, entrepreneurs and wannabe movie stars. It's definitely a city on the up.
Maybe because we'd survived the delights and dangers of Dehli, or maybe because we've lived in London for long enough, but we didn't find Mumbai anyway near as daunting as it was suggested. We quickly fell into step with the locals and found that it was easy enough to blend in, browsing and meandering at our own pace, with almost nobody batting an eyelid at our white skin and Western clothes. There are no rickshaws there. Instead, Mumbai's iconic black and yellow taxis rule the roads. There are traffic lights, and that made it somewhat easier to get around, although just when we thought we'd got the rules sussed, a flurry of motorbikes speeding through a red light would prove us wrong.
We arrived in Mumbai early in the morning, exhausted and stinking after an overnight train from Kota. We headed straight to the "foreign traveler" desk at the train station in order to book our onward journey, as the Indian railway website won't accept bookings without a local phone number. Even in the station, booking a ticket as a foreigner is more difficult than it sounds, as the tourist desk isn't easy to find, and even when we did manage to track it down, we realised it didn't take card payments so we went on the hunt again to find a cash machine before going back.
Thankfully, our hotel - an amazing find in the heart of Colaba - allowed us to check in early and greeted us with cold welcome drinks (and very welcomed they were too!) We hadn't slept well on the train (a few snatches of sleep adding up to an hour or so) so it was hard to resist the temptation to just curl up and go to sleep instead of venturing out after a cold shower.
For such a large city, Mumbai doesn't have a huge number of sights, but we headed straight down to the wharf to catch a glimpse of the Gateway of India and soak up the atmosphere at the city's main tourist spot. Crowds of people filled the concourse - a combination of tourists, touts, photographers, souvenir vendors and people-watchers. However, it wasn't long before they disappeared as the heavens opened and the rain came down. We had just enough time to take a quick photo before taking cover under a tree.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around the streets of Colaba, noticing as the scenery changed from the tourist hubs to the more remote and residential backstreets. We had lunch in a local restaurant - an even more delicious version of the kofta we were given on the plane - and then headed up to Marine Drive where we found couples canoodling and friends hanging out, watching as the Arabian Sea crashed furiously onto the rocks in the bay.
In the morning, we boldly navigated the local train system (where locals literally hang from the doors as the train moves - presumably to get the only breeze in the city) and headed up to Mahalaxmi Station to see the famous Dhobi Ghat, a giant washing compound where laundry from all over the city is sent for cleaning. The coloured fabrics - towels, jeans, saris, bedding, skirts and shawls - stretch as far as the eye can see, and people can be seen furiously scrubbing and squeezing away in the fierce heat.
From a pocket map we'd picked up, we read that the area just North of the washing compound was the new arts and music hub, so we headed over there to see what we could find. We walked for miles around the Lower Parel and Elphinstone districts and navigated the haphazard and often non-existent pavements to find very little reward. The music hub turned out to be a Hard Rock Cafe (where we did stop for a drink to escape another downpour) and a live music venue that was closed. We did, however, stumble across a shopping mall, which we enjoyed for the air-con if nothing else. The mall was like a clone of Westfield or the Trafford Centre with brands like Marks and Spencer, Subway, JD Sports, Krispy Kreme, Zara lining the mall and all selling a Western dream - Caucasian hunks in the window of TM Lewin and pale skinned, blued eyed babies adorning the posters for Mother Care. Outside, the mall was getting ready for the grand opening of H&M in a day or two, and with loud hip-hop music blaring and young, beautiful people taking selfies left, right and centre, this is clearly where Mumbai's hip young things come to hang out.
From the mall, we walked to the city's other hot spot - Chowpatty Beach - just as the clouds started to clear and the sun came out. Here we ate like locals once more, feasting on the iconic dish of Bhel Puri from a beach vendor. The beach attracts hoards of families and friends every evening, who come to hang out and watch the sun set and today was no different. We joined the throngs of people gazing out to sea and for the first time since we arrived in the city, got bombarded by people wanting photos once more. White people eating ice cream is quite the novelty it seems!
In the evening, we ventured out for non-Indian food because Dehli Belly had finally caught up with me (surprisingly, Rene's stomach remained iron-clad!), I guess because we had been eating curry for three meals a day since we arrived and we'd been quite bold with our street food choices. We found a pure-veg 'multi-cuisine' restaurant where we feasted on veggie burritos and lasagne and gave our bellies a spice break.
We were sad to be checking out of our lovely hotel the next morning, but they allowed us to store our bags while we explored more of the city before our night train to Goa. On the last day, we ventured to some locals markets that sold everything from extortionately priced Kellogg's Krave cereal to bongs shaped like the Eiffel Tower, which is great if that's what you need, but there wasn't much here for us. The rest of the day was one of meandering, and as it was hot, we ended up seeking a bit of respite in a local park and then in the Mumbai history museum and we finished the evening with dinner and a nice glass of Merlot in the Mockingbird Cafe - a cool literary-themed venue that wouldn't be out of place on Shoreditch High Street.
Bags piled high on our backs (and fronts!) we walked to the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where our night train departed for Goa, and we located our train and platform without needing any help from a local.
Pitched as a place that's not for the faint-hearted, we felt quite at home in this super-sized city. It might have crushed our bellies, but it did not crush our spirit! I guess we must be seasoned travelers now :o)
Highlights: having our pick of the menu at Relish - the world veggie restaurant!
Low point: the smell of the indoor market that even upset the stray cats.
Next stop: Gorgeous Goa!