12.05.2014 - 16.05.2014
Mumbai (also known as Bombay) is the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra and it is the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India. It is also the most populous city in India with just over 20 million souls. Yes 20 mmmmiiiiiillion!
We arrived at 5am (2:30am for us coming from Ethiopia) so despite the excitement of finally being in India, we just wanted a bed to crash on. Greg's friend Gabriella from Port Elizabeth has been living in Mumbai for the past 5 years or so and kindly organized accommodation for us with her Aussie friend Scott. Gabi had to travel for work unexpectedly the day we arrived so we didn't see her for a couple of days but we were determined not to let this massive city intimidate us on our first day. After a good nap, we emerged from Scott's apartment in Bandra West just in time for lunch. Bandra West is a suburb in West Mumbai considered quite cosmopolitan so we decided to just walk around our new neighborhood to get our bearings.
I don't think anything can really prepare you for the experience of walking the streets in an Indian city. I had read a few books and watched a few movies set in India so I felt ready, but within minutes of stepping out, I felt overwhelmed. Cars, autorickshaws (also known as tuk-tuks), trucks and taxis all honking continuously and there was no respite. Traffic laws exist but are not enforced and completely ignored. Honking is how vehicles communicate with each other, pedestrians and animals. Cutting someone off: honk; staying in your lane: honk; getting ready to turn left or right: honk; about to squeeze between two cars where there should only be space for 2: honk; pedestrian/dog/cow about to cross the street: honk; hell, haven't honked for the last 5 seconds: honk! Really?? Was that necessary?? You quickly learn that getting frustrated or yelling at the tuk-tuk driver who waited until he was right next to you to glue his finger on the horn and burst your ear drum, will only attract curious, almost amused glances from the locals. Your only chance of survival is to ignore the chaos and go with the flow. Easier said than done but doable. Oh and I forgot to mention the heat. We happened to arrive in India during one of the hottest months of the year so we are talking an average 33 degrees Celsius and incredibly humid so when we saw a sign for "Thai Foot Massage" in the middle of a busy street bazaar, we didn't hesitate for a second. It was ah-maaaa-zing!
We left the spa feeling reinvigorated and ready for the walk home, a shower, dinner and our first tuk-tuk ride.
Bandra sea shore:
Bandra street market:
The amazing tuk-tuk:
Gabi had recommended Pali Bhavan for dinner and it didn't disappoint. The rich texture and incredible flavors of our dishes were heavenly. If all else went pear-shaped for us in India, we knew we would always find comfort in the food.
Our trusty Lonely Planet map and Greg's phone GPS in hand, we felt confident enough to tackle the city on day 2. We began with a South Indian breakfast at Cafe Madras where the very nice family we shared the table with saw us struggling with the menu and decided to assist. They recommended the best dosa (rice pancake served with various spicy dips) and idli (fermented black lentil and rice cake also served with various spicy dips and sauces) dishes on the menu. Yum! Another quick taxi ride and we were at Babu Amichand Panalal Adiswarji, a beautiful Jain temple on Malabar Hill overlooking Mumbai's Back Bay and Marine Drive.
View of Malabar Hill from Back Bay:
We decided to walk as far as we could in the mid-day heat and managed to get half way across the bay before hailing a cab to our next stop: Crawford Market, an old style market housed in a historic colonial building. The Lonely Planet warned us about the porters in the market who follow you around hoping to carry your goods and take you to the stalls that will earn them a commission; and that's exactly what happened although we didn't buy anything and kept telling him we weren't interested. This one even followed us across the street before finally giving up. We took refuge in Badsha Snacks and Drinks, also recommended by LP . And so began our obsession with mangos, as it was mango season. We both enjoy mangos but as soon as we took a sip of that first fresh mango juice, we were hooked and already looking forward to the next one.
Lunch at Revival Restaurant where we tried our first thali (an all you can eat dining experience):
Greg played tour guide for the afternoon and took me on an architectural walking tour of the city. There were a few too many u-turns for my liking and I felt he may have made a few things up when I asked about the history of some of the colonial buildings, but he got us there in the end and earned his mango treat as tip
Victoria railway station:
Gateway to India:
We had dinner in our hood at Mini Punjab, another good recommendation from Gabi. Only problem was that we made the mistake of telling the waiter we didn't mind spicy (based on our last few meals) and they gave us Indian spicy, not the milder fresh off the boat tourist version. We were breathing fire, eyes and noses were free flowing and we became the staff's entertainment for the night. I'm sure bets were placed about whether or not we would make it to the end, who would buckle first and who would be the first to cry. I buckled half way through and cried. Lesson learned. Greg valiantly pushed through because it was actually delicious but there was no question about it, we had been defeated by chilli. Our tails between our legs we hailed our craziest tuk-tuk driver of the trip!
Not him, we were too terrified to take pictures on the way back!
More sightseeing on day 3 which included a trip to Elephanta Island, home to a network of 7th century cave temples carved out of stone and dedicated to Lord Shiva.
Gateway to India and Taj Mahal Palace hotel in the background:
Arriving in Elephanta Island:
We briefly considered getting a lift up the steep stairs to the caves but decided we needed the exercise:
Back on the mainland, we walked around Colaba which sprawls down the city's southernmost peninsula and booked a tour of Dharavi slum with Reality Tours, a not-for-profit organization that reinvests most of its proceeds back into Dharavi, mainly through educational programs. But first, we visited Haji Ali Mosque, a famous Mumbai landmark, before finally meeting Gabi for dinner.
Our slum tour was not scheduled until 10am the next day but Greg 3 came out the night before after smashing vodka sodas non stop (credit must be given to Scott for bringing him out) and was not feeling great, to put it mildly. He also smashed the other half of my fire-breathing-dragon curry from the previous night just before passing out, which didn't help his delicate condition. I managed to drag him out of the house with just enough time left to make our rendez-vous with the guide.
Need I say more?
The tour was eye opening and completely changed our perspective of Indian slums. Dharavi is a city within a city with an active economy with a total annual turnover estimated at US$500 million. Dharavi residents have access to schools, clinics, shops, factories, markets and even certain government offices. But not all slums are made equal and some do not have basic infrastructure like running water or toilets. There are apparently over 1,000 slums in Mumbai and half of the city residents live in these slums so approximately 10 million people. What's worse is that the truly destitute in India live on the streets because they can't even afford to live in the slums. Some in makeshift tents on sidewalks or near railway stations; others don't even bother with tents. And these are not the first world streets you are used to; these streets endure an incredible amount of human and animal traffic everyday (both of whom do not hesitate to use them as toilets when the need arises); and litter is thrown out of vehicles or dropped everywhere (except in the few bins scattered around the city) by pedestrians and street vendors so that even if the city's garbage collection system was the most efficient in the world (which it is not), it wouldn't be able to cope with the volume. So now imagine sleeping on these sidewalks...The number of people who live in these appalling conditions is staggering. It made me feel incredibly grateful. How lucky some of us are...
We were not allowed to take pictures in the slum so these are courtesy of Reality Tours:
Zoe, one of Gabi's friends from South Africa, had recently decided to move to Mumbai and happened to arrive early that day. Very early in fact, we were still out with Scott at the trendy Elbo Room bar. After a long nap, we met the girls and a few more of Gabi's friends for dinner at another good restaurant in our hip neighborhood. The evening quickly turned into an impromptu house party of 8, complete with drinking games, karaoke and dancing.
We would have stayed all night if we didn't have an early morning flight to Jaipur the following day. What a great night to end our stay in Mumbai.
Thanks again to Gabi and Scott for their hospitality and showing us a great time.
We are currently in Chiang Khong, a city in Northern Thailand and the next update on Rajasthan is coming soon.
Greg and Issy