1-3: Mumbai (Bombay)

by - January 10, 2014

Day One: Colonial District

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway of India
If Mumbai cannot be seen from space (which as the world’s 9th largest urban area - with a population of over 20 million people, it probably can be), then it almost certainly can be heard from space.  I have never been anywhere with such an all-encompassing cacophony of noises, from street sellers to car horns to police whistles, all day, all night.  I arrived at Mumbai International Airport from London just after midnight - a decidedly inconvenient time to arrive anywhere.  Luckily I had got chatting to a really nice local girl on the plane who guided me through immigration and, after meeting Sergei my travel companion (who had arrived earlier from Singapore), helped us to find a taxi to our hotel which was about 45 minutes away in the city centre.  The journey turned out to be a bit of a pain as our driver appeared to grow tired of us being his passengers and towards the end of the trip began pointing us towards arbitrary hotels.  After a bit of cajoling we managed to get him going in the correct direction and checked in at about 2.30am.

Sights and Smells at the Sassoon Docks
The next morning we started quite late to try to recover a bit from the late arrival and differences in time zones.  Our hotel (the ‘Sea Green’) was located on the west side of the city in the Churchgate area and apparently was once used by British soldiers – the rooms were reasonably Spartan in their décor but were large and spacious with air conditioning.  We started by heading south to get a feel for the city and to try to get our bearings.  Unfortunately this took longer than planned and I managed to lead us straight past the city centre and into the Sassoon Docks, the main fishing harbour for the city.  This rather pungent detour was actually well worth it as we watched the colourful boats bringing in fish for girls in even more colourful saris to prepare.  The wide range of colours isn’t to say that it was particularly pleasant place to be however – the working conditions seemed pretty terrible really, though everyone smiled and waved as we wandered past.

The Sassoon Docks had given us our bearings so we headed north along the coast towards our goal for the day, the old colonial district.  This area is the main administrative centre of the city and was once one of the main administrative centres of the British colonial authorities, who stamped their authority with an array of beautifully designed structures.  Chief amongst these is the Gateway of India, built at the harbour front as the first thing that King George V would see when he arrived.  Next to this is the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which was actually built by JN Tata (of the Indian company Tata Group), supposedly when he was barred (as a native) from the other colonial hotels.  He would have the last laugh however as the hotel is now the most famous in the city and holds its own with some of the other elite hotels around the world.  It was unfortunately badly hit by the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 and there is now an enormous security presence in the area. 
St Thomas Cathedral

Victoria Terminus
We headed inland from here past a variety of architectural gems – including the old Royal Bombay Yacht Club, the Mumbai Museum, several galleries and the university before arriving at the St Thomas Cathedral which we dived inside to get out of the heat, hustle and bustle.  While the sound of car horns is never too far away, the cathedral was a welcome break and we spent a while looking around the marble memorials commissioned for British military and administrative men from times gone (including some who had fought with Lord Nelson for example).  Our next stop was considerably less exciting but very essential as we both bought local sim cards on data plans, allowing us to receive emails and use mapping services – two services that we thought would really benefit us throughout the trip.  The Vodafone shop took a long, long time due to a combination of slow Indian bureaucracy and massive queues, so by the time we had left the sun had nearly set.  This gave us just enough time to keep going north to arguably the jewel in the colonial architecture crown – the Victoria Terminus, the main station for the centre of Mumbai.  The station looks very similar to St Pancras in London but, in the glow of the Indian sunset it was a really spectacular sight.  We grabbed a quick snack and then wandered around the markets for a while before making our way back to the hotel and then out for dinner at a nearby vegetarian restaurant called ‘Samrat’ which was really wonderful and INCREDIBLY cheap – a full meal with two desserts (the waiter insisted we try several) and a coffee cost about £6.  All in all, an excellent first day in India despite a slow start.

Day Two: Elephanta Island

Arrival at Elephanta Island
I had deliberately overestimated the amount of time we would want to spend in Mumbai to allow us to get settled in and sort some things out for the rest of the trip.  As a result, we were able to get up at a leisurely pace and visited the train station to try to sort out some tickets.  The Indian rail network is the largest in the world, with the largest single workforce of any company and the largest computerised booking system.  Unfortunately despite all of these things, the railway is working way over capacity and trains book up months in advance.  I would have booked my trains accordingly, but unfortunately a new change to the system meant that you require an Indian phone number in order to make bookings – which we obviously were not able to get until yesterday.  This has meant that the majority of trains that I had planned to get had become booked and we were going to either have to swap to overnight buses (uncomfortable and a bit dodgy) or to rely on the railway back up system – a small quota of tickets for tourists, or the so-called ‘tatkal’ or emergency tickets which are released at the last minute.  The problem with tatkal tickets is that they are only available at the stations themselves and locals will queue from the night before to get the tickets that they need.  I made the mistake of buying what I thought was an overnight train ticket for a few days’ time, only to find that I had in fact pre-paid for a tatkal – meaning that to redeem the ticket I would have to turn up to the station again the day before the journey and queue.  Lucky I checked, or we would have been in a bit of bother when we tried to board the train in a few days’ time.

Entrance to the Elephanta Island caves
After spending the morning struggling with Indian bureaucrats (who in fairness to them are doing the best they can with a hugely overstretched system), we decided to head out of Mumbai on a boat trip to the nearby ‘Elephanta Island’ a world heritage site that sits about an hour’s journey away in Mumbai Harbour.  The island is home to a series of caves made around 1500 years ago with some seriously impressive religious carvings and is also a nice way to get away from the sound of car horns.  That’s not to say that the island is free from constant sources of irritation however – as monkeys, accustomed to regular contact with tourists, have progressively grown in courage and are now willing to come pretty close and have even been known to steal cameras and sunglasses.  I have always been pretty wary of monkeys as a bite would have a reasonable chance of carrying rabies – so we gave a wide berth.  A couple of hours gave us enough time to see the majority of the island and its temples and we soon were on our way back on a boat into the city. 

Cricketers at Oval Maidan
Arriving back at the dock next to the Gateway of India we slowly ambled back to the hotel via some of the other colonial buildings and through the city’s central park, Oval Maidan. towards the hotel.  The large park was quite a sight, filled with people playing cricket and flanked by the colonial splendour of the old University of Bombay.  As we made our way through the park, past the cricketers, we were approached by two guys who had broken away from their game to talk to us.  They introduced themselves as Sanjay and Sunny and after chatting to them a while they invited us to drink tea with them on the edge of the park.  The two guys were firm friends but were from quite different backgrounds.  Sanjay was 16 and still in school with the hopes of getting good enough grades to go on to studying Mechanical Engineering.  He explained that he would only be able to get into college if he could save the money and get the grades.  To get the money, himself and Sunny (who was 25) worked as shoe shiners on the street.  We spent a long time talking to them and it was clear that Sanjay was a very bright student – when he heard that myself and Sergei were from Hong Kong he went on to recount all of the dates and key people in the Opium War, for example.  Sunny was obviously not as well off as Sanjay and was shining shoes as a full time job as his father had passed away and he was the main breadwinner for the household.  They explained, over tea, how they struggled to shine the shoes as they only had a few rags stored in a carrier bag – and people only notice shoe shiners if they have a box of equipment and are able to sit in a prominent position (such as a train station) with a uniform.  As they are just two young men with a carrier bag with equipment in, they are routinely totally ignored and on some days make as little as a pitiful 40 rupees (40 pence) per day.  Unfortunately, the box of polish and rags as well as a uniform and permit would cost £25 which was more than they could muster.  Having spent a lot of the afternoon talking to the two of them I was pretty sure that their story was genuine and I was keen to help them so decided to give them the money towards their shoeshining equipment.  I figured the money would mean far more to them then it could ever to me and would slightly soothe my feeling of sheer impotence in terms of doing good in a city which has a slum with a population larger than Liverpool.  The two of them were over the moon and offered to clean by boots straight away, which I felt slightly uncomfortable about as it seemed pretty degrading, but they were keen.

Sanjay, Sunny and myself
I am a big believer in charity being a personal thing that people don’t talk about, but I mention this because I think most people would assume that I had been swindled and I felt, in my opinion, that the two guys were great characters and I like to think that is quite a nice story.  That night as Sergei and I ate our dinner (at the incredible Khyber restaurant – an absolute must visit eatery) I received an email from Sanjay, who had to borrow a computer from time to time to do his homework, saying the following:

hi friends thank you so much that you helped us to progress our life. i can also wish you a happy life, good job , health, money and love i wish you can get this in this year. happy new year you already made our new year happy so this is most memorible thing for us . we going to star our job from day after tomorrow . hi to both of you . alex and sergay  you are like an angel for us in this year. have a good journey
take care
regard from 
sanjay and sunny

From my point of view, receiving that email was the best part of the trip so far.

Day Three: Kotachiwadi and Mahalaxmi

St Theresa’s Church
For our last day in Mumbai we walked north along Marina Drive towards the more exclusive part of town as well as some of the other northern districts.  Heading north along the coast we passed along Mumbai’s beach, which the British called ‘Chowpatty beach’ – and as the local word for beach is ‘Chowpatty’, the British had in their infinite wisdom called it ‘beach beach’.  The beach itself was not too bad, with a broad sandy crescent sat with views back down the coast towards the city.  The water, however, was a different story and must be incredibly toxic.  Easily avoiding the temptation to swim therefore, we moved inland to the predominantly Christian neighbourhood of ‘Kotachiwadi’ which is characterised by its rustic wooden houses and pretty church.  Somehow this part of Mumbai has managed to resist the spread of reinforced concrete monstrosities that blight much of the city and is therefore full of character.  We lingered for a while and stopped at the major local coffee chain (Cafe Coffee Day) for lunch.

Haji Ali Mosque
Continuing north, we saw one of the newest Mumbai landmarks, the skyscraper belonging to ‘Mukesh Ambani’ called Antila.  This is the most expensive house in the world, with 27 floors (in a space that in a normal building would take 60), 600 staff and views over all of Mumbai.  It is thought to have cost as much as $700 million.  In the context of a city with the poverty of Mumbai, the tower appears somewhat distasteful, but I guess that it is a fitting symbol of the rise of India.  Past Antila we eventually arrived at our destination, the Hindu temple of Mahalaxmi and the Haji Ali Mosque.  The former of these was not particularly impressive but is extremely popular with the locals – apparently it is dedicated to the god of wealth so this is of little surprise.  The Haji Ali Mosque however was very impressive, located on a spit of land that is cut off when the tide is high.  Again, very popular, the spit of land was filled with a cross-section of Mumbai society – from well-dressed people on smart phones through to beggars with horrendous ailments.  We did not enter the mosque itself but walked around people watching before grabbing some juice at a nearby stand.

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat
The last of our sights in the north was the washing district, Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat.  Here, a large amount of the city’s thousands of kilograms of clothes washing is done.  Apparently if you ask your hotel to do your laundry for you, it is quite likely that you will see your underwear hanging up.  We got a great view of the strange district from the bridge next to the station.  We had now walked about 7km in one direction but it was getting to the rush hour so we figured that it might be just as quick to walk back again.  This also allowed us to visit one last sight - the house that Gandhi stayed in when he lived in Mumbai, where he penned his philosophy of non-violence.  The house, called Mani Bhavan, is sat on an upmarket suburban street and is remarkably normal (if wealthy for Mumbai).  There is a museum inside and some of the artifacts associated with the great man, such as his books and sandals.  By now it was getting late so we wandered back along the Marina Drive towards the hotel and in the evening went for our final meal in the city at the high-end (but still cheap by our standards) fish restaurant ‘Trishna’ where we had a great dinner of prawns and swordfish.  The following afternoon we would be leaving Mumbai for our next destination, Aurangabad, though there would still be time in the morning for a few last Mumbai sights.

Gandhi’s House in Mumbai

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