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Mind your ears it's Mumbai!

INDIA | Tuesday, 21 July 2009 | Views [5281]

The sound of heavy rain on plastic woke me up. I was disoriented at first, wondering first where Claire was and second where I was. Then it clicked. London (or quite possibly in a holding pattern around the M25). Mumbai. I looked out the window to see a small brown flood outside the hotel. It was horrible weather, I felt like I was breathing in steam. I contemplated going back to bed but willed myself into the mildew covered shower for a cold sprinkling of water of questionable origin.

As it had been quite cold through the night (I even switched off the fan!) I downgrarded to a cheaper, non AC room. I moved my stuff to the new room and paranoid, locked my big bag secure and locked that to the bed. Not sure what was the lesser of two evils – rain or theft,  I took all the important or valuable stuff with me in my small bag. Claire had given me her umbrella.  

A taxi driver was lying in wait for me outside the hotel. I wanted to go to the renowned Leopold's in Colaba but had no idea how much that should cost. He said 90 rupees, I said put it on the meter. He said it was broken. I was getting wet now so I jumped in. The traffic was quite crazy, reminiscent of Vietnam but this time with cars, bikes, mopeds and pedestrians all vying for supremacy, no-one giving an inch. There seems to be a loose convention of driving on the left but it's only loose. People don't tend to use the path to walk on, favouring the street itself. Horns honk all the time warning whatever smaller to get out of the way of the bigger thing coming behind. Amazingly and in common with Vietnam, it all somehow works.

The taxi dropped me off at a street that looked just like any other and the driver pointed down it. I followed the gesture but couldn't find the restaurant. All I wanted was to do was sit down, look at the guidebook and have a think over some breakfast. It was too wet to look at the map in the book so I went for a  wander around the streets looking for somewhere to park myself and make some plans. I had done no research on India, not even on Mumbai apart from a cursory look at the map of Mumbai when I booked the hotel. This is not my natural style. I don't need a plan to stick to it, rather to have something to deviate from. Not having a plan was quite unnerving. I didn't know what I wanted to see in Mumbai, or India. I didn't even know if I should go North or South.

I found the whole walking about experience quite overwhelming. People were shouting things at me from all directions, none of which I understood or cared enough about to stay and find out. Eventually I chanced upon the Gateway to India, an elegant arch constructed by the sea in 1911 to welcome George V and Queen Mary when they visited India, presumably for a bit of a jolly in the jewel of the empire.



It was windy, wet, miserable and quite cold yet large gangs of people were milling about, seemingly enjoying themselves. Massive waves broke over the sea wall, soaking one group after another, causing raucous laughter each time.



As I took all this in I must have looked like I was new in town because I was quickly approached by a tout. He told me that Elephanta Island was closed. I thanked him, glad that I hadn't been intending on paying a visit anyway. Then he started on about a city tour. Against my better judgement I listened to his spiel, mostly to hear what the places to visit were but also because I had nothing better to do. He named off all the places and I asked him how much. 1600 rupees. 20 quid. I scoffed and walked away. He followed and asked what I wanted to pay. I said I was to hungry to think but that was way over my budget. “I take you to cheap place to eat and you think”. Bingo. I could at least eat now.

As I ate the omelette and toast and drank my first cup of chai the tout sat opposite, eyeing me up as he drank his own chai. I was not comfortable in Mumbai and wanted to leave as soon as possible. Tomorrow. However, I had also decided that, seeing as I had nothing better to do today and wouldn't mind seeing at least a bit of Mumbai before getting the hell out of here a tour might be a good idea. I got him down to 1000 Rupees, still a total rip off I'm sure but I wasn't in much of a mood to bargain hard.


I was introduced to the guide/driver and we set off to the first “attraction”, something called washing laundry. It was a short drive from Colaba, through the higgeldy piggeldy streets. Stopping and starting as people, or cows , or goats decided to cross the road or just stop in the middle of it for a think (this applied to people as much as cows or goats). A gap between some buildings opened out into a concrete maze of  water filled baths, many filled with clothes and manned by a wiry armed chap mangling the clothes with physical power.

If you get some laundry done in Mumbai, chances are it comes here to be washed by hand. There was some evidence of industrialisation. A massive home made washing machine had been constructed as had a lethal looking gas powered dryer but the majority of work was still done by hand. Pile after pile of clothes lay about.

I have no idea how they could tell which piece of clothing belonged to which batch and most likely never will. Thankfully the rain had stopped for a while.




Next we drove along Mumbai's famous Marine Drive with its odd shaped storm defences and heavily polluted, practically deserted Chowpatty beach.

Onwards towards Malabar Hill where I had a few barefoot minutes in a beautifully decorated Jain temple.

The heavens opened as I left and we made for the Hanging Gardens, so called because they are built on top of the city's main resevoirs. I am sure the topiary and flowers make it a relaxing place to chill out on a sunny day but the lashing rain prevented me from staying very long.


We drove back towards the centre of Mumbai past the Towers of Silence. Tourists are not allowed in but I was able to sneak a glimpse from the road. Mumbai is the Parsi word for temple. The Parsi believe that corpses are inherently unlcean and that the elements of Earth, Fire and Water should never be polluted by them. As such they lay out the dead on the top of the towers for vultures to pick clean. The reduction in the vulture population is a cause for concern. The Parsi have long played an important economic role in the city. Notable adherents are the Tata family who own a huge Indian conglomerate which makes and sells everything from trucks to mobile phones and even has a consulting wing that was rumoured, to buy out Deloitte Consulting while I worked there. I didn't know about the vultures then but I was glad the deal fell through.

Mahatma Gandi is probably the most famous Indian of modern times. He lived in Mumbai for a number of years and his residence has been maintained as a museum and research centre. It also provides welcome relief to damp tourists in the rainy season. I didn't know much about the man and it was fascinating to be walked through the principal events of his life through the medium of diorama. I'd never been a fan before but they managed to get the emotion and gravitas of his life and times across.


There were also some interesting letters to and from him including one to Hitler requesting that he avert the planet from WWII. The man correctly had a global impact and appeal, many countries, even Ireland,  commemorating his life and death with stamps.


Ciaran, I'm not sure if you're still a member of the Irish Philatelic Society but that one was for you.


Three hours after it had begun the tour ended back where it had begun in Colaba. I had actually enjoyed it (ok the parts where I wasn't in the rain) and was glad to have seen some of Mumbai. Now I could leave quickly in good conscience.


But not before going to Leopold's. This establishment plays a pivotal role in Shantaram, Greg Roberts book about Mumbai and India. I had to at least see it. When I found it I was a bit disappointed – it was almost empty and a pretty shabby place. The prices were very high too.

I sipped a diet coke, looked for somewhere more Indian to eat,  took a snap and went down the road for my first authentic Indian curry. I didn't know what I was ordering but it was a superb mutton kadai which came with slices of boiled eggs in the curry. Claire would have barfed. I also had some great naan bread. It was only as I was smacking my lips in enjoyment afterwards that I realised I was supposed to be vegetarian in India. I would have to start that later. My bill came with these lovely aniseed flavoured seeds (maybe they'reaniseeds?) which aid digestion.

After the meal I took the the time to read my guidebook a little. While I didn't have the time or inclination to make a big plan I did manage to decide where to aim for after Mumbai. Neither North nor South but inland to Aurangabad. With that decided I had a renewed energy. I went back down to Gateway looking for a tourist office but couldn't find it. The giudebook said there was one in the Taj hotel. I went through the incredibly tight security (Hilary Clinton was staying) to find that the bomb blast last year had wiped out the older section of the hotel, the tourist office along with it.

There was nothing left to be done but make for the main tourist office, over by Churchgate station. As I was agreeing a price with the taxi driver, a well spoken, turbaned, bearded man approached me saying something about my ear. I instinctively ignored him and carried on with the taxi driver. The ear man persisted, preventing me from reaching agreement on the price. He then said “Sir, please if you just give me a moment I will show you”. Before I knew what was happening he had deftly rolled a piece of cotton wool around a long, thin pointed instrument which looked medical in nature and stuck it in my ear. I yelled “Get the fuck away from my ear you crazy bastard” at the top of my voice and pulled away from him. At this he calmly showed me some white gloopy gelatinous stuff that he had allegedly removed from my ear. Then he had the gaul to stick his hand out at me expecting some kind of payment for services rendered. I jumped in the taxi and told the driver to go. I said to him, “That was bullshit right?”. He waggled his head from side to side, in the way only an Indian can and replied “Yes sir, this is definitely bullshit!”

I found the tourist office with some difficult. It would occur to no-one that a tourist looking for a tourist office would by definition not no where to go. Not a sign anywhere on the building and up some unmarked stairs (opposite Churchgate station – follow signs for the computerised reservations office). The lady was sort of helpful. I would have thought that I was a tourist information officers wet dream. I have 2 months to spend in your country. I like the following things. Can you tell me where to go I have no plan. She drip fed me some information about a few places and gave me some maps and badly copied information sheets about a few towns. She did offer me a piece of cake though and did ask if I drank alcohol. I said yes and she put an all India liquor permit stamp in my passport. I was now legally permitted to be  in possession of alcohol anywhere in India. Not that I wanted this dubious honour but there you go. 

Nearby was the railway reservation centre. I wanted to get to Aurangabad the next day. For those unfamiliar with the Indian railway system (which according to different sources seems to alternate with the NHS as the world's biggest employer), it's not as simple as just walking up to the counter and buying a ticket. For starters the route map is so complicated that you can't just look to see if a train goes from A to B. It may or may not, depending on a myriad of factors too complex for me to evcen begin understanding. If you do happen to find out that a train goes between  A and B, you need the train name and number. Then you can fill out a form with your name and address and passport details (along with those of the train) and fight your way to the front of a counter. (The Indian definition of queueing is, somewhat different to that of the English shall I say). Then a clerk will tell you what is available – there are 6 classes of reserved ticket and 2 of unreserved. There are also special quotas on all trains for different types of people: tourists, government officials, military etc. If there are no tickets left in the chosen class or quota you can go on a wait list, whereby unallocated reservations from all quotas are released the morning of the journey. You may or may not get a ticket.. In summation its bewilderingly complicated. I was blessed to be in and out in 15 minutes with a reserved tickets in 2AC class for Aurangabad from CST at 9pm the following day. Success!

It had been a pretty full on first day in India – I had done a tour, made a bit of a plan, had a curry, been scammed, run away, negotiated the train system and bought a ticket the hell out of Mumbai, a place I just could not warm to.  I was glad to go back to the relative comfort of the hotel and be able to discuss the days events with Claire who had by now arrived in London. It was only afterwards, as I was mooching about the internet that I realised that my day had unwittingly tracked the terrorist attacks that  blighted Mumbai almost one year  to the day before. Leopolds, The Taj hotel, CST were all invaded by gunmen, killing locals and tourists alike.

I spent the whole of the following day in the hotel and I have no shame in saying it. I was horribly behind on the blog and would have to make a mammoth effort if I ever wanted to catch up. I also needed to reply to a lot of unanswered emails. Most of all though, I wanted to leave Mumbai for somewhere a little less... like Mumbai so that I could feel at ease, do some research in a quiet place and make a plan. I knew that I was essentially running away from a city that deserved more. There was a lot I still wanted to see in Mumbai, such as the Dabbawalahs in action delivering tiffin boxes to hungry husbands all over the city. But all that was secondary to feeling happy in my own skin. Maybe next time.

Tags: cave, crazy people, religion, scam, tour, train


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