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Around some of the world in 180 days

Show me the way to Mumbai

INDIA | Tuesday, 27 March 2012 | Views [953]

It's week 7 into my tour and I'm flying from Delhi to Mumbai. It felt pretty good to have flown for a change and avoiding the bus/train station madness that usually followed on arrival. Much prose and poetry has been written about the quality of air in Mumbai and it won't be long before any new arrival has to mentally block out all thoughts of the damage it's doing to the body.

Day 1

The itinerary for the first day was to blitz through the sights around my hotel in South Colaba. The first stop was the Gateway to India, a monument built to commemorate the visit of George V and pretty a lacklustred landmark to boot. Luckily, the Gateway is also the best departure point to Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO world heritage site situated on an island about 10km away. The usual jostling for tickets forced me to threaten a few of the locals with being thrown into the waters. I've learnt that being nice will not solve the queue jumping nonsense. The show of bravado no doubt helped by the thought being kicked to bits, Jackie Chan style. I guess there's something to be said for the cosmopolitan Mumbaikers (as they're known). Some of whom actually got my ethnicity right and then for some reason bring up Jackie Chan as if I would know the guy personally. Which brings up another odd line of questioning from Indians, especially Mumbaikers. I'm oftened asked which country I'm from. When I tell them I'm from the U.K, more often than not, they simply walk away satisfied that I knew my own nationality.

So back to the Elephanta Caves. The boat ride takes about an hour. There's little to see on the journey, apart from cargo ships. Even 10km out, the sea is filthy. Certainly no birds or fishes could survive in this water for long. The Indian Navy does have a based in Mumbai Harbour and the pride of the Indian Navy, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat was docked:

On the island itself, the pier is about 500m from the foot of the caves entrance. If the the 500m walk is too much, there's a mini train that will take you from the pier to the entrance for only 10 rupees. It's a slow ride and faster to walk, but you can just enjoy the scenery as the train trundles along while slowly bring overtaken by an asthmatic ant.

As for the caves, there are 7 in total. The first cave is the most important and the most impressive. A temple dedicated to Shiva, the carvings around the temple depict some of the myths associated with him. It's amazing to think that such a big  temple was carved out of rock. It's also the only cave worth coming for, the rest of the caves were erm ... caves?

Back to the mainland for lunch, I went to the famous Taj Mahal Hotel next to the Gateway, mainly for the experience. For the first time, I felt really embarassed by the way I dressed as I walked about the hotel, ate at one of the restaurant and blowing 2500 rupees, albeit on a very nice lunch. The rest of the day was a blitz through some of the Mumbai landmarks, Chowpatty beach (small and dirty), Wanklele and Brabourne criket grounds (not allowed in), David Sasson Library, Esperade Mansions, Mumbai University (they're buildings, Victorian Gothic style), Oval Maiden where people continued to play cricket despite the fading light. And that was it for day one.

Dharavi Slum

If you've seen Slumdog Millionaire, then you can see the real deal by taking a tour of Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in the world. It's not hard to get to by yourself from Dadar Station. If you're thinking on saving on some cash to do the tour without a guide, note that even the guides sometimes got lost. I took a guided tour with Reality Tours because it's a NGO that donates 80% of it's profits to projects aimed at alleviating poverty in Dhavari. 

Over a million people live in the slum packed into an area of <wiki the size>. It's a labyrinth alleyways bounded by buildings 2 to 3 stories high. Buildings that are a mixture of factories, workshops and dwellings. We got to see some of the workshops, where men and women are crouched over sewing machines stitching clothes, shoes, factories recycling plastics, carpenters making furniture. One of the worst jobs was the aluminium recycling factory. The conditions are dangerous and air is filled with toxic fumes. All for 200 rupees a day for a 10 hour shift. I felt really ashamed of my lunch at the Taj the day before. At the end of the tour, we got to see some education projects and to speak to residents about their daily life and struggles. It's a real eye-opener to hear what simple things people want and we in the west take for granted like indoor toilets and schools.

Dhavari a cliche of poverty and yet wasn't as bad as I had imagine. It's a community, albeit a very poor one. Even amidst all the poverty there were no beggingand people living on the streets, there were happiness and smiles, a functional economy and hard work. Happiest of all were the children, who seem to enjoy the presence and attention of forgeiners. It was a real pleasure to see the children happy, although deep down I think they were simply too young to truly understand the gravity of their situation.

At the end of the Dhavari tour, us tourists all went for a coffee. The American girl on the tour was complaining about the lack of WiFi and hotspots in Mumbai. I offered to let her use the WiFi back in my hotel. Unfortunately, this came out as an offer to use my hotspot back in my hotel. So embarassing.

Food Glorious Food

Being a big and wealthy city, there's a wide range of foods, from upscale restuarants serving food available anywhere in the world. Lower down th scale, Mumbai is also known for various fast foods. Local varieties being Vada Pav (it's a potato pattie in a bun), Pav Bhaji (it's lentals in a bun), Pav Samosa (you get the picture). Wasn't particularly impressed with any of these. Mostly they were tasteless, over-spiced rubbish that can be found in some Indian restuarants in the UK.

Some of the best art galleries and museums are also based in South Colaba. The Prince of Wales musuem is very close to the Gateway. Princess Diana fans might be disappointed though, it's not that Prince of Wales. The museum is pretty good with it's collection of sculptures, arts, natural history etc and worth a visit. The Prince of Wales museum was also a first in India, an encounter with a pimp, in broad daylight, in affluent South Colaba, nowhere near the RLD!! The Jehangir, National Art Galleries are also within walking distance to the Gateway, and the collection are a bit sparse. 

Mumbai Traffic

The taxi drivers in Mumbai are a completely different breed compared to the rest of the country. I've concluded that to drive a taxi in Mumbai requires at least the following skills:

1. Speed on the horn

2. Speed on the brakes

3. Poor lane discipline

4. And a lot of luck

Train and airport schedules are also seem to be important events for taxi drivers. One of whom had the nerve to suggest I get off at Marine Drive and walk because he wanted to go to Victoria terminus for a train arriving from Delhi. WTF, you want me to walk 2km to my hotel? As Rhihanna said, just shut up and drive.

Last Day

Having spent 5 days in Mumbai, it was time for the next stop in Augrangabad. A 9 o'clock evening train meant I had a few hours to kill, so I decided to take in a Bollywood movie. Thinking I could walk out if it got too boring, my cunning plan was twarted by this notice:

At the start of the movie, the Indian national anthem played and I had to have a look around to see if I needed to stand up (I did). Followed by another look to see if I can sit down when it finished (I could). I must have selected the wrong movie because this was no typical Bollywood film with singing and dancing. It was a proper thriller, with a proper story and proper acting.  Despite not understanding a word of it, the challenge of trying to decipher the story actually kept me awake. For the record, the movie was Kahaani, and the plot wasn't too difficult to understand anyway.

Tags: india, mumbai, unesco


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