Mumbai/Bombay (whatever you call it) was my first experience in what I would previously refer to as “a really big crazy Indian city.” (We’d been to Bangalore, Udaipur and Jodhpur on our honeymoon; Cochin and Madurai were the biggest cities we hit before Mumbai on this trip). Now, I have a whole new view of Indian intensity in big cities vs. small ones. I actually think Mumbai is much less overwhelming than smaller cities we’ve seen (e.g. Madurai, now Agra). (P.S. I’ve by now also been to Delhi. It’s pretty intense here, so maybe Mumbai is the exception. Details to come in my Delhi post).
That said, it’s still quite an experience. And there are certainly intense experiences.
If you do nothing else, just come to Mumbai, get in a prepaid taxi from the airport, and drive to your hotel. That alone is an experience you will get few other places in the world. Holy intenseness, crazy crazy madness, overwhelming happeningness, and poverty of mammoth proportion. You pass slums leaving the airport, and we hit some pretty serious traffic. You don’t know traffic til you’ve seen Indian city traffic. Every last square inch is crammed with vehicles going every which way. I think our driver’s attempt to skirt the traffic contributed to the craziness of the drive, as we were on smaller side roads for much of it. Kids come knocking on the windows, some begging for money, others trying to sell you things. I spent the hour trying to soak in as much of the scene around me as possible, and crossing my fingers that our luggage tied to the roof of the car wouldn’t go flying off once we hit the expressway.
It’s always a little challenging getting into a new place in the evening when you can’t get your bearings. So starting Mumbai in the dark was a little confusing. Crossing the street is epicly difficult. Despite that there are traffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights at the crosswalks (or zebra crossings), it seems that cars occasionally consider red lights optional. And while traffic keeps left, as with most things in India, consider it a generality. Like our mothers taught us all when we were young, “look left right left, then cross…” Modify this slightly in India, look right left right, RUN RUN RUN. Actually, I think it best to find a group of locals that appear to know what they’re doing and follow (closely!) behind them.
There are lots of people out and about in Mumbai, though pretty much throughout the city (at least the areas we frequented) it’s not the overwhelming in-your-face-ness of say Agra, Madurai or Delhi (except maybe at India Gate). I’m starting to notice that men far outnumber the women in many parts of India, and I find it somewhat surprising that in a modern city like Bombay where many women work that we can walk two or three crowded blocks and pass not a single other female.
Just walking out from the hotel to grab some dinner, we were thrown off passing guards with loaded guns pointed out at street so you have to walk right by it. I’m still not sure what building they were protecting, but it must be an important one. Looking like lost tourists in search of street signs, we wound up getting escorted to our restaurant, Kyber, by a friendly man carrying a laptop in shopping bag. I was skeptical; he was kind. And Kyber was delicious. It was here I tried mutton (goat) for the first time. We ordered the mutton rara: mutton pieces in an almond cream and red masala sauce. Fantastic, but the highlight was most definitely the mint paratha! I am so obsessed with paratha it’s scary, and I didn’t realize it could be improved upon (I’ve tried it aloo (potato), paneer (cheese), garlic, you name it), but mint! Who would’ve thunk it. Oh. Em. Gee. Solid meal. Though the city price tag was a shock after all the cheap and delicious eats we’ve had so far – about Rs 2,000 plus 22% VAT/service charges for what was actually only one main dish. Also they charged Rs 325 for rice (we’ve had huge meals of curry and unlimited rice for less than Rs 100!).
We stayed at a hotel in Churchgate called Astoria. The area is fantastic. Nearby to Colaba, which is probably the most popular tourist area, but a little bit less crowded, and lots of good stuff to see/eat/do nearby. We were also right next door to the Churchgate metro station, which proved to be very convenient for getting to our slum tour. The hotel itself was mediocre, and pricier by far than most of what we stayed in in India (about $100 a night, internet access extra). I guess Bombay is a pricey city. The most redeeming thing about our hotel was definitely the impressive breakfast spread. They had a guy who cooked up omelettes and dosas to order. I think I ordered a Masala dosa every morning. Definitely try the banana shakes as well. Also, they provide scented talc as a complimentary toiletry, random and awesome.
Our first day in town we set out to walk around and explore. We stopped to watch boys playing cricket on the Oval Maidan. It’s a large park with a handful of games going on at all times it appears. And the architecture surrounding the park (as well as all around this city!) is beautiful – art deco, gothic, very European. Next we walked up to India Gate, which was hugely crowded with tourists and hawkers. You have to wait in line to go through some security, but I find it more disconcerting than comforting when the bag check policy seems to be hit or miss. We saw Taj Palace from across the way. Despite the guidebooks intriguing mention of the awesome bathroom on the main floor, we skipped it. From there we walked up through Colaba market, again very touristy. I find it odd that there are super famous and popular places where food is not known to be great and their main claim to fame is showing tourists the bullet holes from the terrorist attacks. Not exactly my thing. Instead, we stopped at Olympia for a quick eat. While I was not enthused by the fact that we had to eat on the “Ladies Lounge” on the upper level, the cheap and tasty mutton masala spicy was worth the principle digression. We knew this spot was legit because it was the spiciest meal on the trip so far, and we were the only white people in the place.
We walked off lunch through some random and poorer areas. Given how many people live on the streets, you see a lot of people’s more intimate and mundane experiences. We saw numerous pick-up cricket games in the streets, lots of people sleeping (everywhere), even kids being bathed in the street.
That night we went to dinner at Pizza by the Bay for some good ole western food. It was super delicious – fried calamari and margarita pizza and a bottle of wine. Mix of locals and tourists, and a great location where you catch the breeze off the water through the open windows.
While there’s definitely a range of budgets accommodated by restaurants in Mumbai, the mid-range restaurants are much more expensive than elsewhere. Or is it just that there weren’t many/any mid-range restaurants elsewhere? Either way, the prices were a shock after our experiences eating cheap. Most shocking are the wine prices. They charge $50 for a bottle of Yellowtail. YELLOWTAIL! Oi. Not to mention there is like 25% extra with taxes and service charges (which you never see at the more casual spots). Indian wines are more reasonably priced, and as such we stuck to these. We had an amusing conversation with our waiter one night about the virtues of Indian wine. His argument was essentially that the conditions for wine in India are on par with those in respected wine producing regions, but the problem with Indian wines is just that their vines are too young. Interesting. His other argument is that Indian people “have the tongue” for it, and so they can taste how good it is. I’ll buy that argument vs. most westerners when it comes to spicy food, but wine? I ain’t buying it.
We walked over to the Intercontinental Hotel after dinner to grab a few cocktails. A girl followed us all the way from dinner to the bar, trying to sell us some flowers by fake crying, making weird faces, hanging off of Alan, and a host of other odd tactics. She seemed to speak decent English so I told her that pretending to have a seizure was probably not her best sales tactic. I guess we were the fools because by engaging with her she gave us her hardest sales pitch all the way to the bar, and then waited for us until we came outside probably over an hour later. That girl should be a Bollywood actress. There are a handful of beggars throughout the city who hold out their hands to you, and they seem to get progressively more aggressive at night, poking you or whacking you with their outstretched palms if you try to ignore them.
The rooftop bar at Intercontinental was très chic and expensive (think $20 cocktails). There were no other non-Indians while we were there. We were seated at a 4 seat high top and twice asked if it would be OK to seat people with us. Both times we said yes, but then the guests refused. No love for the tourists?? Anyway, we very much enjoyed the great views and popular American music. With the flashing Christmas lights it had a very clubby vibe. The drink I ordered was spectacular, I think some combination of kiwi and coconut water and vodka and some other stuff. Budget buster day, but if only for a night we felt like our old employed selves. 😉
The next day we did some more tourist exploring on foot. We checked out Horniman Circle, which was a peaceful little park with a playground inside. Next we walked through fort area.
The shops were not in full force, it being a Sunday, but there was still plenty of activity. Including this cow, waiting in line for a Xerox:
The Post Office building is the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the buildings in Mumbai practically rival those in St. Petersburg for impressiveness. We went in to the Victoria train station, tried to figure out how to purchase tickets from Agra to Delhi later in the week, but as with most things in India, it was confusing and definitive answers were scarce. We left empty-handed as we hadn’t brought our passports with us.
Stopped outside to try a peroo (sp?), an Indian guava, with chili salt. Interesting, though I think we should try one with a pink interior. These were white and we saw vendors later selling ones with pink insides that looked maybe to be a bit more ripe.
Crawford market was fun, tons of stalls selling snacks and nuts and spices. We bought a little package of spicy cashews (which I believe gave me food poisoning in Delhi, ugh) and some candy covered fennel seeds (so good, and help digestion if eaten after a meal. They hand these out in lots of restaurants with your bill.) They also had lots of fresh fruits, and right next to it was a row of animal shops with adorable puppies sadly caged and birds of every type, from chicks to parakeets.
We walked by the Devi temple, which had a line of locals that wrapped round the block. We stopped to ask an official looking man if it was OK to go in with Alan wearing shorts, his response was to shove us in and cut the line. Felt bad, but nobody seemed to mind beyond the basic shoving whilst in line process.
Weary from the heat, walking and little food we finally arrived at Chowpatty Beach. I think this is THE spot for Sundays, and it was bumping. There are vendors everywhere selling snacks, toys, rattan mats, and a host of other items. My favorite? Guys with tricked out power wheel cars and motorbikes blaring music that they would push kids around on for a few rupees. We were tempted by the snacks and sweets, though having read that this is a particularly hygienically risky area, we opted for pre-packaged ice cream bars. Fantastic – mine was fruit and nut and had yellow raisins and nuts in it. Which reminds me that so many countries outside the U.S. use the yellow raisins over the red ones. So much better, can we make this a thing in the states?
After chilling on the beach for a while we grabbed dinner at Cream Centre for some solid veg food. Alan got the regionally famous Channa Bhatura, which is a gigantic piece of fried dough that’s all puffed up with air. You pop it upon receipt and use it to spoon out the spicy chickpea curry that’s served alongside it. Pretty good. I enjoyed a paratha and some paneer curry. We stopped at renowned Bachelorr’s for shakes afterwards. Maybe try the fruit, we went with chocolate shakes and they were nothing special and pricey by Indian standards.
Our last day in Mumbai we went on a slum tour with Reality Tours. I was on the fence about the idea of a guided tour, but I’m glad we did it. We learned a lot, and you really could get lost inside those dark and narrow alleyways! We first saw the commercial area where they recycle aluminum and plastic. The non-toxic trades are in the residential area (fabrics, food, pottery, etc.). The lifespan of people working in the recycling shops is quite low given the fumes they inhale daily.
Note that taking photographs is not allowed on the tour, to preserve the privacy of the people. The below photos are professional photographs provided by Reality Tours.
Part of the mission of the tour group is to portray a more “realistic” image than the media does of the slums, and how happy it is here. True, there were a lot of happy kids and adults here. I imagine the picture isn’t quite as rosy as they paint it to be, but it does give you an appreciation of the sense of community that’s created here. 80% of profits go to programs in the area to provide education, the arts etc. The kids are as always adorable and smile and say hello. I’m sorry if this sounds crass, but I feel like this had to be one of the “nicer” slums. They have public pay toilets that are cleaned seven times a day, and a number of the homes had color TVs and internet. I appreciate the mission of Reality, but I’m just not convinced it’s the full reality.
We took a cab to the Dobi Ghat (where they wash the laundry) afterwards with another couple. It was quite amusing when the tour guide tried to squeeze a family of 5, another couple and the driver in a five person car. Though I’ve probably seen more people than that in a tuk-tuk by now.
We braved the train back to Churchgate by ourselves. Trains were not as bad as we were warned, though I certainly could see how they might be at rush hour. The Reality Tours sent a guide to meet us all at Churchgate, and he’d give us three stops advance notice to prep us for getting off the train (apparently they stop only for seven seconds, and when crowded you kind of have to push and shove your way to the door in order to make it. Wasn’t really crowded at all when we rode though). We heard there are an average of 15 train related deaths a day (Alan thinks in Mumbai alone, can this really be possible?!). The average must be skewed by a handful of bigger accidents, but it’s still incredibly high. I presume this is primarily because of the people who hang out the open doorways.
Our last night we had dinner at Trishna, trying their famous butter garlic pepper crab, out of the shell. Tasty and VERY buttery. We also ordered chili garlic squid and a bottle of viognier, and even splurged on some kesar pista kulfi for dessert (kind of pistachio ice cream dish.. meh. nothing special). All in the meal was around $80. We’re living large in Bombay, baby 😉
A few thoughts on cleanliness/hygiene in India… A lot of people in India chew paan, a reddish tobacco product, so you see people spitting it out constantly. You also see a lot of it on the ground as you walk around. Interestingly, we did not see a single trash can on the streets of Bombay. Trash, you see tons of. The litter is much much worse in Northern India. In Kerala you see signs about keeping the environment clean, not littering etc. It’s not yet part of the mentality outside of Southern India. My friend Aash pointed out that the literacy rate in Kerala is around 90%, as opposed to something closer to 50 or 60% up in Delhi, so that probably plays a big role. Still, even in Kerala you will see trash flying out of bus windows.
You can’t be a puss about dirt here, and you definitely need a healthy open-mindedness about eating at less than spotless restaurants. We’ve had our fair share of meals that would not pass a health inspection review back home (is a grade F even possible?). It’s best to just not think about it. I’m particularly cautious in India (e.g. limited street food) because so many people do get sick here (according to the CDC there’s about a 50% chance of getting sick on a two week visit in India. Multiply by two of us and 3.5 weeks and we were (writing this from Delhi, where our luck ran out) beating the odds. You know it’s not a particularly clean country when restaurants use “hygienic” as one of the three words on their signs to entice you in.
Toilets similarly range in hygiene. The smell of the public toilets (where there are any) as you walk by is enough to make you try to time your water consumption with access to western toilets. And it’s no easy task, let me tell you! That said, you don’t see anybody peeing on the streets where there are public toilets. Men pee everywhere in India, and to my delight, I didn’t see a single man peeing whilst in Bombay! Hooray! Stay tuned for Agra, where I probably saw more men peeing than not peeing.
Getting out of Mumbai was a trip. Our plane ticket said we depart from “BOM,” and when you look up that airport code you’ll see that it’s the Mumbai International Airport. However, we were flying domestic, to Agra. We asked our hotel and they said it would be the international airport then. So they put us in a cab, argued with the driver in Hindi for about 5 minutes and then said, OK no problem, you’ll pay the metered price (basically no cab drivers will agree to metered prices, they try to rip you off, and there’s really no hope getting a metered fare unless you have someone who speaks their language arrange it), it will be a few kilometers past the domestic airport. We get dropped off at the international airport, and then the security guys can’t figure out whether we should be here or the domestic airport. We find some Air India employees who tell us to go to domestic. They’re just different terminals. Really? A $100/night hotel in Mumbai that’s popular with business travelers doesn’t know this? Anyway, we tried to hire another cab or tuk-tuk, and they all tried to rip us off massively (charging more for the 11km ride than it did to take the hour long trip from Churchgate to the airport). We weren’t that crunched for time, and were so furious at this point we told them all to fly a kite. Unfortunately though, nobody was even willing to negotiate. Finally an airport employee saw us struggling and came in to assist, getting a tuk-tuk driver to agree to take us at the metered price. Even then, she says in no case to pay over Rs 50, though of course our driver gets lost and so it cost nearly 50% more than that (not a lot of money, but nobody ever seems to know what’s going on). Then we’re stopped by security that takes Alan’s phone to look at our flight info and says “no, you have to go back to international.” How is this so hard?!? Honestly. Luckily/unintentionally(?), the tuk-tuk driver who could not speak English just dropped us at the domestic airport, and for an additional Rs 75 we were finally the correct airport. If you could see me fuming at the incompetence of the people running the airport food joint, you would have laughed. It’s a love-hate relationship I have with India. Love-hate.