Whatever its name, it’s big

Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on who you ask) is huge, both in terms of population and area.  It could overpower you, at least if you try to cover a broad section of its geography.  There are some interesting sights and countless nice restaurants and nooks for quietude.  The weather was great with warm days and cool nights, like Los Angeles.

This was our first time in a really big Indian city, and we actually found it less overwhelming than some of the smaller cities.  I think this is because it has that rhythm of a major metropolis with nice, more Western escape zones and the anonymity that comes with being two of 20 million.  I felt safe here, and our friends in Delhi opined that Mumbai is a good bit safer than Delhi.

Highlights included Chowpatty Beach on a Sunday afternoon, wandering some alleys off the Colaba Causeway and the Dharavi slum tour.

We got our first taste of trying to cross a Mumbai street while walking to a delicious dinner at Khyber on Friday night.  It is not easy.  There are multiple lanes of traffic in each direction and green seems to mean go while red is maybe I’ll go or maybe I’ll stop.  But if I tell you that’d be cheating.  It can help to follow a local whose body doesn’t display obvious motor vehicle-inflicted damage.

So crossing the street is challenging, but then you might find a nice, wide sidewalk with only humans using it.  A major change from somewhere like Madurai or Agra.  And again this felt less challenging to me, perhaps because I am more accustomed to busy streets and aggressive drivers (a la New York) than to dodging mopeds, touts, cows, goats, monkeys and piles of feces.

Saturday we had our first masala dosas for breakfast and a cappuccino!  On the list of things I miss, good (and usually iced) coffee features prominently.  We wandered around and passed a little park with Ghandi’s statue before realizing we took a circuitous path to end up back at the Oval Maidan, quite near our hotel.

The Oval Maidan is a large green space surrounded by 19th century Gothic buildings on one side and 1930s Art Deco on the other.  There were several cricket games being played and some of the teams had uniforms.  By luck we stumbled upon the Jewish synagogue and I snapped a shot of this gorgeous robin’s egg blue structure before being told that no photos are allowed.

After a generally peaceful stroll we arrived at the Gateway of India and thrust ourselves into its madness.  It is beautiful but so crowded and hectic, and I did not want to buy a photo of us printed on the spot nor an enormous balloon.

Then we continued to Colaba Causeway which was slightly calmer and decided to eat lunch at Olympia Coffee House.  It is an Irani cafe where the waiters all don Peshawari caps and only men are allowed on the ground floor with the mezzanine for women and their families.

We split a “mutton masala spicy” and this was our only meal of the trip so far where the heat made me pull back towards the end.  I’ve been impressed with Jenni’s consumption strength.  They brought fennel seeds with the bill, which is common here.  We were only the white folks in a packed place; it must not be in Lonely Planet.  And with a generous tip it cost $4.

We continued south and wandered east onto some side streets (near the “Pasta” lanes, if you’re looking) with no other tourists but plenty of fruits, veggies and goats.  Then we crossed back west to a slum by the ocean with an intense fish smell and much harsher odors by the bathrooms.  Real strong stuff.

There are a lot of government and administrative buildings and generally a stronger security presence than I anticipated.  One of my least favorite things is the abundance of stands with a rifle propped facing outwards near head level.  But I guess everything works flawlessly in India so what could possibly go wrong?

Dinner was our first real break from local ethnic cuisine and half a night out.  We had a corner window table at Pizza by the Bay with great views of Marine Drive and the Queen’s Necklace.  After this we had drinks at Dome on the roof of the Intercontinental hotel around the corner.

A little girl selling flowers relentlessly pitched us the whole way.  Some of the kids hawking here are so cute and personable.  If they were in the US they might be child stars, or at least have the most profitable lemonade stand on the block…instead of hustling for their next meal.

To enter the Intercontinental you get the metal detector wand scan.  It is a pretty swanky place and the roof bar was very nice with great views, albeit about $20/drink.  Oh, when you see that Oban single malt for only $13, don’t get excited.  That’s for a 30ml pour, so double it for a drink you’d accept in the US.  It felt nice to have a taste of our former lives hanging out with fancy people.

Sunday we walked around the Fort area and markets but you should do so on a different day because a lot of it was closed.  There were so many people sleeping on the street or some kind of stand today, I think more than usual because it was Sunday.  It was fun watching kids play cricket in the streets.

Mumbai is probably India’s most cosmopolitan city and there is some real wealth here.  It is fascinating to see some of this alongside cows on the road and guys sharpening knives with a bicycle-powered wheel.

The post office occupies an impressive building just by Victoria Terminus (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus but most still refer to it as Victoria or V.T.), a beautiful and lively structure.  You can’t enter the main part of the station as you typically would in Europe, but it’s worth seeing.  Plus you can grab an Indian guava with chili salt.

Crawford Market was a shadow of its regular self but we found some spicy cashews and candied fennel and there were still lots of puppies, birds, fruits, veggies and men sleeping.  As I write this from Delhi, those spicy cashews are the chief suspect in the moderate stomach problem case.

We walked a long way and had a hard time finding a cab, so we were quite pleased to reach Marine Drive and catch the sea breeze.  A little bit farther and we hit the sand at Chowpatty Beach.

What a great scene on a Sunday afternoon!  The area is known for street food and snacks, we were wusses and just got some ice cream bars.  There is a small section on the south end with permanent F&B structures and then a big beach packed with families and people grilling up corn and making Indian snacks.  Guys rent little mats (and get pretty territorial with each other) and others have these pimped out big-wheels for kids that play electronic music.

I had a delicious channa bhatura for dinner at Cream Centre across the street.  It’s like a puffed up piece of fried dough that you puncture and then eat with a spicy mixture of chickpeas, potatoes and onions.  My meal came with a view of the Chowpatty crowds and lots of guys looking in through the window to watch cricket on the restaurant wall’s HDTV.

A block or two down is Bachelorr’s, famous for its fresh fruit juices and creams.  We got chocolate milkshakes because that always sounds right, but they were so-so and I’d go for the fruit drinks.  Speaking of drinks, when you walk around Mumbai all day, it is hard to figure out the right balance of staying hydrated but not having to pee.  Because good luck finding a bathroom that’s not the sidewalk.

Monday we met our Reality Tours & Travel guide at the Churchgate station for the ride up to Dharavi.  They were pretty alarmist about how hard it would be to get off the train at the right stop, but it was easier than the New York subway (though more on this in Practical Info).  The slum tour was very neat and I recommend doing one.  They strongly request you do not take any pictures once the tour begins, so the ones I have included are from their own library (which you can access after taking the tour).

This is one of many slums in Mumbai, but perhaps the most famous due to its size and Slumdog Millionaire.  There is a heavy industry section and a residential section where they also have enterprises making things like soap, leather, pottery and papadum.  The heavy industry section is dedicated largely to recycling, mostly plastic with some aluminum.  The working conditions are pretty rough with some closed spaces and toxic gases.  The population density is astronomical.

Dharavi functions like its own city.  There are schools and some stores and an economy estimated at several hundred million dollars.  It is estimated that 1,500 people might share one public toilet.  I haven’t researched it extensively and the workings are complex, so I won’t try to get into all the details of life in the slums and the “law”  and controversy surrounding them and forcible eviction that takes place from time to time etc.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award and I mention it on my Books post.  It takes place in a different slum but the tales of corruption are so mind-boggling and heinous.  Our tour makes an effort to focus on the happiness of the residents.  It is true that we saw a lot of kids smiling and in general the feel was not of desperation and horror but rather contentedness. My guess is the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  That the lives of most are not as dreadful as the main characters of Katherine Boo’s book but that there is extensive crime and corruption that Reality Tours omits from the story.

Interestingly, Reality Tours is itself quite the operation.  There must have been 30+ people in small groups that day, and the tour operates every day.  They give 80% of the profits to their sister-NGO…but I wonder what even 20% of those profits amounts to?!  I don’t mean to suggest they’re doing anything wrong, but it’s an interesting new business.  I actually just came upon this article from yesterday, quite timely.

We met some nice fellow travelers, including an Aussie couple on a six-week trip with three young kids.  Nice to get a little inspiration in advance 🙂

We stopped by the Dhobi Ghat on the way home.  The one we visited in Kochi offered a more up-close view and was more quaint, but this was another interesting juxtaposition of an old tradition in the middle of a mega-city with big buildings in the background.

Trishna is a famous seafood restaurant and dinner that night was a moderate splurge.  It was good but I can’t say I was blown away.  I was more excited to find this Indian kid wearing a “that’s what she said” t-shirt.

Getting to the airport on Tuesday was a bit of a fiasco but alas we made it with plenty of time for our flight to Agra.  And I got some more inspiration for a planned post on some of the things that make India incredible yet also infuriating!

Practical Info

Transportation: A prepaid taxi from the airport to our hotel in Churchgate cost Rs 480.  If you take the Sea Link bridge, the toll is an additional Rs 55.  Traffic is usually bad, so plan for 60-90 minutes.  To return to the airport, our hotel called a taxi and insisted he use the meter so the trip was less than Rs 400.

We walked around much of the city and this may suffice for Colaba, Fort, Marine Drive, etc.  But not if you want to visit areas further afield.  Taxis and auto-rickshaws are reluctant to use the meter, but your hotel or a guide may be able to convince them.  The amounts are pretty small so it hardly matters, but e.g. we paid Rs 100 to go the same distance as a trip four times as far would have cost on the meter.

Our only experience with the train was the day we did the Dharavi slum tour, when we met the guide inside Churchgate station and he purchased return tickets.  Since we traveled counter to the daily commute (i.e. we were heading north around 9:30 am when most commuters were coming from the north to Churchgate and surrounding areas), the train was not that crowded and it was pretty simple.  Same for our ride back on the train from the Dhobi Ghat to Churchgate.  And since Churchgate is the end of the line, it removes some of the stress that would be present if the train were crowded and you tried to enter or exit during the handful of seconds the train rests at the platform.

Make sure you know which airport you need.  I won’t get into the details here, but we had an unpleasant experience sorting out where to go for our departing flight to Agra.

Accommodation: Many tourists stay in the Colaba area (this is where the famous Taj Mahal Palace hotel and Gateway of India sight are located, among others), and this seemed like a fine option.  We stayed at Hotel Astoria in Churchgate.  The room was spacious with good AC for just over $100/night.  Breakfast with fresh omelets was included.  WiFi is available free in the lobby but in the room you pay Rs 107/215 for 12/24 hours, and this is per device.

The location was very good.  One long block from Marine Drive, right at an entrance to Churchgate train station, a 10 minute walk to the Fort area, etc.  The Intercontinental and its popular Dome rooftop bar are a five minute walk.  I do not know where Churchgate ends and Nariman Point begins, but the Oberoi is also in this general area.

Activities: We spent a couple days just wandering Colaba, Fort and some markets.  We did not realize that the Mangaldas cloth market and Zaveri Bazaar jewelry markets are closed on Sunday, and I think Crawford Market was a fraction of its normal self.

Chowpatty Beach on Sunday afternoon was a highlight, covered above.  We also thought our Dharavi slum tour with Reality Tours and Travel was a neat experience, covered above.  This cost Rs 750 each (or Rs 700 if you meet there instead of at Churchgate).  Reality offers slightly different versions of this tour as well as market, street food and other tours.  Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (still referred to by most as Victoria Terminus or V.T.) is worth a visit for its beautiful building, though you cannot enter the main area as you would in a typical European train station.

I might not go far out of my way, but if you are nearby then viewing the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat is kind of neat.  I think you can descend and get closer to the action, but most seem to observe from the road bridge above.

Some popular activities we missed include visiting the island tomb of Haji Ali, and Elephanta Island.

Food: We had some good meals in Mumbai.  I’ll cover the dinners first…

Khyber (Fort) is somewhat romantic with marble floors and rough wooden beams, and our mutton rara was excellent.  I was offended by Rs 315 for plain rice, but enjoyed my cocktail and the waiters speak English well.  BEWARE: many nicer restaurants do not include taxes in the prices shown on the menu, and these can add up to 25% without even including a tip.  Also, if you want to drink non-Indian wine, be prepared to pay 5x mark ups.  We saw a bottle of Yellowtail on more than one menu priced around $50.  Someone should import two-buck Chuck and sell it for $25.

Pizza by the Bay (Churchgate/Marine Drive) serves quite good pizza (certainly by Indian standards) and has other Italian and American standards.  Our corner window table on a Saturday night included a lovely breeze and Queen’s Necklace views.

Creamy Centre (Chowpatty Beach) is clean and bright and one of those places with a touristy feel but mostly Indian clientele.  My channa bhatura was very filling and delicious.  It is a chain with other locations in India and even one in Dubai.  After we got milkshakes at Bachelorr’s a couple blocks south.  These were nothing special, perhaps the fruit juices for which it is more famous are better.

Trishna (Fort) is a legendary seafood restaurant that filled up quickly after we sat at 7:45 pm on a Monday.  We split a large portion of the signature butter pepper garlic crab (out of the shell) as well as squid with chili and garlic and some garlic naan.  I used a chit for Jenni to forego paratha as the bread of choice.  The kesar pista kulfi dessert is like a cross between regular and astronaut ice cream and comes as a disc cut into triangles.  Minimal points for atmosphere.  The meal was very good, though frankly if you put a lot of butter and garlic on just about anything it’s tasty.

We really had only one proper lunch, as Sunday we snacked on spicy cashews at Crawford Market before some ice cream at Chowpatty and an early dinner, and Monday was a late margarita pizza at Markiv’s (a clean and corporate type place with mediocre pizza) next to our hotel.  But that one proper lunch at Olympia Coffee House was a highlight, which I covered above.  It cost Rs 250 with a generous tip.

Drink: We have been going out very little on this trip, but did enjoy a brief reminder of the high life at Dome (Intercontinental, Marine Drive) on Saturday night.  Aer at The Four Seasons is well-reviewed.  I believe there are some pubs and of course hotel bars in Colaba, and I read that many of the hipper/edgier venues are north of the main tourist neighborhoods.  Time Out covers Mumbai and might be a good resource.

December 27-31, 2013 (Friday-Tuesday)

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