"This is indeed India! the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations — the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined. Even now, after the lapse of a year, the delirium of those days in Bombay has not left me, and I hope never will."
(Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897)
So, after years of talking about it, and three stressful months of seriously planning it (finishing work and Phd respectively, moving out of our apartment, collating clothing and other travel items, and booking flights and accommodation for our first few nights) we finally made it onto our early morning flight to Mumbai, India.
The journey itself was problem-free, almost bordering on pleasant. Problems started, however, when I identified my name in an otherwise unintelligible announcement whilst waiting for our baggage at Mumbai airport. The upshot of the announcement was that Monique’s bag hadn’t made it onto the second flight from Amsterdam and wouldn’t arrive in Mumbai until the following evening at the earliest. Not the best of starts, especially as Monique’s bag contained a number of essential toiletries which we couldn’t really do without for 36 hours. Fortunately the airline eventually provided an overnight bag (after Monique refused to move without being given a toothbrush), and we now have a much needed shoe-horn!
We took the easy option of a taxi straight to the guesthouse which we had pre-booked for the first few nights (although the taxi driver had to stop to ask passers by for directions on about 3 occasions before finding it). The guesthouse was pretty much entirely underwhelming; a tiny room without a window, walls that don’t go all the way to the ceiling (more like separated units than rooms) and an unnerving scent of gasoline. Still, tired from a long journey (and not much sleep the night before) and with the promise of a room with the luxury of a window the following night, we agreed to stay.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep I made some tentative initial explorations without Monique, as she stayed at the hostel to do some work. Having heard many things about Mumbai (including comments to the effect that even Indians arriving in Mumbai hate it for at least the first few days) I was expecting a massive culture shock and prepared for an initially negative impression. Having visited several other major Asian cities I was expecting Mumbai to be completely chaotic and to be relentlessly hassled at all times. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the area around our guesthouse was much calmer than expected and in the first instance the majority of people I passed appeared to be completely indifferent to me, and those that weren’t either left me alone after I declined whatever they were hawking, or were mostly interested in chatting to practice their English.
That’s not to say that Mumbai doesn’t share similarities with those other major cities, not least the traffic and style of driving. The Mumbai streets are full of black and yellow taxis, rickshaws and motorbikes each of which has a wholly overused horn and whose drivers pay virtually no attention to junction and lane markings. For a Mumbai driver the horn appears to have a number of meanings: I’m here, don’t even think about getting in front of me; I’m here, but I acknowledge that you’re about to drive in front of me and I can’t stop you; please hurry up; I’m generally unsatisfied with the general lack of movement amongst the traffic at large and think that this will somehow help, and, I haven’t used my horn in 5 seconds, I’d better check if it’s still working. The result of this is a chaotic and noisy road system which is dangerous enough to drive in, so to try to cross the road by foot you’re really taking your life in your own hands. I opted to go with my tried-and-tested technique of crossing at the same time as the locals, however it appears that the Mumbai pedestrians aren’t much better at crossing the road than I am, and the drivers don’t tend to discriminate in relation to whom they drive at. In fact, someone seen to be "walking like it's his/her daddy's road", as the locals put it, becomes an active target for drivers.
Attitudes to us changed significantly, however, when Monique and I were together. Although Monique dressed modestly (full length trousers, shoulders covered, and often a sarong around her shoulders – more conservative than a number of resident Indians in the city) the male attention was relentless. Fortunately this didn’t manifest itself in men approaching or saying anything, however they would unashamedly stare at Monique’s chest until they caught me glaring at them. Other attention we received was more positive with many Indian people (I suspect tourists themselves) asking for photos with us as if they had never seen white people before.
We spent a lot of time wandering around the streets and markets of Mumbai adjusting to the temperature and the Indian way of life, and checking out some of the more impressive buildings (including the University, High Court, etc) and watching the many locals playing cricket. Much of the city reminded me of Bangkok, although much friendlier and without the relentless hassle we encountered there from salesmen.
The most striking sight in Mumbai is the Gateway of India near the south tip; a huge stone archway commemorating the visit of King George V, and now a gathering spot for local people and tourists alike (and apparently a popular place for match-making to take place).
Opposite the Gateway of India is the Taj Mahal Hotel; famous for its opulence and for being a target in the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Other points of interest we visited were Mani Bhaven, the house where Gandhi stayed whenever he was in Mumbai, and where he formulated some of his central philosophies and launched various campaigns, now turned into a museum, and Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, the world’s largest outdoor laundry where up to 5000 people wash clothes by hand at any one time, where we received a somewhat unofficial tour which included walking over worryingly flimsy corrugated metal roofs while ducking under hundreds of lines of washing from hotels, restaurants and hospitals around the city.
On a number of occasions we were joined by local people who were happy to give us a guided tour in return for merely talking to them. A University teacher and student spent at least an hour walking us around before we joined them for drinks at their usual chai place; at first we were suspicious as to their motives, but they made it clear that they weren’t after money, just a chance to talk to a native English speaker (and an American). More bizarrely an elderly gentleman, formerly a teacher and now apparently some sort of philosopher and riddle teller, approached us near to Girguam Chowpatty (a beach at the north end of a long sea wall on the West side of the city, popular as a local hang-out spot due to it being the only area where it’s possible to relax and feel the sea breeze) and subsequently spent hours regaling us with his views on life and riddles (most if which he appeared to have made up himself) as we walked along the sea-front and he pointed out places of note. This became slightly tedious after a while, however we stuck with him as he casually wondered into the Trident Hotel (a 5-star where many politicians stay while in Mumbai) as if he owned the place and, after enjoying the air conditioning and piano playing in the main reception area, took us for a tour of the top-floor meeting rooms to show us the spectacular panoramic views of the sprawling city. We were expecting to be chucked out at any moment as we looked somewhat out of place in our traveler garb, however our new friend’s casual attitude appeared to persuade the staff that we were doing nothing wrong (after accidentally walking in an a meeting he even asking the staff to open the blinds and dim the lights for us in the adjacent room to enable us to enjoy the views). He then took us to Nariman Point at the very south end of the sea wall for more spectacular views of the city at night. He would willingly have spent all evening with us, however we had to call it an early night because we needed a good night’s sleep before our Bollywood debuts (about which later). He left us, however, with an invitation to stay in touch and let him know if we needed any guidance on important life decisions(!!!).
A further random experience was when I was approached by a man who informed me that I had something in my ear and, before I really knew what was going on, that ‘something’ became a rather sharp tool with which he proceeded to scrape wax from my ear. Somewhat taken aback I tried to pull away, however he held tightly onto my ear-lobe to stop me getting away (and I didn’t want to move too much for fear of him doing some damage). During the process he handed me a business card identifying him as a qualified ear cleaner; I had no idea that such a thing existed. After he had removed a rather embarrassing amount of wax from my ears we agreed a suitable fee following some haggling and went our separate ways. Apparently ear-cleaners used to be commonplace in India, however they are dying out. I can understand why; it was a rather unpleasant experience to be honest, not least due to the facts that I had no idea what was going on at first and that he left me with sore ear-lobes. Still, I have come to get used to these sort of random encounters over our first few days in India, and I suspect that we have many more to come.
We started our final day in the city with an early morning laughter therapy on the beach. This involved joining a circle of locals (men on one side and women, the majority, on the other) who first carried out a number of stretches before following our session leader (the founder of laughter therapy which, according to him, is now practiced in every major city of the world) in a variety of different synchronised laughs. It’s really quite difficult to describe, but various points involved laughing whilst wondering around hugging and high-fiving one another, and pointing at various things (the sun, the sea, the trees) and laughing at them. I’m not entirely convinced about the benefits of the therapy itself, but it was certainly fun and what really was enjoyable was how readily the regulars invited us into the session and how much amusement they took from the tall, pale foreigners joining in with them. They even insisted that we enter the circle at the end to announce our thoughts on the session.
The remainder of our final day was somewhat frustrating as our planned trip to the nearby Elephant Island didn’t happen because the caves there were closed, as was the museum we had planned as a back-up. We discovered that as interesting and friendly as Mumbai is, it really isn’t a place to do nothing in particular. Apart from the beach and sea wall there is nowhere to get respite from the crowds, heat and horn-honking; there are no other open spaces or areas away from the well-meaning locals, and no sort of “café culture” where we could chill out with a cold drink without feeling like we were taking up a table that could be used by someone wanting to eat. We only scratched the surface of things to do and see, however overall Mumbai is a truly remarkable and bizarre city, and an enjoyable introduction to India, but a city which we were ready to move on from after 5 days.