Tuesday, July 20, 2010

2 Americans, 7000 Indians and a Traincar Named Congested: Mumbai, India

Destination:  Mumbai, India

Number of days spent:  3

Where we stayed:  Anjali Inn (2000RP/$45) – Absolutely nothing wrong with this place except for the location.  It’s located out by the airports so plan on at least an hour to get into the Colaba area or 30-45 minutes to the ‘beaches’ or the shopping areas of Bandra and Juhu.  Otherwise, the staff is friendly, rooms clean, and for Mumbai the price is ok.  A better sign on the main road couldn’t hurt either as this place was really hard to find.

Best Restaurant:   Bhelpuri – a popular street food found all over Mumbai for about 35RP (less than $1)  A filling concoction of puffed rice, some sort of dal, potatoes, onions and topped with cilantro and a spicy chutney sauce – yumm.  Local chain Falafel’s was also good and the price was right for downtown Mumbai.  Unless you have an attachment to Leopold’s skip it – the prices are insane and the food and portions equally disappointing.

Best of:  Old colonial charm still exists in the downtown area, A snapshot of India within a couple of blocks – from abject poverty to the insanely rich, home to Bollywood – the world’s most prolific movie center (yes, bigger than Hollywood).

Worst of:  Want to see a Bollywood flick in the theatres?  Better speak Hindi.  None of the movies in the theatres are subtitled.  Expensive – more than double the rest of the country on just about every category – food, lodging, etc.

Most memorable:    “Oh my God, YOU took the train!  During rush hour!?!?”  exclaimed our friend Puneet as we met him for dinner one night, “you really are brave…I don’t even do that!”  Brave?  More like stupid.  Lonely Planet estimates in an 1800-person capacity train there are 7000 at rush hour.  Bar none, Mumbai’s train system is the most crowded in the world.  The train never stops…it just slows down ensuing an insanely crazy scramble in which every man and woman are for themselves.  Smashed into open air cattle cars men and women travel separately.  It’s best to stand close to the door – more air and less of that crushing feeling when new people get on.  The only draw back is that you may get stuck holding on to one of your fellow passengers who may still yet be holding on to one more person!

Useful Tip:  If you take the night bus from or to Udaipur bring a sweater…ours was freezing cold and no blankets or pillows were provided (even in the sleeping coach).  If you do decide to brave Mumbai’s ‘subway’ shoot for the handicap car and play dumb if anyone calls you out on it – no crowding!

Mumbai, or Bombay as it was known until about 25 years ago, is the cultural capital of India.  From cheesy Bollywood romances to the slums made famous by Hollywood Mumbai is a microcosm of India.  The poor flock to the city to try and get a leg up in a country where those are few and far between.  I opened the paper one day to read that several people had been trampled to death at a job fair.  The police were filling a couple of positions and 14,000 showed up to interview.  No where else have we been where the contrast is so evident and so close to one another.  One of the world’s largest slums is mere blocks from the 5 star Taj Mahal Hotel.  Connecting the two dots are the constant noise of horns from the city’s 40,000+ taxis. 


Ok, so Mumbai is overcrowded, polluted and noisy but underneath all this, charm still remains.   The areas of Colaba and Fort ooze with colonial charm.  Sitting in the Harbor, Elephanta Island hosts the remains of a 1500 year old civilization long lost to the flow of time.  Moving up the peninsula old turns to new and the upscale areas of Bandra and Juhu beach look to shed the past and embrace commercialism and the future.  While the city is by no means compact, all three areas can be explored in a couple of days.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Elephanta Island is home to a series of cave temples with Hindu carvings right in the face of the rock.    Dating back to AD 450, the highlight of the caves is an 18 foot high 3-faced Shiva depicting the gods three main forms – destroyer, creator and preserver.  The whole collection represents some of the finest carvings in all of India.

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Monkeys have freedom to roam the streets of most cities in India, but Mumbai is one of the few exceptions where they are not allowed in the downtown area.  The street less Elephanta island provides a safe refuge for the cheeky critters to screech and sling poo at will.  Be warned – they know all about the water bottles and they will attack to get them so put them away!

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Sailing back into the main harbor back in the 1800’s you would be greeted by the Gateway to India – the arch in the picture below that is now dwarfed by progress and the 20th century additions.  Of these additions, the 1903 Taj Mahal Palace and Tower stands out most impressively.  Occupying an entire block of prime real estate, the hotel was part of the 2008 terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of over 170 innocent people.  The hotel was still undergoing renovations when we visited but the facade is still impressive. Aside from the Gateway to India and the Hotel, we apparently became a little camera shy as we have no more photos of our time in Mumbai for some reason.

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The rest of our time we spent wandering around the colonial downtown area of Colaba, hitting up a disappointing Leopold’s Cafe and checking out the worlds busiest train station – Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus).  It is estimated that over 2.5 million people pass through the colonial station DAILY!

On our last day we decided to hit up the cinema.  What would a trip to the home of Bollywood be without taking in a Bollywood show?  Well…so we didn’t see a Bollywood film, but we did go to the cinema and see Alice in Wonderland…in 3D.  Our Bollywood experience will have to be limited to subtitled DVDs!

Having our fill of the most populated city in India, it was time to move to a little more low key place.  Boarding the overnight bus we moved on to Hampi!

1 comment:

Karen Bedsaul said...

More, I want more.
I was ejoying the reading so much!
You have a way with words.
Keep up the great photos. I like the nice name on the photos now. That is a nice addition
Lots of love,