When I first arrived in Mumbai I was sick, spending 8 hours of a 17 hour train trip trying to survive a bout of Delhi Belly in the train loo, and tired after not sleeping the night before I arrived. I got scammed by two boys who offered to help me with my bags, and by a taxi driver who charged me 500 rupees (about $10) for a ride that could have been just a half a block if I had known better, and a hotel that didn’t deliver, in an area of Bandra that was less than clean or secure (Bandra is supposed to be one of the most cosmopolitan areas of Mumbai, but that wasn’t my impression). It soured my opinion of Mumbai. I started to believe some of the negative stories I had been warned about; dirty, extreme poverty and a city of rip-off artists. I spent 3 days in my stinky hotel room recovering from my illness and as I drove out of the city I passed one of the worst slums I had ever seen. Extremely dirty, extreme poverty, people using the street as their personal toilet despite the steady stream of traffic that drove past.
A few days later though, I returned to Mumbai but made a conscious decision to head to Colaba in South Mumbai, more upscale, the business district, university and the centre for tourists. It was like the antithesis of everything I had witnessed before. It was a lot cleaner, the people were friendlier (still some scammers ready to rip you off, but easier to see through), beautiful buildings (old Victorian architecture blending with glass and steel towers), green parks, high end accommodation, restaurants and museums. Probably one of the most beautiful structures in Mumbai is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus aka The Victoria Train Station. Built in 1887 it is a combination of Gothic Victorian Revival and traditional Indian architecture. The exterior is spectacular but if crowds bother you, don’t bother to go inside.
Mumbai is loud and very busy, traffic is fast and dangerous with a constant cacophony of honking horns. But there are places to get away from it all. There is the beautiful tree lined Marine drive that curves along the coastline to Chowpatty Beach, where people gather to escape the heat and the fast pace of the concrete city. Unfortunately on my first visit to Marine Drive we noticed a crowd of police gathered on a sidewalk and as I looked closer I realized there was a man lying spread eagle on the sidewalk with a blanket thrown over him – dead! A very disturbing sight.
When you visit places like Mumbai you have to steel yourself to deal with the touts and beggars. When my friend Lindsay arrived from New York City we hit the streets of Mumbai to see some of the sights together. When we stopped outside Mahatma Gandhi’s home and museum there was a woman selling handmaid, decorated bags and purses outside. She approached us with her pitch and as we walked away she kept dropping the price. Lindsay was having a hard time dealing with the woman’s desperation. It’s upsetting to see someone pleading with you to buy something, knowing it is their only livelihood, no sales might mean no food on the table. We also had a couple of women walk up to us with their babies in the arms, with a pleading look on their faces, gesturing that they wanted something to eat. I learned long ago not to give money to the beggars though, it only encourages begging and gives them no dignity… it’s better to donate to one of the many charities that help people get off the streets. Later as we walked down a bustling side street near India Gate a woman came up to us with a monkey on a leash… that got our attention. She was very friendly, as they all are, and chatted with us for a few minutes telling us about ‘Mike’ the monkey, and of course her plight. She insisted she didn’t want money, just some milk powder for her baby and some rice to eat. She said she wasn’t allowed inside the store but would we buy it for her. We were on our way to a restaurant for lunch so we ducked inside and ate our lunch while she stood outside staring up at us through the window… waiting. When we didn’t see her any longer we decided to make our escape, but she was waiting by the door and nabbed us as soon as we came out. How can you say no to someone who wants food for her baby? When she told us she also wanted the food and not the money because her husband would spend it on drink, we agreed to buy the formula and rice and followed her to a nearby market. She tied up Mike and led us inside the store (we thought she wasn’t allowed inside??) which made us suspicious, then another red flag when we got inside and she wanted us to get a basket for our ‘purchases’. I didn’t have my glasses on so when she held up a can of ‘milk’ I said ‘okay’ but my friend Lindsay piped up with ‘that’s not milk that’s ghee (clarified butter), just as she was grabbing for a big jug of oil. At that point I said ‘no’ put down the ghee and said ‘let’s get the rice’. She went over to the shelf for rice and wanted us to buy her 3 big sacks of it. I said ‘no’ and grabbed one small bag and we made our way to the cash register to pay. Her face turned grim and as we walked out of the shop and as I handed her the bag of rice she snatched it from me, no thank you, nothing. She went outside to untie Mike, who at this point was sneering at her trying to get away. It certainly wasn’t the happy twosome we had seen just minutes earlier. She left us without even a look back. I was used to incidents like this but Lindsay was shocked. It was a lesson we both learned and toughened both of us up for the onslaught of touts and beggars we would meet over the next few weeks. Whenever one of us would start to falter, we would simply remind each other of ‘the monkey woman’. Turns out this is a scam that gypsies will attempt on unwitting tourists… tell a sob story, get them to buy some food, and then return to the store later and get a full refund… in cash.
A visit to Mumbai is not complete without a visit to the Gateway of India… a huge stone gate right on the water’s edge surrounded by boats, tourists and the majestic Taj Palace Hotel and Tower. It’s one of the most exclusive hotels in the city and as you enter you have to go through a metal screening to keep out any weapons. The Taj was one of the targets of terrorists several years ago and as a result security is intense. We also wandered through the street market along MG Road (great for bargain hunters) and made our way to the Jehangir Art Gallery (the Museum of Modern Art was closed). I was captivated by one series of artworks and met the artist who described her work to us. I was so captivated I decided to buy a piece and had it shipped home to Canada. As I look back on my purchases, so far this one is one that I am happiest about.
We also took an hour long boat ride from India Gate to Elephanta Island. A small Island in Mumbai Harbour that features ancient caves carved into magnificent temples filled with rock cut sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses. The hike up from the jetty was exhausting, walking up hundreds of stairs. They have a train you can take but it only takes you to the bottom of the steps… you still have hundreds of stairs to climb, lined with vendors selling trinkets and souvenirs to all the tourists. There are also lots of monkeys around waiting for a treat. On the day we visited, it was the hottest day I have experienced… with temperatures hovering around 42c under the blazing hot sun. We would get a bit of relief inside the caves… but not much, and in no ime we were drenched and exhausted. We made quick work of the temples before boarding the boat back to Mumbai.
If you send your laundry out to get done in Mumbai, chances are it will end up at Dhobi Ghat… the world’s largest outdoor laundry. It’s lined with dozens of concrete wash basins each fitted with its own flogging stone, used to beat your clothes clean (two pairs of pants and one shirt came back to me with small holes from the beating they took). It’s amazing to see the way they are still doing their laundry hundreds of years since it opened, and the clean clothes are all hung on lines around the site, and most are hung up according to color.
Mumbai is a city of extreme contrasts; Hindu and Muslim, old and new, rich and poor. It’s also very cosmopolitan. I went for lunch one day at a bustling Mumbai restaurant near my hotel called Brittania that serves Parsi (Iranian Food) and ended up talking to the 86 year old owner about Canadian politics… where else in the world can so many cultures come together in one place?