There were numerous times during our week in Mumbai when I thought to myself “shit, I was almost just killed by that bus/taxi/crowd/horse drawn carriage!” when in fact I wasn’t at all. This being our first visit to one of India’s major cities, it just took us a day or two to acclimatise to the sometimes overwhelming combination of the closeness and craziness of this incredible place.
Our overnight train from Margao arrived exactly on time, which was unfortunate because that time happened to be 4.05am and we soon found out that Mumbai before dawn is quite a contrast to the Mumbai we’d be battling with later that day.
We met a fellow traveller (another Alex) in Margao before we boarded our train and we decided to meet up again at Mumbai’s CST Station to see if he could get a room at the same hotel we’d booked ourselves into. It was a short walk from the station to the hotel so we waved away the few taxi drivers that were hanging around outside and set off, map in hand. Unfortunately there were a few unexpected obstacles between the deserted station and the hotel, namely people – lots of people – sleeping across the entire pavement. With me concentrating on the map, a well timed shout from Alexandra stopped me from introducing myself to the first Mumbai residents I’d come across by falling onto them with a 20kg bag on my back! After that near miss, and one wrong turn, it took us slightly longer to find the hotel than we’d hoped, and I (being the map reader) was feeling the pressure to get us to the hotel as the nocturnal wildlife of rats and overly territorial dogs seemed to be closing around us. Luckily for us it was only one wrong turn and we were able to regain our bearings and get to the hotel where, after a minor argument with the ‘cheerful’ (Lonely Planet’s description) reception staff about our very early check in, we finally made it to our room.
After a short sleep we were woken by the usual morning noises of throats being cleared (repeatedly) and dogs howling, but what was more obvious than everything else was the relentless sound of hundreds of car horns all being used at once… Mumbai was calling, loudly, and (because we didn’t have double glazing in our room) we had to go and see what the hell it was shouting about.
I don’t think I’ve used as many expletives in one day as I did on our first day walking around the streets of Mumbai. I thought Bangkok was crazy but this was on another level entirely. Alexandra pointed out that Mumbai has about the same population as the whole of Australia, which put things into a certain perspective. The place is simply crammed with humanity (oh, and dogs and rats, mustn’t forget them). It’s because of this that Mumbai has a different feel to most other major cities. When tourists go to major cities around the world, they often go to see the sights. But I got the impression that Mumbai wasn’t really about that. Yes, it has sights… The Gateway of India, The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Elephanta Island’s caves, and lots more, all punctuating points in Mumbai’s extensive history. But it’s the experience of being there amongst the millions of people that is the real sight. Doing things like strolling through the parks, where every corner is filled with a cricket match; dropping our clothes at the laundry and then popping by the massive Dhobi Ghat (where pretty much all of Mumbai’s clothes go to be washed by hand) the next afternoon to see if we could spot ours; heading to the Chor Bazaar markets to buy some gorgeous old 70s lithograph printed Bollywood posters and rusty old steel signs from a hidden room of treasures at the back of an old antiques shop, then heading to the huge old post office to have them packaged up by some guy on the street who wraps them in cloth and stitches it up, before getting you to write the address on the cloth and escorting you inside to pay; strolling into the grand old building of the High Court of Maharashtra, walking uncomfortably amongst cabinets and bookcases filled with thousands of dusty old string tied case files, hoping not to be stopped and questioned by a guard with a machine gun, and slipping quietly into the back of one of the courtrooms to hear a case (fortunately the judicial system only uses English); finding the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, glowing with its coat of bright blue paint amongst the surrounding dirty buildings, and heading inside to find it empty but for one member of Mumbai’s small Jewish community (of about 4000 people) who told us all about the building and about his experiences of being a Jew in India; or randomly hearing the noise of a big crowd at the end of a street when we were walking home at night to find the street had been overtaken by an amateur cricket match. The list goes on…
Sitting on Chowpatty Beach eating panipuri and bhelpuri while watching the sunset with the crowds wasn’t the sort of beach experience we’d become used to so far on our travels, with bikinis and boardshorts replaced by salwar kameez and shoes, trousers and shirts. It was the most formally dressed time spent relaxing on the beach so far, made all the more odd because while we were watching the sunset, everyone else was watching us!
We were also fortunate to be in Mumbai at the same time as the Kala Ghoda (‘Black Horse’) festival which was a big cultural gathering of arts and crafts, dance and food stalls. We had a great evening eating street food (where I ended up spending far too long at the panipuri stall… thanks Raj for introducing them to us!), including our first taste of jalebis in India, and watching some great dance shows.
We’ve had so many great experiences in such a short time. It has been exhausting, very very frustrating and quite confronting at times, but I found that I’ve had to just take a deep breath (not too deep though, because of the smog) and go with the flow of the place, or else I’d drown while trying to swim against the current!
The excitement turned to nervousness on our last day in Mumbai as we didn’t have a completely confirmed booking on our 12.10am overnight train to Jalgaon, where we would travel onward to Ajanta. We’d bought ‘waitlisted’ tickets as the train was fully booked, which meant we’d only find out about an hour before the train was due to leave whether we’d actually get seats, and we were relying on other people cancelling to get them. Not getting them would mean another night of walking around the streets searching for a hotel with a free room. But fortunately we were lucky and we had a disturbed night of being woken over and over by some particularly weird snoring from a few others in our carriage. Still, at least we were on the train!
On a side note, cheers to Alex (the bloke we met at Margao station, not Alexandra) for a great night out at Leopolds, and for all of the South America advice. All the best for the rest of your trip!
Here’s a few more pictures from our time in Mumbai.