07.02.2010 - 10.02.2010 30 °C
The title of this blog is a little deceiving, I didn't slum it at all in Mumbai. In fact I chose Mumbai as the place for my trip's first splurge. I stayed in a mid-range hotel in the Fort area of South Mumbai. It was the kind of place where there's always a man standing by the elevator ready to open the doors for you and then he rides up with you while doing all the work of pushing the floor buttons (my fingers were a little tired from all the travelling). I even had my grubby 10 kg backpack carried to my room by a helpful porter. There was no holding back on the room service either. At the push of a button (literally), breakfast, dinner and several rounds of fresh lime and sodas were promptly delivered to my room by eager and frieldly staff. Needless to say, I spent a lot on tips at this hotel. It was quite a treat to have a spotless bathroom with a proper shower that wasn't positioned over the toilet, though admittedly the opposite does have its advantages in terms of time saving. Fresh towels were brought up to my room every day and my bed was made for me by the time I returned from my daily outings. The majority of tourists probably take these kinds of things for granted, but for me who has stayed in grubby hostels and budget hotels for more than three months, it was quite a novelty.
My delicious Tandoori Chicken Tikka in my comfy hotel room, you gotta love room service - I also acquired quite a taste for fresh lime and sodas while in India, very refreshing
Mumbai is definitely different to the rest of India, far more cosmopolitan, the streets are much cleaner and scenes of extreme poverty seem to have been confined to the slum areas. People walk around wearing suits and carrying briefcases while talking on their cell phones. It's obvious there's more money going around here and this is reflected in the cost of living. Hotel and food prices were easily double those in the other places I'd visited in India. Nevertheless, if I had to live in India, Mumbai would be my first choice ...ok perhaps it would be my second choice after Agonda in Goa, but only if I didn't have to work because I wouldn't make a very good taxi driver or sunglasses salesman.
The refreshingly clean sidewalks of Mumbai
Mumbai is also not really the place for exciting sightseeing unless you are really into colonial style architecture. I think it's also the type of place better enjoyed if you are with other people because it has a more lively bar, club and restaurant scene. I don't have much of a problem going to a bar by myself during the day, especially if they serve food, but at night I'd feel like a seedy tourist out scoping for some action. So I didn't really do much in Mumbai except walk around aimlessly in between plenty of rest, hence this blog is more about photos and my thoughts about India in general.
On day one I spent a few hours walking around the Fort area in south Mumbai. There I looked for a Lonely Planet (LP) for my next destination and even though almost every store I went to had stacks of LPs, the one I was looking for was extremely elusive. I must have gone to over a dozen bookstores and countless other smaller bookstands in the book markets looking for it. The only reason I didn't give up was because there was a whole cluster of bookstores in the area and I kept thinking, "What if it is in that one, but I miss out because I gave up too soon?". I should have probably explained to the confused looking man in the store where I finally found it why I was so happy before I shook his hand with so much gratitude. In one of the small markets I also bought a small pair of hair clippers, well actually it was a beard trimmer but it does the same job. I got it because I'm still shaving my head with a razor and if I let my hair grow for more than three or four days, it becomes so long that I have to spend about an hour doing it and I easily wear out one of my precious 3-bladed razors.
During my walk, I came across the Victoria Terminus Railway station and the Main Post office which are two huge and quite impressive colonial style buildings.
The Victoria Terminus railway station (aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST)
The main post office in Mumbai, like all other impressive buildings in Mumbai, it was hidden behind a row of very large trees
The next day I visited the suburb of Colaba which is very popular with tourists. I felt obliged to visit the Gateway of India as well as Colaba Causeway which is the main drag in the area and has the highest concentration of tourists walking around doing shopping. On the way to Colaba, I walked past Oval Maidan, a huge grassy area in front of the High Court and the University of Mumbai. There were so many cricket games in progress all next to eachother that it was hard to tell where one game ended and the others begun.
One of the cricket games in progress at Oval Maidan - the large building on the left in the background is the University of Mumbai
The Gateway of India in Mumbai
The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, it was still being touched up after the terror attacks of Novermber 2008
Colourful fruit stand in Colaba Causeway, for some strange reason I liked the fact that the kiwi fruit (bottom right) appeared to be quite popular
I went for a quick bite and a beer in Leopold's Cafe which has been around since 1871 and is one of the most popular tourist hang outs in Mumbai. This is reflected by the armed guards at the doors who checked everyone's bags before entering. In retrospect, this is the type of place I should have avoided because it would be a prime target for terrorists. Not as paranoid as it sounds considering that four days later a German Bakery in Pune 50 kms east of Mumbai, which was also very popular with tourists, was the target of a terrorist bombing which killed 9 and injured 45. I met a German guy at Leopold's who was taking a break from the two girls he was travelling with. His English wasn't very good so the converstation was quite basic but at the same time quite entertaining (think of an Arnold Schwarzenegger type accent).
As I walked out of Leopold's, I ran into boy-Sam whom I'd met at the in Delhi. That's makes it three people from the hostel in Delhi that I've managed to meet up with again in India (I forgot to mention in my Jaipur blog that by pure chance I'd run into Roberta at the hotel I was staying at, but that was only a brief encounter because I was just leaving and she had just arrived). Sam was hanging out with a fellow Brit he'd met in Rajasthan. We ended up going for a quick tour around the Hight Court (supposedly a bit of a tourist attraction) but most of the day's proceedings were over by then and it turned out to be a little bit boring. The only court we saw in session had about ten people sitting around a table looking very angry, we figured it was a divorce hearing. We then hung out at Marine Drive which is a long stretch of road with a wide promenade right next to the waterfront. It's really popular with the locals who go there to sit, chat and watch the sunset. We ended the night with dinner in a restaurant that was really popular with the locals and it was easy to see why, the food was delicious and a real bargain by Mumbai's standards.
Looking south down Marine Drive at sunset, that's Sam's head poking out on the left of the frame
Looking north up Marine Drive after sunset, the long promenade was lined from end to end with what must have been thousands of people
On my last day in Mumbai (hence also my last day in India), I took a walk to Chowpatty beach, the only beach in Mumbai. I don't quite know why I did this in the middle of the day under a baking hot sun with no hint shade in sight, especially since there was no hope for a rewarding swim at the end since the sea water around Mumbai is toxic. Actually, by the end I was sweating so much, it looked like I had been for a swim in the ocean. It turned out to be the saddest looking beach I've ever seen. Part of it looked like any normal beach, except there were only a handful of really brave kids out swimming in the waves. Sadly the rest of the beach was strewn with washed up garbage.
Some people bravely swimming in the toxic waters of Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai
Turn your head to the right from the scene in the previous photo and you see this rather depressing sight - piles and piles of washed up garbage. Even if I liked seafood, I wouldn't be having any in Mumbai
A young couple enjoying the view from the north side of Marine Drive near Chowpatty beach
So that was it for Mumbai and India, I was leaving the next day at 6 am so I decided to spend the night at the airport. The waiting lounges had relatively comfortable seats but I was too paranoid to go to sleep, mainly because I was afraid of not waking up in time for my flight and I have grown almost immune to my alarm clock.
So, what did I think of India?
I have to admit, part of the reason I went to India was because I knew it would be a challenge and surviving it would be like earning my stripes as a backpacker. Without a doubt it was challenging and nothing was really easy, especially getting from one place to another, but I have to say I ended up liking it for lots of reasons I couldn't have predicted. First of all, I was awe-struck by the out-of-this-world surroundings both in the cities and the tourist attractions. Initially the filthy crowded streets appear to be so hostile that when you finally get into the thick of things and you realise you're actually quite safe, the relief turns into pure enjoyment. Putting all the garbage to one side (figuratively speaking) I actually started to enjoy the chaos and bustle of the towns and cities. Highlights would have to be Delhi (believe it or not), the Taj Mahal, Udaipur and of course the moon lit turtle hatchings at the beach in Agonda.
The people in India have a sort of innocence about them which is really quite nice. I met so many friendly people there and some of the random things some of them said to me had me walking around with a silly grin on my face. Any visitor to India would immediately notice that best friends (guys) of all ages like to sit or walk down the street with their arms around eachother, sometimes even holding hands. It's kind of sweet in a way because it reminds you of what little kids are like in the west before they are corrupted by prejudices and social stigmas. The ironic thing is that homosexuality is supposedly still illegal in India.
Oh, and of course the food was delicious - even my small stint at being vegetarian was filled with culinary delights
Best friends walking down the street holding hands
About the only thing I didn't like, was the garbage strewn everywhere. It's understandable that most people in India are struggling just to survive so recycling or finding a rubbish bin is hardly a priority, but it was still sad to see even relatively wealthy people discarding their rubbish on to the footpath or out their car windows - not that the government or city officials help matters because finding a rubbish bin in public places is almost impossible. Buying tickets at train stations was also quite torturous and just like in China, queue jumpers were rampant; however, I did like that train stations usually had a special ticket window for "Foreign Tourists and Freedom Fighters" (I liked to pretend I was a member the latter category).
Yes, there are the touts and persitent ricksaw drivers, but they are just trying to make a living so I never felt I could get angry with them, I just tried to be as polite as possible and this usually worked better at getting rid of them as opposed to just ignoring them. In fact a couple of times when I did completely ignore persistent ricksaw drivers or rudely dismissed them somehow, they would leave angry whilst yelling things in Hindi that you knew weren't exactly friendly. These kinds of experiences left a bad taste in my mouth and if I were to do this for the remainder of trip I would end up hating every last minute. The hard part was finding that perfect tone and response that would end things quickly and amicably, without encouraging them in to a long discussion. When you put things into persepctive, this type of annoyance is quite tame with what you have to watch out for in developed countries; at least in India violent crime (terrorism aside) is very rare.
Alas, the Indian leg of my trip is over and I'm still alive and my sense of humor is still intact. Several other travellers have told me that if I can handle India, I can handle anywhere which is really encouraging.
So here I go again, on to my next country!