We entered Mumbai early in the morning through the Gothic architectural masterpiece that is the busiest train station in India, the Victoria Terminus. To understand the sheer size of the building try to imagine two million commuters filtering through each day. That’s half of the population of Oregon. Even though we were a little tired from the train ride we were exhilarated to finally be in Mumbai. It was a city that both of us had been excited to see since the beginning of our journey and we eventually found our way outside where we celebrated with a quick cup of chai.
We hailed a cab to the Colaba area of town and wandered
around for quite a while searching for a budget hotel; a difficult task in one of India’s most expensive cities. Finally we stumbled upon a nondescript and somewhat strange but reasonably priced hotel called the Al-Hijaz. We would have been happy with any moderately clean room as long as we had a working ceiling fan- it was pretty hot. After a quick rest and a shower we walked through the throngs of people packed into the sidewalks of the Colaba Causeway. Every step we took there were new sights to see. Tourists and locals slowly weaving past one another in between store fronts and booths filled with wares from all over India. Not to mention the touts constantly offering us paid extra roles in Bollywood movies.
We spent time at the Gateway of India, which in true Indian fashion was partially covered with scaffolding, and tried to avoid having our photo taken by people who would later try and sell us the photos. We could see huge ships off in the distance and the sea breeze was a nice respite from the heat and humidity. Even with the breeze we soon found ourselves ducking into Leopold’s Cafe for a couple of iced coffees. Sitting at the tables we were able to look around and see multiple bullet holes in the walls from the terrorist attacks that had happened five months previously on November 26th, 2008. At least 173 people were killed when organized gunmen started shooting at people in southern Mumbai and setting off timed bombs then taking hostages in the prestigious Taj Hotel. It was especially strange for us to visit the Taj Hotel. Months ago we had watched news broadcasts showing the hotel on fire while people were held hostage inside for four days after a long closure the hotel was open when we were there and there was no sign of what had happened except for a nicely done memorial dedicated to all those who passed away on November 26th.
We walked up past Oval Maidan, the University of Mumbai, into the Modern Art Museum, and past a lot of old British buildings. The streets in this part of town were different from those we had seen everywhere else in India, they were wide with large sidewalks under tall leafy trees. It was possible to actually walk down the sidewalks without being bumped or surrounded by people. Despite the grandeur of the buildings and the obvious wealth that flows through Mumbai there were still signs of the poverty that exists in India on every street corner. Mumbai is a city where the world’s fifth richest man Mukesh Ambani is building the world’s most expensive home; a twenty-seven story skyscraper complete with three heli-pads, a “cool room” with man made snow, 168 parking spaces, and will employ 600 servants when finished. Mumbai is also a city where the workers who are building Ambani’s skyscraper most likely live in one of the slums, where seven million other Mumabi residents live, and the average income is about $2 US per person.
We got a chance to see behind the glitz of Mumabi when we went to the Dhobi ghat where most of the linens for Mumbai’s hotels are washed and beaten by hand, starched, and hung up to air dry before being delivered clean back to the hotel. It’s an impressively large operation and incredibly hard work for the wage these laundry men make.
One of the more amazing experiences we had while in
Mumbai was when we stopped by the Haji Ali mosque. The mosque was built in 1431 on an island and is reached by a five hundred yard walkway which gets covered up by the high tide and becomes walkable in the low tide. We went at low tide and it was fun to walk on the damp concrete past vendors with hundreds of Islamic worshipers. We weaved past people who were crippled and calling out prayers while worshipers gave them coins and made our way to the actual mosque. We were happily greeted and after watching people chanting and drumming for a while we made our way back to the mainland.
One evening we took a taxi to Chowpatty Beach which is far too polluted to swim at but has a really fun carnival atmosphere at night. One entrepreneur had a pink “power wheels” type vehicle that no longer worked but he had put a small boom box in the back and pushed around children for a few rupees. Every now and then he would turn off the radio and take a cigarette break. We sat in the sand and attracted a very large crowd of interested male youth who had a bunch of questions for us. After we started feeling a little claustrophobic we wandered over to the food vendors and I had my last- and possibly best- pista kulfi ( a delicious pistachio gelato-like thing). There were small Ferris wheels which are spun by having two or three carnival workers climb to the top one at a time and, holding onto the bars, used their body weight and gravity to keep the wheel spinning. We watched the sunset and headed back to Colaba.
The hustle and bustle of the Crawford Market was fun. There were stacks of all kinds of fruits and meat
butchering areas, and Andy and I stocked up on spices and metal ware to take with us back to the States. Our time in India was coming to a close and we spent every spare moment walking up and down random streets and filling up on thalis, fresh ginger sodas, and delicious chicken tikka rolls.
There was a heavy Muslim presence in Mumbai which resulted in many wonderful meat dishes to sample- some of the best street food we had anywhere in India. Every morning when we’d stumble out of our hotel we’d grab a couple of juices from the stand on the street, and contemplate the fact that we were about to leave the country. The heat, the constant crowds and sensory overload, the colors, the food… all the things that had come to define India for us, that we’d grown accustomed to and fond of, all soon to be over with. Of course we weren’t going to miss everything; the hassles of India are plentiful, and we were definitely looking forward to returning to a place where we could blend into a crowd and not be constantly stared at and approached. All our time in Mumbai was filtered through this kind of bittersweet lens; swinging us from feelings of sadness to excitement depending on whether we were having a good or bad time at the moment, and taking the good with the bad is probably the single most definitive aspect of a trip to India.
Mumbai is one of the world’s largest cities with a population of around 19 million people in its metro area, so
driving from Colaba in the south to the airport in the north of the city took a few hours. Our driver tried to overcharge us when we parted ways; a fitting farewell to India that made us smile. A fairly easy fifteen hour flight then took us to Newark, NJ, where our connecting flight was delayed several hours, causing us to miss our next connection in Atlanta. Eventually we landed in Portland, a tiring 48 hours after we’d stepped into the cab in Mumbai. We’d crossed more time zones than we were capable of remembering, so Andy purposefully kept his watch on Mumbai time so we’d know what time our bodies thought it was. Somewhere over Texas a seatmate had asked him what time it was; I watched him look at his watch, pause and consider some math and an explanation, and then just shook his head and say he didn’t know.