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Mumbai: Two Weeks of Extremes and Fancy Buildings

Mumbai is an enormous city with far too many crazy drivers. On reflection though we really enjoyed our time there and ended up staying for nearly two weeks.

The Times Of India building

First Impressions

Our first impressions were not good. We saw several awful hotels on the night we arrived, including one with cockroaches that were completely resistant to the toxic spray we were supposed to sleep in (we didn’t.) The area these hotels were in was quite rough and the noise, smells and sights that greeted us were a crude contrast to the serenity of the waves in Arambol.

Henry playing street cricket with some kids and an extra small bat

In the fresh light of our first day though we found another, slightly better, hotel and began exploring. Although the temperature was a couple of degrees cooler than in Goa it did not feel it. The pollution, the heat reflecting off of every surface and the complete lack of a breeze made just walking around a little exhausting.

CST, the busiest (and most impressive?) train station in Asia.
We saw many beautiful old buildings in Mumbai, mostly built by the British. They are grand, fancy and still going strong for the most part although I believe some have undergone extensive restoration. There are also many skyscrapers of various shapes, sizes and colours to really give you the ‘big city’ feeling.

Horse Drawn Carriage Tour

We did some sightseeing in our time there and one of the highlights was a tour on one of the shiny horse drawn carriages from the Gateway of India. We bartered the price right down and had 30 minutes of click clacking through the street with a nice high view point (the photos were not great though, without tyres the ride is quite bumpy)

People waving at us in the carriage on the tour

The Rich Mumbai

One day we were very hot and worn out and sought refuge in an air conditioned shopping mall. It was quite spectacular for a shopping centre. We would not and did not purchase anything from the shops there which included Channel, Jimmy Choo, Clinique etc. as everything was well out of our league. I felt like a tatty ruffian walking around there in my Birkenstocks while the other ladies wore designer everything and had rather smart haircuts. The toilets though were perhaps the best we had used in all of India!

There was a gentleman who was employed to play the piano all day near the entrance and his music was amplified to fill the whole space with a classy, relaxed, spend-your-money-now ambience. Everyone was ignoring him so we went to listen and he immediately stopped and wanted to play us a song of our choosing. We had a personal rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ which was lovely!

Outside of this mall was a food court and 3 other massive shopping complexes which were still quite upmarket but not to such an extreme. There was a Marks and Spencer there which made my day and I went straight in and spent more than a nights accommodation on some lovely new undies. I was also rather chuffed to learn officially that I had shrunk rather – I consider an M and S measuring tape to be official. We also tried eat there in the food court but after being seated and handed the menu we were shocked at the prices. It was the cost of a bottle of water that made us leave before we ordered anything: Rs 95! (that is £1.12! It is usually no more than Rs 15/litre.)
Henry took this great shot of these two who had just finished having a shave in their outdoor bathroom
Just outside of this shoppers paradise the real Mumbai continues. There are many people sleeping on the streets without even a pair of shoes, including children, all within a few metres of the flash cars (parked with valet parking) in the car parks of the malls. My purchases in my posh bag from M and S went straight into my handbag and we explored the night markets and other surrounding streets, ate some fruit from a stall and then got a taxi home.
Another example of ridiculous wealth can be seen in Mumbai. This house. Yes, it is a private home. Built by one man it has several swimming pools, a floor for storing 168 cars, a floor that is a workshop for the maintenance of the cars, 3 floors of gardens and houses a family of just 6 people. The most surprising fact about this building though is that although the family numbers just six, the staff to look after it number 600! We had read about it and just happened to drive by it one day when our taxi driver pointed it out, quite proudly really.
I love it that these skills are still very much in use here
Sweet paan for sale (one of Henry’s pics)
Books for sale on the street (I’ve no idea what happens here in the monsoon!)
Bollywood is based in Mumbai and although we never did get approached to work as extras (I met a British couple in a pharmacy who were just about to start a night shift doing so though) the cult of the stars is more pervasive here than we have come accross before. There were more cinemas, posters and enquiries as to who our favourite stars are than anywhere else we had visited before.
Jack, David and Claire who we visited the slum with

The Poor Mumbai

About half way through our stay we met Jack outside a bar, a young British chap travelling alone and waiting to meet up with an old friend of his and his girlfriend (David and Claire) who had been travelling in a different part of India. We all met up the following day and the five of us decided to go on a tour of one of the biggest slums in Asia – Dharvai. (the slum that was used as the backdrop in the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’) We had been in two minds about the slum tour: what were the moral implications of paying to go and look at an area simply because it is a slum full of some of the most poor people in the country? The others wanted to go though and that helped to make up our mind. We spent at least an hour negotiating with various tour operators, eventually got an acceptable deal and then when we arrived at the vehicle (a rather shiny, ostentatious 4×4 with a/c) the price trebled! We walked away and Henry and I decided it would be best to negotiate a deal directly with a normal taxi. Henry got it sorted in no time at all and we employed a driver who knew the area well to cram all five of us into his old ambassador and we were off.

A side of the road slum, not part of Dharvai

The slum was nearly an hours drive from Colaba, one of the touristy areas of Mumbai where we were all staying, and we were all a little apprehensive about what was in store. We really needn’t have worried though. We drove into one part of the slum district and negotiated the throngs of people on one of the shopping streets. The shops were the same as anywhere else in Mumbai. The road was different though as there were no other cars and only a few motorbikes around. At this point I was very glad we had not turned up in the 4×4. We left the car and the taxi driver led us around some of the alleyways around the area for over an hour and we met people, took pictures and had a good look around. It was not scary at all. We were welcomed almost universally and the children especially were fascinated by us and our cameras.

kids in a slum in Mumbai

It was one of the cleanest places in Mumbai; every single knock and cranny in the very narrow passageways (less than a metre wide most of the time) were obviously swept several times a day. Everyone we met was dressed in impeccably clean clothes and looked happy and healthy. The buildings we saw were not that ramshackle although every single one was different from the neighbouring property, buillt at a different time with different materials. Most of them had proper windows that opened, several floors and some nice tiles or decorations on the outside. One thing we were surprised at was that some of them were 3 or 4 stories high.

We happened accross this building site where one place had been taken down and was being replaced by a whole new building. The team was at work in the scorching sun and these women (whose job it was to carry materials on their heads, we saw them with large paving slabs) look like they’ve hardly broken a sweat! One of the advantages of everything being so close together is that at ground level in the narrow passageways between dwellings not a lot of sun can get in.

The children were the most memorable part of the slum. This boy wanted to be in every photograph and pose as a Bollywood star. He loved wearing my sunglasses and using the camera for a while, he took this shot:

We had drawn quite a crowd of onlookers by the time we were ready to go. After piling back into the tiny car we set off to get out of the area. The driver was explaining to us how massive an area it was, saying that in 2 days you could not cover it all. On the way out we saw a goat being slaughtered, I think for all of us that was more shocking than the slums. I can certainly say that it was a great experience and I would recommend it to anyone. (With the advice that you not turn up in a big 4×4!) Our battered old taxi was a much more suitable form of transport.

One thing we did not see was the toilet facilities. Anyone who has seen the film will remember the toilet scene and reading about the slum afterwards it seems there is, on average, one toilet for every 14,000 people. I think I can survive without the assault on the senses that would have been. Having that sort of arrangement means though that the areas where people live were clean and smell free, which cannot be said of most streets in Mumbai.

Those who live in the slum certainly have a much better life than those who live on the streets: they have a solid roof over their heads to start with! During our time in Mumbai we saw more homeless people than anywhere else in India. Many of the people who work on the street like the shoe cleaners just bed on down right on their corner where they work all day, next to their box of tools. Many taxi and rickshaw drivers sleep in their vehicles and our taxi driver for the slums showed us the roundabout where he lived on the way back to Colaba. For most of the year I suppose it is not too hard weather wise, they do not have to compete with the snow and cold like homeless people in the UK do (that is not true for the whole of India though) but, what about in the monsoon? We just kept imagining how much harder life will be for all these people one the rains come in a few weeks time.

We don’t know if this man was homeless, he had no belongings with him; perhaps he was just having a little nap

Haji Ali – The Floating Mosque

Some of the other sights we saw included Haji Ali, the ‘floating mosque’ so called because you reach it by walking over a kilometre of causeway that is covered by the tides twice a day. It was a very popular attraction for all sorts of tourists, mostly Indians and as we did not visit on a Friday or Saturday I think the Hindu tourists outnumbered the Muslims which was interesting. There was a great view of the city from the island but the mosque itself was not as impressive as the guidebooks would have you believe.

Dhobi Ghat

One of the most impressive places we visited was Dhobi Ghat – the biggest laundry in the whole of Asia. It is a sight to see indeed. All of the washing is done entirely by hand in enormous concrete vats and then hung to dry in the sun. With the sun, I’m sure even the huge numbers of jeans would be dry in no time at all. All of the work is done by men, as it is thought to be too physically demanding for women (how washing is different from carrying bags of sand, concrete and paving slabs I’m not sure.) The men get paid only about 5 Rupees per item of clothing and can do anything from 100 – 150 a day. The hotels that send their guest’s laundry there charge at least 4 – 5 times that. Again, it is the middlemen who make all the money. The laundry handles items from hospitals, hotels, factories etc and 5000 live and work there. Henry took this picture of a boy who took us to meet ‘the boss man’ who was in actuality just trying to sell overpriced tours to tourists.

Other sights

The gateway of India was one of our constant reference points in the city. We stayed in a few guesthouses and hotels nearby and visited the monument several times. Each time we went it was busy with both foreign and local tourists. Roaming the area were photographers offering to take photos of visitors with the gateway or the Taj Mahal hotel (v.v. posh and expensive place opposite the gateway) in the background. The service was quite popular as a print out was done there and then on little portable printers. The Indain tourists were very keen to have us in their souvenir pictures. Our smiling faces must now adorn dozens of fridges and sideboards all over the country. The funny thing about it was they really did not care who we were, only a few people asked where we were from or our names, they just wanted us in the picture. Sometimes we even had a few people waiting!

One one of our final days in the city we visited Elephanta Island. The island is famous for some ancient caves and as we had not seen much of ancient India and it involved getting out of the traffic and pollution of the city it seemed like a good plan. It is an hour away by boat from the Gateway of India. The journey was hot and seemed to take longer than an hour but on the way we had a good view of the city from the water and it was easier to see just how massive it is and what an important port it must be.

There are many monkeys on the island who are known to be a nuisance to visitors, stealing food and the like. I had a better reason than most to be wary of the monkeys as only 2 days beforehand I had been bitten by one! (It did not break the skin, just gave me a little bruise for a week or so and I was being silly by touching it really – it was just a little cutie: until it bit me.) The monkeys here were much happier than the one we had encountered on the street, they were with their friends and families and were free to roam around the island.

The caves were impressive but it was very busy there and very hot around the caves and climbing to see them. We caught one of the first boats of the day but perhaps a cooler day would have made us more appreciative of the ancient history we were seeing.

Mumbai: 15th April – 2nd May 2012

One last shot for our last Indian post – some of the great, colourful tat that was everywhere!

Thats it for India! We booked a last minute flight to Bangkok and caught it later that night, we had to leave as we only had a few days left of our 6 month visa. India was a surprising, hot, mostly welcoming and sometimes crazy place. Mumbai had all of those elements in abundance, a great slice of Indian city life indeed.

I’m finishing this from Thailand and I’m still quite behind on the posts. Hopefully, the next thing to be updated will be the gallery page; I’ve got loads more pictures of India to publish on there, just need the Internet to get them sorted and up online. Until then, thank you for reading and following our adventures so far!


3 thoughts on “Mumbai: Two Weeks of Extremes and Fancy Buildings”

  1. Pingback: On The Road for 600 Days! Where Have We Been and What Have We Learnt? (Part One)
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