Beep if you're in Bombay
Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
63Trip End Apr 14, 2006
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Where I stayed
Hotel Benazeer, Fort, Mumbai
Taxi from the airport: It took us a day or two to get over the shock of being in India. The long journey from the airport was an eye opener in itself. We were treated to a crash course in courteous Indian driving (not!), a plethora of unpleasant smells and the sight of hundreds of homeless people, often lying asleep in rows, next to the litter and piles of rubble that line the streets. The taxis are clones of 1950s Fiats so it feels like you are in an old ganster movie. They are small cars with no gap between the front seats. The steering wheels are so close to the driver that they appear to be peering over it the way old ladies do
The saga of Angie’s boots: you may remember that I (Angie) got my boots sewn back together in Lima.
Since that time I’ve done lots of walking and decided I had better get them resoled in preparation for trekking in the Himalayas. Our hotel porter was happy to help and whisked off my boots to one of the many cobbler’s stalls that line the streets. Returning with them the next day, I almost fainted when I saw what had happened to them. The remaining grip on the original black rubber soles had been sliced off, and glued over the top was a shiny, plastic, completely smooth beige sole, of the sort you’d see on a pair of men’s city shoes. Aaargggh! The porter took away the offending articles and said he’d get it sorted. The problem was that a suitable sole couldn’t be found in my small shoe size. Women in India clearly don’t wear walking boots! Flip-flops seem to be the most common footwear. In the end a different cobbler
closed his shop early and went to a large market on the other side of the city to get the right size and
type for me
Contrasts: Mumbai is full of English architecture which often leads to sharp contrasts. For instance,
on a main road in the city centre, you are submerged in a bustling Indian metropolis at street level, but look up at the buildings and you could be in central London. The maidans are large flat grassy areas stretching through the city. On one maidan, games of cricket were being played to a backdrop of Art Deco buildings, while the next one along was a dust bowl, squatted by shanty dwellers. Walking along the streets, pungent smells assault your nose, but turn a corner and the sweet aroma of incense fills the air.
Being a woman: Angie thought that being with Darren, she wouldn’t have too hard a time in Mumbai. However, it didn’t seem to stop men making the sort of sounds you’d make to attract a cat’s attention at her. In retrospect we realised that this was probably because we were holding hands – something Indian couples just don’t do in public
maintain eye contact. Oh dear!
Crossing the roads: being a pedestrian here is hard work. The pavements are so cluttered with stalls and rubble and sunken parts that most of the time you are forced to walk on the road, adding to the traffic congestion. Red traffic lights seem to be completely ignored if the way ahead is clear – so at junctions, as soon as a stream of traffic gets moving it won’t stop until traffic crossing the other way manages to burst through with expert horn use
Bollywood film: Being in its home city, we thought we should go to see a bollywood film. The cinema
was an impressive building with a huge auditorium (although it was almost empty for the film we saw)
and a sound system that was incredibly loud. It certainly helps to immerse you in the story if the
soundtrack is so deafening you can’t think straight! We actually choose a modern film, rather than a
traditional saga, but it seemed to have all the same elements – romance, murder, pointless car chases, comedy, dancing, breaking into song for no apparent reason, rebellion, intrigue, retribution, grieving widows etc etc. In India the name given for popular cinema translates as ‘mixed spice’. We were a bit concerned that as the film was in Hindi we would be completely lost. However, the main character was an English girl, so the first few minutes were in English and they kept throwing in the odd English phrase. It’s all so theatrical that we managed to keep abreast of the plot surprisingly well
Suburban trains: We took a short journey on a train. We didn't feel the need to travel first class, but the length of the queue at the second class ticket booth dictated otherwise. The first class carriages seem little different from the others (although they are probably the only ones with fans) and have no doors so you can lean out if you want to (Darren clearly did!). The train stopped at stations for only a few seconds so we had to be ready to jump off immediately. We saw lots of people taking shortcuts across the tracks rather than using the bridge.
Ghandi museum: We visited the house where he lived and worked when he visited Bombay. On display are the original letter he wrote to Hitler and Roosevelt. There are dozens of dioramas showing key events in his life which are really detailed. Lots of them have crowd scenes and we marvelled at the time it must have taken to sew all the clothes for the models. It gave us a deeper understanding and appreciation of his life and work. India could do with another Ghandi now.
Hanging Gardens: We wandered in this park and took in the view over Chowpatty beach and central Mumbai. An old man dressed in orange came up to us. We explained that we had no small change but he kept repeating 'no charge' and insisted on giving us sweets, tying on fabric bracelets (despite Angie trying to pry his fingers off her wrist), painting red tikkas on our foreheads and then blessing us. He then demanded a donation and stood there for a long time before realising that it was a mistake to ignore our warning!
Banganga Tank: a rectangular area of water surrounded by steps, old houses and many temples. Pilgrims come to bathe in the water and it all makes an odd contrast with the grimy suburb of half-built high-rises that surrounds it. There were lots of people and children in traditional dress sitting across from us. Some had drums and other musical instruments and we wondered if there was a little festival happening. We saw a man lying down, wrapped in orange cloth, being lowered down the steps. Maybe we had stumbled across a funeral. We weren't sure if it was appropriate that we were there at all. Then we saw the man move and felt relieved. We had been just sitting and watching the activity for a while, when two men came up to us and started asking how long we were in Mumbai for. It turned out they were from a Bollywood production company and were scouting for film extras to work in a couple of days! Reluctantly we had to turn them down, but suddenly what we had been watching made sense - they were shooting a film on location here.
Under-employment: The process of buying some items from a chemist in a department store illustrates perfectly the fact that in India, five people do the job of one. First you go to the chemist and choose your items - this is not self service - we had to ask two people standing behind two different counters
Hookah pipes: we've got quite into hookah pipes. We were offered a go on someone else's at a cafe and then Darren decided to get his own the next day - he chose strawberry flavour. We hired the burning charcoal and water filled pipe for half an hour. It is kind of relaxing and tastes nice.
Chowpatty beach: a wide sweeping stretch of sand, Chowpatty would be very pleasant in the day if it wasn't lapped by filthy polluted water. However, at night it comes to life with stalls cooking traditional food, balloon sellers and fairground rides etc. We sat on the beach to watch the sunset. After saying 'no' multiple times, Darren relented when the price tumbled and got a head massage for 25p. The masseur gave him a good pummeling. At the end, just when he thought it was all over, his head was tipped to one side and his neck yanked sharply. Darren shouted 'oww', Angie shouted 'ooh', and his neck made a loud crunch
We then made our way over to the food stalls to sample Bhelpuri - a traditional dish. We were invited to sit down on a rug, but after tucking in for five minutes, pandemonium broke loose and suddenly all the rugs were being snatched up, chairs were hurriedly stacked and put onto the roof of the stalls, signs were taken down, and fold-away tables full of ingredients were shoved behind the counters. We had no idea what was going on but dutifully got off our rug and stood up to finish our meal. It turned out that the police were approaching the area to do a spot check on it. The rules are very strict and the stall holders are not allowed to have anything on the ground or protruding from the structures that are provided for
them. Curious, we walked down to where the action was. Darren got right in there, in fact, and looked like he was about to start a revolution. What followed was so petty and time wasting it made us very angry. The police proceeded to shut down the 30 or so stalls because they had caught one that hadn’t been quick enough in putting their chairs away. Their equipment was confiscated and they got fined. It was all done in a very heavy handed way and there were tomatoes and onions rolling all over the ground as the others tried to pack up before the police reached them
Rock-cut temples: we took a ferry to Elephanta Island - an hour's journey into the vast Mumbai harbour. The harbour water is even filthier than Chowpatty. A film of oil and a procession of plastic waste float on it. A pollution hazes hangs over the city and the harbour, making the huge container ships look like floating ghosts. When we reached the island we climbed the steps which are lined with souvenir sellers, cows, dogs and monkeys. The temples have been carved out of solid rock on a hilltop. They are dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Ten panels depict different myths from his life and dozens of ornate columns hold up the ceiling. The Portuguese used the temples to keep cows and store hay in and did target practise on the sculptures, hence there is quite a lot of damage, but it is still an amazing place.
Indian food: the food here is great, even though Darren grumbled about being served curried scrambled eggs for breakfast! The mango kulfi (rich ice cream) and sweet lassi (milk drink) is divine
Baksheesh: we have inevitably been asked for money a lot. All the advice given by guidebooks and Indians themselves is not to give money, and especially not to children as it teaches them to beg and they often misuse the money. However, Darren is a soft touch and found it very hard when children followed us, often holding on to our clothes for five minutes or more. On our last night, a skinny 9 year old approached him and started asking for money, and then for food, saying 'rice' over and over. Darren gave in and decided to buy him some food and we looked around for a suitable place. At about this time a friend of his suddenly appeared, so now we had two meals to buy. They took us to a restaurant, sat down with big smiles on their faces and pointed to chicken madras on the menu! We explained that was too much and we had to go somewhere cheaper. After visiting 2 cafes where they reaffirmed their choice of food, we eventually found a street stall selling fried egg rolls. Asking the cost we were told a high price and were protesting when we worked out they had asked for 3 rolls and 2 eggs each. The cheeky monkeys. We left them to munch on one egg and one roll each and spent the rest of the evening discussing the morality of what we had just done, and the future of India. It's a big subject and we were left feeling more frustrated and confused than before.
Darren flew back to Heathrow after four nights in Bombay. He felt very surreal to be going home. He left Angie to experience the delights of the rest of India and the joys of a 22 hour train journey on her own.