Published: March 1st 2007February 18th 2007
Welcome to the gateway of India, Mumbai, its biggest city (17 million) and it most modern. For the first time we felt like we were in a "city" and not just a huge town. Skyscrapers, funky bars and eateries, ATMs on every corner, meter cabs rather than rickshaws, traffic rules, imposing grand architecture - all signs of a city and one that truly reflects the 21st century and modern India. Consequently, Mumbai was a place we can say we felt comfortable in - the Victorian neo-Gothic architecture further reminded us of familiar signs of home.
The area we stayed in, Colaba, shows obvious signs of affluence amongst the population and for the first time, funky Western fashions were commonplace - not to say that's a good thing, just that it's there. It's not all rosy though... Modern Mumbai can act like a fog, shrouding the darker side of the city, hidden from the observer's eyes. If you push through the mist you'll see another side to Mumbai hidden from view but yet clearly visible - such is the paradox of the city. There are some extremely impoverished people and many beggars - in fact it is believed 500,000 of Mumbai's
population live hand to mouth from begging donations. In the tourist areas, the police control the problem with the threat of a cane to try to hide the issue from our eyes but it's there and it's hard not to be affected. A large majority of Mumbai's dwellers live in slums and have no plumbed water or proper sanitation. I'm not suggesting the problem is ignored but it's certainly not being resolved. Groups are calling for action but I have to admit with so many people living in such conditions, it's hard to see how it can be changed effectively. No, I can certainly say the "trickle-down" effect of India's booming economy is not obvious here. Anyway, I appear to have embarked on a socio-political analysis of a massive and very complicated country, something I'm not really in a position to do, so I'll leave it at that. Just remember that India still has much to do for its citizens.
I'm getting back to our visit to Mumbai which started with much confusion - what to call it? The city formerly known as Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1996 (without any interim spurious sign nonsesnse) after the governing Shiv
Sena party tried to assert its pro-Maratha regionalist views on the city and attempted to remove anything remotely British. A fresh start but not one that was evidently liked by all and in fact much of the civil unrest and community tension in the city has been blamed on the ruling party who meddled with the multicultural fabric of Bombay. What we found was a common and popular use of the old names and most people we met still refer to the city as Bombay. We were a little puzzled and unsure what to go with but chose the official path of Mumbai not wanting to side with the rebellious pro-British approach, in case it drew unwanted attention.
Apart from the naming, there is plenty of other evidence of British rule: the architecture of the large important buildings is largely Victorian, British-designed and imposing. You arrive into the massive Victoria Terminus (renamed of course to Mumbai CST) and from that point on, the Neo-Gothic onslaught is relentless. The best buildings face the Oval Maidan, a strip of green pasture where cricket games are played against the backdrop of the High Court, Secretariat and University. The famous "Gateway to India"
memorial commemorates in big bold carved letters, the arrival of King George and Queen Mary to these shores. However, don't let me suggest to you this isn't an Indian city. We took a ride north of the centre and from a vantage point above the railway line we could see thousnads of outdoor, concrete, washing troughs with men and women beating the dirt out of clothes in the Dhobi Ghat. The crowds of colourful worshippers piling into Mahalaxmi Temple, the saree-wearing ladies on Chowpatty beach, the smells - this is very much India, colourful and charismatic in every way.
A highlight for us was the cuisine choice: great south and north Indian food, awesome Tandoor and frontier, Peshwari dishes, Western salads and pasta, sandwich bars in plentiful supply and you can wash it all down with a cold beer, a nice glass of red and a big puff on a Hukka pipe. We were also fortunate (or unfortunate, I don't know which) to be just round the corner from a Maccie D's and so we had to try the "McAloo Tikki", the "Chicken Maharaja Burger" and the "Paneer Wrap". Laura's general disdain for Ronald's cuisine was put on hold
for the minute - it's funny how travelling changes things. Funny also how reminders of home bcome so pertinent. Our room TV had a digi-box, something we'd become accustomed to before leaving the UK but hadn't seen since. Being able to see a programme guide on the TV was a big thing for this square-eyed monster. Unfortunately our room also seemed to have a bed-bug problem. It's quite possible we transported the little bug*ers from the pit we stayed in in Nasik but the tell-tale lines of red bites in the morning told us we weren't alone. Although they're perfectly harmless they still freeaked us out and so we went on a mammoth bug hunt sieving all our bags for stowaways. Despite our best efforts we still awoke with more bites the next day!
Mumbai's noise and air pollution levels are much lower than many other Indian cities we've seen but still we were ready for the hills and clean air again, so we made plans before leaving to head to the nearby hill station of Matheran. Free of traffic and boasting beautiful views of the Maharashtra countryside, it seemed to be the perfect tonic to the hustle and
Dusk Draws In At The Oval Maidan
Kids playing cricket with the backdrop of the High Court
bustle of urban travelling and so we caught the 7am train, sleepy-eyed, to greener pastures...
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