A Gateway to India Mumbai- Udaipur-Ranakpur-Jodhpur-Nagaur-Roopangarh-Jaipur-Ranthambore-Keoladeo-Fatehpur Sikri-Chambal-Agra-Delhi-Shimla-Dharamsala-Pong-Amritsar
13th February 2013
A sombre cloudless sky greeted us on arrival in Mumbai, defused by localised smog laying heavily over the bay, but after the 1C and snow we left behind in the UK, the 30C of Mumbai is decidedly welcome once refreshed with a cool shower.
There is safety in numbers, or so I've been told. That might indeed be true for wildebeast crossing the Serengetti, for vast flocks of birds fending off predators in flight or armies preparing for battle. Evidence, however, suggests it's not so much the roll of the dice but where you choose to roll 'em. Mumbai's 20.5 million people cram this city on the Bom Bahia or 'Good Bay' as the Portuguese called it when they first arrived. For now, let's call it Bombay.
There's a certain rhythm to Bombay; or perhaps it's more a bang and a rattle, setting the heart racing and the eardrums vibrating. Traffic here makes a Monday morning rush-hour on London's M25 seem like an afternoon picnic. For here the main roads throng with high-revving tuk-tuks, fume throwing
motorbikes, scooters galore three-up and helmetless, huge hand-wielded carts overladen with white sacks of washing for delivery to-and-from the Dhobi Ghat, throw in the odd cow and goat for good measure and many thousands of black and yellow taxis honking ' I'm behind you!'
The city's central streets are clean, cared for by an army of sweepers in recent times, and traders of all things from trinkets and bracelets to watches and puppets line the streets alongside sellers of fruit and vegetables. Vegetating bodies wrapped in scruffy blankets lay in the shadows in sublime peace, day and night, beside mangy dogs and pavement dwellers sorting through piles of refuse in the backstreets. Hawkers of peacock-feather gifts, giant balloons and garlands all ply their trade amongst the tourists with friendly though somewhat persistant advances, on streets alive with the delicate fragrance of joss-sticks and cow pats.
But for us it's the comfort of the very friendly and very central Suba Palace Hotel. Around the corner an orderly youthful queue awaits the next perfomance at the local cinema, passing through security detectors and wand-waving police to feast their eyes on the latest offerings from Bollywood. Crowds
of holidaying Indians make their way to The Gateway of India, built to commmemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, in the heyday of the Raj. With the coming of Valentine's Day comes the prospect of both love and hate, hand-in-hand with memories of Al Capone and more recent events here in town, and security measures have been put in place ahead of any trouble. Security scanners guard the cordoned off walkway to The Gateway and all who enter will be scanned and their luggage screened. The same process greeted us on our way into the Taj Mahal Hotel just across the road, to absorb the ambience of the affluent over a welcome cool beer at European prices.
Western dress prevails amongst the men on the street, though tradition remains strong with ladies in vibrant, dazzling saris, resonating in the fine stir-fry of culture in this openly liberal city where money is seemingly more important than religion - and anything is official, given an original and three carbon copies.
Victorian and Art Deco buildings are much in evidence around the city; the Victoria Station, The Town Hall, the Art Deco Regal Cinema, The
Gateway and many others surrounding the The Maidan Oval cricket ground where a dozen or more games were in progress. We resisted the temptation to yell, 'Come on England', aware of the potentioal to riot - and the many black kites soaring overhead.
Mike had been thinking ahead as usual and booked a city tour with Reality Tours and Travel on the basis of 'if it's good enough for Prince Andrew it's good enough for us'. The tour took us to the Dhobi Ghat and the now rather famous Dharavi slums. Surprisingly, more than 50% of Mumbai's population still live in slums around the city, where Hindu and Muslim work hand-in-hand as Gandhi would have wished it, recycling trash from within the city and beyond; both the USA and China send their rubbish here. Reality have forged a bond with the inhabitants of Dharavi, dedicating 80% of their profits to community projects within the slum. Our guide, Dinesh, is known to everyone there, allowing us to meet the locals at their work, sorting, grinding and recycling huge grubby sacks of plastic, piles of tin cans and cardboard, smelting aluminium, sewing, fabric printing, drilling, welding, painting, ironing. We were met
with a wave and a smile in every dingy doorway, along dark and narrow garbage-strewn alleyways flowing with often open-sewers, where chickens and cats prowled past sleeping dogs, a listless tethered goat watching, doe-eyed, as the next thousand goat-skins hit the washtub, up steep steel staircases to corrugated roofs scattered with yesterday's rubbish and kids playing cricket, barefoot in the puddles. On the fringes were school kids in their smart uniforms, girls with pig-tails, calling and waving to us, 'Take our picture! Where are you from? How are you today?' Prudence suggests no photography in Dharavi.
But money is not greater than God. This pulsng centre of commercial activity of Dharavi is overlooked by fast-decaying tower blocks, shanty homes and the glass towers of modern society.beyond their wildest dreams. Reality are doing their bit to change things here. Their English School is working well with support from tourists, but it is equally reality that these seemingly happy people are cleaning up this world we contiue to pollute with our consumer driven trash. It will be hard to forget those brown-eyed, wide-eyed kids smiling and waving, their dads raising their heads momentarily from their piece-work to give us a smile
of welcome, with mother scrubbing and bashing her washing on the doorstep.
Welcome to India, this great land of delights, sights and extremes.
More from India in a few days.
For my little brother, Mike's, take on our five-weeks in India, go to: Keep Smiling
Janice and David
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