Published: September 23rd 2012September 23rd 2012
Mumbai – A City of Contrasts, A City Alive
Allow me to set the scene. When I was younger, I read an article in National Geographic entitled India By Rail. It described in incredible detail, and with amazing photographs, the railway network in India. It didn’t concentrate on the machinery but rather the people who kept it running and the villages, towns and cities it visited as it made its way across the massive, unbelievably diverse country known as India. I was fascinated by the history and culture and kept the magazine, imagining that one day I would be able to experience it for myself. In the years that followed, I got married – twice – and had children – three – and the dream remained exactly that – unrealized and filed away in a metaphorical box entitled Someday.
(A short aside: I should clarify that this isn’t a sob story about how poor little Timmy never got to do anything. Courtesy of a childhood as a military brat, I had travelled the world and lived in four different countries before I was sixteen. England, America, Germany and Italy had each been my home and I had a great
childhood with an amazing family around me. I have volunteered in Africa and watched the sun rise over Half Moon Bay in California; I’ve swum in the crystal clear waters in Italy and hiked the Yorkshire Moors. I’ve done many things of which I am proud and seen things you wouldn’t believe. I am happily married and my three children constantly make me proud … but always in the back of mind was India. Back to the blog.)
Fast forward an awful lot of years and here I am, sitting in a sidewalk café on the streets of Mumbai, sipping a cup of chai, mopping my brow, and writing a blog about my Indian Adventure. Hard to believe but I am actually here and this is my story.
On September 11th, I boarded a flight for Mumbai with a stopover in Dubai. The flight was uneventful but the stopover was an eye-opener. Landing after midnight, the city was lit up and I could see the buildings which had received so much coverage in recent years. Skyscrapers of such impeccable and inspired construction, they reminded me of tall palaces rather than the offices and hotels they were. A millionaire’s
playground was how it appeared to me and the terminal was no different. Interspersed with the chain stores and food outlets (including a very cool Starbucks…) were gold and jewellery stores which dazzled, not only with the luxury of the product but also with the price tags. I was going to window shop but I was worried that there would be a price on that as well so I had my cup of coffee and waited for my next flight, a two and a half hour hop which would get me into Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport - Mumbai!
(A short aside: When the term Bollywood is used, people imagine colourful, exciting musicals with way too many songs and dances crowbarred into every available space. On the flight, I decided to watch a few Indian films to get into the mood and my first choice was a drama entitled Kahaani, starring the very popular actress Vidya Balan. Incredible film, great acting and sporting a twist at the end with the same impact as Usual Suspects, it both captivated and entertained me. If you’ve never experienced Bollywood, this is great film to introduce you to the Bollywood community. )
was almost 3am when I finally arrived but with Mumbai being five hours ahead of England, I wasn’t tired and I was ready for immigration and customs … or so I thought. The hall was packed, a line of people snaking back and forth between the ropes, waiting for the very bored officials to stamp our passports and allow us to continue to Customs. Three booths were open for visitors and ten for those of Indian descent. It reminded me of Chicago Airport where I once waited for over two hours only to be told that, as a Dual National, I could have gone through the shorter line. This time, there were no saving graces and I waited patiently with everyone else. Once through after a perfunctory glance at my visa and a quick stamp on my passport , I headed off to Customs where I was waved through in less than thirty seconds and I passed through the glass doors marked Namaste. I was in India! I was excited and smiling, something I definitely couldn’t say for my driver Nansingh who had been waiting for me since Midnight! He took me out into the Mumbai night and I encountered my first cultural shock, the first of many. After leaving the air conditioned terminal, the heat and moisture of the night hit me like a slap in the face. It was almost four in the morning but it was unbelievably hot! Jungle Hot. Even Tarzan wouldn’t like it this hot! I felt as though I were sitting in a sauna, fully clothed … and wearing a fur coat!
(A short aside: The use of the term ‘fur’ in the previous paragraph in no way condones or endorses the use of real fur. For the purposes of this blog, please imagine that I am referring to fake fur. Thank you.)
Thankfully, the car was air conditioned and we headed off to Lalco Residency, the apartment where I would be spending the next month. The highway was packed and oh so noisy, a real surprise for this time of night. It was here that I was introduced to my second cultural shock – the constant and deafening use of car horns! They don’t use them here to warn drivers that they are getting too close, they use them to tell others that they are going to squeeze their vehicle through a space more suitable for a bicycle! It was as if seven lanes of traffic were packed into a three lane road but it didn’t seem to phase anyone, other than me. Coming off the highway and onto the surface streets, I began to see more of the city. Small shops with names like Buckets and Tuckets, Sagaani Tailory (yes, that’s how it was spelled…), and Café Coffee Day shared the streets with familiar names like McDonalds, Vodaphone and the like. We finally pulled into Lalco and I headed in to registration. The room was excellent and I unpacked and hit the sack, ready for my first day in the city. I set my alarm and crashed, my first day over. When I awoke, I would finally get to experience Mumbai. My first stop of the day would be Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Station, but more about that next time.