Bombay and Matheran Hill Station

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May 13th 2008
Published: May 13th 2008
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Bombay/Mumbai - a city by any other name would smell the same.....The taxi from Bombay to Nehrul took 4 painful hours - Bombay was recently voted '7th filthiest city in the world', tho' a citizen complained to the local newspaper that they were robbed, surely it qualifies for first place? We drove through what is officially named the World's Largest Slum - 150,000 people and 1 toilet to serve all of them - we passed this facility, and astonishingly there was no queue. This particular slum has the added disadvantage of being built on a swamp, miles of ramshackle huts constructed of corrugated iron, plastic sheeting, huddled together with no permanent structure to be seen. Apparently there is a thriving economy in the slum, they even have ATMs, tho the nature of the businesses here probably does not bear close scrutiny. Tried and failed to imagine what impact the annual monsoon must have on the population here - the death toll from disease must be horrendous as Bombay is a major malaria blackspot.

We only spent one night here, the hotel we'd located was in the suburbs, an area of banks and major business corporations. As soon as we hit the city the beggars were on us - small children wriggle their way through chaotic traffic and latch onto the side of the cab, with pleading eyes and 'feed me now' gestures as they cling on to the vehicle - the driver taking no notice whatsoever, accelerating away as soon as the opportunity arises. The day we were there had been nominated as 'no horn day' as part of the World Health Day 'make the world a better place to live' initiative. The WHO have decreed that 45 decibels of traffic noise is the upper acceptable limit, in Bombay it is routinely 90 decibels, hence considered injurious to health. In this one day 7000 drivers were fined 200 Rupees each for sounding their horns - all of them claimed ignorance of the ban. It would have been more useful and profitable to designate the day as 'no clearing your throat and spitting in the street' day - the council would have made a fortune.

Went walkabout at night to find a pharmacy, turned right off the main drag and immediately plunged into India as was 100 years ago - traffic noise faded and the shops, selling live chickens to be killed in situ and taken home for dinner, vegetable stalls piled high with produce, herbs, spices, all the accoutrements of daily living, lit by smoking oil lamps, were all doing a roaring trade. The modern city round the corner was a world away...One strange encounter - walking through the market was a young Indian mother, her son trotting beside her. The boy had totally blonde hair, white skin, blue eyes, he was almost luminous in the gloom....felt impelled to greet the pair, just to ensure the wee lad had not been kidnapped or something, tho what I would have done about it if this was the case I have no idea. The mother smiled, proud that we should take an interest in her boy - who knows what genetic throwback caused this, or how the mother's husband/family reacted when he emerged? But she looked at him with adoration in her eyes.

Next morning boarded that taxi and, in sweltering heat, crawled through and out of Bombay, heading for the hills. The countryside here is arid, desert-like, not the lush greenery we were used to in the previous 2 hill stations. Beginning to get concerned that a mistake had been made - what if Matheran was barren and inhospitable - we had very little information about the area, and it did not look promising in the approach, more like pictures you see of Arizona. We were dropped off at Nehrul - the only way up to the station is by narrow gauge railway or by small venicle - Matheran is only 6.5 kms from Nehrul as the crow flies, but the train traverses 21 km of track with 281 curves to arrive at Dasturi, which is a close as any regular transport can get to Matheran. The next train was not for 2 hours, so rather than wait and fry in the heat we elected to take a small cab up the winding track to Dasturi.

Now Ken swears that he told me what this would entail, I'm certain he didn't, but the fact that we would have to ride the 6 kms from Dasturi to Matheran on horseback did not sink in until we arrived at the end of the road. We were suddenly surrounded by coolies clamouring to carry our luggage and boys jockeying for our business - 'good horse, very quiet, very cheap' etc. I was quietly appalled, only ever having been on horseback once in my life, for about 5 minutes. On that occasion the animal decided it wanted to get back to the foal it had left in the field, took a left turn head first into a hedge and refused to go any further. Ken had a little more experience than me, most of it fairly alarming, with one horse getting stuck on its side under a bridge and another running away with him when he 'clicked' too enthusiatically in its ear, but nevertheless he was much keener than me to mount up. But the alternative was to walk the 6kms up the unsurfaced uphill track in the heat to the town, so ride we did, preceded by 2 coolies who trotted ahead with our luggage on their heads. Felt very insecure on this initial journey, wobbling atop the stout little pony as it negotiated rocks and holes in the deep red earth that passed for the highway. To the left was an 800 metre drop to the valley below, to the right forest and sheer cliffs, home to monkeys, exotic birds and by all accounts big cats and snakes - in the reception at our hotel hung a snake cast about 8 foot long, found in the grounds by our swimming pool, plus various skins of animals hunted and killed by Mr Lord, who founded Lord's Hotel 73 years ago.

So we entered Matheran in some style, though Ken confessed to a certain amount of discomfort caused by his stash of rupees, initially tucked away in his waistband for security, slipping 'down and under' as it were, with resultant chaffing in a delicate area, not easily remedied whilst riding a horse.

So we embarked on the last stage of our sojourn in S India, and in these 2 weeks Matheran and India conspired to thrill and amaze beyond all expectations - India certainly saved the best til last.

Next:- Our last days in Matheran, Bombay then revoir India...


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