Cold Australian beers before us. Chips and salsa burning our tongues. French posters framed on the wall. A table full of loud Nigerians across the room. So where are we?
Where else but Mumbai, India?
“I want another beer,” says Jenny.
“My armpits smell like curry,” says Randy.
And from these humble beginnings, inspired by intoxication in a back alley bar, the hellotrain blog is born again. After nearly a year of fun under the sun (Randy) and hard labor (Jenny), we’re picking up not quite where we left off to carve out a new adventure through the Indian sub-continent.
Dubbed “India’s most cosmopolitan city,” Mumbai (or Bombay) is the first step of our Indian tour. Take the glamour of Hollywood, add the gothic architecture of London and the slums of Cape Town, and you’ll come close to the flavor of Mumbai—but the reality is still as clear as paneer. Perhaps the best description comes from one writer who called it a “sub-tropical London on acid.”
As always, we’ve spent much of our time exploring the city on foot—pleasant apart from the pounding symphony of car horns. The streets swarm with people, stray dogs, taxis,
and wooden carts competing for breathing space. The woman are small explosions of color, draped in fantastically bright patterned saris and wispy dresses, making auto-rickshaws look like speeding Easter baskets zipping around the city. Jenny, having been dinner for an army of bedbugs in our so-that’s-why-it-was-so-cheap hotel room, was eyeing the woman’s long sleeves and shawls as cover-up for her hundred-plus bites.
We checked off the “must-do” list of all the city’s major tourist attractions: marveling at the carved Buddhist caves (and horny monkeys) on Elephanta Island; avoiding touts and head masseuses on Chowpatty Beach; and loitering in the air-conditioned lobby of the extravagant Taj Mahal Hotel. The Haji Ali mosque was a highlight: white domes and minarets on a tiny island off the coast. The long walkway connecting the island to the mainland becomes submerged at high tide.
The massive gothic buildings that dominate downtown are still in use, surprising us at every corner with their turrets and gargoyles and intricately decorated facades. One of these is the Prince of Wales Museum, where we browsed old photographs of Mumbai during colonial times and learned about the city’s evolution from a series of small islands to the 16-million-person
peninsula it is today.
But—aside from the colonial architecture—it’s really the small things that give Mumbai its charm. Shoebox-sized shrines dedicated to many-armed Hindu deities are tucked into streetside stalls, hung on trees, and fastened to taxi dashboards. Sidewalk barbers charge 25 cents for a razor shave—a deal Randy couldn’t resist. Mangy dogs and fat cows wander into busy streets unfazed by honking buses and motorcycles racing past.
When we tired of the din and blare of traffic noise, we’d hop in a red double-decker bus or one of the identical black and yellow taxis that are never more than a few steps away. Taxis are ridiculously cheap, and drivers are experts at negotiating the space between the lanes (they even clip the side mirrors for an extra few inches of squeeze room).
In India’s film industry capital, it’s hard to go anywhere without running into a theater showing the latest Bollywood flicks, India’s bigger-than-life and bigger-than-Hollywood song-and-dance bonanzas. One night we chose something different and caught “Black Friday,” a gritty movie about the 1993 bombings in Mumbai. It seemed like a good film, but we’re not quite sure since—as clever as we are—we bought tickets for
a showing in Hindi without subtitles.
After roaming the city by foot and fuel, we’d usually end up back on the southern tip of the peninsula in the bustling neighborhoods of Fort and Colaba, where restaurants, bars, and street shops abound. Night markets bubble over with fresh fruits, fried snacks, burning incense, and chatter. Men sell mediocre crafts, pirated books, and plastic jewelry to tourists who, dazzled by the color and clutter, pay thrice the real price.
Jenny’s favorite hawkers were the balloon men: lounging on street corners with human-sized yellow and orange balloons, these guys confront passers-by with an eager “Big balloon? Big balloon?” If you purchase any, you risk being chased down and told that you bought the wrong package because of course if you want the real big balloons then you need to pay more.
Though tempting, we’re already hauling around big balloons of our own: bellies full of dosas, samosas, thalis, dahl, chutney, biryani, naan, sweet chai, and lassis. With the average meal running less than a dollar, and so many delicious dishes (we haven’t met a curry we don’t like), we’re on our way to becoming “so fat!” as we’ve witnessed Indians
cheerfully remark when pointing out their pudgy friends.
Next up we’re northbound to the state of Gujarat, where we’ll attempt to work off our excess baggage by conquering the temple-topped Mount Girnar with its 9,999 steps. And since Gujarat is alcohol-free (gasp!), bottoms up in Mumbai.
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