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Published: December 26th 2009
For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
I have no idea what to expect as my train enters Mumbai.
Well, actually, I have a few ideas. 20 million people, sprawl, poverty and wealth, mishmash of religions, colonial architecture, the biggest city in mainland Asia. Bollywood, with the highest output of films in the world, practically side by side with Dharavi, the second largest slum in the world. The city of blaring contrasts.
An hour past the Mumbai limits and we are still riding into the city that never ends. Past local trains, people hanging from the sides, piled onto the roof. Arrival at Mumbai Central; it’s a zoo, but a taxi driver targets me before I even alight.
My room is a windowless shoebox, and at 400 rupees (10$), it is the most I have paid in India. Sleep.
I can’t pretend to be an expert on Mumbai. In the three days I spend here, I barely scratch the surface.
Scanning through a local paper:
Massive water shortages. Runaway inflation. Locals admit to watering down their curries to make up for rising prices of produce. Child
walking with mother disappears, later found to have fallen into an open sewer, dead, body caught in a clog of trash. New plans for tallest residential skyrise in the city. Multi-million dollar project to increase water by 2L per person per day (less than one toilet flush). Bollywood celebrity news. Locals fined for using tap water to clean their bikes. Cricket scores. More on water shortages.
Walking the streets of Central Mumbai my expectations are defied. The city has a completely different feel from any large city in the rest of India. Despite the overflowing population, it actually looks and feels quite organized and clean, by Indian standards at least. The streets are well maintained and rickshaws are kept out from the center of the city. I see hardly any cows on the street.
Except for on one or two small tourist strips, nobody bothers me whatsoever. People barely even notice me walk by. You must understand this is a great relief after having traveled the North of the country. Every time I stop a passing local for directions, I get clear and accurate instructions, in perfect English. I escape the sun for a moment in
a large shopping mall, enticed by the arctic AC. I sip a cappuccino and take advantage of the free wireless internet.
Don’t get me wrong, Mumbai is still intense. But I found it’s intensity manageable.
Following instructions from a close friend who is native of Mumbai, I walk the entire length of Marine Drive at sunset. Young and mostly middle to upper class locals are cruising the strip, chatting with friends. Couples sit and contemplate the sea horizon. Young men stroll hand in hand (not gay, just expressing friendship, the Indian way).
Marine Drive terminates at Chowpatty Beach. I barely even notice when I am there, but later when I look back at the pictures, I realize how much trash was on the beach! The beach atmosphere is very pleasant though. Indians don’t really do the beach the way Westerners do. It is a fully clothed affair, with lots of socializing and eating, and in this case some man-powered amusement park rides for the kids (and adults) too.
As I enter the food section, there is a small uproar from the vendor touts, all trying to coerce me to their stall. I start with
an appetizer of pistachio kulfi
, a sort of Indian ice cream. Next I converse with a group of young students and they offer me some bhelpuris
, a very local specialty that consists of small round doughy puffs filled with onions, lentils, lemon juice and spices. For my main course I go for pizza, which is cooked in a miniature toaster-oven, and for dessert I try another local dessert, gola
, which is a stick of crushed ice which you dip into a cup of neon colored milky sugar juice.
I must admit I was most excited to sample the Mumbai nightlife. After my stint in the Middle East, I am deprived of a good night of drink and dance. I meet some female travelers who have been invited to work for a night hostessing a private party at one of Mumbai’s most expensive clubs. The guys can come along and get free cover into the club, which normally sets you back a whopping 40$.
My Spanish companion and I nurse a few 10$ beers and get bored waiting for our friends. We sneak into the private party and find ourselves in a sea of rich and beautiful
Mumbaians. We indulge in the open bar and passing trays of cocktails and shots. I am drunk. We get busted and thrown out.
Religious tensions sometimes boil to the surface even in ultra modern Mumbai, and only a year ago the bombing of the 5 star Taj Mahal Hotel made headlines the world over. But the overwhelming majority of the time, all of the world’s major religions sit peacefully side by side, packed like sardines in this colossal city.
As an example, the city’s most important Muslim place of worship, the Haji Ali Mosque, is just down the road from the most important Hindu temple, the Mahalaxmi Temple. One thing that I notice while visiting, particularly in the Mosque, is that the enormous mass of visitors is not exclusive to one religion. In fact, I would say more than half the visitors are non-Muslims.
The Mosque is accessed by a long causeway out on the Arabian Sea. As you approach, the left side is lined with stalls selling junk, and the right side beggars, holding their hands out. Waves with floating trash splash on both sides.
At both the Mosque and especially the Hindu
temple the stream of visitors is so thick that it is strictly controlled. We are herded through like cattle, fenced in, long lines, leave your shoes here, pushing, waiting, and when I finally arrive to the core shrine there is hardly anything to see and I am pushed through, the end. At the bottom of a cliff the temple meets the ocean with a fence dividing the two, and some people have crawled under the fence and are playing in the water, fishing out trash, while the others watch.
Last day in the city and I check out Dhobi Ghat, the enormous open-air clothes-washing district. From the adjacent bridge you can get panoramic views of seas of laundry, grouped into like colors, hanging to dry, and men and women pounding shirts and pants in individual whitewash pools of multicolored water.
Back on the local train, 4 rupees (10 cents) a ride. I get off a stop early to photograph some pro-peace and anti-terrorist murals. Authentic Chinese for dinner, then beers in a local pub, where the lights are dim, tables side by side, and a hundred conversations combine into one unified roar. There is not much
of a drinking culture in India, but when they do drink, it seems they get right down to business.
Something you get used to when traveling India: the late night check out and overnighter train. As I depart from Victoria terminal, I observe a sea of people, thousands I am sure, camped out on the floor. Like cats they appear calm and serene, comfortable and perfectly able to fall asleep on just about any surface. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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