Mumbai, India: A mixture of old and new

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June 23rd 2011
Published: July 23rd 2011
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Mumbai Bus

When we enter the suburbs of Mumbai at dawn, Trung is still off in la la land with his earplugs in, so I'm left watching the increasingly dense city go by, complete with tons of shacks, tarp lean-tos and dozens of people pooping in the open fields between these 'subdivisions'. It makes sense that people do their morning business in the open areas, as the streets are really small with poor drainage, so why clutter them up, just go in the field!

Trung eventually wakes up just as the bus guy says that we should get off. Mumbai is on a very long point of land with the main city on an island at the end. The bus doesn't go all the way down where we want to go, so we get off where he tells us. Turns out we're VERY far north, even farther out than the Mumbai airport.

We haven't got a guide book so we just ask the usual scrum of tuk tuks if we can go to the city center. Again the tuk tuk drivers have NO idea what we're talking about. 'Downtown' gets blank stares, 'City Center' gets looks of confusion, 'Center of the city' gets another stare and a 'no, no'. So I tell him to take us to where the tourists go. We finally get across that we want a central hotel. He takes us to a hotel in the geographic center of the city, down an alley, through some mud. The room is 2100 rupees per night (like $50) and not where we want to stay. Trung says 'This is NOT downtown' to the tuk tuk driver who says 'Yes yes, very close, very central'. Thankfully the guy at the hotel has a map and shows us where we are. The map also has the Gateway of India on it, which I remember from some vague recollection is where people go to see Mumbai. It used to be the first thing people saw as they entered India from their ship and it's near the Southern tip of the city.

We ask the driver to take us to the 'Gateway of India'. Now, the tuk tuk has a meter which we've been using so far, and its at 70 rupees. Not too bad, considering we've been travelling for about 10km. Its cheap, but not out of the question for Tuk Tuk fare. He tells us that it is possible to go to Gateway of India and we take off down the 6 lane highway in the heavy Mumbai traffic that includes everything under the sun, cows, tuk tuks, scooters, buses, cabs, dogs, kids, etc. etc. He's talking with a taxi driver driving beside us at one point, seemingly asking questions on how to get downtown. We must be getting close because we've been driving for quite awhile. The meter is now at 170 rupees. On a long aqueduct bridge, we pull to the side and the cab stops in front of us. The Tuk Tuk driver says that's as far as he's going and the cab will take us the rest of the way. Then he pulls out a sheet with 'conversion rates' on them that shows how the meter is actually at 17.0km and its a total of 500 rupees for our ride, a ridiculous amount for 20 minutes of driving. You could take a tuk tuk for an entire day's sight seeing for 400 rupees and we know it. Trung and the tuk tuk driver get into a heated argument while I'm trying to get the
Victoria TerminusVictoria TerminusVictoria Terminus

One of the busiest rail stations in the world
taxi driver to freaking STOP putting our bags in his trunk. We have no agreement with him and we definitely DON'T plan on using his services if he's friends with this tuk tuk driver.

After 10 minutes of arguing, reasoning, shouting and wild hand gestures the tuk tuk driver wants to take us to the police station to work it out. Trung says no way are we getting back in your tuk tuk. We've given him 200 rupees, more than adequate in my opinion, and Trung is asking him to call the police so they can come and see what he's trying to do to us. He grumbles and gestures some more until I pull out my cell phone and he jumps in his tuk tuk and drives off. The taxi man is left standing on the side of the road. His best offer is another 500 rupees to get downtown, so we're left walking down the 6 lane highway bridge over a lake of sewage, somewhere in Mumbai, in 30 degree 9am heat with 2 hours of sleep in 48 hours. Quite a substantial first morning in Mumbai!

Eventually a cabbie picks us up for 150 rupees to get us downtown. Turns out we're still about 1/2 hour away so 150 is quite reasonable. We have to stop and get gas, which is interesting, the hood pops up to the tiny engine and a posi-lock pump is used to re-fill the natural gas tank under the hood. These ancient cars have lasted 25 years using a natural gas system, maybe the manufacturer was on to something?

Finally we fight our way through traffic to the Gateway. Its almost at the extreme southern point of Mumbai, and in the center of the old colonial area. The hotels are all 4000 rupees and up so Trung and I are left going down a tight alleyway and climbing up a tight spiral stair to the 2nd floor of a building to access the internet. There's 6 tightly packed computers in a tiny room, but thank god there's air conditioning!!

Eventually we find a good looking hotel only 3km away. Its near the docklands and is a popular backpacker destination. Our attempts at getting a tuk tuk are futile, nobody understands what the street name is, nor do they recognize surrounding monuments, shops and other landmarks that I wrote down, so we walk. About 1/2 hour later we're in front of the hotel hoping against hope that there's an A/C room available. Success! We're in and not only do they have A/C, they have wireless internet, which hasn't happened in awhile!! And it's only noon, a full 18 hours after we left Goa.

The rest of our day is spent relaxing, doing some light sightseeing and just getting acclimatized to Mumbai. We discover a place called 'Cafe Coffee Day' which is India's answer to Tim Hortons. Excellent coffee, air conditioned and with good sandwitches! What a lifesaver!

Nearby is the gateway of India and the Taj Palace, both built for King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 when they made the epic journey to India by boat. The gigantic gateway was built as, well, a 'Gateway of India' and subsequently many passenger boats have landed at this gate. Today there is a ferry boat service next to the gateway to the nearby national park at Elephanta Island, which we decide to do the following day.

The Taj Palace is a beautiful hotel just steps away from the Gateway. Two years ago, terrorists decided to storm into the palace, shooting and blowing things up as they went. Today, you can't even tell the areas where the palace was on fire or collapsed, and it remains a busy hotel, although with increased security outside. Its a testament to the resolve of Indian people to not allow acts like this to run their lives. Unfortunately attacks like this are still going on occationally, but Trung and I are lucky enough to avoid them during our stay in India.

The following day is another good day for wandering. We walk down past the gateway again, headed for the southernmost point. The map makes it seem not too far, but after about 45 minutes in the stifiling heat we're in a run-down looking area we're ready to turn around. A taxi offers to take us to a nearby mall, which seems like a good idea. We're in the cosmopolitan heart of India, the malls MUST be good, right?

Well, turns out this one is not so hot. Its at the world exchange of India, but there's about 5 sad tailor shops over two dark floors of shopping, including an escalator, for some reason. It's nice and air conditioned, though, for the 5 other shoppers in this paradise. There are two travel agents as well, but neither can help us with our ongoing travel, for some reason...

Time to see the Elephanta Caves. There are several ticket windows near the Gateway offering boat rides to Elephanta. Its 120 rupees return and the ride takes approximately 1 hour. There are three 'docks' which are rough stone steps down to the ocean where the boats park. We get on a boat at dock number 2. Its 10 rupees extra to sit on the upper deck of the boat, payable to the boat guy watching the ladder. Once on the top its quite a nice ride in the little tug boat. There's about 50 people on the boat. Its full, but not over-packed.

It seems like forever to get across the bay to the island. The city and most other things disappeared into the fog caused by the monsoon and the boat ride is just a long string of passing container ships anchored in the harbour. Mumbai is a major port and there are 100's of ships.

Elephanta is a world heritage site, with several ancient hindu caves carved into the hillside on the island. The caves were lost for several hundred years before some explorers found it. It was since used for target practice by several countries over the last few centuries, but most of the sculptures have made it through.

There's a large boat dock and about 1km walk to the base of the hill. A toy train runs the route from the end of the dock to the base of the hill for 5 rupees. Its a noisy, bumpy ride, but everyone seems to enjoy it. Elephanta is a popular trip for locals so the island is quite busy.

After a hot walk up the hillside the first of several caves appears out of the bush. All of the caves are quite large and ornate and its a very awe inspiring sight.

Too soon it's time to head back down because the last boats are leaving for Mumbai soon. On the way back the surf is quite large and the boat passengers get soaked on the 1st level. It takes almost 1.5 hours to get back to land this time as the wind is against us. There's a crowd of people at the front of the boat, yelling and screaming every time a large wave comes. Trung is not impressed as he's got a boat phobia, but I think its pretty hilarious. For the ENTIRE time these people are at the front yelling at every big wave.

Trung was tired of tourism at this point, so I left him to his own devices after getting back to the Gateway. I've been a walker during these last few months, so I went on a 2 hour roaming-about tour of old Mumbai. The university, high court, train station and city hall are all destinations I happen upon during my walk. Each is an amazing colonial structure with beautiful Indian architectural details. The train station is absolutely insane. I didn't make it until 5pm so it's full-on rush hour. Victoria terminus is the end of the North-South line (remember Mumbai is on a point) so everyone south of here must take the train from this station. I end up arriving on the wrong side of the 8 lane, bumper to bumper street and notice a 'subway' walk to the station. There's a solid wall of people moving into the subway, so I take a deep
A beautiful streetA beautiful streetA beautiful street

Trung and I were imagining 20 years from now, this street lined with cafes and expensive shops. Now it's empty and abandoned, but a Hermes shop is going in at the very end of this building.
breath and plunge in. Remember, I'm the only white person I've seen today, so there's a small semi-circle around me and everyone is tripping over themselves and staring. Its quite a scene as I make my way through the 50 foot wide packed tunnel, the sounds of salesmen, the giant air fan, people shouting and shuffling feet.

Once up the stairs and out at the station its just as crazy. There are tons of platforms covered by the wrought iron and glass roof with everyone running and yelling. There's a constant stream through the front door into the station. To get out I'm forced to follow a guy along the wall, inching my way out. I'm not taking a train today which goes against the intention of the other 500,000 people going into the station.

Eventually I make it down the street far enough to avoid the throngs of people and am completely lost. I know the general direction, but streets in Mumbai are like streets anywhere in India. Small and twisty. After walking down a few interesting laneways with people selling everything from sweet sugarcane juice to hubcaps, I chance upon a familiar building and wind my way back to the hotel just as it's getting dark, thank God.

The hotel internet doesn't work INSIDE the rooms, so in the evening I'm joined by other guests in the tight, hot stairwell, sacrificing comfort in order to Facebook. Oh the things we do for Facebook!

The following day, Trung finds an A/C cabbie on the street (somehow) who speaks English enough to offer us a driving tour of the city. On the menu is the 'hanging garden', 'Mahatma Ghandi's house, the floating mosque, and other miscellaneous sights around the city.

Our tour starts by driving North into the more residential area of Mumbai. Following the Queen's Necklace, a 4 lane highway that borders a perfectly curved bay for about 5km, we end up in the ritzy part of Mumbai. I think THIS is where the malls are. Tall, modern condo builidings and old sprawling colonial mansions are the name of the game here.

The first stop is the hanging gardens, a kitchy garden on a hillside overlooking the Queen's Necklace. Its full of hedge sculptures of girrafes, people, a space ship and other random things. The view is great, you can see all of downtown Mumbai below.

Ghandi's house is an awe-inspiring experience. Its one of the out-of-body experiences that I've been having on this trip. A feeling of 'I can't believe I'm standing here right now'. Sadly, the house has been fully converted into several large rooms arranged over three floors. Each room is filled with photographs and letters from Ghandi's life. Only one room remains the same, his bedroom/office where he spent most of his time working to unite India, and spending time on his spinning wheel, his favorite past time. One can still feel a certain presence that he lived in that house, and it's a very interesting museum that covers all facets of his life.

The rest of the day is a hodge-podge of seeing this and that around Mumbai. There are some interesting Hindu temples, beautiful views across the city, and we drive past the skyscraper/mansion of the richest man in India. Thats right, he built a skyscraper as his house. Its an amazing feat of engineering and a fascinating building that I can remember seeing in the news a few years ago.

Our next stop is Aurungabad, a city North-West of Mumbai in the central area of Maharashtra. Its close to the Ellora and Adjanta caves, another 1000's of years old world heritage site. I realize during the afternoon the day we're leaving that I actually booked the bus tickets to Ahmenebad instead of Aurungabad. My bad! There goes $20 hard-earned dollars down the drain! Its easy to re-book the tickets however, and we're off again on another night-time express to wake up in another city!


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