Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Mumbai, India

It was like coming home for the day to a large proportion of the staff on board Arcadia today. Our table waiter, Girish was meeting up with family and our cabin steward, Antonio who comes from Goa met up with his wife and children who had travelled from Goa to see him for a single day, the first time in 6 months. Jennifer, a girl who works on reception was meeting with her sister, and gave us so much useful advice about things to do. It's not her job to do that, but she told us "We MUST enjoy Mumbai!". This same story was repeated again and again for many staff. Instead of them asking us if we had a good day ashore, we were asking about their day and listening to their stories. The countdown to our arrival here started a long time ago!
It was also with nervous anticipation of a different kind that Katie and I experienced on the days leading up to our call in Mumbai. On the advice of a few, we had cancelled our organised trip a couple of weeks ago and instead had decided to go it alone, along with Trevor and Jean of course, our travelling buddies. Without them, I'm not sure I would have the confidence to tackle the city, or get the most out of it. As with many other places, we'd had our expectations set by Jo at her port talk, a repeat of which we'd watched on the TV in the cabin. She detailed the things we were likely to see and experience, including the things that as westerners we would find most disagreeable. I find it strange that Jo obviously feels the need to include this information as a warning to those who are expecting flowers and perfume at every port. One would have thought that, as people who have chosen to travel and see the world, our fellow passengers would be an open minded and relatively worldly-wise bunch, but it seems there is still a few who need to be told for their own safety! So rightly or wrongly, we were going to see Mumbai ourselves, I'm really glad we did, but it's easy for me to say that now as I sit on the balcony crossing the Arabian sea. We've had many "adventures" on this trip, but they don't become "adventures" until you're sat recounting them with a cold beer in your hand! (Right now, I have a coffee, not a beer..yet!)
The 4 of us had done more planning than usual for the day. We knew what we wanted to see, where most of it was, and how we would get between each place. We'd also researched the likely cost of a taxi to take us the places we wanted to go to. Katie was assigned as chief negotiator, I was in charge of navigation, Trevor was security officer with a secondary mandate for navigation and Jean was looking after our nutritional and beverage requirements! We did all this as a bit of a joke, and predictably, all these roles fell apart the moment we stepped ashore at 8am.
We were welcomed by a gathering of local Hindu ladies who dutifully placed a Bindi onto everyone's forehead as they disembarked. We walked into a large cruise terminal and changed a few Pounds for Rupees as the nearest ATM wasn't apparent. We'd been advised and had agreed amongst ourselves, to walk outside of the port gates in order to get a taxi, because it would be cheaper, but that didn't stop half a dozen drivers vying for our business. Chief negotiator Katie tried her luck anyway and was quoted $40 for the day, way too much. In fact, we didn't even want a taxi for the whole day, we were intent on seeing 3 things initially, but convincing the waiting drivers that it was those 3 things, and those 3 things alone that we would pay for, was our first challenge. The moment we stepped from the relative calm of the port and into the real world, Katie's role as negotiator went out the window. We should have realised that the drivers would only want to speak with Trevor. As we trailed behind, trying to stay out of the hustle and bustle, and with the negotiation struggling a little, Katie was picked off to start another conversation with another taxi! Add to this a couple of ladies who were following us and begging for money, you can maybe imagine the chaos. And it's not that we weren't expecting this either, this chaos was anticipated and was the very reason we had clear objectives and a price in mind. I can't imagine the arguments or overcharging that would occur for those who were less well prepared.
Price and destination firmly agreed and confirmed several times, we jumped into a car and realised we'd managed to haggle our way into possibly the smallest and oldest taxi in the whole of Mumbai. Katie, Jean and I were all sat in the back, having ample leg room, but bent double to keep our heads from tearing a whole in the roof lining. Said roof lining was probably the most highly polished part of the car, decades of unwary passengers before us using their hair to buff it to a shine with every bump and corner! Our introduction to life on the streets of Mumbai started almost immediately with a lesson on traffic light etiquette. If the people in Vietnam were taught to drive by the Sampan Boat drivers in Hong Kong, then the Mumbai taxi drivers were taught by the Vietnamese. Red lights were more of a suggestion than an instruction and lane or no lane, any spare piece of tarmac was fair game in order to further ones progress. After 30 seconds of stunned silence, Javeed, our driver looked over his shoulder to check we were still in the back seat and said "My Indian passengers are not usually so quiet". It made us laugh, but he didn't stop looking at us until he had solicited a more comprehensive response, I think it was our wide eyes and open mouths that made him turn around again just in time to avoid a pedestrian.
If motorbikes were the transport of choice in Vietnam, then the black and yellow taxi was the Mumbai equivalent. 70,000 of them exist in Mumbai alone, luckily we saw more of them parked at the side of the road than actively carrying passengers! That's not to say the streets weren't busy, but with it being a Saturday I think we avoided the worst of the traffic. Apart from the cars there were people walking/running, bikes, people pushing 2 wheeled carts amongst all the traffic, and randomly goats and cows on the side of the road, sometimes crossing the road. There didn't seem to be any particular priority given to any one group of road users, but cars are harder and move faster and because of those reasons alone, they were treated with most caution. They didn't really treat each other with such caution though. We didn't bump or get bumped, but passed multiple times within centimeters of others; cars and people, horns were used at every opportunity, no perceivable structure as was the case in Vietnam. Katie warned Trevor not to rest his arm on the window sill for fear of it being used as a bumper, such was the proximity to the car next to us. Nowhere have we been so far, where I have felt the need to describe our first half an hour in the country as an assault on the senses. It seems a overly dramatic and cliched phrase, but the noise, and smells combined with the feeling that you wanted to look everywhere at once, meant that we were truly bombarded with "new" in every direction.
We had been informed that our first stop would take us anything from 40 minutes to 1.5 hours to reach, luckily it was actually only about 30. "Dobi Ghat" is a huge, open air laundry that services Mumbai residents. For roughly 10 Rupees, (13 pence) you can have the dirt literally smashed out of a shirt on a stone slab, rinsed, dried, ironed and returned to your door the next day. 90% of clothes get returned to the correct household, which still leaves 1 in 10 to go missing or find a new owner! Not too bad considering there is no automation at any point in the collection, washing or delivery process. There were rows and rows of concrete baths filled with murky water, and hundreds of lines full of clothes and sheets drying in the open air. Stood overlooking the area on the steps of a bridge, we even saw the distinctive green scrubs from the hospital, operating theatre masks and all, drying in the sun. An organised tour from the ship turned up just as we were leaving, I wonder if the locals mind their laundry being used as a tourist attraction.
On our way to our next destination, the Hanging Gardens, Javeed drove us back the way we had come, through some desperately poor looking areas, and then through some of the apparently richest parts of Mumbai. The chasm between the 2 extremes is difficult to understand, let alone describe. Along the way we passed Chowpatty Beach, not a place for swimming (the water is described in our literature as "highly unsanitary") and a cricket ground which was in full use.
As we made our way to the final part of our tour, we passed close to the house where Ghandi used to live. The fact that we had spent so long convincing Javeed that we only wanted to see 3 things, and had agreed to pay him as such, meant that I felt a little uneasy about asking him to make an unplanned stop. Still he was very accommodating and so we spent a few minutes there, bumping into others from the ship too. Our final stop was to the Gateway of India, but not before Javeed had convinced us to take a quick look into a "very nice shop" probably owned by a friend or at least a commission paying associate! It was indeed a very nice shop, and luckily we were not the only people to have been taken there. I say luckily because it meant that the owners attention was not solely directed towards us and we could browse at our own pace, and walk out unscathed. We paid and thanked Javeed for his tour and walked over to the Gateway of India. This place might be familiar to many if you saw it in a picture. The large cobbled area in front of the monument is recognisable because it affords a clear view of the Taj Mahal Hotel, and is where a lot of the reporting of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in took place. Those attacks focused on the Taj Mahal Hotel itself and walking around the square opposite, remembering those news pictures, was quite a sobering experience for me. Because of these shootings, there is a big armed police presence in the area, with armoured cars and solid barriers all around the perimeter. There are metal detectors in the newly created single entrance and exit to the square although they appeared to be more of a visual deterrent, I didn't hear a single "beep" from any of them. We spent some time there, walking around the monument, watching the hundreds of boats and passengers coming and going from the small concrete quayside and generally soaking up the atmosphere. We watched as visitors and locals alike took pictures of their families, ice cream sellers sold wrapper-less lollies from a tin bucket lined with newspaper, and a crowd of people who were sat on the floor in the shade of the monument, tucked into their picnics like we would do in a beach resort in England.
We walked across the square and into the Taj Mahal Hotel. The hotel was one of the places recommended to us. We passed through working metal detectors this time and sent our bags through x-ray machines. I doubt these were in place until recently. Except for the decor inside, you could have been in any large, expensive hotel in the world. As we walked around the lobby area and through into a grand staircase in search of the "Sea Lounge", it was difficult to understand, yet chilling to imagine how 6 people could run around this beautiful hotel, firing indiscriminately at staff and guests. Despite the ornate surroundings, the security at the door, the and the guards on almost every corner, I felt strangely exposed, not a feeling I've ever had before. We were planning to have a drink and use the facilities here, but the calm of the Sea Lounge meant that we decided on an early lunch. I'm glad we did in the end, we didn't see anywhere suitable all afternoon.
Out of the cool and calm of the hotel, we were a stones throw from Colaba Causeway, a renowned shopping area and so headed on foot towards it. Market stalls lined the pavement selling an assortment of things that didn't interest us today. Maybe it was a combination of the heat, the crowded street or the fact that you couldn't browse without being accosted that turned us off, but we came away with nothing more than a sweat and a more ingrained memory of the poverty and dirt.
Consulting the map, we walked towards the Prince of Wales museum, and satisfied ourselves with it from the outside, there was no desire to pay to walk around inside. Further up the road, we found artists selling their work on the street and cows tied to the railings at the side of the road. We continued our walk past the Bombay Stock Exchange, where the Indian stock brokers were queuing for lunchtime food in the streets. We were told as we wondered into the area, that photography was not allowed for security reasons, the evidence for the introduction of the rule was still clear to see in the mangled remains of a building opposite the exchange.
Although we had no clear plan anymore, we knew we were heading back in the general direction of the ship and it was around this time that Katie and I decided we'd seen enough. The temperature, we learned in retrospect, was over 40 degrees by this time although the humidity wasn't nearly as bad as Singapore. I was feeling dehydrated and so we split from Trevor and Jean and headed back towards the ship, stopping to buy a big bottle of water on the way from a reputable looking shop. This was the only assurance you had that the water inside the bottle had been put there in the factory! It cost us 17 Rupees, about 22 Pence. We walked another 10 minutes before reaching the port gates again and headed inside after being offered various things, most of which we would not dare bring back on board! Arriving back in the terminal building, I looked for any signs of WiFi but was disappointed so with plenty of time to kill we headed upstairs to the duty free shop. Up there, amongst the beers and spirits we found Jason and Evan, 2 South African guys who earned their living from sailing other folks around on their yacht. They were stuck in Mumbai Port for a few days as the paying customers explored the city. They kindly shared their beers with us and we drank to Evan's birthday! We must have been in that small duty free shop for a couple of hours listening to their experiences and plans and learning more about the infamous waters into which we were all heading. A great end to the day! If you're reading this guys, maybe see you when you get home! Stay safe.
Back on board, and with the postcards posted, we grabbed (another) beer and headed up to join the deck party underway in Aquarius. I know I felt quite physically and mentally tired after the day but there was a good atmosphere up there already and as we relaxed, we shared our experiences with others. Despite the warnings, there were plenty who disliked Mumbai simply because of how dirty it was. We can say that we liked Sydney because it was somewhere we could imagine living, but we certainly can't describe Mumbai like that. To say you don't like somewhere because it's not like home, I find quite shallow. We liked our day for different reasons. While you can't help but be affected by the poverty, the begging and the dirt, it doesn't take much to see the city as a whole, for all it's good and bad points and to enjoy the fact that it is so different from anywhere we've been before. You may have seen an advert for Indian tourism on the TV, the strap line is "Incredible India" and if Mumbai is representative of India as a whole (I realise that's a big, "if") then I'd say that strap line was pretty accurate.

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