Travelogue ISC 1: Jo’burg – Mumbai

MUMBAI

13-14 November 2012

 

We had the best plane ever on our journey from home to Dubai. It was spanky new, with all the bells and whistles… And the best of entertainment with 100 new movies to choose from, as well as a host of tv series (full seasons!), whole album CDs and a large selection of radio shows and tv games. The food was de-lish too. A score with beef stroganoff fettucini for lunch and the best pastrami sarmie ever at snack time (it was served with a twin roast veg sarmie, which is weird beyond weird, but am not negative marking for that).

We had a day flight so got in lots of the entertainment, all the meals and a nap before landing in Dubai at midnight. The 3 hour stop-over was laborious (for an airport that size, there’s surprisingly little to do), but they had us up and off with German efficiency, so no real complaints.

We were exhausted seeing it was the wee hours of the morning SA time as we got on the plane. We fell asleep well before take off and in the blink of 40 winks we woke up and realised we’d missed breakfast. That simply wouldn’t do, so I asked the steward to bring us a tray of the full English(ish) option. He said there were only veg breakfasts left… And proceeded to bring us 2 trays that, on lifting the foil on the warm bowl, revealed a chickpea curry for Christian and a chicken curry and rice for me. That steward is my kind of vegetarian.

By the time we’d finished we were in Mumbai. We’d pre-booked accommodation (online) so it was relatively easy to get quotes from the taxi counters to get us where we needed to go. The prepaid taxi service quoted us 1500 Rupees (which sounded like a good deal because we have so far to travel from airport to city centre where we’re staying), but the fleet stall opposite quoted 600 + 80 booking fee (bargain at 6 Rupees to 1 Rand), so we went with them.

It feels like a longer ride than it is, with uneven roads and maverick motorists. Ladies in sari’s riding side-saddle on scooters. Tuk-tuks, kids, people, cars, endless signage with faces and Indian scribble. People and chaos. Chaos and people. Everywhere. Hooting at each other and swerving and veering. No hostility, just painstaking concentration… And no helmets. It’s no wonder that a motorist takes the highway to heaven every 22 minutes in this town (Top Gear factoid, courtesy of Christian).

And the buildings. From the pavement to as far as the eye can see in every direction. Satellites dishes and aircon units on shanties. Almost all buildings in need of a coat of paint, a large number with cranes on top, undoubtedly some evasion of tax on completion story.

We got to our hotel, which is clearly only loosely based on the true story presented in their online ads. Nonetheless, the shower (facing away from the water, as instructed) and tooth-brushing (with bottled water) were welcome – as was the air con in the temperatures already well on their way to the anticipated 33 degree midday high.

The last bit of admin was to book the overnight train to Goa, which we couldn’t do from home because they don’t take online bookings from outside India. We got a few sets of sketchy directions, and managed to find the string of travel agents around the corner from the hotel. Only to find that all trains are sold out already! It took a series of intense ‘short questions, shorter answers’ grillings to get all the info and we decided on an overnight sleeper bus as the best Plan B.

Travel arrangements (sort of) made, we headed out in search of some authentic Indian food for lunch (here they just call it ‘food’ though), ideally somewhere picturesque so we could leisure and idle until sundown. We managed a win with flagging down a tuktuk (which we found out much later are referred to as ‘rickshaws’, hence the futile attempts to figure out the system at the travel agents earlier on) and thought we’d struck a win with a negotiation of 250 Rupees (R60) to get us to Chowpatty.

We thought we were going to Chowpatty Beach, the central beachfront, anticipating promenades and esplanades. What we got was very rustic. Drop-off from the main road (still only single carriageway either side) at a stone entranceway marked “Gorai Beach”. We walked down the dusty road – nice enough with palm trees lining, dotted with (rustic) B&Bs and (simple) eateries and locals ambling in either direction – and found ourselves on wide oily low tide beach.

There were several fisherpeople around, feverishly sorting squirming sea life (everything from small squids to eels to crabs to goldfish-looking things) into baskets. Lots of families sitting in huddles on the rocks on the edge of the beach and wading in the water (women full saried). There were a few spreadbeagled sleeping dogs (which we left lying) and, bizarrely, more than the odd bike/rickshaw/car (not a lowered suspension nor tinted window among them) whizzing past on the sand going from who knows where to who knows where. What there wasn’t was a lounger / brolly / bar / pool deck / live entertainer anywhere insight. Uh-oh. And we were even vaguely tempted to dip or swim in the sea, which the Lonely Planet had described as ‘toxic’.

We were beyond lunchtime, so settled on the terrace (strong word) of a beachside hotel and ordered a veg jalfrezi (Christian), chicken makhani (me), butter chipatis (both) and Cokes (each, soft-drinks-only establishment, serving 600ml buddy bottles only). Gotta say, the food was great. So pleased our first curry was a win! (And a bargain at the princely sum of R40, including tip).

Played some cards to catch our breath and then hit the road again. We struggled with a troupe of rickshaw drivers to get a straight consensus answer out of them as to what we should do and where we need to go, which landed us a short tuktuk ride to the ferry and deposited us ‘on the other side’. Lost again.

We walked up the main drag leading away from the ferry port, thinking it must lead us somewhere notable. It didn’t, so – taking time to ask several people if they spoke any English and finally getting a young couple to try – we confirmed we were in the heart of a very uninteresting residential and business district in Western Mumbai. Marvellous.

We hailed a rickshaw, negotiated a rate and headed to Juhu Beach, which all the Lonely Planets (we’d whipped through at Dubai Airport) spoke of.

It was a hive of activity. Food stalls, kids playing cricket, mini funfair rides at one end, a wall of people ankle-deep in at the waves’ edge. Bizarrely, everyone fully dressed. Not a bare-chested boy nor a girl’s knee, shoulder or belly button in sight!

Everything I’ve heard previously about Mumbai has been about the squalour and poverty, but everything I’ve seen has made *me* feel like the sweaty, sticky, icky thing to their tidy fresh linens and neat and bright saris. Clearly, we’ve been that far off the beaten tourist track that we’ve gone and subjected ourselves to ordinary people. How disappointing. 😀

Not that our less than pristine state stopped us any, mind. With Christian refreshed from the nap in the tuktuk and me in dire need of Western ablutions, we shamelessly sought sanctum at the Citizen Hotel. A very lovely establishment with a beach-facing terrace (that we accessed by lurking at snails’ pace through the air conditioned marble-floored reception) with (too) many starch-collared and neck-tied waiters all too ready to bring us the large bottle of icy still water and chilled Kingfishers that would revive our spirits.

We did lots of people-watching as the sun set. Lots and lots of people-watching. With lots and lots of people to watch since it’s Diwali and everyone’s come out to play. And we’re the only white people here. Not a word of a lie. How weird is that?! We did spot a little Indian boy in a Cheetahs rugby jersey, but just because someone he knows (knows someone who) has been to the Free State, doesn’t make him any less Indian. Sure, we’ve had a share of less-than-subtle stares and little kids wanting to shake our hands, but not the demi-god status that urban legends are made of.

Anyway, we left the hotel terrace, thinking we’d meander through the market and pick up some samoosas and then head to another terrace set-up with better positioning for all the action. “All the action” being the number of neon accented ferris wheels, a pendulum ship and car carousels (all manually cranked!) and the hordes of people. It was not to be. All the samoosas were vegetable, the eateries teetotal and there, incredibly, wasn’t another hotel with tables beach-side (seemingly for tide-consciousness). But, luckily we  found an excellent triple-storey spot across the road, called Bora Bora, which had a lovely roof garden from where we watched all the fireworks and festivities (over a few Kingfishers).

We caught an aircon blue taxi home (top of taxi foodchain in front of non-aircon black taxis and tuktuk rickshaw 3-wheelers). What a first day in Mumbai! We were grateful for the bed and the aircon room and not even the constant banging of crackers and fireworks could keep us awake even a second longer!

 

After a nice sleep-in, we hit the pavement at 10am to initiate our day of sight-seeing. Unable to get a rickshaw driver to understand where we wanted to go (or perhaps willing to take us), we resigned ourselves to commandeering a blue taxi to take us to town for 1000 Rupees. It was a 45 minute journey so along the way we adjusted the deal to 2000 Rupees to be our personal driver for the day (a little over R300). For this he would take us to all the sites, share with us what info he could (I’m broken English) and take us anywhere else we might like to go until we needed to be back at our hotel for our 7pm bus.

We found out that we were fortunate that today, being New Year, is a holiday and therefore a reprieve in the usual gridlock traffic, so we made good time and were soon driving over the Sealink. No busses or rickshaws are allowed on that stretch so it’s fast-moving and a pleasure.

On the way to ‘town’ (Colaba, Fort and Churchgate), we stopped in at Laburnum Road, at the house where Gandhi stayed from 1917 to 1934. Not the to be confused with the Laburnum Road in Durban that Mother and I lived in from 1982 to 1985. The house (Gandhi’s, not ours) is converted into a museum with several artefacts (including a copy of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler and Churchill asking them to prevent War) and dozens of captioned photographs documenting his travels and missions. I suppose I should have known he lived in SA for almost 2 decades, but I didn’t, so the great man seems to have a bit more relevance to me now somehow.

From there, we drove down Marine Drive and saw how the other half live. Wide pavements and roads, with the esplanade we’d expected, but the beach – although wide and golden sandy – still lacking something. There aren’t the restaurants, terraces, cafes and shops that you usually associate with beachfronts, nor the dotted strips of people sun-bathing.

We drove around Colaba and Fort to get a lay of the land and the driver did a stop for us at Gateway To India, a large double-arch positioned in the harbour. The famed Taj Mahal Hotel is across the road and we got snaps of that too.

By this point we were still breakfastless and starving. Lunch at McDonald’s – McSpicy burger combo – more like a KFC Zinger than the spicy chicken at McD’s at home in that it’s a chicken fillet with spicy crumbing, mayo, shredded lettuce and no cheese. A large and a medium combo totalled to about R50. Bargain! I can understand why India would be the first country to have a fully vegetarian McD’s since the menu is practically there already. Burger options include veg, aloo (potato), paneer (cheese) and egg patties and the only meat is chicken, which is listed almost as an after-thought. The happy meals and side-order options include boiled egg options as well. Points for customer centricity, Ronald!

Fed, refuelled and sense of humour restored, we set off on foot to explore what Colaba and Fort had to offer. We plotted a route to take in the major sights and traversed the Prince of Wales Museum, National Modern Art Gallery, the Maidan Oval, Jehangir Art Gallery, David Sassoon Library, Rajabai Tower, University of Mumbai (remarking how inappropriate neo-Gothic architecture is for this climate) to bring us back to McD’s to meet our driver, who was clearly concerned about how long we’d taken and assumed we’d skarpered to avoid paying him.

More annoyed than relieved, he greeted our proposed itinerary (which we’d formulated by popping into a bookstore, consulting a Lonely Planet and jotting notes) on my arm with lucklustre enthusiasm, but perked up a bit when we shared our bottle of moderately cold (seemingly the best they do around here) bottled water with him.

He took us to Mahalaxmi Station, so that we could see Dhobi Ghat – the washing station which does most of the laundry for the city’s hotels and restaurants. Rows of concrete pools that washermen and -women stand in, thrashing the dirty laundry around and slapping it into the water like they’re trying to thrash the evil demon out of it! Rows and rows of washing lines have the washing dried in no time – and count some impressive hotel name uniforms among them! Notably, there are no Ops Managers or clipboards and these workers are brawn managing somehow to differentiate who’s is whose and where it all has to go without the endless stream of paperwork it would take back home.

We were also fortunate enough to see a Dabbawalla bustling his way around making his lunch deliveries. A stack of pots balanced on his head, he was making his way to serve his clients’ lunch, invariably a selection of pre-ordered curry options, each delivered to the right person at the right time, again sans paperwork. The Dabbawalla deliver 200,000 lunches a day across Mumbai, with a 0,04 error rate (Top Gear fact).

Anyway, back in the car (double-parked for our convenience, as always) we asked our driver to take us somewhere we could chill and have a beer… And ended up driving through Bandra (the ‘party’ part as we were told by the previous days’ youths) to Juhu Beach at *exactly* the same spot as the night before!

I thought this was a sign that we were supposed to get the onion bhaji, samoosas and bhel puri I’d wanted the night before from the beachfront food market, so we headed into the thick of it to get some authentic local fare. We’d only read about bhel puri, which is dubbed as a ‘must’ in all the travel books. Not sure why as it appears to be an unattractive fishy ricey thing (from the pictures, we didn’t order one).

Equally disappointing was the samoosa experience where we managed to narrowly escape the cheese samoosas we thought we’d be ordering (lovely crispy triangular pastry with hot drippy yellow cheesy inside), but that were actually pyramid shaped, thick pastried samoosas with fish inside that the shopkeep crushes onto a plate and pours corn all over! Yikes!

Being ‘2 out of 3 is bad’, we saved the onion bhaji for another day and headed to the Romada to soak in their pool (for medicinal purposes, to quell the throbbing mozzie bites all around my ankles). The 650ml Kingfishers were also medicinal of course.

On the way home, our driver showed us Ashwarya Rai’s house (the Bollywood star). We’d seen crowds with candles and crackers outside the driveway the night before, doing a Diwali vigil controlled by Ashwarya’s armed gate guards, but not realised the who or what of the address. Apparently the house is top location and is worth about 100 million Rupees according to our driver. The currency has a complicated escalation pyramid, where 100,000 Rupees equal a ‘lacks’ and 100,000 lacks equal a ‘close’ (sp? Only ever had verbal explanation).

The traffic back to the hotel was worse than in the morning, seeing as we were now in the 5pm throng, but we made it back in plenty of time to catch our bus, so popped across Mira Road for a quick Pizza Hut. Chicken and veg only – amazing how much shorter the menu and easier the decision is! Opted for a combo of 4 personal pizzas so we could try more options. Tikka paneer and spicy chicken masala for authenticity, chicken & corn and spicy chicken sausage with mushroom and onion for variety quotient. All good. I do miss Pizza Hut.

Collected our luggage from the hotel and made it to the travel agent with half an hour to spare. But, it was worth the wait when we discovered to our delight that this sleeper bus is *much* nicer than the ones in South East Asia, in that our berths weren’t 2 plastic-matressed moulded singles one in front of the other like last time, but one double booth with more than enough space for both of us, our carry-on stuff (on a rack at the foot) and to play cards on the mattress between us! Under R500 for both of us and just as comfortable as a hotel bed! A good note to end Mumbai on and a good start to the Goan leg of the journey!

Mumbai Do:
1) take probiotics and Vitamin C supplements up to and through your trip
2) bring insect repellent, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory cream
3) stay in Colaba / Fort / Churchgate area
4) use rickshaws instead of cabs where you can, much cheaperl
5) drink Kingfisher
6) get a city map – the greater city is bigger than you think it is, and very confusing in its layout and perspective. There are no tourist offices and the best maps we found were in hotel lobbies, although these were each for a single area so you still don’t get a sense of where everything is relative to everything else.
7) Get a private driver for the day. The city is sprawling and then you can go where you want, when you want. The tour busses are only 200 Rupees per person, but then you’re stuck with the group, their timings and a tour guide who only narrates in Hindi.

Mumbai Don’t:
1) the water is lethal so don’t have ice in your drinks or eat anything fresh that might have been washed just prior to serving
2) don’t expect a conventional beach holiday. The beaches aren’t great, the people conservative (as presumably tourists are expected to be), nobody speaks English and there aren’t the usual waterfront bars for entertainment, nor the beach shops and peddlars for supplies.
3) don’t show any interest in the wares of peddlars or street children or they’ll never leave you alone (and tend to multiply1)