After traveling through India for almost three weeks we were looking forward to a change of pace. Mumbai (Bombay) would be our first mega city visited in the subcontinent and it was given great reviews by many travelers that we had spoken to. We decided to skip New Delhi altogether because it was continually described as a dump and we were told to bypass it if we could… so we did.
Time seemed to fly by on the 18-hour train from Udaipur to Mumbai. Aside from the loud and talkative women beside us, our final overnight train in India was quite comfortable.
Prior to arriving in Bandra, a northern suburb, the train passed through several slums and poverty stricken villages. It was some of the worst conditions we have ever seen in our lives. The disparity between the rich and poor is so immense in Mumbai. We had visions of 'Slumdog Millionaire' and were reminded of how fortunate we are to live in such a great country. Witnessing these atrocious slums first hand made Vancouver's Downtown Eastside problems look like a walk in the park.
It was strange being in a large city again. It had been over a month since Bangkok, our last visited metropolis. Mumbai is an enormous city unlike any other that we have visited. After giving it some thought, we would describe the city as a combination of Manila, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Buenos Aires. This may not help your understanding at all, but there you have it anyway.
When we got off the train we were greeted with a hot stank that smacked us in the face. Imagine hot garbage, spoiled produce, intense body order, exhaust fumes and toilet waste blended together, then crank up the heat and let it stew. It was nasty.
Surely this couldn't be India's glamorous and sophisticated mega city?
Once again we were swarmed by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers wanting our fare. We negotiated hard and got a driver down from 575 rupees to 300 rupees (they really try to fleece foreigners!). The drive took an hour and a half and passed through the most puzzling city planning in the world. Gigantic slums are wedged between decent residential apartment buildings, which border industrial areas that touch more slums, that border typical Asian business districts which are adjacent to even more slums… it is so odd.
Mumbai was not what we expected, although we're not entirely sure what we expected. We didn't see big modern buildings and a beautiful skyline. We saw traffic, garbage and poverty in front of rundown two-story buildings. The drive into the city centre was not attractive and had us questioning our decision to spend four days in the city. We were not impressed.
We stayed in the prominent Colaba area, home of the illustrious Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace. The Taj Mahal Palace is unfortunately now famous for being the scene of the gutless terrorist attacks on 26/11. The celebrated landmark has since rebuilt itself but it still has signs of the explosion. It was a surreal feeling walking in the place where so many innocent people lost their lives.
We had the taxi drop us in the area that has many hotels and guesthouses. We didn't want him following us into the hotel asking for a commission that would be tacked on to our nightly fee (this had happened to us in Jaipur earlier in the trip). We obviously looked like easy prey wandering the streets aimlessly with our giant backpacks. We were approached several times by touts trying to guide us to "their hotel" but just smiled and said, "No thank you".
The problem was that accommodations in Colaba were very expensive, about ten times more than we were paying elsewhere in India. Many of the hotels were charging 3,000 rupees per night! To put it into perspective, we only spent 300 rupees a night in Udaipur.
Adamant on finding a cheap place to sleep, we gave in and let a guy take us to 'his' place. He continually lied about price and took us to places that didn't have what we were looking for. After the fourth letdown we decided to cut him loose. Unfortunately he was very persistent and wasn't listening. Cameron got very frustrated with him and the shouting began. We finally shook him off and went back to a place that we had seen earlier… it was decided that the 1,100 rupees was the best that we were going to find so it was time to end the tedious hunt.
We noticed two guys following us so we stopped and had a drink of water… we were drenched from the sticky heat and heavy backpacks. The two guys split up but one remained. We stopped and Cameron stared him down. He looked away awkwardly but didn't leave us alone. It wasn't a scary moment because we knew he wasn't trying to harm us, he was just trying to make a rupee… but it was so annoying! We walked, he walked. We stopped, he stopped. It was ridiculously stupid!
We arrived at the guesthouse and Nicole went in to sort everything out. He started describing the guesthouse to Cameron, as if these three sentences entitled him to a commission. He had no idea that we had already been there earlier and knew the standard price. Cameron started talking to him, knowing that by stalling him it would eliminate his chances capitalizing at our expense.
He looked through Cameron, eagerly wanting to follow Nicole into the hotel. Cameron put his hand on his chest to block him from passing. He was persistent and said, "It's no problem sir, I work here".
Not buying his story, Cameron asked an employee that was exiting the guesthouse if the skinny man actually worked there. The employee gave an uncomfortable look and didn't respond. A heated argument ensued and the hotel owner came out and told the hustler get lost. We asked the owner frankly, "Why do you pay commission to these deceitful guys?" He dodged the question so we felt obliged to provide our unsolicited feedback on the broken system.
The whole situation had us not liking Mumbai and ready to change our flights and leave immediately. After we calmed down and had a shower we were able to see the humor in the situation. After all, we were still in India.
Colaba is a great area with tall green trees, colonial architecture, brilliant old churches, fancy retail stores, western restaurants, outdoor shopping strips and great coffee shops. It was much cleaner than the rest of Mumbai, although you don't have to go very far to find a slum and its underprivileged inhabitants. Our negative opinion of Bombay slowly started to shift.
While strolling down the main strip of Colaba Causeway we saw the legendary golden arches. We were craving a hamburger (well at least Cameron was) but even McDonald's didn't sell beef in the Hindu nation that views the cow as an untouchable, sacred animal. It's always interesting popping into a McDonalds because each country offers a different twist to the menu. The Philippines offered spaghetti and fried chicken, Malaysia has the prawn burger, Japan has the teriyaki pork burger, South America has no fish or vegetarian options, and Dubai has the chicken Big Mac. Cameron had the equivalent of the Big Mac, the Chicken McMarahaja, while Nicole had the Veggie Burger, an item not currently on the North American menu… both were just mediocre (shocking?). McDonald's also has a delivery service in India, something we've noticed in a few other countries that have cheap labour at its disposal.
Aside from the western food and fresh coffee, we were really looking forward to a draft beer. We were recommended to a popular foreigner joint named Leopold's. We ordered a pitcher of beer and had it came served in a tall beer tower… check out the photo album. After we obtained a beer-induced glow we hit the streets for some shopping and bartering. It was a good evening.
We were in the city that houses Bollywood so it was only fitting that we hit the movie theatre. We had heard from friends that the motion picture experience in India was quite different so on our last evening we gave it whirl (told you we'd give it a shot Nicola!). We saw the new blockbuster District 9 in a massive, vintage theatre with a balcony floor.
The film only cost 100 rupees (approx $2.25) and we actually got to select our seats ahead of time, although this was unnecessary because the colossal theatre was empty. We ate caramel popcorn for less than a dollar and were baffled when the movie stopped for an intermission. It was a unique experience and the movie was pretty good… Cameron gives it an 8 out of 10.
Our time in Mumbai was mostly spent drinking fresh Americano coffee and sightseeing. Although our first impressions of Mumbai were not good, the longer we stayed in the city the more we liked it. It definitely grew on us. It really is a cool city with a lot of history, character and charm. Ironically, on our way to the airport we drove down Marine Drive and got a completely different look at the city. As we passed Chowpatty Beach we looked out the rear window of the taxi and actually saw a skyline and a very modern city. Had we taken this route into the city centre the first time our initial opinion would have been very different!
Mumbai is an interesting city like no other. We had moments of hating it and moments of loving it. It lives up to its reputation as India's cosmopolitan and glamorous city; you just need to shift your perception of what 'cosmopolitan and glamorous' is!
Although our experience in India was incredible and unforgettable, our time was up and we were thrilled to be heading to the sensational Middle Eastern city of Dubai!