Gateway to India
Another sleeper train rolled into Victoria Terminus at 6:30am, we woke bleary eyed but reasonably well rested after our posh end of the carriage seats. Our hostel was located in the Fort area and after a delicious breakfast of Khemma and Pav at a local restaurant we got into our room. We had five full days in Bombay and managed to explore all the main tourist areas and sights within that time, as well as losing half our body weight in sweat! The weather in this city is extremely humid and after the first day of me saying 'oh we are lucky with the weather this time of year, during the monsoon it is so humid.' I cursed us for the rest of the time! We took our time, allocating one area per day and of course, because we are in India a few interesting things happened, to our surprise to make the stay even more memorable, but more about them later.
The city of Bombay has a metropolitan feel, in comparison to Delhi, Varanasi etc. However, the juxtapositions in Bombay are much more extreme, for example in Delhi, in particular Old Delhi the whole area is quite run down and poor. In Bombay we walked past Christian Louboutin and Hermes shops and just around the corner there was a small settlement of houses made from a few sticks and tarpaulin where a group of people were living. Everywhere you looked there were the two extremes living side by side. Bombay's architecture still has a strong British Raj influence, Victoria Terminus has to be the best example but there are building dotted all over the city that could have been plucked from England and dumped in between the street dwellers!
Highlights of our wandering were:
· Marine Drive; the expansive pathway that runs along the side of the Arabian sea and at times when it wasn't too hazy offers a good view across to the affluent area in the North. We would go to Marine Drive to stretch our legs, people watch, get our photo taken and catch a relief from the heat with its occasional cooling breeze.
· The Maidens; where more men and boys then was acceptably safe would be playing cricket. There were so many games all going at the same point. We found it hilarious when we tried to focus on one match and follow where they smacked the ball over the top of five other pitches and somehow there was a fielder ready to catch the ball, standing almost on the crease of another pitch! The health and safety was laughable but it seemed to work, they all knew which game they were playing on and we watched for a few hours in total and not once was anyone hit, even the passer byers using the park as a short cut. The amount of love the nation has for Cricket was shown in the participation rates and passion displayed at Bombay's Maidens.
· Colaba; the area I stayed in last time I was here has become a bit more upmarket but still retains the heavy travelling scene with lots of street sellers and many restaurants. Colaba is where the Gateway to India is situated and the amazing hotel, 'Taj Palace' for the wealthier traveller. The main reason for our visit here was to go to Leopold's bar. If you have read the book 'Shantaram' you will understand our desire to visit and if you haven't… well you should it is an amazing, interesting read.
· Elephanta Island; an hour boat journey from the Gateway of India brings you to the World Heritage island of Elephanta. Here we saw caves carved with intricate designs of numerous Hindu deities' and a lot of mischievous monkeys. Oh and a random naughty cow who followed a man nudging him with his horns as he was trying to enjoy an ear of corn, it was the first time we had seen a cow begging for food and amused us greatly!
· Malabar Hill. We took a long walk along the length of marine drive toward the northern area, near Chowpatty beach. After a cold drink to refresh ourselves we popped into Gandhi's house to get an insight into his amazing life and then up the steep hill to the hanging gardens to chill out. We were pretty tired so got a taxi back. The taxi didn't start and we had an embarrassing moment as we both sat in the car whilst three men pushed us around the corner until the taxi started again!
On one of our walks we came across a queue of people. This was a particularly rare sighting in itself as Indian's usually like to crowd not queue. We carried on walking, not really paying them any attention until we had walked for about 200m and the queue was still going. Curious we started to follow the line. It was unbelievable; I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it must have gone on for over 5 kilometres with hundreds of thousands of people. They were all in high spirits and nicely dressed but we couldn't understand what they were possibly queuing so long for, was it free computers, a bar of gold, the new iPhone?! The line snaked up and down streets with policeman stopping people allowing for gaps for traffic to pass. We asked a few people what they were queuing for and the only response we could understand was 'for a museum'. We saw signs for a textiles sale at the museum so guessed it was that. We got to the door of the museum and asked the guards what was going on, it turned out they were all waiting to catch a glimpse of some Guru's social awakening, or something like that! I still can't get over how many people there were it was a remarkable sight.
We had a bit of action just outside our hostel window with a Bollywood film set. We didn't see much filming and it was actually quite boring so we just popped our head out of the window every now and again to check we weren't missing a dance or fighting scene.
We had seen the highlights of Bombay independently but decided we would join a group and a guide to see the Dharavi Slum. Since 'Slumdog Millionaire' locals have put on tours of the slum where the film was set. On the internet some travellers have complained and 'do not agree with the principal of touring an area just to see some poverty.' It is obvious that these people haven't gone on a tour as all our preconceived ideas of Indian slums and the people inhabiting them have been blown out of the water. I am not suggesting slum dwellers live the life of luxury but they are hardworking, proud people who make enough money and enjoying living in the slums. It is a huge community that they have grown up in and despite sometimes having the funds to move out, they choose not to.
We were shown around the working areas of the slum with factories recycling plastic, collected by rag pickers, metal works, bakeries (that sell their produce all over the world, bet you weren't expecting that-some of your pastries cooked in a slum!). The work in these factories is hard, hot and not well paid, but in comparison to working on the fields in villages it is easy and very well paid. The money the slum makes overall makes a large percent of India's total economy.
Outside of the factory area and into the residential areas where the men work in the city as taxi drivers, waiters, tour guides, call workers etc. the conditions are much nicer and the glimpses inside the homes they are house pride and even with dirt and rubbish filling the lanes the inside is spotless. The children were heading home after a morning at school and all looked immaculate in their school uniforms and smiled at us and asked our names. We were told that some of the children go to private school and those who can't afford the school fees go to the cheaper government school. The tour company we went with, Mystical Mumbai, also provides really cheap education and extra lessons for the extremely poor families. One of the men was proud to for us to be looking around his 'city within a city' and talked to our legendary guide Ganesh for ages, if he spoke English we would have had two guides! I had an embarrassing moment when we were seeing the leather making area, where they make bags and purses for some top designers, I felt myself feeling very faint and thought 'uh oh, here we go again!' James was oblivious and too busy admiring the belts as I crouched over and a man nearby offered me his seat, I felt so ill but as soon as Ganesh got me a masala tea and I stayed seated for a few minutes I felt better! The tour was insightful and eye opening and very different to the favela tour in Rio.
Bombay is an exciting city and the people are proud of their Bombay. It was one of the only places in India that we weren't stared at quite so much, well unless we were about to faint! We didn't find a favourite restaurant as there are so many amazing options that we ate somewhere different each time with delicious results.