Mumbai Saturday 11 - Tuesday 14 July 2009
At 10.30am - in the drizzle- the Deccan Queen Express finally pulled into CSTM station formerly known as Victoria station. An impressive entry to Mumbai it is a grand old building. We'd already booked our accommodation - in Colaba the main travellers' centre - in the luxurious sounding Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel! This gloriously named place was about all we could afford in Mumbai. We decided to book ahead and had rung around a few hotels. The price was a lot higher than we were accustomed to. To give you an idea when we have stayed in budget rooms before the general going rate for a double is around about 500 rupees - in some of the "off season" areas we got cheaper accommodation around 300 rupees. We started by ringing around the budget section of the LP - a good starting point - and they were around 1500 - 2000 rupees a night for a double - a hell of a lot more than we're used to paying!! We found the Sally Army place and booked it as it is renowned for being the cheapest place to stay in Mumbai but we were a bit worried about what we'd find!
Standing with our luggage we were quickly approached by a Sikh tour guide and taxi driver Mr. Bali - who offered to take us to the hotel for free if we then took a tour of major attractions with him. As we had limited time in Mumbai and it was raining heavily we thought that was probably a good idea. He made us even more nervous about the hostel though- saying he had heard that there were bed bugs there. Of course he then wanted to arrange a better hotel for us - no doubt with a commission for him!! Anyway we went and had a look at the Sally Army hostel and it was ok quite acceptable and at 600 rupees a night an incredible bargain by Mumbai standards!!
The room was clean - but certainly no frills - just bare boards and a bed but we were only planning to sleep there anyway. The best point of our room was actually the view from the bathroom - we looked straight out on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel - the top place to stay in Mumbai - (made even more infamous by the 26/11 bomb) at least we got to gaze at it if we couldn't afford to stay there - the picture shows the view from our bathroom so we were in a superb position adding to the hostel's attraction.
The Taj was built by the original Mr. JN Tata - founder of the Tata empire- after he was refused admission to a Mumbai hotel on account of being a native. Already a wealthy industrialist he left promising to build a hotel which would be far better. Thus the very up market Taj Hotel chain - of which this Mumbai hotel built in 1903 is the real flagship - was founded. It is a really imposing building and whilst parts of it are still shut for refurbishment after the bombing overall it seems to be business as usual there.
Anyway having dropped off our bags we went back to Mr. Bali and started our tour. We loved the taxis here. A type of car called PAL- not sure what it stands for - they were initially built here by the Fiat company and whilst they are now no longer being built many still remain. They're very stylish - must be the Italian influence! There are around 55,000 taxis just in Mumbai so Mr. Bali has a lot of competition.
We pulled over almost immediately as - it being around midday by now - Mr. Bali saw the Dhaba wallahs. I had heard of these guys and was really pleased to see them. Dressed in white Nehru caps these men do an incredible job getting lunches to the workers and school kids of Mumbai. How it works is the mothers or wives of the workers/kids make the lunches - and they are picked up by literally thousands of dhaba wallahs who meet and exchange them at strategic points all over the city. They are sorted according to destination placed on on going trains and delivered hot to the workers' desks. This service costs around 300 rupees for a month and so it is cheaper than eating out and also makes sure various strict religious dietary requirements are kept up with.
After eating, the tiffin tins which keep the food hot in separate compartments, are picked up and the whole process happens in reverse with individual tiffin tins being returned home. Incredibly 175,000 of these lunches are delivered a day and even more incredibly only 6 or 7 go astray a year - a fantastic efficiency rate- most of it relies on colour coordination as the majority of the Dhaba wallahs are illiterate. Amazing.
Having Mr. Bali as guide was really interesting as we picked up things we'd otherwise have missed e.g.) as well as Dhaba Wallahs there are Pani or water wallahs. These guys usually drive cows drawn wagons in which they carry water to the various drink vendors throughout the city. It is pretty incredible seeing these old cow drawn carts drive through the middle of such a major metropolis but there they are. Mr. Bali also pointed out the vendors everywhere selling lemon and chilies. Apparently as India is a pretty superstitious country these are seen as warding off the evil eye and bringing good luck to businesses. We hadn't noticed before but once he said it we saw this talisman hanging over the front of a lot of stalls and shop doorways.
We took a drive around looking at some of the beautiful architecture much of it very English. We saw the magnificent High Court in front of the Maiden a stretch of grass provided for locals to play cricket and increasingly soccer on with a Big Ben lookalike clock tower overlooking it.
Nearby is the imposing Flora Fountain with a grand statue we're not sure who it is, but there are many such imposing monuments doted around the city. It is the site of many 2nd hand book stalls so we made a mental note to return. Again Mr. Bali's eager eyes spotted something we'd have missed an ear cleaner hard at work! These men wear distinctive red turbans and do a job which I wouldn't fancy doing or being on the receiving end of!!! I've never seen them elsewhere but they seem to operate throughout the streets of Mumbai.
Next we headed to the exclusive Malabar Hill - an extremely up market area with a large Parsi and Jain population - these 2 religious communities being amongst the wealthiest in Mumbai. We stopped at a Jain temple. Jainism is a contemporary of Buddhism and adherents practice very strict veganism - even often wearing face coverings so they don't inadvertently swallow any insects. The temple built in 1904 was quite ornate with a lot of statues and gold and many Saturday morning devotees. You even had to remove any leather articles - belts shoes etc - before entering. The Jains and apparently other Indians believe it is lucky to feed pigeons and we had seen a number of feeding areas like the one near the Taj Mahal Hotel with flocks of pigeons being fed grain.
The Parsi people of whom Mr. Tata is one are a small but exclusive religious group originally from Persia. They do not believe in burning or burying their dead but instead place the body in a Tower of Silence an 8 metre high tower from which the corpse is pecked clean by vultures. Nowadays they often have to use chemical means to speed up this process as the vulture population are declining though we did see a few. One of the towers is at the top of Malabar hill though it is (obviously!) not open to the public and over grown by foliage so you couldn't really see anything.
Next we went to see the Hanging Garden at the top of Malabar Hill but not before stopping nearby for lunch. We went to an excellent food stall opposite the garden selling Mysore Dosas, which were made in front of us and served hot. Absolutely delicious! The garden is described as hanging because it hangs in tiers over the Mumbai reservoir. It has quite a bit of topiary (ornately clipped hedges) as well as a toy shoe and a kangaroo to remind us of home!! - and is overlooked by some of the city's top real estate.
As mentioned above this isn't a cheap place to get accommodation but I hadn't realized it is actually officially the most expensive city in the world per sq metre - in parts anyway. Amazingly near the garden a 3 bedroom flat had recently sold (to a movie star) for a record breaking 30 million crore or $6.6 Million USD!!!! Unsurprisingly this set a world record for a property this size.
This poverty vs great wealth aspect of Mumbai is something people often find very hard to deal with. It is incredible. Show rooms full of Rolls Royces and Porsches are metres from camps of homeless people. We drove next to Marina drive - again a very up market area - and past the famous Chowpatty beach where locals relax though you certainly wouldn't want to swim in it!!!
We drove over the new 5 km bridge which has just opened and connects Bandra to Worli suburbs - saving a long drive around with fewer traffic hassles.
We passed by the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat and stopped to take some pictures from the vantage point of the nearby railway bridge. This is the biggest laundry in the world where over 5,000 dhobi wallahs use huge open air troughs and giant tubs to thrash the dirt out of an enormous quantity of dirty washing which comes from all over the city. Quite a spectacle.
Next stop was the Gandhi Museum - Mani Bhavan. This is the building where Gandhi stayed between 1917 and 1934 which is now a very interesting museum.
A great deal of his ideas - the launch of civil disobedience for one - were developed here and his library is still intact as is a reconstruction of the room where he slept. Wonderful pictures exist of him with anyone from Lord Mountbatten to Charlie Chaplin - and a couple of interesting letters he wrote - including one to Hitler prior to WWII telling him to stop it!! Shame it didn't work! A really interesting display - payment by donation only,
At this point in our tour Mr. Bali pulled over and an elder Sikh man appeared. This apparently was Mahindra Singh - his father and he was taking over the afternoon shift!! Mr. Singh has been a taxi driver for over 60 years! He then took us to see a bit of the "other India" and we saw Falkland Marg or Street - the infamous red light area which featured in the movie "Slumdog Millionaire". Whilst compared with Thailand prostitution is invisible here it is very much present though this was the first we saw of it. A lot of the girls looked very young and many of them are Nepalese - economic refugees. India apparently has the 2nd highest HIV rate in the world with at least 55% of sex workers in Mumbai believed to be HIV positive - which is all pretty depressing.
Next we saw Dharavi the largest slum in Asia which contrary to expectations wasn't as depressing as you'd think. Dharavi is incredibly densely populated - 1 million people live in an area of 0.7 miles square!! It is however very well run having its own shops and services and operating almost as its own city. Rent here is approx $4USD a month and people apply to get into the better run slums - the worst off people are those who actually live on the street. Much of Slumdogs was filmed here and the younger children in the movie still live here. The book "Shantaram" written by Australian Gregory David is really interesting concerning how the slums operate. It is estimated that the various businesses operating within the slum (pottery, textiles recycling) raise a staggering annual turnover of 650 million USD!! The people we saw waved and smiled and did seem happy. I guess this is the only life they know.
The whole begging question can be quite hard to deal with. You just can't give to all who ask - it would be mayhem. Also a lot of the kids beg in organized gangs so they don't get the money anyway. We usually buy and give them bananas or a street snack - you are never far from people cooking up food in India- and they seem happy. We went out in the wet on our last day in Mumbai and when some kids came up to us we bought and gave them some food and they were really pleased. They all lined up to shake our hands in thank you and then wanted their picture taken !
Situated near a busy junction they run and tap on car windows whenever the traffic stops. When the rains really came down with a vengeance they all stripped off and put their clothes in plastic bags so they'd remain dry and danced around nearly or totally nude! Again they seemed very cheerful laughing and splashing.
The people who were really upsetting were those who lived rough on the streets - families and often disabled people - they just lie there with little covering from the rain and it is pretty awful. One thing we've really noticed in India is now well presented people are - other than the really desperate cases people are so well groomed you wouldn't believe how they live. You see guys in pristine white clothes coming out of little huts and the ladies always look gorgeous in their saris. Amazing how they achieve it when they often have no or very rudimentary bathroom facilities.
Anyway this was the end of our tour and we got dropped back at the hostel. We'd recommend the 2 generations of Singhs for an informative interesting tour if you have a spare day in Mumbai. Mr. Bali can be contacted on +91 (0) 9896026548.
We'd asked Mr. Bali to recommend a good Sikh restaurant and so that evening we went to Sharee Punjab specializing in Punjabi food at the nearby fort area. The food wasn't new - I think a lot of our western Indian food must be Punjabi based in the UK anyway - but what a fabulous meal! We were hungry and stuffed ourselves with the complimentary nibbles and then hadn't much room for the lamb and chicken we ordered!! The street kids got to benefit though so it was all to the good!!
The next morning we went and had breakfast at Leopold's Café just around the corner from where we stayed. This is a long time (established 18 71) traveller's haunt becoming very famous after being featured heavily in Shantaram - in fact the man himself (Gregory David) apparently still frequents the café though not when we were there - and less pleasantly it hit the news after it was attacked during the 26/11 terrorist attacks. You could see the bullet holes and the hole where the hand grenade was thrown still in the café in total 10 people - a mixture of locals staff and tourists - died here. We had noted that in this area - particularly near the Taj - there was a heavy and obvious police presence.
After breakfast we finally had a bit of sunny weather so we strolled down to the nearby Gate of India - again only a stone's throw from our hostel. On the way we stopped by the RBYC or Royal Bombay Yacht Club - Andrew was keen to have a look around but sadly it's members only so we had to be content with the outside!!
The Gateway of India is a magnificent sort of arch of triumph built in 1911 to commerate the visit of King George V. It's a big tourist spot fronting the harbor and is renowned for being a big centre for scams. We saw various vendors selling things but no scams - until suddenly a man approached and asked to look in my ear as he thought he saw a scorpion!! Mr. Bali had actually warned us about this scam. The format is he pretends to save your live by removing said scorpion - then demands payment. We had said to Mr. Bali that we couldn't believe anyone would fall for something so stupid and we gave this guy short shift - but at least we experienced it first hand!!
Whilst in Mumbai though we had the usual issues with taxi drivers trying to rip us off (only a couple of times most were honest) on the whole we were amazed at how honest the people of Mumbai - Mumbaikers - were, friendly and pleasant and really welcoming.
We caught the ferry across to Elephanta Island - an hours very choppy journey. The boats are sometimes stopped in the monsoon season and it was a bit rough. I felt a bit queasy but wasn't the worst as a few people were very sick! Elephanta Island is set around the village of Panchayat which has around 1500 inhabitants. The island was named by the Portuguese but the elephant statue it was named for is now in the Botanical gardens -though we didn't see it. The caves here are covered in statues and carvings hewn out of the basalt rock face which date from around the 5th century onwards. Mostly to honour the god Shiva they are a bit damaged but some very good details remain in scenes depicting aspects of Shiva's life. Made a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1984 the caves are very impressive
It was very interesting but we didn't get to linger too long and had to miss out 2 of the 5 caves - though we saw the main carvings. We don't realize how long the journey would take and so had to rush back down the hill (it's a fairly steep climb up to the caves) past the numerous vendors to catch the 3pm ferry - as we had a date with stardom!!
Yes …..approaching middle age we had finally been discovered and were off to star in a Bollywood epic!!! Like many travellers before us we'd been approached to act as extras - they are often on the lookout. The shoot ran from 5pm (that's when we got on the bus) to 5am - so it was a bit of a long haul all night - but we decided to do it thinking that the experience would be something to remember. It certainly wasn't for the money we were to be paid the princely sum of 500 rupees (about $15Aus) but we also managed to cancel our room for that night so we saved a bit there too!!
We got on the bus at 5pm and drove out to Juhu beach where the shoot was to take place which took a couple of hours in the busy traffic. Juhu was once a very glamorous epi-centre for the rich and beautiful of Mumbai. We actually went past a house with Indians lined up outside and when we asked what was happening the driver told us it was a film star's house. We later found out this was the home of the legendary Big B or Amitabh Bachchan - an ageing film star who now presents the Indian version of "Who wants to be a millionaire" he has the status of a demi god here!!
Perhaps in the good old days he went to the Tulip Star Hotel where we were filming - now bankrupt and thus being used as a film set this hotel had definitely fallen on hard times and it was hard to imagine it ever hosting the rich and glamorous! They certainly wouldn't want to use the toilets - amongst the worst we'd seen in Asia - and there's some stiff competition in that contest! Thankfully we were allowed to use the loo in the "Foreigner's Trailer"!!!
Our bus load of extras got off the bus and stepped into what looked like a building site. Typical Indian chaos reigned - we were told to sit down - no chairs - told to come for our costumes - sent away again - called up again - told to remain in our own clothes - called up to change …you get the idea!!!
Finally we were given outfits. The movie was to be about the 26/11 bombings and we were to be guests at a top end wedding presumably supposed to be in the Taj Mahal Hotel. The Indian extras - who do this for a living - were wearing their own clothes and as ever looked gorgeous in their silk saris. We all thought it was funny what they thought westerners would be wearing - very fussy clothes generally - and dreadful suits for the guys. No one's shoes fitted well and I got out of that one as they couldn't find a pair to fit me … in the end they gave up and I kept my own shoes on though they didn't match the outfit - I was probably the only one to emerge from the experience without blisters!!!
The whole thing was a great laugh and quite an interesting insight into how movies are made - the amount of work going into tiny scenes is astounding and I'll think of it when I next see a movie. There was a lot of hanging around it was extremely hot under the lights and the water could have been more frequent but generally we had a lot of fun. The big plus was the other extras who were all really nice and made the evening fly past - so thanks to (credits in no particular order!) Matt & Mel from UK, Vita from the USA, Pierre from France Julian and Gabrielle from Canada & Australia and Chantal from Canada - also the really nice English people from Exeter who got whisked off to another shoot - sorry I never got your names!
Mel was the lucky girl as she got to wear the pink sari which was the best outfit. Less luckily she got to die in the bomb blast. This was quite dramatic on the special effects front as the windows exploded real glass everywhere and at the point of explosion we all had to scream and run round crazily running into each other. Mel had to lie in the lap of an Indian actress - and how they didn't both get trampled to death I don't know! They kept having to retake the scene as in all this crazy running around there was always at least one person to start laughing so we'd have to start again!!!
After a while they stopped us and swept up the glass. A number of people had slight cuts - so at this point they put down the fake glass - which had been sitting there all along!!!!! Then came the smoke - which nearly choked us all to death!
We were pretty tired the next day - but really enjoyed the whole experience - I even got to do one scene (with Matt) where we were on a sofa talking to the "real" actor directly in shot. Fame at last!!! This blockbuster is to be called in Hindi "Un Hazaaron ke Naam" which roughly translates to "1000 names in remembrance of" - I'll really try to get hold of a copy but I fear it's destined to go straight to TV!!!! If you fancy having a go they're always looking for extras - and you get fed really nice food!!- our agent was Amjad Khan of Bolly Stars - and he can be contacted on +91 9820838811 or via email email@example.com
After all this excitement we had a long sleep on Monday before surfacing at midday. We then set out to see the Haji Ali Mosque. This whitewashed Mosque set out in the Arabian Sea at the end of a walkway is one of the popular images of Mumbai and we were keen to see it. Over 200 years old the mosque becomes an island at high tide but at other times it is on a causeway - lined with beggars - and you can cross it feeling as if you are walking on water.
As we started walking the wind came up and then the big waves with the result that we both got completely drenched!! It was actually quite chilly and we were shivering but more concerned with having swallowed a fair bit of filthy sea water! We had a quick look in - no pictures allowed- and left to squelch back to the hostel and change!!! Fill to the brim of (wet!) pilgrims it was an interesting building decorated with mirror tiles inside the inner dome.
So on Tuesday 14th we checked out of the hostel and had a last look around the streets of Mumbai before heading to catch the train. We boarded with no dramas and pulled out of the station but about 30 minutes down the track we stopped. For over 3 hours nothing happened. The train was absolutely packed and we had a gang of card players next to us who were yelling enthusiastically and probably didn't even notice that the train had stopped!!
We didn't starve though there was a constant stream of chai and dhaba wallahs as well as travelling musicians to entertain the crowds!! Looking out of the window we could see the problem most of the tracks appeared to be underwater - some local kids were having a ball though - swimming in the drains …yeuuchhhh!!!!! All in all it was a long 8 hours before we pulled back in to Pune!
The next day whilst updating the web we watched TV and were in the headlines "Trains from Mumbai to Pune delayed- 5 metres of track floats away!" We noticed!!! Another good headline (which took precedence over the PM's visit to Egypt) concerned Amitabh Bachchan's house in Juhu beach which we recognized from Sunday night. "Big B's Ground Floor Flooded" screamed the headline "Staff have to shift his belongings to house's upper storey!"
Now back in Pune we're finally getting some work done on the website whilst relaxing in Matthias's luxury penthouse - this is the life!!!! Next stop the caves of Ellora and Ajanta - 200 km to the north and then we continue on to Kashmir
Looking back over this I can't believe how much I've written on this page - just hope I've not bored you all to death! I also can't believe we were only in Mumbai 3 days I could have written so much more - but luckily I pulled back!! As you may have realized the reason I can't shut up about it is that I absolutely loved Mumbai and could have stayed much longer. It was an incredible exciting vibrant city and we'll definitely be back!!