The metropolitan hub of India. Mumbai (Bombay) has a reputation as being a fast moving, modern city which provides opportunities for the young dreamers growing up there. The home of Bollywood and the home of the largest slum in the world. Around 20 million people all trying to achieve great things!
Brad and I aren’t really ones for cities, even London I tend to avoid and don’t visit often. The noise, fast-paced energy, dirt and stress of it all is not my sort of thing. Yet I had been oddly looking forward to Mumbai, perhaps since we had been living in pretty basic villages and I craved the simplicity of a city. For starters we needed to top up on necessities like deodorant (clothes pegs at the ready)! And on top of that Diwali was almost upon us and I had been incredibly excited to see this festival in all its glory!
Our journey to Mumbai had been a long and tiring one. SIXTEEN hours on a train overnight from Junagadh, Gujurat. Then we needed to get a taxi from the station to our hotel which was located in Fort, a tourist friendly area of South Mumbai. Getting anywhere in a vehicle during daylight hours in Mumbai is chaotic. Twenty million people are commuting, walking the pavements, driving their cars and the streets are bubbling over with people and activity. Luckily Ola (the taxi app we use) is available in Mumbai so it is simply a matter of waiting for the car to arrive, then the agonising stop/start journey to the hotel. All these vehicles of course have knock on effects, the fumes constantly pumping out across the city have given it a distinctive hazy appearance. It may be a blue sunny day but all you can see is the white fogginess of smog carpeting the city – a mask would have been handy.
First impressions of the city were not what we expected. Apart from the fact it’s heaving with people, everything is relatively orderly. Cars stop at red lights (this never happened in Kolkata) and everyone seems to have a purpose. It actually has an uncanny resemblance to old parts of London, the buildings follow the same patterns and designs. It became clear why when our guide (we hired a guide for one morning) told us a brief history on Mumbai – I’ll give you the short version. Way way back in time Mumbai was 7 isolated farming and fishing villages – back then the city was named Mumbai. Then the Portuguese colonised and claimed this area for themselves, naming it Bombay (beautiful bay). The Portuguese then gifted the area to the British as a wedding present since two royals from either country were married. It was then the British who knocked down all the trees, joined the villages and created the one city we have today. The British built the original Bombay and that is why you get that sense of London when you drive around it. Eventually India took back the city from the British and after many, many years renamed it Mumbai. I thought this story was pretty interesting and it explains a lot about the city!
Tour guides have been something we generally avoid since they are expensive and we prefer to just amble around at our own pace (even if we’re not always sure what we’re looking at). But we bumped into a man at the Gateway of India who gave us, what I thought, was a pretty good offer for a pit-stop tour of Mumbai. He drove us around and gave us heaps of information we never would have received otherwise. Probably our favourite stop of the day had been Dobhi Ghat – the largest clothes wash in Asia. It was honestly like something out of Slumdog Millionaire and was a feast for the eyes, so many colours and winding alleyways with people doing their part to clean Mumbai’s clothes. Interestingly enough it’s only men that work in the ghat and they still live within a strict caste system. Those born into these families will go on to work in the clothes wash as well, since this is their caste.
He also took us to a park called the Hanging Garden which is seriously clever. Underneath the garden is actually a huge water storage unit. The containers of water are literally hanging off of the garden, underground. The reason for the ‘lid’ is that not too far off is the location of the Tower of Silence. This is where the Parsi community places it’s dead, where they rot and are eaten by the vultures and kites. The birds frequently dropped pieces of human flesh into the water storage (pretty gruesome huh?) and so a solution needed to be made.
I found the tour pretty interesting and with so much history in Mumbai there is a lot to see. I probably would recommend doing something like this for those who have not been before, if nothing else it saves taxi stress!
We woke up super early and grabbed a taxi up to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, around an hours drive. This is a huge area of protected, forested land within the city of Mumbai. It’s got a huge array of wildlife within it and is in fact home to the largest population of leopards in India. Remember that episode of Planet Earth when they film the leopards in the city of Mumbai? That was near the park, since it literally backs directly onto a slum.
Despite this you can walk around the park freely for a very small entrance fee (I think it was about 50 rupees). We had planned to go on a trek which we picked out in advance, it would be about 14km and lead you to one of the highest points in the park. Unfortunately, this is India, things never go as planned and we never found the trek. To begin with, being a Monday, the buses do not run. To get to the start of the trek is around 7km uphill and so, we briskly made our way towards where we thought we needed to be. Eventually we wound up at the end of the pathway where the entrance to some caves lies. We didn’t want to see the caves, mostly because it’s expensive but also because we’ve seen lots of caves on this trip already. The entrance to our trek should have been off the side of the pathway we had been following but we hadn’t seen any clear trekking paths to follow. Nor had there been signs and we didn’t fancy taking our chances and winding up lost in a leopard infested park with no phone signal. It was a disappointment but on the bright side we did plenty of exercise (something we are both missing).
In the evening time we took a walk out to Crawford Market, one of the largest indoor/outdoor markets in Mumbai. They sold everything. From knock off make-up to animals. It broke my heart a little to see the kittens caged out in the heat and the chickens with almost no feathers all locked up together. But, this is a country that is yet to realise the cruelty of selling animals in this way (the UK isn’t perfect either on this subject).
The market streets were absolutely heaving, just a couple of days before Diwali. It seemed everyone, young and old, had come out to grab some last minute bargains! Pretty chaotic and definitely an experience to walk through.
After a sleepy morning, we had pretty much decided to just wander around and see what we found. I had a general idea of where I wanted to go but nothing concrete. Of course, ambling around in a concrete jungle with 36+ degree heat gets old pretty quickly. We soon found ourself in a taxi on our way to a cafe…
One street we did find was called Kotachi Wadi. I had heard about this quaint little street online and wanted to see it for myself. The street has a mix of cultures thrown into it and feels far more European than the rest of the city. Loads of colour, houses rather than flats, paintings on the walls and the church area that was probably built by the Portuguese. It was so beautiful and although we had gone during the day, we could see the Diwali lights had been put up in anticipation – we decided we would come back in the evening on Diwali!
Day 4 (DIWALI)
It was an early start for us as we headed towards Dadar Flower Market. We were supposed to head here before sunrise, which we didn’t make, but even though it was only around 8am the place was rammed! We didn’t know what to expect really as this was our first flower market. What we found were aisles upon aisles of men and women with their sacks full of flowers in front of them. The floor was soft and uneven and you trod on the unfortunate flowers that had fallen down. Again, the busyness of Mumbai created a hot, sticky room of people. What I thought was odd was that you had this huge space full of flower sellers and yet between them all I probably saw no more than 6 different flowers. Everyone was selling the same ones, the same colours and I couldn’t see why a market of so many people was actually needed?
We knew it would be a late one so we relaxed in our hotel room during the afternoon. I was busy psyching myself up for the chaos of the evening. As soon as we started hearing firecrackers in the streets behind us we decided to head out (around 8pm). First stop – Kotachi Wadi!
Our eyes were treated to a fairytale of lights and lanterns as we stepped in the lane. It looked the same as before, but at the same time so different! We walked down, dodging the odd firework until we reached the end and turned to take it all in. A family were celebrating together out in the street, the mother and grandmother sat inside with the food. Outside the father and his children played with an assortment of firecrackers, sparklers and Catherine wheels. Watching them play was beautiful. Eventually the little girl came over to us with a bashful smile and offered us some Diwali sweets that she had made with her grandmother. I was invited into their home and spoke with the mother whilst Brad played with the children outside. It was so touching to be invited into a families home on Diwali and gave us a different perspective to this festival.
After a while we left the calm of Kotachi Wadi and headed towards Marine Drive. This is the semi-circle coastline of Mumbai and is the main area of the city for firework displays (displays is pushing it, more like random rocket launches). We walked down a while and found a spot to spectate some of the madness. To be honest, overall we both thought it was quite tame, I expected to be freaking out the whole night and I only ran away once! Rockets are firing out at precarious angles and firecrackers make you feel like you’re in a war zone. Yet nothing pushed us too far out of our comfort zone! And by 10pm the police were out telling people to stop altogether, I guess that’s what you get from a metropolitan city. Our friend from New Delhi informed us firecrackers were completely banned the whole night there, so we’ll count ourselves lucky!
‘Moving Day’. Each time we change to a new location we end up with an awkward day. We pack up in the morning and have some food but after we check out of the hotel we’re a bit stuck. With our heavy cumbersome bags on us we can’t walk very far. So, as per usual, we looked for a cafe we could spend the day at. On this occasion we ended up at Pizza Hut. Don’t judge us! For 500 rupees (£5.50 ish) both Brad and I could have unlimited drinks and unlimited pizza. THAT IS CRAZY. We ate about 5 pizzas and 2 portions of garlic bread (in our defence that was our only meal of the day).
Mumbai was good, so much to explore and finally some tasty food (I had been struggling recently). It has its issues, crowding and pollution, but overall we enjoyed it. Favourite city so far though? Still can’t beat the mayhem of Kolkata.