I’m in Mumbai – well at least until tonight. After a tragically short stay in the very pleasant Panjim, I flew up here yesterday. Panjim was an example of how it is a good idea to a) research your destinations first and b) to get out of a place straight away if you’re not crazy about it. I had a day in Panjim that I enjoyed and met a few good people, and wanted three days – and three days in Palolem where I was mostly bored out of my tiny little mind, when one day would have done it. In Panjim I stayed at the very friendly though pricy Afonso Guest House – run by a lovely lady who booked my taxi to the airport, and even made sure I got on it, even though it was six in the morning. I think maybe she was just worried that I wouldn’t shut her front door properly on the way out.
I got to Mumbai yesterday, and had a taxi ride in from the airport that was nearly enough to trigger another bout of culture shock like the one I had in Trivandrum, when I first arrived in India. The journey into the center of Mumbai from the airport is not down some tree-lined A-road or suburban area – it’s just non-stop people. The slums and ramshackle housing go on, and on, and on, and on. And on. It seems impossible that so many people can live on top of each other like that, but they obviously are – all the time. The closest comparison I can make is that if you imagined taking a taxi ride from Heathrow around the M25 in to the center of London via the A3, it would be slums and shanty towns immediately from Heathrow, all the way until you got to Vauxhall, maybe further. People live on the sides of the roads, with cars buzzing past them as they brush their teeth, and drying their clothes on the concrete bollards dividing the roads into lanes. People have stalls on the sides of the road with about three bananas and a strip of sachets of shampoo for sale. People sit around drinking chai, and somehow not choking at the exhaust fumes billowing up in their faces. I wasn’t unaware that Mumbai was like this – but it’s still a flabbergasting sight. There was so much dirt in everything – the people, the buildings, the road, the cars, the windows, the clothes, the water – if you took all the dirt away everything would fall apart.
So in Mumbai I’m in the less pleasant but at least less expensive Sea Shore Hotel – a fourth floor hotel with airless and windowless cells, which is the perfect resting place for budget travellers, Indian businessmen with poor budgets for their overnight stays, and axe-murderers. That said, they do a mean boiled egg and toast and masala tea all for about forty rupees. I’ve had the chance to explore some of the Colaba district of Mumbai, including the… well, palatial hardly seems enough – how about the stupefying Taj Mahal Intercontinental Hotel. This place is just by the Gateway of India, the large monument marking the spot where the last British colonials left India at the onset of Indian independence. The Taj Mahal costs around GBP300 a night, or around 25,000 rupees – that is, around about a whole year’s earnings for someone on the poverty line here. The place is massive – with a cavernous reception, shopping mall, restaurants, waterfall in enclosed leafy yard, and plush furniture and impeccably turned-out staff. But this is India, so literally cross the road and you’re asked if you can buy milk for some girl’s young baby, whether you want to buy Charas (cannabis), and you have to watch your step for the urine and rubbish on the pavement.
I found a great place to eat here in Coloba – Leopoldo’s – a fairly hip and overpriced eatery a block away from the Taj Mahal and the seafront. It attracts a lot of Westerners as well as Indians, so isn’t the authentic Indian experience (compared to eating a Thali in Tuticorin maybe). The best place about it though is the people-watching. I’ve been in there twice now and managed to get the same seat in the corner near the kitchen – I spent most of yesterday afternoon reading (I’ve never read as much in my life as I have since I came away) and watching the world go by. It could have been anywhere, but it also makes a welcome respite from the streets. Walk down the street from Leopoldo’s and you’re constantly having your hand grabbed by children after money, being offered wooden toy snakes, being beckoned into shops or to look at stalls, or offered a bindi and a string bracelet for 200 rupees (a rip-off).
While in Leopoldo’s a Dutch guy came up to chat to me – he and his girlfriend were leaving India for Thailand, and he wanted to ask if I wanted his Lonely Planet. I told him no thanks as I had my Rough Guide (and will someone tell me which is actually better?). He told me they were glad to get out of India after five weeks – and I sympathised. There are some respects in which India works incredibly well – there is always a person to serve this, do that, clean up the other; the trains put the ones in the UK to shame; every corner sports a corner shop like a Tardis, packed to the rafters with every thing you could possibly ask for. That said, India will surely drive anyone mad after a while – the inequalities are glaring everywhere you look; the noise is constant and never-ending; the dirt is ubiquitous; the traffic is insane; and worst of all, after a while, you get to start feeling like you can’t trust anyone. India mostly feels very safe – let’s get that straight – but walking along virtually any street, sitting in many cafes or restaurants, or just minding your own business anywhere, the questions and approaches become incessant. You’re aware walking down the street that you’re saying ‘NO’ like a mantra (I’ve already remarked on saying no), and you actually feel driven along just to escape shopkeepers, beggars, children, and women with babies. If, sitting in a quiet place, you start a conversation with someone, you start to wander if they’re going to introduce three blind brothers and a child with a hole in their heart into the conversation, fishing for a ‘donation’ from a guilt-ridden rich westerner (this happened to Matt and I at Hampi). I don’t want to sound callous here, and I’d hope that I’m known as a conscientious and charitable sort – but India is almost enough to turn you round 180 degrees – I’ve got to the stage where I’m often reluctant to engage in conversation with people, for fear that they’ve got a ‘line’.
Next stop Aurangabad, to see the caves at Ellora and Ajanta – I’ve also added some new pics to Flickr.