Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Mumbai Madness


Let the rapid-fire blogging of India continue - although following feedback that I was omitting rather a lot in these posts, I've decided to dedicated a post to Mumbai alone as Steve and I did and experienced quite a lot here, a fair part of which actually seems worth mentioning. This surprised me more than anyone, as after two weeks of hectic city-hopping in the North I was very much preoccupied with Goa and viewed Mumbai as little more than a stepping-stone on the way there. This was confirmed in my first, none-too-favourable impression of this 18-million-inhabitant behemoth of a city. The muggy, humid heat, endless miles of depressing slums and shanty towns and a shockingly inept taxi driver who nearly coughed his lungs out the window with a sound like a dying poodle every 15 seconds all combined to form a rather glum, unpleasant image of Mumbai. Low, thick, grey clouds and the endless smog cloaking the city gave it a post-apocalyptic look to match.

Fortunately, things took a decided turn for the better once we reached our hotel, cranked the AC to some 20 degrees colder than outside temperatures and settled into the expat-type Restaurant next door. Plentiful beer and sizzlers - at prices that shocked us after the rest of India but were still dirt cheap compared to London - helped lift our moods considerably (well, Steve's mood required less lifting...). It was thus buoyed that we headed off to explore the next morning. At the Gateway of India, the ubiquitous touts (instead of the usual tat) were hawking photo prints. This meant dozens of ragged-looking Indians with new, bottom-of-the-line DSLRs and 18-55mm kit lenses - on full auto mode, of course - pestering us and proffering samples of their "handiwork". Dripping sweat after just a few minutes outside, we retreated to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the other main tourist sight in the area.

Breakfast at the Taj - read on...
The Taj is India's equivalent to the Ritz, and we revelled in the luxuries of top-notch tea, coffee and biscuits while looking exceptionally scruffy compared to the actual clientele of the hotel (rooms $300/night and up - mad by Indian standards!). This place was the polar opposite of the vast parts of Mumbai that eke out a living in various states of squalor: class and opulence at its finest, the Taj is an institution for the 1%, or even the 0.01% in the case of a country as populous and poor as India. Being white, we seemed to somehow be accepted into this 1% despite our unkempt appearance, and we wandered the corridors of the hotel for a while. We found a small shopping centre normally catering to guests of the hotel - mentioning that "we'd left our credit cards in our room" triggered dollar signs in salesmen's eyes whenever we failed to mention that said room wasn't actually at this hotel - and walked out with some rather nice cashmere scarves (if I do say so myself) for the girlfriends. These would also go on to inspire what have to be among the best/ worst Christmas cards Steve or I have ever produced.

A walk through Mumbai's colonial-style centre brought us to a massive park which, it being Sunday, was packed with cricketers. And I mean PACKED - there must have been thousands of players, with stumps every few feet and balls flying absolutely everywhere (thankfully, they used tennis balls - otherwise there would have been many casualties!). This was another fantastic, and entertaining, example of order somehow hiding in the utter chaos that is India if you accept it rather than trying to fight it. 

In the middle of the park, overlapping casual games from both edges, an actual match was going on, and yet another - this one a club game - at one end of the park; at the other end, the Dutch national team (yep, apparently a Dutch Cricket team exists...) were doing an afternoon with a charity teaching homeless kids the game. It was refreshing to see scenes of general fun and enjoyment uninterrupted by beggars, hawkers and touts and to the backdrop of the stunning University and Courts of Justice.

How many cricket games might be happening in this one picture...?
The Dutch Cricketers teaching some street kids basic cricket; it's not a public-school sport here, but a national one.
Being shown how it's done.
And a bit of well-deserved rest post-game?
 That evening, following a recommendation from a Mumbai local named Lloyd whom we had met in Jodhpur, we hopped on a commuter train to the trendy Bhandra district for an all-you-can-eat Asian extravaganza. Unheard-of levels of anticipation accompanied this excursion, which we duly starved ourselves for from midmorning onwards. The local trains were great fun, too - in the evening they weren't crowded and have gaping holes instead of doors which makes for a nice breeze and the novel feeling of hanging bodily out of a moving train.
Unsurprisingly, this is about as steady as I could hold a camera out a moving train...
Bhandra is the playground of the middle classes - lacking the opulence of the Taj, but with a healthy bustle and young people with iPhones. Still, poverty is ubiquitous: many sidewalks doubled as beds for rows upon rows of people loincloth-clad people. In the restaurant itself, obesity was rampant - it seems this is still an affliction of the wealthy here, unlike in most western countries. Not unexpectedly, we went completely overboard on the food when presented with unlimited dim sum, sushi, sashimi and various SE Asian goodies after two weeks of street food! Steve's crucial mistake were the four(?!) portions of prawn dim sum he ordered after trying one...
Facing facts...but spirits are still high!
...while I pushed myself very close to the edge with my second soup bowl of ice cream and bits of cake floating in it.
This is actually my first helping of pudding. I didn't bother using the puny ice cream bowl for the second one...error. Wearing a look of pained determination by this point...
 Still, we both retained all our food, so on the whole the evening was a winner. On the way home from Victoria Station, our taxi driver on the way home cheated us out of 20 rupees by charging more upon arrival than we'd agreed. When we argued he began screaming abuse at us to attract other drivers' attention - faced with a choice of trying to take on an angry mob of Indian taxi drivers or paying the equivalent of 15p more, we decided (well, Steve made an executive decision) that there was a time and a place for arguing, and that this was not it. Given the minimal sums involved, the episode did not bother our food-comatose selves very much...

Having had a taste of luxury the night before, we decided to push the limits all the way while we were in Mumbai. This involved drinks at the rooftop bar of the Intercontinental Hotel to catch sunset over the bay, and a return to the Taj Mahal Palace for their buffet breakfast the following morning. Unfortunately for my wallet, drinks at the Intercontinental turned into drinks and cigars, which apparently incur a very hefty tax levy in India - but it had to be done. 

Because these just had to be taken...
This is about as clear as the air ever gets in Mumbai. Somewhere on the far side is that 27-story lad pad that REALLY rich Indian guy built himself.

 Still, it was good fun feeling superbly classy for about half an hour and, to live up the contrasts between rich and poor that are so striking in Mumbai of all places, we proceeded to have dinner at a grubby little Thali (3-4 curries with rice and poppadum-type things) place by the train station for about 2% of the cost of the cigars we'd just puffed away.
Cigar: £20, 0 kcal; Dinner: £0.6, 600ish kcal. So...why do people smoke again?
Breakfast the next morning was what you'd expect from the breakfast buffet of a high-end luxury hotel; very, very tasty and long-lasting. The only slight drawback was the *extremely* obnoxious group of Englishpeople who sat next to us - the most annoyingly pretentious, stuck-up kind of 20-somethings who (in all seriousness) complained about the fact that they had a car but no driver. Fortunately, we were distracted enough by all the foodie goodies that this didn't bother us too much and even became somewhat amusing.

RANDOM BONUS IMAGE! Some guys on a moped expertly weaving through rush hour despite carrying a full-size windshield. No further questions...
And thus ended the adventure of Mumbai - I struggle for words to describe how much we were looking forward to getting to Goa by this point! More on that asap...

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