We were in Mumbai for a few days and became full tourists again, as opposed to our regular status of “expats” in Bangalore.
Mumbai is more cosmopolitan than Bangalore, has more Ambassador cars, more beggars, more disciplined drivers, more visible slums, more luxury cars, more air pollution, more foreigners, more tourists, more smokers, more historical buildings, more police officers, more women with short shirts and high heels, more chaiwalas*, more balloonwalas, more displays of wealth, and more cats. In return, it has less dust, less trash in the streets but plenty in the sea, fewer tuk-tuks, fewer pedestrians, fewer bicycles, fewer cows, fewer smiling people, fewer new constructions, and fewer dogs. (*walas are street sellers).
Mumbai is located on a peninsula pointing into the Arabian Sea. So if we swim, we can go and meet our buddy Steve. But that would require swimming through layers of discarded plastics, vegetable peels, abandoned idol statues, papers and other refuse such as medicine still in the pack, pass hundreds of little boats, pass some big ol’ cargo ships we see in the horizon. Sorry Steve, we’ll just pass on this one!
But the view can be breathtaking. That’s if you can see at all. On our drive to E.’s meeting one morning, we could hardly see the skyscrapers.
It is a very modern city, yet with beautiful old Victorian buildings with exquisite cornices on outside façade decorations and on balconies. You see them on the sea front as well as in the heart of the city. Many of them are covered in black mildew, in desperate need of a facelift, and there seems to be a lot of it being done. There are more new constructions in Bangalore than in Mumbai. The work in Mumbai seems to be the revamping of older buildings. However in some suburbs, new skyscrapers with offices are coming up.
We did a lot of people watching from our hotel room. We had a view on The Gateway to India and the sea front below us, where a lot of tourists, Indian and foreigners, go for a stroll.
We went to the Kala Ghoda festival, which was very crowded and could have been any arts and crafts festival in the U.S. We walked around town a lot. It is amazing to me how some areas of town look like Paris, or the Old Town in Geneva. A street with sidewalks, no cows, no dogs, fewer than 5 people per square meter and no dust is unheard of in Bangalore. We are very surprised that we didn’t see massive crowds everywhere, since Mumbai is known for having one of the highest population density in the world.
We passed dozens of stalls selling everything from travel irons, business card holders and electric shavers, some new, some clearly used. Many were displaying a large collection of sex toys. ‘nuf said! We bought a few books. I was impressed by the librarian’s ability to figure out my tastes. I had already read more than half the books he suggested. I knew they were not the brand new hard copies you find in the regular bookstores, I honestly thought they were stolen books, or the rejects from the publishers. But no, they are bound photocopies of the originals. I encountered two problems, both solvable. Here is a picture of the first one.
As for the second problem, in the last 30 pages of the book, which I enjoyed a lot, every other page was blank! It is very frustrating when you want to know the end! So I did the right thing, went to a bookstore at the mall back in Bangalore and bought the book a second time. This time, I purchased the official, regular priced one. That will teach me!
We also went on a private tour of “off beaten path” Mumbai in a nice air-conditioned SUV. The young guide met us at the hotel. We weren’t even in the car yet that he had already verbally given us his business card: born, raised and still living in Dharavi, one of the biggest slum of India, as well as a third year college student graduating in April. Take that! Then we meet his colleague, another university student from the same neighborhood, also studying to become a guide for the same company. Both have dreams of a getting a Master’s degree in their field. They first took us to have chai (Indian tea), because chai is a religion here! Then they took us to the Dabbawalas, the fish market, the Koli Fishermen’s village, the Mahalaxmi Dhobi ghats, the thieves market and lastly, Spice lane, all of that in about 4 hours. The tour was peppered with insights about life from two 20-year-old guys. Lemme tell you, it ain’t fun being a woman in India. The off the cuff sexist remarks kept me glued to my seat a couple of times… But it was truly wonderful.
Mumbai is known all over the world for the system of lunch deliveries. Everyday around noon, an army of 5000 old(er) men, called dabbawalas distribute about 200000 lunches from the wives to the husbands, and then the lunch boxes are picked up and delivered back to the wives. Without a glitch. Yet they still can’t fix our stupid dryer. http://mumbaidabbawala.in/
The system is so efficient that it is said people at MIT study it. Unfortunately, we were there on a Saturday, which is a very slow day for them, so on an excitement level, it was a 6 out of 10. But E. got to wear a Marathi hat and make two of those men almost cough up their lunch out in laughter.
We weren’t allowed cameras in the fish market. It seems that a lot of the direct access to the seashore are heavily guarded since the terrorist attacks on the city on November 26th 2008, and no photography is permitted. We have 9/11, Indians have 26/11. The place stinks, and I mean stinks big time! You don’t want to offend the fishermen by holding up your nose, but you quickly learn to breathe through your mouth. Tons of fish, mostly for export. They are packed in large Styrofoam coolers, covered in ice brought in huge blocks, and sealed in place with miles of duct tape. And I got fish blood on my toes, yuck!
The Koli fishermen’s village is really interesting and pretty. It’s simply the area of town where they traditionally have lived for generations. Since a few of the terrorists reached the shore with tons of weapons through this village, they still don’t allow cameras there. At least that’s what we were told. If you do a search, you’ll see lots of pics taken recently, so that rule is not set in stone. The village has very narrow alleys, tiny shops (if you call a towel with vegetables on it a shop), lots of women and little kids, and, not surprising, a lot of cats. There was wedding going on, and although an old woman gestured that we come around, the guides didn’t let us. You have trash? Just dump the content of your bucket into the sea. That’s where we saw unopened medicine packages floating around.
For the rest of the day, we have a lot of photos. The dhobi ghats is where the clothes washers work and live. The work is done mainly by men, mainly by hand, in open air. They are starting to use machinery, but a few generations behind what we have in the US. Nonetheless, a lot of the four and five star hotels in Mumbai still use their services. I don’t know how their system works, but the laundry is divided by color and fabric (jeans, shirts, tablecloths…). Men work in individual stations. They beat the crap out of those clothes, wring them, and throw them on lines to dry. It has to be back breaking work. They work there, and they live there, so you see a lot of women and kids around the ghats. And cats. (click on any image to start the slideshow)
Chor bazaar, which translates into “thieves market”, is a big commercial area that spreads over several blocks in a Muslim part of town. Women were not wearing the burka as often seen in Hyderabad, but very colorful dresses and head coverings. You will find expensive antiques next to absolute crap, and goats. They have lots of goats, aka, tonight’s dinner!
Spice Lane is minuscule. It’s about ¼ mile long, if that. It’s a series of shops where you can buy all the spices imaginable, all fresh, but also where you can bring your own spices to be ground. Indian cooking relies on extremely fresh ingredients. People dry their own chilies (I see them here on front porches) and bring them to Spice Lane to be turned into chili powder. If you have a small quantity, you can do it at home, but big batches take up too much time, and too many tears. The hotness of the chili flies all around and burns your eyes and nose as if you had ingested a raw chili. It’s funny and painful simultaneously. You’d better bring your hanky!
Finally, like dozens of young couples, we also did the lovers walk on Marine Drive at night. And no, I won’t post the romantic selfies we took there!