Friday, February 26, 2010

Mumbai, India

Our gradual acclimation to India through relatively calm Kerala seems to have done the trick, since Mumbai wasn’t overwhelming at all.  We were ready for it.  In fact, Mohit and I both really enjoyed the big city after being in small towns for a few weeks.

Mumbai is a huge city, both in land area and population, so it’s no surprise that it’s got many cities all buried in the one.  Our first morning, we decided to brave the old, crowded, and chaotic Mumbai.  On our way to Mumbai’s bazaars, we popped into Victoria Terminus, the busiest train station in Asia.  Built in 1887 by the ruling British, the gothic stone architecture would look right at home on any U.S. university campus.

The interior was buzzing with activity since we were there during the peak of the morning commute.  We needed to make a reservation for later train travel in India, but Mohit decided to do that elsewhere after checking out the disorderly crowd at the ticket windows.

The first market we stumbled upon (literally, and luckily, since the streets were confusing and we were hopelessly lost) was Crawford Market, where piles of fruits and vegetables and hundreds of scrawny live chickens in wire cages are for sale.  We were watching our feet as always to avoid dog dung and blood-red patches of paan spit on the streets.

We still were having trouble navigating, so we periodically stopped to ask for directions from the crowds of men lounging on the sidewalk in front of their shops.  We made our way to Zaveri Bazaar, my favorite since it was a warren of sunny streets lined with shops selling intricate gold jewelry, from delicate earrings and sets of bangles to long, thick wedding necklace sets, all in yellow Indian gold.  There were also shops selling costume jewelry, rows and rows of colorful glittery bangles, and street vendors selling bundles of colorful, embellished envelopes used for gifting money at weddings.

We stopped at a tiny streetside diner for a thali lunch- we were the only westerners, and the only ones silly enough to insist on a bottle of water instead of the stainless steel tumblers of water poured from a shared pitcher.

Our next stop was Chor Bazaar, also known as Thieves’ Market. Legend has it that the name originated when Queen Victoria, upon arrival to Mumbai from her steam ship, discovered her violin and jewelry had gone missing while being unloaded from the ship.  The “lost” items were reportedly discovered hanging for sale on Mutton Street in the middle of Chor Bazaar, hence the name.

This area is a collection of haphazard store fronts and sidewalk piles of antiques, old tools, used furniture, old Bollywood posters, and miscellaneous junk.  The streets were a complete chaos of motorcycles, cars, men unloading long lengths of pipe from trucks, goats tethered to buildings, cows pulling carts, men spitting everywhere.  When I pointed out to Mohit that I was already covered in a layer of dirt again, he laughed and said “you’re turning Indian!  By the time we leave here you’ll be brown just like me!”

Our heads were spinning from the crowds, the dust, and the sun, so we decided to hail a taxi and head to Mumbai’s fanciest residential district, Malabar Hill.  This neighborhood was definitely a different city, with fewer people on the streets, tall trees providing shade, and walls or gates around tall apartment buildings with British-sounding names.  We wandered until we found Banganga Tank, a huge rectangular man-made body of holy water ringed by stone steps and scattered with pigeons and ducks.   There’s a pole in the middle that is considered to be the center of the earth.  We sat in a shady spot for awhile, watching boys swimming and splashing in a far corner of the tank.

We found our way to Kamala Nehru park, and its neighbor, the Hanging Gardens.  These were the first tended patches of green we’ve seen in India, other than farmland.  The parks are perched on the edge of Malabar Hill, with a view over Chowpatty Beach and the city beyond.  In the parks, as at Banganga Tank, there were groups of boys out having fun, doing what boys all over the world do; causing trouble and roughing around.  All over India, we’ve seen boys and grown men walking hand in hand with their male friends, or with arms draped across each other, openly showing affection in a way that men in the U.S. would never dream of.  And yet affection between couples, even married couples, is taboo in public.  It’s the complete opposite of what we’re used to.

We ate dinner near our hotel at a trendy place called “Relish”.  The modern scene inside was worlds away from the India we’ve seen so far.  The restaurant was packed with well-dressed mostly Indian clientele out for dinner on a Sunday night.  Girls wore jeans and t-shirts.  The couple next to us, probably in their early 20s, were sharing a pot of cheese fondue, feeding each other across the table.  Kanye West played on the stereo.  We ordered Mexican lasagna and a thin-crust pizza topped with paneer and spicy chilis.  Kingfisher beer and Sula (Indian) wine were actually printed on the menu (in most places, you have to ask if they serve beer, since most Indians don’t drink it and many restaurants don’t have a license, it’s all a bit secretive…).  I asked the waiter if it’d be possible to get an iced tea without sugar (there are heaping spoonfuls of sugar in most drinks here), and the reply was “Yes madam, it is possible, but it will not be tasty.”  I ordered my iced tea sugar-free anyway, since I knew he was wrong.  It was very tasty.

We topped off our evening with a late Bollywood movie.  It was all in Hindi, so I didn’t understand a word, but Mohit translated about half the words for me, and I enjoyed the dance scenes and jealously ogled the women’s beautiful outfits.  The plot was a ridiculous “arranged marriage gets re-arranged” which Mohit would normally never have paid for tickets to see.

Our second day in Mumbai we got up early and asked a taxi to drop us off at the Gateway of India, where we boarded a boat headed to Elephanta Island.  We motored out from the harbor for about an hour, passing oil tankers and huge barges carrying cargo boxes.  Disembarking into the sun, we climbed a looooong stairway lined with souvenir stalls.  We tried splitting up at the ticket booth at the top, to see if Mohit could snag the much cheaper Indian Resident rate of 10 rupees, but the ticket collector wasn’t fooled for a moment, and we both paid the much higher 250 rupee rate for foreigners.

The Elephanta Caves were well worth the trip.  Our tour guide was an adorable, petite, motherly woman named Veena with a voice so soft we had to lean in close to hear.  The caves were carved out of a mountain of rock in the 6th century B.C. by stonecutting monks supported financially by wealthy Hindu families.  Veena told us wonderful stories of the Hindu events that are depicted in the cave’s carvings, which are all of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati.  Especially stunning is the central carving of Shiva showing his three sides; the fierce/ terrifying god, the beautiful/ pleasing god, and the face of calm supreme knowing in the center.

Back on the mainland, I shopped up a storm at the street stalls of Colaba while Mohit relaxed.  We hung out for awhile at Leopold Café, where the Mumbai terrorist attack happened a few years ago.  The place was lively and packed, you’d never guess its history, except for the armed security guards screening our bags and two suspicious holes in the concrete walls that looked eerily about the size of bullets, though we couldn’t be sure.

For dinner, we ate the best meal we’ve had in all of India at a street stall tucked away behind the Taj hotel.  Chicken tikka rolled in a chapatti, mutton kebabs with spicy mint chutney, and deliciously soft and spongy paneer tikka.  People ate sitting in their cars or at card tables set up in front of the closed storefronts; we shared our street table with a young couple out on a date.  Afterwards we flagged down the boy carrying a steel pitcher of water which he poured out for hand washing.

We hailed a taxi to take us back to our hotel, and our young late-night cabbie spoke perfect too-cool-for-school English. He says to Mohit “What are you man?  You look like some kind of Indian, man.  Where are you from, man?  America?  Ohhhhh….America.  I see so many cocktails from America.  The ladies there all like the Indian men, yeah?”  So I learned a new word- cocktails.  As in, Mohit and I are a mixed drink.  Cool, man.


  1. viva la india!
    yeah! more pics of mohit/kate
    looks like you both are losing weight from traveling
    where's ritchie?

  2. Thank you for posting such wonderful updates - your blog has me hanging on every word. I am planning on studying abroad in India next year and I've been a bit apprehensive about it - I'm glad to see that you two are enjoying it, that really eases my mind.


  3. Hello!!!
    Mumbai,the cosmo-politian or the commercial capital of the house of bollywood, the ascent of Indian Cinema.
    Here everything is different and authentic!!!!
    Well come to Mumbai and experience the difference!!!!!