I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last post, but India really is an incredible place; the days are flying by and I’ve lost track of time. So, if you didn’t know already, I’m travelling around India for 4 months before moving on and I’m enjoying it so far… let’s get started.
I’m going to go straight for it here and say it; Mumbai is chaotic. As soon as I hopped into a taxi from the airport I was in complete shock at how the roads are like death-traps. The constant slamming of breaks, the weaving in and out of non-existent lanes, and the relentless use of the horn all add to this mad max style of driving. People just walk out into the road, stopping between lanes; waiting as a 3-manned scooter hurls past, before then moving across yet another lane in between 2 buses, a cow, and a cart pusher. I’d never seen anything like it in my life yet I was smiling and even laughing at times because even though it is chaotic, that’s just the way Mumbai is…
Now, like all cities, Mumbai is split into different areas and, if you’re planning to visit, I’d suggest staying in either in Fort, Churchgate, or Colaba (all within 20 mins walk) or even Bandra (though that’s a train journey away). From the airport all of these places are at least an hour away but the south of Mumbai, especially Colaba, is where it’s all happening.
Fort & Churchgate
Fort is, in my opinion, the real south Mumbai. The place is named after Fort George which was built by the British East India Trading Company in the late 1700’s (there are buildings by the British all over the city, but more of that later). Fort is extremely busy and is the main financial area, and I don’t just mean high rise institutions making millions a year; I’m talking about backstreets teeming with shops the size of cupboards, street food stalls, and shoe makers.
Here you can buy pretty much anything you want very cheaply, and very quickly. However, money changes hands here out in the open and, in other areas, very much in the dark. Fort is where I managed to buy some new shorts and a shirt for 300r, beers for 120r, and a full sized meal (with a beer) for less than 400r. I had some of my best experiences in Fort (and bad, given I almost got pickpocketed). Yes, there were many times I felt unsafe in Fort, especially at night, but I suppose it’s part of the experience.
However, one of my highlights of Fort, and even Mumbai, was the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). This is the nervous system of the city and one of its most beautiful pieces of architecture. Behind this façade of grandeur lies an extremely complex system of tracks lined with 20 carriage-length trains and 1000’s of people rushing to catch them. (By the way, if you’re wondering whether Indians really do hang out the side of trains…they do.) I spent over an hour wandering around the CST, watching people go about their daily lives, jumping on and off moving trains; it really is something I’m glad I saw and I strongly recommend it!
Churchgate, however, is almost the opposite of Fort. Even though they are only 5 mins apart, Churchgate is quieter, cooler, and seemingly wealthier in terms of its diversity. There are universities, 5 star hotels, several cricket pitches and, of course, marine drive. The first night I spent in Mumbai a few of us from the hostel headed out to Marine Drive to sit along the wave barrier, drinking (naughty) and chilling the night away. Two Indian friends even joined us and started to play their acoustic guitars; there was something very surreal about listening to a Bollywood rendition of ‘Hotel California’ whilst listening to the waves crash…and getting slowly wasted.
Walking around Churchgate actually reminded me of another city, though I’m not sure which one, (possibly Barcelona). This is mainly because there are many open spaces here, filled with people sleeping, eating, and playing cricket amongst other games. This is the more relaxed part of Southern Mumbai and, if you want to kick back and relax, head here.
Colaba is the place to be in Mumbai. Like many buildings and places in the city, their names have been changed since the days of independence from the British (Mumbai was originally Bombay, CST was the Victoria Terminus etc). Though India is now independent from the British and the Portuguese, their presence is still strong within the city, and this is no stronger than the mixture of Fort, Churchgate, and Colaba at the Mukherjee Chowk roundabout; from here you can head into either district, and also have some great food and drink. Colaba is also home to the Gateway of India and the famous Taj Mahal Palace, as well as well known restaurants and bars…which leads me on nicely into food and drink in the city.
Food & Drink
This is where it gets interesting. Before I came to Mumbai I was told to avoid the street food as I’ll possibly get ill; this was not the case. The first thing I ate upon arriving was street food which, priced at 60r, I couldn’t turn down. The many street stalls serve probably a mixture of 15 different types of food and drink, though one thing I noticed was that most of the street vendors are actually found in Fort and Bandra; though there are a few in Churchgate and Colaba.
The food, inevitably, is spicy. Almost anything you get, even if you go for something non-indian (you need a change once in a while) seemed to be a spicier version. Whether you eat chicken, meat, beef (though frowned upon in Mumbai) or just vegetables, there’s that kick to it it; though eventually you do get used to it. The restaurants serve a full range menu for 400r, the street sellers (individual) probably sell around 3 different things tops, but for less than £1, who can complain? Of course, eating all of this food requires something to drink with it, and I’m not talking about water; I’m talking about alcohol. No, I didn’t go out every night and get f**cked, but I did have a few beverages mid to late afternoon, and maybe 1 or 2 late evening before bed. If you are heading out to party in Mumbai, make sure you do it early; most places open at 10am and shut at 1am (there are a few places rumoured to be open all night, but no one I spoke to knew where they were). Beer prices in Mumbai vary between 160r and 360r, though naturally this depends on what you’re drinking.
If you’re on a real sight-seeing mission in Mumbai, then I’d really suggest a few places: the Dharavi Slums, the Laundry, the Harj Ali Mosque, and finally, elephanta island. I also visited the hanging gardens and the temple of silence but thought it was a waste of time; I walked over an hour to get to these places and couldn’t have been less impressed.
If you plan to go to the Dharavi slums you can either take a tour or risk it yourself, and by risk it I mean getting lost; nothing will happen to you until it goes dark. I took the tour option and found it both heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time. The conditions that people live in here are shocking, but nobody is unhappy (or didn’t show it at least).
The slums actually make a lot of money: one example is recycling paint tins then re-selling them back to the paint company. There are recycling plants, leather tanners, schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, and even private schools here; it really is a city inside a city.
The Dhobi Gat is a place that I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to see, but if you’re heading to the Harj Ali Mosque, it’s only a 20 min walk away and is right beside the local train station (the best way to get around). The laundry (which is also seen as a slum) is open air and has hundreds of wash pens. It really is a sight to see but again, if you wish to go inside, I’d suggest a guide (or at least a group of you).
What’s upsetting about the laundry is that you clearly see the harsh divide between rich and poor in Mumbai, I took this pic from just inside the laundry of luxury high rise apartments quite literally looking down on them…
If you got time to spare, head out to Elephanta island. You can get an hours long boat ride from the Gateway in Colaba and pay about 450r for the whole experience. The island has many ancient caves with markings and various sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures. Be careful here though as monkeys are quick to steal food from your hand!
One thing I almost forgot: the Dabbawalas! How could I forget them? There are thousands of these guys who collect hot food from residencies in the morning, deliver the food to work, then pick up the empties and take them back to residencies. If you’re lucky (or just head to church street station around 11:30am) you will see swarms of them running, cycling and hopping on and off trains. They tend to meet outside stations for 10 mins or so before going their separate ways; watching them is both amazing and comical. It was one of a few things I definitely wanted to see and I made sure I did!
Well, all in all I enjoyed my stay in Mumbai; I saw everything I wanted to see, ate what I wanted to eat, and drank what I wanted to drink (I could ramble on for hours and write a short essay on Mumbai, but that’d be too much). I met some really amazing people and had a great time. However, my stay lasted 9 days, when in reality 6 would have been more than enough. I actually had a couple of days where I did very little and really just relaxed and caught up a little bit with life back home, but I think you need that every now and again, don’t you?
Mumbai really was my Gateway to India and I’m sure there are far greater experiences to come. I wrote this post whilst in Goa and, believe me, far more interesting things have happened…
– Type 1 Traveller