More on Mumbai

In Mumbai, you find all sorts of contrasts. The very poor, dressed in thin gaudy saris walk next to the wealthy Mumbai elite who emulate western culture with tight jeans and dinner dates at American styled coffee shops. Opulent malls sit side by side with corner cafes and apartment blocks that look ready to fall to pieces.

On our first evening – a Saturday – we head to the beachfront. The sun is sinking behind a cloud of dust and pollution so thick,  that the entire sky appears orange. The beach is packed with locals enjoying the slight breeze off the ocean. Couples sit together on the sand. Families pose for photographs in the small shore waves and hundreds of hawkers stroll the shoreline selling ice cream, kites and balloons.

Yet, even with the volume of people out on the beach and the endless high rise buildings and dirty, narrow roads that lead onto the beach, the atmosphere is fantastic. Everyone seems in good spirits, laughing and chatting. Playing cricket in the sand and taking advantage of a balmy evening as the sun sets.

But, despite the fact that there were a couple of children playing in the surf, I don’t think that I would venture even a toe into the ocean as it is likely filled with rubbish and human filth. It seems quite amazing that in such a wealthy city, (they produce 40% of India’s GDP) everyone still throws their rubbish onto the streets and the rivers run black with filthy, reeking water.

Venturing into Mumbai by train

Staying only about an hour’s train journey from the centre of Mumbai, it seemed like a good idea to jump into the thick of things and take the local train from Andheri station to the popular tourist area of Coloba.

A half hour rickshaw journey takes us through the dusty and busy roads and we find ourselves at the station. Stalls selling fruit, books, clothes and food line the road while rickshaws jostle for customers.

The station looks like it hasn’t changed much in many years. I have never been to a local train station before, and while there are some signs in English, I have no real idea where to go and how to proceed.

But, I join the long, quick moving queue and wait. Suddenly the counter window in front of our queue shuts, and everyone in the queue quickly takes two steps to the right and merges with the next queue. It happened so fast, and somehow I managed to get myself a spot.

Surprisingly quickly, we are at the counter and buy two tickets to Churchgate station. The cost? Rs 16 ( about R1.50 each) for a 30 minute train ride. Public transport in India is very cheap compared to prices elsewhere and is also very efficient. While the Western Railways line in Mumbai didn’t seem particularly modern, the trains run efficiently, on time and make getting around the city very easy.

One of the great things that I notice about the public transport, is that there are concessions made for all sorts of different sectors of society. On the local train, there are “ladies only” coaches ( which was great for us two ladies travelling without a male chaperone!), “senior citizen” only coaches and then, very interestingly, there were also coaches reserved for disabled persons and cancer patients. There is something so special about the layers of respect for different groups of society who they know have a hard time.

On a similar note, throughout India, the people help disabled people by giving alms to the many disfigured and struggling people who ask for money on the roads and at stations. I was terribly embarrassed when, while sitting in a rickshaw waiting for the lights to change, an old disabled man asked for money, and our driver passed us Rs2 to place in his cup! While it is quite disconcerting to be constantly asked for money, mostly by very poor children, I felt so small minded by not giving over a few coins to that old man.

So, we had our tickets and headed to the platform and so began the terrible train trip number one. Being the first time that I had ever negotiated the local train network, I was understandably a bit anxious. Thankfully it was a Sunday and there were not too many people on the station.

But, we were not sure where to sit! We first got aboard the first class coach by mistake, to be told we were on the wrong coach by one of the well dressed ladies sitting there. At this point, I didn’t know that there were ladies only coaches and so we tried to get on the “man’s coach”. Again we were told to head further down the platform and eventually we get to the much busier ladies only coach for the average Indian. I hop on and as I do so… the train begins to move.

This is a scene with all the markings of “holiday gone wrong” moment. My mom was just a step behind me, but the train had already begun to move and next minute, she is hanging on the train railing while myself and another women haul her into the compartment. Someone must have seen something, because the train comes to a stop and a young hawker comes running towards us with the ticket that was dropped in the rush.

That could have ended very, very badly. Somewhat shaken up, we sit done and a woman on the train kindly tells us, “Don’t worry, you never have to run for a train. There will always be another one. Rather wait for the next one than try to get onto the train.” We didn’t know just how frequently the trains departed, but learnt a good lesson. If you miss a local train, just wait for the next one.

In any case, the disaster was avoided and once we were settled we could enjoy the ride. The train we were on was obviously a nice new one. Later train trips in Mumbai were on old, dark and dirty trains where we were crammed into the coaches, and had to watch the stations anxiously to be sure that we got off at the right place. But, for now, we both had somewhere to sit and the stations were announced in Hindi as well as English over the onboard announcement system.

We were on our way to Churchgate – the nearest station to the popular tourist area of Coloba.

In the Thick of Things

Before I arrived in Mumbai I had been given lecture upon lecture about the danger of scammers and dodgy dealers who will accost me as soon as I leave the airport. But, not only are there giant signs all over the airport telling you that you must not go with any taxi other than the government sanctioned prepaid taxis, but there were no hordes. No seething masses standing around outside the airport. If anything, the airport felt far less frenetic than JHB international.

But, at the suggestion of others, I had arranged a car to collect us and take us to the hotel we were staying in just outside Mumbai central near Juhu beach. Ironically, the taxi that fetched us seemed far less professional than the taxis waiting at the airport and ended up costing a fortune in Indian standards.

That said, it is a well known fact that taxi and rickshaw drivers can spot first time visitors to India immediately with their keen eyes. Obviously this is made particularly easy if you have white skin, but even Indian visitors to the city are taken advantage of by the quick thinking drivers looking for a few extra rupees.

As a foreigner, you’re pretty much going to have to get used to paying at least double the metered price. And really, who can blame them? When a taxi would cost a local Rs 15 and you pay Rs 50 – what difference does that really make to you? R3 or R10 split two ways? It seems petty to try and haggle at every turn and sometimes it’s best to let it go. If you think you can afford the price, even if you are getting ripped off by the locals, then why not? After all you are in a hugely overcrowded country with millions of people living on next to nothing each month.

That said, always agree to a fare before getting into any taxi otherwise you might be royally ripped off, which doesn’t feel very pleasant.

Iskcon, Juhu Beach: On the roads of Mumbai
In any case, our polite driver is waiting patiently with a handwritten sign. We spot each other and he quickly walks off towards the dark recesses of the car park and we are hardly able to keep up with him. We feel immediately suspect, especially as this pathway takes us over a drain from which emanates the infamous Mumbai stench – thick, sweet sewage.

And so we stop and wait. Thinking that maybe we should go back and get a prepaid taxi. Suddenly he comes running, gesturing us onwards and we find his air-conditioned car waiting. We get in and I prepare for my first taste of the mayhem of Indian roads.

Again, this is something often talked about by visitors to India. But nothing can quite prepare you for the pace and the perfectly timed squeezes – mere centimetres – as auto rickshaws, taxis, cars, trucks and people weave their way through the streets. It’s an organised chaos. Each individual absolutely confident of the point that their vehicle ends and another begins, and they stop, start, swerve, and scream along the potholed roadways. Hooting constantly. It’s madness. And everyone is Indian. Sitting in the relative luxury of our air-conditioned ferry, rickshaw drivers and passengers stare openly at our pale flesh, so strange amid the beautiful and smooth brown skin of the women and men of Mumbai.

The hotel: Isckon Hare Krishna Temple

The Iskcon Hare Krishna temple, only 5 minutes walk from the beach, was a welcome relief from the hot streets. While the prices are extraordinarily high compared to other Indian hotels, we were glad of the clean, comfortable room and functioning aircon.

As an active temple, there are constantly religious ceremonies taking place in a beautiful and peaceful marble courtyard. “Hare Hare Krishna. Krishna Hare” mingles with the smells of incense, the clanging of bells, the steady beat of drums and the voices of Hare Krishna followers as they pray, dance, sing and clap hands. The vibrant colours of the traditional saris, mix with chains of marigolds and daisies and the orange and white robes of the Hare Krishna gurus.

The old marble courtyard, houses two towering trees, the base of their trunks painted white, creating a peaceful and tranquil space for worship. (While I would have loved to take photos of the temple and the beautiful scenes, unfortunately, most temples in India don’t let you take photographs and I wouldn’t have wanted to insult anyone by going against that request.)

Anything is Possible in India

After a long flight that was largely uneventful my mom and I arrive at Mumbai International airport. It is my first visit to India, and the start of 6 weeks of travelling.
Not quite knowing what to expect, we walk down a maroon carpeted hallway. The air is musty and moist and we’re the only foreigners in sight. Although, waiting in the nearby departures hall, you could make out a number of pale faces waiting for their flights out of this bustling and confusing city.

Almost immediately we are faced with our first encounter with Indian bureaucracy. During the short stopover in Dubai, I decided to buy myself a netbook (an HP Mini) to drag around the country with me. Stupidly, I kept it in its big snazzy box and thought it would be fine to simply waltz through the “nothing to declare line” as it wasn’t very expensive. Not to be. A stern looking uniformed officer quickly notices the Dubai duty free packet…. and now we’re in trouble.

It seems as though I am going to have to pay duties. Back and forth we go, “How much I ask,” “Mmm” says the serious officer, “Rs12000” (about R2000). My heart sinks. The wonderful savings from buying the netbook at Dubai were fading fast.

Sigh. So I say “How does that work?” The officer tries to show me some sums on a piece of paper. But I am still somewhat lost. Apparently you can bring in Rs8000. So he deducts the 8000 from my total and calculates 36% duties. “Oh dear,” I say, “I will have to draw money.” So off I scamper to the ATM while my mother waits behind. And while I struggle to figure out the touch screen ATM – it took me a very long time to figure out it was a touch screen – she starts chatting to a senior female officer.

When I eventually return, the entire tone has changed. Now the officer is suddenly asking questions, “Where you staying?”, “Are you mother and daughter?” Yes we say. And suddenly, with a subtle and gentle nod, the officer waves us through.

And off we go! Cultural introduction no.1 complete – nothing is set in stone in India. In fact, wherever you go in India, people will tell you “Anything is possible in India.”