Friday, 3 January 2014

Mumbai - Welcome to India

We arrived late in to the night, our flight was yet again an impressive one, and we were greeted by a greedy cabbie and porter. A prepaid taxi stand doesn't work if you can't find the cabs without the paid help of another porter person. In the end though we just wanted to get back and judging by how much pricier the pick up services offered by Mumbai hotels are there is inevitably a downside to cabbing yourself from the airport. Not the friendliest welcome to India, and it was a theme that persisted throughout Mumbai, it isn't the friendliest city, I guess in a similar way to London. Mumbai's charm, however, certainly fell upon us after the initial shock to the system.

We stayed in the pleasant leafy streets of the Colaba area of the city, famous for having the only reasonable budget options and also the most famous and jaw droppingly impressive Taj Mahal palace hotel. We stayed in a couple of budget places, initially Bentleys hotel, a tiny boxy room in a beautiful old colonial house, that was somewhat overpriced and so moved to our first choice that was fully booked on arrival, the great Seashore hotel, just down the road and blessed with satellite tv and a great view across the harbour for almost half the price!

Our first 2 days in Mumbai were spent exploring the surrounding area and booking onward tickets from the magnificent train station Mumbai CST! Probably the most beautiful train station in the world and we were able to book our seats to Hampi and Mysore.

As it's the Christmas period and India's best and most forgiving weather, this period is not only the prime backpacker and tourist season but also the Indians choice time of year to travel. The growing middle class in India has been well publicised and particular in Southern cities growing wealth is clear to see, along with this comes Indians enjoying the beautiful destinations their diverse nation had to offer. Planning in advance has become much more important than our laid back time in Indonesia. It's also worth mentioning that the weather is absolutely perfect, whilst a little muggy in Mumbai elsewhere the nights are cool the days are hot, but a dry sunshine heat, akin to the most reliable Mediterranean summer.

After a day exploring our local vicinity, streets lined with trees and fabulous colonial era houses everywhere, we decided on our second day in the city to take a boat out to Elephanta island. We departed from the landmark Gateway to India and arrived in Elephanta to be greeted by incredible Hindu cave carvings dating back to the 8th century. The Gateway to India, erected for George V arrival into India, is a bustling area of activity. We walked past it quite a few times, and at any time of day it was heaving with people, unsure of what they were actually doing there. Some people were making a business, selling postcards and snacks, or holy men giving out or more likely enforcing blessings upon you, whether you want to be blessed or not, and then demanding money for it.

But back to Elephanta island, legend has it that the Portuguese who found the island and named it Elephanta in the 16C used the amazing carvings of Shiva, Parvati and in particular an iconic Trimurti (three-faced) Shiva as target practice. The caves themselves are also astonishing as they look structural but are natural as you like! An interesting afternoon, a popular place with Indian tourists all wanting a photo. Also of interest on the journey out was other off shore islands housing huge powerplants, one of which is the famous Mumbai nuclear plant we were told. There was a noticeable amount of rubbish in the water floating from Mumbai to the island, which is an hours boat ride away to Mumbai.

Our third day marked the arrival of mother and father Hunter and also our introduction to the upper echelons of Mumbai society in the incredible Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.The Taj is probably the nicest smelling place we have ever been to, a delectable mix of what we thought was perfume, tea, incense, and some other floral aroma that is not too pungent, but lies delicately on your senses and dissuades you to go back into the city, which is more of an 'assault on the senses'.

Afternoon tea at the Taj was delicious and luxurious, quite a change from our usual noodles in any old Warung. Indonesia are not big on deserts or cakes, so indulged in the many many choices of sweets on offer, served buffet style, we had quite a few to say the least! it wasn't just our sweet tooth that was satisfied but also the mixture of Indian and western savoury tasters on offer were also very fine indeed and the actual Darjeeling tea was pretty good too! The staff were impeccable, and for what we got it was very reasonable if you want to delve into something a bit fancy whilst your away (not that we paid)!

The hotel itself is stunningly beautiful inside and out.

The next day was quite the contrast, we went on a tour of Dharavi slum, the second biggest slum in Asia (biggest is in Pakistan) with a population of 1 million and made famous by being the setting for films like Slumdog Millionaire ( the people of Dharavi don't however take too kindly to being likened to a Canine). To be honest we didn't know what to expect and our decision to take the tour was a bit last minute as we'd heard lots about iffy 'slum tourism' but thankfully we went ahead and did it. The tour was run by Reality tours, in association with the NGO Reality Gives, and 80% of the price of the tour goes towards it. Reality gives has a school, which we visited in the slum. They teach IT and English lessons to make people in the slum more employable. They also host female football teams and photography competitions that are made in to the postcards they sell from their base camp in Dharavi. There are no photos from Dharavi as cameras are banned from the tours to ensure the privacy of the people of Dharavi and to ensure the fine line of iffy 'slum tourism' isn't crossed.

Rooftop plastic recycling and a busy lane in Dharavi (photo Reality Gives)

The 'slum' really was nothing like one imagines when they think of what a slum is. Dharavi was a bustling hive of activity, full of industry, accomodation, home made cinemas, shops, markets, CCTV in some places even, and as you explore the narrow alleys and workshops, it became clear that this is a city within a city. Dharavi is also a hub of Indian migration, most of the lower skilled workers here cleaning recycled plastic, making aluminium, cleaning up and reselling paint pots are from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where agriculture is the mainstay and only harvest once a year, as such the workers of UP find work down South in Dharavi. The accomodation situation is therefore increasingly strained as the industry (over $500milliom per annum) from Dharavi continues to grow, workers flock for jobs, and the government continues to ban any properties to build over two stories other than the government built blocks that none of the slum dwellers live in due to the extortionate rent (their redevelopment project is largely considered to have fallen flat on its face).

The impression we got is that although the government won't bulldoze the slum as it holds a million prized voters they are also enforcing a strangle hold on the city within a city to ensure when the time does come for some demolition there are only 2 stories to level. An intriguing situation that seems to be occurring across India over disputes with rudimentary housing built upon 'government land', although in many cases it has been there for several decades and is the livelihoods of many Indians (see our Hampi blog for more, coming when we finally get up to date).

Our time in Mumbai whilst a bit of a shock to the system was actually a great introduction to India! Mumbai seems to fire on all cylinders it's loud, bustling, often quite impolite yet strangely beautiful. 5 days was up and it was time to fly to Goa for some serious luxury, relaxation and family time.

Only 5 days in India and we'd already stumbled in to a full on, out in the street wedding!


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