Today we left for our trip to India. We stayed up until 4 am packing and making last minute preparations, and then after a fairly short sleep we were on our way. On the plane we were sitting beside John, an Australian who works on ski lift maintenance in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. He was an interesting (and highly talkative) guy, and kept us occupied for many hours. We also slept quite a lot (trying to make early headway against our jetlag), ate several meals (which, since this was Singapore Airlines, were surprisingly good--we even got real espresso), and watched a movie (on our own private screens, with the ability to pause and rewind--cool!).
We stopped briefly in Seoul, which was a non-event except that it got us walking around, and it was neat to be in Seoul. Then we continued on to Singapore. There we were being put up for free in a hotel by Singapore Airlines. (For some reason, they offer a free stay in a four-star hotel to anyone with a stopover of six hours or longer.) The transfer to and from the hotel took several hours, and we had to return to the airport in plenty of time; nevertheless, it was pretty nice to sleep in a real bed for four hours and to take a shower.
Another six hours in a plane and we made it to Mumbai. The first shock was the airport--it looked like it ought to be serving a sleepy little town, not a city of 17 million, and indeed there weren't too many people there. For some security reason they had to x-ray every bag individually, so it took us a really long time to get our luggage. (Afterwards, though, a policeman pulled us out of the security line, saving us maybe half an hour, clearly because we were foreigners.) The next challenge was to get some money. This turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I expected. There was a bank machine, but it did not accept international cards. I left Jude behind in the secure area (if I hadn't, neither of us would have been able to get back in). Then I hiked to a second terminal, where there was another ATM from a different bank. However, it also had the same problem. It looked like we would need to change some of our emergency cash reserves, not a good way to start off. However, in the meantime Jude had befriended Colin, an Irish guy on a year-long round-the-world adventure. He wanted to share a cab with us, and didn't mind if we waited until getting into the city to pay him back.
The ride to the city was incredibly slow. The road averaged about three lanes of traffic in each direction; however, cars paid no attention to the number of lanes and just squeezed beside each other whenever possible. There were also all kinds of pedestrians on the road, including beggars and people selling things (pirated books, window shades, etc). There were many places where the road appeared to be under construction (though nobody was working in these places--they were just pits at the edge of the road, etc). Thus the average traffic speed was about 20 km/h. In the end, it took us about an hour and a half to get to our destination, though the trip was no further than airports in Toronto or Vancouver.
We kept waiting to get to the downtown part, but it never came, though eventually there were a few tall buildings. Mumbai seems mostly to consist of densely packed 2-4 storey buildings, separated by narrow streets and alleys filled with rubble, garbage, stray dogs and cats, and endless people. All around there are sidewalk stands selling food or almost anything else, beggars sleeping on the sidewalks, taxis waiting around, and pedestrians spilling out onto the street. There were obvious signs of affluence--large billboards for luxury goods, people on cellphones, fancy cars--but very little infrastructure. Everything seems dirty, under construction, overwhelmed with people, 20 or more years old. I was expecting an "Asian tiger" city like Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok, but Mumbai is nothing like these. Of cities I've been to it's most like Phnom Penh, but it's what I expect a big city in sub-Saharan Africa would look like.
Our taxi let us off by a hotel that we'd phoned from Canada; they'd been full but had put us on the waiting list. We arrived to discover that there didn't even seem to be *be* a waiting list, and they were still full. We'd succeeded in making a reservation at a second place, and so we walked there (still with Colin). Along the way we picked up a "guide" that we couldn't get rid of, despite our increasingly confrontational insistence that he leave us alone. The second place was also full, despite our phone reservation So then we walked back to a place we'd seen along the way and knew had room. Our "guide" (who was *really* annoying us at this point) tried to claim a commission from the hotel for leading us, but we insisted that we'd found the hotel on our own, and eventually drove him away. We settled into rooms that were grungy but adequate, and even had air conditioning and hot water. We then set out to find our bank machine, and after three tries got one that accepted an international card. This let us pay back Colin at last, and we went to a restaurant to celebrate with some food and beer. After a couple of hours we returned to the room to drop off some gear, but ended up falling asleep.
After a few hours asleep, we realized that if we didn't get up we'd never beat our jetlag. So we hauled ourselves up, and wandered the streets. (By now it was 7 PM and dark.) There were still lots of people around, though in the absence of a city center I kept worrying that we'd wander down an alley and end up in the middle of nowhere. Looking at the map afterwards, though, we were walking through one of the most central parts of downtown, passing a UNESCO heritage cite, the Mumbai stock exchange, etc. I can't get over how run-down, temporary and broken everything looks. We stumbled on a big cathedral where a Christmas carol service was being held, so we ducked in. Unfortunately, after we had sung one carol the service ended, so after looking over the church (built in the late 1600s by the British) we headed back out onto the street. More wandering, and eventually we stopped for dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant. (These appear to be quite common.) Then, we headed back to the room, spent some time unpacking and organizing our stuff, and I wrote this entry. It's now nearly 11 PM, and while I'm very proud to have withstood my jetlag for so long (it's after 9 AM in Vancouver!) I'm ready for bed...
Today we woke up after a 10 or 11 hour sleep feeling rested and ready to explore Mumbai. Everything looked better in the sunlight, and with the shops open. First we went to an espresso bar we'd discovered the day before and had a real cup of coffee. Then we went to the Gate of India, the place where the British first landed in Mumbai, marked by an Indian version of the Arc de Triomph. It was a Sunday, the Indian holiday/family day, so there were lots and lots of people there, mostly Indians. I had lots of fun taking pictures of people--because there were so many cameras out, I didn't feel too conspicuous. I also discovered that I really enjoy having the huge zoom I got with my new camera, as I'm able to take good pictures of people from much farther away. Even so, I'm still getting used to using the camera, so I blew a bunch of shots that would have been good.
Later, we went on a big walking tour of downtown. (In the end, we probably walked 15-20 km.) We began by walking through the area that we explored the previous night (the "fort" district), and while it's still hard to believe that the stock market has a dirt road and stray dogs in front of it, again everything left a better impression than it had the day before. Again I amused myself with taking pictures; by the end of the day I had about 120, after having taken twice that number and then deleting bad ones. We spent quite a while trying to find a restaurant for lunch, but it was quite difficult as everything was closed on Sunday. Eventually we found a very up-market all-vegetarian place, and ordered two different thali meals. Unlike Indian restaurants I've been to in North America, they gave us empty plates and bowls and then kept coming around with different things, including free refills. However, it was a tremendous amount of food, and though we'd begun feeling extremely hungry, it wasn't long before we were stuffed!
Next, we walked west towards the sea on the other side of the peninsula. We saw the Bombay University, which is a really pretty gothic campus that reminds me of pictures I've seen of Cambridge, England. Then we crossed a huge greenway that was the size and shape of the Washington Mall, on which about 100 simultaneous cricket games were being played. Jude was self-conscious here, because we didn't see a single other woman; however, there didn't seem to be an explicit rule against women walking through. She did get a lot of stares and a few whistles, etc., but this seems to be standard everywhere in India.
We then walked through a nice student housing district, and eventually came out on a causeway along the west end of the peninsula. We walked south to the bottom, and then retraced our steps and proceeded north to Chowpatty beach. This had a sort of Santa Cruz feeling, only without much development and with no rides. There were lots of people sitting on the sand; we (finally) got some water--we were parched after the long walk in the heat. We watched the sunset and then came to a huge Lutheran prayer meeting with a lively (Hindi) preacher, singers and dancers, etc. We watched for a little while, and on the way out made a donation to AIDS education for children. (There are huge numbers of beggars, mostly children and mostly darker skinned like Tamils--presumably the lower caste "untouchables"? They come up to cars at red lights, accost people on the street, and in some cases have followed us for as much as five minutes as we walked along. I don't feel comfortable giving them money, as I think it encourages even more begging and probably in many cases doesn't go to the child anyway. But thus we were very happy to find a charity.)
We took a taxi back to our "neighborhood" with the intention of seeing a movie at the local theatre. We arrived to find it sold out and a complete zoo, but bought a ticket for the following show. Then we had some downtime--sat in a cafe drinking tea for a while; went to an internet cafe. We returned to the theatre, and discovered that the movie, which had been advertised entirely in English, was in fact 90% in Hindi. (The movie was "Kabul Express", about journalists in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell. The posters and initial narration were English, but then nearly all the characters--the Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans--spoke Hindi. Only the American characters spoke English.) Despite the fact that we couldn't understand much dialog, we could mostly follow the story; also the cinematography was excellent. Still, when the intermission came an hour and a half in, we took our opportunity and left! We hadn't had a chance to eat dinner, and weren't especially hungry anyway because of the huge thali for lunch. Nearly everything was closed, but I found an open McDonalds. It was an interesting experience--half of what they served was vegetarian, and they had a sign on the wall saying that they used no beef or beef products. I had a paneer wrap!
This was our final day in Mumbai. We'd hoped to take a boat trip to an interesting nearby island, but it turned out not to be possible on Monday, so we went for a walk in the city instead. It has turned out that each day we've gone roughly to the same place as the previous day, but then gone farther. This time we headed north through the fort, and continued north through a series of markets we hadn't seen before. We did a bit of shopping; prices were, not too surprisingly, cheaper than in the tourist district where we're staying. We saw Victoria Station, a really beautiful gothic train station with gargoyles and all kinds of decorations, and the old post office, which looks sort of like the Taj Mahal, with domes and spires.
we went looking for a little neighborhood (wadi) in the middle of
the city that Lonely Planet says is worth seeing. They warned that
it is hard to find; indeed it is, not least because the map they
provide doesn't label names for most of the streets (and also very
few of the streets themselves are labelled), making it pretty
difficult to determine one's exact location. We tried navigating
for a while, after
Then we cut west, and ended up back at Chowpatty beach. This time we continued north, and followed the coast up to a richer residential district. We thought it might provide an interesting contrast, but what it really was was (dingy) high-rise buildings with security guards. The apartments themselves had views of the sea, but we couldn't see anything from the road. As usual there was only an intermittent sidewalk, so we were always dodging the (slow-moving) traffic and listening to the honking of horns. At least the road was narrow so the traffic mostly kept to a single lane!
Eventually we came to the end of the road, which was a Parsi temple on a point overlooking the sea. This temple was closed to visitors, though (as we'd been warned by LP). We doubled around a different way, and came upon the highlight of our day: Bananga, an ancient stone pool surrounded by Hindu temples. It was peaceful--no traffic; we were mostly left along--no hawkers or beggars; and the people were very friendly and interested to see us. Also, the area was very photogenic. We went down to the sea, which was beautiful with the sun setting, but the seashore was disgusting--an enormous pile of garbage. It's hard to understand how people could live right beside that their whole lives and not be seized by the urge to take a day with a shovel and a wheelbarrow and clean it all up. We then went exploring the temples, which were very pretty. A friendly security guard showed us around the inside of a small Hindu temple, which was basically a large open space (much like the Buddhist temples we saw in southeast Asia) with white marble statues of gods (Krishna, Ganesh, Vishnu) in alcoves. By then it was getting dark, so we hopped in an auto-rickshaw (the Indian term for a tuk-tuk) and went back to our hotel.
After freshening up, we went to the Taj Mahal Hotel by the Gate of India. This had been a favourite spot of Jude's grandmother; in fact, she and her grandfather had met working in a hospital in Bombay during the second world war. Apparently she once saw a naval battle in the Bombay harbour from the hotel bar. Since she passed away earlier this year, Jude wanted to have a drink in that same bar in her honour. This we did, though it turned out to be vastly the most expensive drink we'll ever have in India. We each had a gin and tonic (Granny's favourite), and they ran almost $20 each, or totalling more than our hotel!