Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mumbai Madness

(The following article was published on TouristAttitude on the 28th of January, 2011. Click here to check it out)

The Gateway of India is a very somber location in the early hours of the morning. The touts and tourists are no more, leaving just the roaming street dogs in their place, alongside a few misguided bats. The canines are of a friendly nature here, and act more like they've jumped over a back fence, rather than lived their lives on the street. Although the memory of being chased through Kolkata's dark streets by a pack of wild dogs is anything but forgotten, I make firm friends with one dog, who seems particularly enamored with my blue pen, leaving behind bite marks that tell the same tale. The opposite of camera shy, she was also very fond of licking my camera lens.

TA - Mumbai Madness
The air is sweet and sultry, a humid mix of spices and incense that is unmistakably Indian. This is the best time of day to explore Mumbai, as not only do you have the streets to yourself, the heat is yet to reign supreme. As sunlight returns, so too do the people, and much to my delight there is a chai-wallah among the early worms! As I sit down and sip my first chai of the day, I watch an elderly woman do her morning exercises, which for some reason involves a lot of clapping. She wears a light pink sari, heavy gold jewelery and a smile that is far too bright for 7am.

Without nearly enough time for a return trip to Elephanta Island before i'm due back at the airport, I decide to check out Dharavi - the largest slum in all of Asia. It's also where many scenes from 2008's Slumdog Millionaire were shot. The slum is like a town within a town. There are vendors, businesses, and an overflowing amount of garbage. There's even a river of trash, which has clogged up the stream and allowed no water to pass.

TA - Mumbai Madness
Away from the business sector of town and into the residential enclave, the mood shifts suddenly. There is laughter abound, and alongside colorful saris and immaculately pressed shirts, the people wear broad smiles. Perhaps this is due to the abundance of shade found in the many walkways (the buildings here are built so close together, it's as if they overlap. This is not the ugly and desperate place I'd envisioned. Like the majority of India I have seen, the people are proud, loud and overflowing with life.
TA - Mumbai Madness

Mumbai is to India what NYC or Los Angeles is to the USA. People come from all over the country, in search of their slice of the pie. While it may be home to the thriving Bollywood cinema industry, people come for reasons besides a career in the limelight. For the majority of new residents, Dharavi is the first place they call home within the sprawling city. Like a microcosm of the subcontinent, Dharavi offers visitors passing through India, a taste of what the rest of the country has to offer.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Manic Mumbai

After many (16) hours on a bus and many more in transit, I find myself in India's most populous city - Mumbai (aka Bombay). Home to the thriving Bollywood cinema industry, as well as the nation's emerging financial strengths, Bombay is a great place to soak up modern India.

The city has a tropical climate, with warm balmy winters and horrendously hot summers. It feels like a big city too, with huge buildings, billboard advertisements, countless apartment blocks and a frantic frenzy that only comes with too many people and too little space. In terms of population, it is the second largest city in the world with around 15 million residents.

Compared to other metro centres like Kolkata or Delhi, the streets are remarkably clean and litter-free, although still not immaculate. You needn't look hard too hard to find rubble or refuse. For the most part though, especially in the city's southern district, the streets are swept clean and green growth is abundant. While some may refer to it as a concrete jungle, Mumbai is a city of trees. There's the coconut and palm trees that line Chowpatty beach, to the long limbed fellows who line the city streets. There's also plenty of public parks and gushing gardens, patronized by those escaping the searing heat, and young lovers averting an unwelcome gaze.

For something a little different, check out the Parsi cemetery while you're in town. Although it's strictly off limits to all tourists, a good cab driver will drive you to a lookout spot where you can have a cheeky peek over the fence. Instead of being dressed in their Sunday best and lowered underground in a wooden box, the Parsi people leave the dead bodies in the open, and at the mercy of local wildlife. A tradition that i'm told by my cabbie, is 'thousands of years strong.' 

To get around Mumbai, you have a lot of options. The train network is well developed and efficient, although a little hot when overcrowded. People push and shove too, so enjoy your cup of hot chai elsewhere, unless you'd rather wear it. The heat can make walking long distances a little tiring, so many travelers opt to hire a taxi for half a day at around 400 rupees. Although this figure isn't fixed, and with heavy bargaining you could probably get it done for 300 or less. The Gateway of India is arguably the city's biggest landmark, and undoubtedly the most photographed. It's swamped with tourists day and night, although you may just have it to yourself at the crack of dawn, if you're lucky. It's big, it's beautiful and although a little bit cliche - you've got to check it out. The surrounding harbor is worth a peek too, and if you can afford it, the Taj Mahal hotel which is adjacent to the monument, defines Indian luxury.

You won't go hungry in Mumbai, with street stalls and vendors selling regional specialties, as well as snacks from all over India. Vada Pav is an example of authentic street food, not to mention a surviving relic of the Bombay of old. Known locally as an 'Indian burger,' it consists of a curried potato puff, topped off with some fiery chutney sauce and served in a white bread bun. Although simple, it's a delicious and addictive treat which is served everywhere (especially at train stations and beaches) for about 4 rupees, or $0.10c USD. Pronounce it 'waa-dah parv' to avoid confusement.

Cafe Leopold is a Bombay institution, even without vada pav on the menu. Famous for decades with tourists, and for over a century with locals, it came back into the limelight as a popular hangout for ex-pats and small time criminals in the novel Shantaram. It was also sprayed with bullets by gunmen during the 2008 Mumbai Terrorist attacks. Established in 1871, it's undoubtedly overpriced and frequently overcrowded, but Leopold's is still a fine place to sit down for lunch and people watch. 'Bombay Masala Sandwich' is a cheesy curry sandwich, that tastes better than it should (or sounds).

 It's especially crowded at night, so thirsty travelers should probably consider finding a smaller bar to sink a few after sunset. I found myself in the equivalent of an Indian strip club, just a couple of streets over. It was like any other strip club in that the ladies were standing while the men were sitting (and leering). The smell of cheap perfume, vapid expressions and downright seediness must be universal, but the similarities stopped there.

The women were dressed in elaborate saris, beautiful jewelery and caked on make-up. They didn't dance though, but merely stood in a line, exchanging a scowl for a smile whenever eye contact was made. Men would beckon a single lady towards them, rewarding their beauty with a bundle of rupees. There was no dancing, or removal of clothes, and somehow this made it seem all the more shallow to me. The girls were given money purely for their looks, nothing else. Waiters wearing formal attire served the guests liquor and peanuts at inflated prices, while I just scratched my head absent-mindedly, lost again in yet another strange world.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Mind-bending Manali

The bus ride from Shimla to Manali, is a perfect example of passing through hell in order to get to heaven. I've been on some terrible bus journeys in my life (Bangkok to Siem Reap anyone?), but this ranks high among them - perhaps #1! The seats are cramped, air flow is minimum and this stretch of forever winding road has an insatiable appetite for motion sickness. It happens quickly. A passenger will stick their head out the window, as if looking for something, before vomiting heavily. The splashback factor often results in spray and splutter reaching even the last window on the bus. Nobody is spared the carnage and through specks of spew, the mountainous scenery is somewhat spoiled :P

With low speed monotony (260km = 11hrs), and a lack of any suspension whatsoever, time becomes nothing but a concept, passing which is impossible. At around 2.30am after four hours of silence and darkness on board, the driver having returned from a triumphant restroom stop, decides to blast Hare Krishna music. The recording sounds as if it's 50 years old, yet the elderly singer screeching at the top of her lungs is anything but feeble. Nobody on board dares to say anything, but simply toss and turn with impatience. There's a sense of silent frustration all round, but as I can never sleep on buses anyway, my sympathy is non-existent (welcome to my world). After forty minutes of what feels like the same song on repeat, the surrounding madness engulfs me and I'm no longer able to stifle uproarious laughter. I get a few frazzled looks, but it's clear to me that everyone else missed the joke. Where else but India?!

A budding local crop =D
While the journey may be exhausting, rest assured - it's worth it. Once you step off the bus you'll lose all negativity, as well as any prior sense of significance, when you first look at the surrounding scenery. Instead of nearby towns like Shimla, where the town is built in to and on top of the mountain, Manali is situated between the mountains, making the frosty foothills of the Himalayas stand out even further. Right off the bat - Manali does the unthinkable :)

Famous for more than just great hash, Manali is famed for being an adventure sport capital. On any given day (weather permitting) the offerings include; paragliding, trekking, mountain biking and white water rafting. If you find yourself staring at the impressive mountain scenery for long enough, you might just spot some of the many 'gliders' who frequent these parts. Paragliding is a remarkably affordable activity in nearby Solang Valley, with prices determined by the flight's duration ($10 - $50 USD).

Anyone can paraglide, it's done as a double act, with a tandem pilot operating the controls.You can just switch your thoughts off, and hope for the best! We set off at a running pace, stumbling frequently on both large rocks and small boulders underfoot.
"Run! No stop, no matter what!" yells Raju, my 'co-pilot.' Running on thin air is a tough act, but something you'll have to master when paragliding. The surrounding landscape is stunning, looking like a mix of Lord of the Rings and the National Geographic channel. There are snow-capped Himalayan mountains, with the foreground comprised of tall pine trees.

It happens in an instant, one which I thought would land me face first in a heap on the ground. There's an overwhelming feeling of bliss the moment your ascent begins, perhaps due to the stress and tension felt only moments earlier. Soaring like a bird through a picturesque mountain valley, my head is at long last empty of thoughts. I am at peace with the world.

Closer to the ground, but still terrifying in its own way is white water rafting. In a taxi on my way to the nearby town of Kullu, I spot a sign by the side of the road offering rafting trips. I notice a couple more so I ask my driver how easy it would be to do, he stops the car immediately in an excited manner, and before we even negotiate a price, he happily appoints himself as my official photographer.

The captain of my raft, or 'pilot' as he liked to be called, is definitely of the Kamikaze variety. He chooses to plummet over waterfalls for the hell of it. We nearly flip the raft several times, and as such, collective gasps and sighs of relief were common among crew members. We manage to avoid falling out of the boat, but walk away drenched as if we'd swam the 7km journey, rather than paddled through it.

The key to enjoying Manali is to escape the new and embrace the old - quite literally. Old Manali is only 2kms from Manali's bus stand, but a world away in every respect. Come at the right time of year (October) and you'll find you almost have the place to yourself, save for a few other like minded westerners. Even the locals seem to pack up and leave around this time of the year, but there exists a small window of opportunity for Manali perfection. You can still find all the adventure sports, as well as local horticultural products - just at heavily discounted rates!

* An edited version of this article was published on TouristAttitude, click here to check it out.