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.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa! 15 million?! That's just mind-blowing to an Aussie like me ...

    But the vada pav makes it sound so worthwhile!!

    Have a great weekend!