Sunday, 4 October 2009

What a difference a day makes...

So we're here... and goddam is it hot! The first thing that hits you in Mumbai is the heat. Mumbai is seriously humid. Like being wrapped in a hot damp blanket from the minute you leave the airport. Everyone who's ever been to Mumbai tells you that its big, smelly, dirty and fairly intense, and from the first twenty minutes in the cab on the way to the hotel, we were both pretty sure that everyone was right. The road we took from the airport was a fairly stark introduction to Indian city life, with rubbish and dogs everywhere and, as our eyes accustomed to the dark outside, people, sleeping on the sides of the roads in amongst it too. We were both pretty happy to get to the hotel and clearly a drink was in order!

Located in a somewhat strange position alongside a half built overhead train track or flyover (we couldn't quite tell), The Midland hotel is a fairly modest affair which belies its grand description on the website (not surprising considering "Mumbai Plumbing Center" 100 yards away was basically a shed), but the room was cool and clean and the staff were friendly and more than happy to point us in the direction of a beer at 2am. The "Bar" turned out to be down an alley with some more dogs and a moody looking security guard with a nitestick outside, and as the porter led us through the dark with his torch, we both wondered whether in fact we did actually really want a drink at all. Two large kingfishers in however, and all was fine. It was just us, 3 drunk guys in suits, the owner and some vintage Bollywood on vintage wooden telly, but a few jokes and some snacks did the job, and we were ready to crash.

Now, Aircon, it seems varies wildly in its definition and quality in India. While the nice chap who picked us up from the airport had in his car what I would consider to be Aircon, the room at the Midland had more what I would consider to be a cross between an early prototype fridge freezer and Harrier Jump Jet - which at times during the night sounded like it was going to take off. By the time we'd finally got some sleep we were both woken by the sound of "the morning", which in Mumbai horns. Like the Italians, Indians are clearly of the opinion that the horn is the most important feature on a car. Even after the hour long taxi ride into Colaba in Mumbais old town we were still not quite sure whether the driver was using the horn for any particular reason or whether he just liked hearing the sound of it every 6 seconds...

Driving into central Mumbai is an experience in itself. God only knows what kind of loon would attempt it in a hire car. Tellingly, a large number of the taxis have no wing mirrors. 3 lane carriageways hold 5 lanes of cars with adjacent vehicles literally so close at times we were practically touching. It is crazy - cars, taxis, buses, autorickshaws and bovine led carts all jostle for position and yet no one lost their temper or appeared to even prang another vehicle. On route our driver, who we named Flyover King (on account of his excitement about telling the name and build date of every flyover we passed) got pulled over by the police and hassled for several notes, which he assured us is more than normal for them to do randomly if they decide they fancy some extra pocket money. Already we were getting the impression that Mumbai ranked fairly high on the crazy scale, and this was compounded only further by the bizarre visual spectacle of watching it litterally emerge from the smog on the other side of the bay like a ghost city as our taxi made its way accross the Sealink bridge onto the peninsula...

On arrival to our hotel in Colaba (which thankfully had aircon that didn't sound like it was built by Lockhead Martin), we decided to head out and do some exploring. Almost immediately you're in the thick of it; stalls of every kind and guys trying to grab your attention. We decided to head for some food and a drink to acclimatise. The guide books all list the main bars in the area, but one seems to be the most popular; Leopolds - this appears to be in no small measure due to the exposure it got from featuring heavily in Shantaram - the famous novel based predominantly in Mumbai. We heard several people mention the books name and clearly the waiters play on its notoriety with tourists too. Sam pointed out that it was nothing like in reality the way it was described in the book, but then its clear that's the case with Mumbai as a whole! We sank some beers, got some useful info from the chatty waiters, watched a man on a stall play football with a live rat then headed off to check out the bay and its sites.

Twenty four hours and two very tasty (and ridiculously cheap) meals later at some of the small local cateens off Colaba Causeways side streets, and we were starting to settle into things a little more. We'd sorted our Indian SIM cards and managed to navigate the booking of our tickets to Udaipur at Victoria Station, so decided to head off for another walkabout and a Thali at a interesting smelling little cafe we'd passed earlier, which turned out to be excellent - and even better they said they would make us up a Thali lunchbox for our train journey the next day.

Mumbais old town, whilst being a fascinating place for people watching if you can grab a quiet(ish) spot and containing some interesting architecture, is not particularly somewhere you'd want to spend all day wandering round. This is due in part simply to the humidity and to also the sheer density of people everywhere you turn. As a tourist in a town where everyone wants your money and navigating your way through busy streets with cars that have little to no regard to traffic signs, it can be a bit full on. Thankfully, there are lots of interesting cafes, bars and restaurants to punctuate things, although cold beer was not on the menu today as it's Gandhi's birthday and hence a national holiday where alcohol is not served as a mark of respect. We found this out after heading into Cafe Mondegar (another of Mumbais famous bars), so ordered a Coke. A beer would have been good after a few hours wandering the city, but it was worth it to see the looks of total disbelief on the faces of the party of Aussy lads who piled on to the table next to us and ordered 4 pitchers of Kingfisher only to be told not only did they not serve any beer today, all the off licences in the city were shut too and they would have to wait until tomorrow. They didn't cry, but I think they wanted to.

So, Mumbai has been a real eyeopener and a fascinating introduction to urban India. As a first destination its undoubtedly on the more challenging side of things - particularly the slum areas, but definitely worth it. Tomorrow we leave for Udaipur via Ahmedabad and get our first taste of the legendary Indian railways...

View our pics here
India 1 - Mumbai


  1. Air Con you big puff!

  2. I wonder how long it will take you to get bored of Curry! Hels x

  3. Hi love Sammie its your Auntie Janet here, looks like you are both having a fantastic time! love seeing all the photo,s. have fun & takecare. xx