"This is important blessing for your journey in India. I tie this as protection and now you eat this." The man shoved something white and hard into my left hand, and then grabbed my right wrist and proceeded to tie cheap waxy red yarn around it before I could process what was happening.
"EAT!!!" His face was inches from mine as he yelled, a little of the blue painted line down his forehead flaking off as his forehead wrinkled. So, you guessed it...
I ate some white powdery hard thing that a complete stranger with brightly colored markings painted on his face shoved in my hand on the streets of Mumbai, having no idea what it was nor who this person could be. Justin looked at me wide-eyed as I chewed, his own hands in the grasp of my assailant's partner as his red yard was applied. After acquiescing to their demands for cash, we suddenly found ourselves once again alone, staring at each other in bewilderment.
"You just ATE something that man handed you!" Justin squeaked out.
"I totally just ate something white and powdery that a stranger in a new country handed me. Oh. My. God. I am the least savvy traveler ever." And then we burst out laughing. Because, really, what else were two sweaty jet-lagged people to do in the shadow of the Gateway to India after 30 hours of travel, almost zero sleep, and having just committed about 647 travel faux pas in a record 35 seconds.
A few minutes later we were joined by Eshwari, a bubbly 19 year old college student that we booked through Mumbai Magic Tours to guide us through an overview of Mumbai. While I may not be much of a tour person generally, I think that they can often serve as a great place to begin, especially if your time in a place is limited. In our case, we had less than 36 hours in Mumbai and knew we'd be jet-lagged, exhausted, and potentially overwhelmed as this was our first experience in India. We wanted to get a sense of the city and its history and felt like the best way to do that was to spend a few hours with someone who called it home. We were attracted to the Mumbai Local tour because we'd be able to both walk much of the city as well as take some of the public transportation and we liked that the company is owned by a woman and utilizes students as guides.
We weren't disappointed. We had Eshwari all to ourselves and she was wonderfully forthright in her answers to our questions as we made our way past universities and cricket fields, to the famed Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry, through the marketplace, and to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Station). We stopped for lunch and feasted on dahi batata puri and paneer lifafa while sipping coconut punch and sugarcane juice with fresh ginger and finishing with sticky, scrumptious jalebi dripping with honey and slivered almonds. She laughingly told us about her obsession with the American boy band One Direction and of her dreams to become a licensed Indian tour guide and to travel to Bali. When the tour was finished, there were hugs all around and we jumped in a cab to head back to our hotel.
Driving in India is an utterly amazing experience. We realized the following day in Delhi that auto-rickshaws (also called tuk-tuks) were our absolute favorite way to get around, but even cab rides were fantastic. The cacophony of horns, the Tetris-like maneuvering of vehicles moving to fill any open space, the sheer variety of vehicles from work trucks ornately painted in primary colors to horse-drawn carts to bicycle rickshaws to motorcycles and scooters. We couldn't get enough. We grew especially fond of the motorcycles as entire families raced by with mom's colorful sari flapping behind her and the day's groceries perched precariously on her lap alongside a child or two.
We'd been warned that the sounds and smells of the city would be overwhelming, but as we wound our way through the muggy night on narrow, crowded streets, I felt nothing but intrigue at the assault on my senses. The scents of cooking and spice followed by human waste followed by the sweetness of a bakery followed by garbage decay followed by the strong perfume of the floral markets…there was an intensity to each one that is markedly absent from my sanitized western world and I couldn't help but wonder if my corner of the world wasn't missing out on something for the lack. Even the less-than-pleasant smells didn't dismay me. I felt energized by the sense of humanity living out lives all around me and there was a sort of visceral frankness to that living that I found refreshing in an intense sort of way.
As our first full day in India drew to a close, we fell exhausted into our bed at 7:00pm local time, anticipating the next day's travel to Delhi and the prospect of an overnight train ride to the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. I was already in love with the sub-continent, despite my adventures eating candy given me by painted strangers on the streets!
While I don't have a great deal of logistics to share with you as our exploration of Mumbai was quite limited, here are a few details in case you find them helpful as you plan your own journey:
- We stayed at the Oriental Aster Hotel in Mumbai. Definitely not luxury accommodations, but it was clean and comfortable and the staff was absolutely wonderful. We appreciated that they offered a complimentary shuttle service from the airport (our flight arrived just after 10:00pm local time) so that we didn't have to deal with the logistics of locating our hotel after 30+ hours of travel. We were greeted at the front desk with mango juice garnished with chia seeds and every request was met with prompt and cheerful service. Amenities include an in-house restaurant, in-room WiFi, 24-hour room service, and currency exchange at the front desk. Premium rooms are approximately Rs 6, 458 (about $100 USD) per night. `
- We took the Mumbai Local tour with Mumbai Magic Tours. We booked and paid for the tour online ahead of time and everything except the gratuity to our guide, Eshwari, was included. We were really glad that we booked this and felt like the tour was thorough and informative and gave us the necessary overview to someday explore the city in more depth on our own. Well worth the Rs 2000 (about $30 USD) per person. Some of the sights included on the tour were:
- Gateway to India: the monument was built in 1924 under the British Raj to commemorate a visit by King George V and Queen Mary in 1911.
- Regal Circle: this intersection is the starting point of the Kala Ghoda Art Precinct and houses an impressive number of galleries and museums. It is also adjacent to the luxurious Parsi apartments and home to the famous Regal Cinema.
- Watson's Hotel: this once grand hotel is the oldest cast-iron building in Mumbai and has fallen into disrepair. Despite the warnings of structural danger, it now houses a large number of lawyer's offices!
- Mani Bhavan: served as the headquarters of Gandhi's political activities from 1917 through 1934 and is now a museum dedicated to his honor
- Dhobi Ghat: this famous outdoor laundry is where the laundry from all of Mumbai's hotels and hospitals are washed in the large concrete bins. This photo essay tells more of the story and this film is a Bollywood story including a Dhobi (washerman) from the famed laundry
- Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Station): a UNESCO world heritage site, this historic railway station is grand in its gothic revival architecture
- Taxis were easy to find and we generally spent around Rs300 (about $5 USD) per trip between our hotel and the historic downtown area of the city
- A few things on our list to do next time we find ourselves in Mumbai:
- Take a stroll down Chowpatty beach, especially if we can get there to take part in the famed Ganesha Chaturthi festival
- Visit the Bhuleshwar neighborhood and it's many temples and markets
- Buy masala at Mirchi Galli and Lalbagh, old spice markets in the heart of Mumbai
- Photograph the bustle at Sassoon Docks, the oldest fish market in Mumbai
- Eat, eat, eat our way from one end of Mumbai to the other, focusing on the street vendors and eating bhelpuri, vada pav, panipuri, and dosas until we can't stand it, all washed down with sugarcane juice and topped off with a gola!
How about you guys? Have any of you spent time in Mumbai? What did we miss? Anything we should see or eat or experience next time?