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The final stop on our tour of southern India was the city of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Made famous in the western consciousness by the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in the world. One part Hollywood, one part Europe, and one part complete destitution, Mumbai was certainly a place that challenged our expectations.
Our train arrived in the early morning so again we had the opportunity to see an Indian city slowly awaken from its slumber. It was still dark when we arrived to look for a hotel, and we gingerly stepped over dozens of people sleeping on the sidewalks in the temperate spring air. After finding a place to stay, we headed out for a walking tour of Mumbai.
Mumbai City Walk
Our first impression of Mumbai was that the architecture is amazing. Strongly influenced by its colonial heritage, Mumbai’s architecture fuses Gothic, Victorian and Art Deco styles with the Islamic and Hindu influences of the region. I don’t fully understand what all that means, but I do know the buildings were quite impressive and beautiful. This was a stark contrast from the rather plain utilitarian architecture we’ve witnessed in India so far.
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A highlight of our walking tour, the Gateway of India is a magnificent Roman triumphal arch that was constructed to commemorate the visit of the King of England in 1911. British dignitaries arrived on the shores of India through this Gateway throughout the occupation. Ironically, the last of the British soldiers to leave India exited through this gate when India gained its independence in 1948.
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Mumbai is a very cosmopolitan city, but all its conveniences come with very western prices. Our hotel room was very basic and didn’t even have an en-suite bathroom, but it cost $33 – far more than anywhere we’ve stayed so far. While the normal Indian restaurant price for beer is about Rs.100, in Mumbai we found that prices went as high as Rs.300 in the tourist areas, far too much for our measly budget. We did splurge one day and visited the first Starbucks that we’ve seen in India…a frappucchino has never tasted so good.
Mumbai is also known for its cuisine. For the first time we were able to sample some Indian sweets including gulab jamun and julebi. Both are extremely sweet, much more so than a common desert at home. While one of any of the sweets is plenty (they seem to be made of pure sugar even though technically gulab jamun is cheese-based), we did enjoy them.
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Mumbai is home to Bollywood, which releases nearly twice the number of films as Hollywood in any given year. The majority of Bollywood films are set and filmed in Mumbai. We think we spotted one film being made while we were in Mumbai, but unfortunately we weren’t casted as extras.
All of the Bollywood films in theaters are in Hindi with no English subtitle options, but we didn’t let this stop us from going to see a film. The movie we chose to see was Himmatwala. The film itself was easy to follow even without being able to speak the language. All Bollywood films have a certain amount of singing and dancing and brightly colored costumes that can keep you entertained, but overall we decided this wasn’t actually a very good movie.
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As with most things in India, movie tickets are sold on a “class” basis. For more money you get better and/or more comfortable seats in the theater. The least expensive seats are in the back or along the side. It was strange to be forced to sit in assigned seating next to others when 80% of the theater was empty. Also, there is no concept in India of disturbing other people. If you get a phone call while watching a movie it seems to be perfectly acceptable to have a full conversation at whatever voice volume you see fit without regard for other movie-goers. Overall seeing a Bollywood film was a fun experience, but not necessarily one we needed to have more than once.
Outside the glamor of Bollywood lies a darker side of this city. Mumbai is home to one of the largest slums in the world, Dharavi. Dharavi encompasses an area of only 0.67 square miles, but the population is believed to be over 1 million. Studies report that facilities are grim, with only one toilet for every 1,440 residents. Massive sanitation issues have lead to the spread of disease there. If you can believe it, there are travel operators that organize tours into the slums. We decided not to partake as we find the idea of “touring” complete destitution appalling and exploitative. While there’s a (small) chance the tours actually benefit the people who live in these areas, we weren’t comfortable taking the chance.
A Gift for the Road
On our last day in Mumbai, Sam was lucky enough to have another completely disgusting experience. India is full of men that chew this narcotic leaf called paan. From each user’s mouth teems a large amount of dark red-colored saliva that permanently stains their teeth and gums. The men spit everywhere, and the constant sharing of bodily fluids has resulted in increases of Tuberculosis in the country. The problem has gotten so bad in Mumbai that the government has started posting pictures of Hindu gods in places where the spitting is more common (the idea being that they wouldn’t spit on a deity). A very Indian solution to the problem, and one that is unlikely to solve it.
As we were walking back to our hotel to wrap up our visit to Mumbai, someone decided to spit a huge, hot glob of this bright red fluid right onto Sam’s arm. There were too many people around to identify the culprit. We immediately cleaned her arm with a vast quantity of hand sanitizer, and thankfully, once again it does appear she’ll be able to keep her limb.
If you’ve visited other large Indian cities like Delhi and Varanasi, I think Mumbai will surprise you. We found that it offers a modern twist to traditional India, and there’s always something new to see right around the corner. Aside from the spitting, we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.