India Crash Course: Mumbai

We are sitting in the train to Udaipur and I am sipping my by now beloved Masala tea, which you might know as Chai tea, and dipping delicious Indian ‚Zwieback‘ or chrunchy rusk into it. Mhhh. It is our first big train journey on our whole trip. We travelled a lot by van, bus, boat and plane so far. For India we decided to only travel by train. It is a 16 hours overnight train journey and we had booked us a both in the 1st class compartment. We got told that unless you want to have another Indian suddenly sleeping with you in your bed bank, the 1st class tickets are the way to go. Now it is of course not what you consider first class in Europe, but it is real luxury compared to the second class here. We share an AC compartment with 6 bank beds with another Indian family, but everyone has there bed and curtains to draw close and our two beds are on the side next to the window. The lower bed can be converted to two chairs during the day. We slept incredible well actually and are now excited to have another 5 hours train journey in daylight ahead of us, where we can see some of Indias countryside. After 3 intense and exhausting days in Mumbai, sitting here in this train looking out of the window feels like an oasis.

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Mumbai. Well, for almost a day we thought Mumbai i.e India wouldn’t happen at all. When we wanted to check-in to our flight in Bangkok on Sunday, we found out that the flight didn’t exist. We tried to call SriLankan airlines without luck and our travel agency in Germany was closed as it was Sunday. So we just went to the airport the next day, hoping we can sort it there, as we had valid e-tickets we had paid for. However, when we got there, we found out that SriLankan had closed their ticket office at the airport and there was no other staff around that could help us. We had to wait until the afternoon, when the travel agency in Germany would open their office. So 4 hours before our supposed scheduled flight, I am on the phone to them and they don’t know what the problem is, as in their system the flight is confirmed as well. It takes another 2 hours to find out that SriLankan had cancelled the flight, but forgotten to update the system :), and for our agency to get a full refund and book us on a different flight that went to Mumbai directly that evening. Luckily, all turned out well and we landed in Mumbai Monday after midnight.

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Every traveler we have met so far on our journey, and who has been to India, said it will be a big culture shock and that you usually need 3 weeks to get over it to start seeing only the real beauty and magic in this country. If you stay there less than 3 weeks, you will probably leave the country not wanting to return. Well, we only have 2 weeks, but we are hoping to get over the difficult time quicker with all the knowledge we have now and some mental preparation for it. Having done SE Asia first will hopefully help a bit as well, or so I thought…. It is a land of extremes, they said. A country where beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, wealth and poverty, and the most heavenly and most disgusting smell and sight lies right next to each other. After having traveled through parts of Asia who can partly be described like that, you wonder how much worse it can get. Shortly after landing in Mumbai, we would learn that lesson already. It is a difficult thing to image, unless you have seen it for yourself and the pictures aren’t able to capture the extend of it. Out of respect, we won’t take pictures of the poorliest people anyway, so you have to try and follow us based on descriptions and the images we did take.

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We landed in Mumbai’s newly renowated airport, which is so clean and spaceious and shiny you feel like you enter a land of pure wealth and prosperity. Everything is incredibly organized and works smoothly. It is 1:00 am in the morning and we book a taxi to our hotel. AC or Non-AC we get asked. A normal taxi without air-conditioning please. We get into a taxi that looks like a Fiat Panda and sure enough, after having packed our backpacks and us inside, there is no space for anything else. The driver takes off and once we get out of the airport area, the sound of Mumbai hits us like a big wave: Honking horns like you have never heard it before. It feels like this is a honking competition and people are just honking for the fun of it, even if there is no need. Having said this, traffic rules do not exists and even just sitting in a car seems suicidal. Now I have been in many crazy traffic cities, even driven a car myself in Mexico City, but this is just another different level all together. Mathias asks the driver if he can put Indian music on and he puts it on loud. In fact so loud, you cannot hear the honking horns anymore. It creates the perfect atmosphere for our trip through this busy city though and we feel transported into a Bollywood movie, driving down the highway and streets of buzzling Mumbai at night. Until we get off the highway and reality hits us in the face once again. The sight of a big street slum community makes me go from excited to incredibly shocked and sad at the same time. People, women with kids and babies are lying right on the main road, not even on a sidewalk, one after each other, without anything to sleep on, sometimes half naked, sleeping on the concrete while thousands of cars are speeding past them. I have seen poverty in many countries from Asia to South America and Africa, but this is again another extreme that is incredibly difficult to get my head around, no matter how good I think I prepared myself for these sights.

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When we get to our hotel, we first drive past it, as the houses look like rundown places at the brink of collapsing. Then instead of a sign, I see a big poster with our hotel name on it and signal to the driver that this it it. Even he looks very sceptical, but we walk around the corner and there is our entrance. We go inside and to our relief it actually is very nice and clean inside and we are happy with our room. Exhausted from a long journey and the first impressions, we go to bed.

Our hotel is close to a train station, so the next day we avoid the hassle with the rickshaw drivers by taking the train to the old part of the city around the Gateway of India. It is only 2 stops, but the receptionists tells us to get a 1st class ticket, as the 2nd class is too crowded ‚for us‘, which I suppose in his words means travelers. So we do, as it is incredibly cheap anyway, 50ct per person. We get on the train and realise that the 1st class is actually the same as the 2nd class, except that you pay more and thus less people are in there. The second class doesn’t look crowded though, so we continue riding 2nd class for the rest of the 3 days in Mumbai.

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It is actually fun. You learn to jump off and on a still driving train and during the whole trip the doors are always open and you can see that the locals love to stick their head out during the journey to enjoy the wind. It is all pretty chilled actually. Everything changes during rush hour time though. The train, including 1st class, gets packed to the brink of explosion. A bit similar to rush hour on the London Underground, except that the doors are open all the time, people are hanging half out of the train and when the train gets close to a station people jump off and a whole crowd is jumping on, fighting its way inside to get one of the few seats, and all that before the train has even stopped! Now we of course did not join in that madness, but waited until the train had stopped and then people would always be kind enough to make some space for us to stand. One morning, we read in the newspaper that 2 teenagers have been killed by falling out of the train and we can understand completely now how that could happen.

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Before we do anything else, we go to the central train station to buy our train tickets for the rest of the trip. Another recommendation, as buying tickets otherwise becomes a nightmare, or let’s better say, getting a ticket. As the trains are always full, people just buy train tickets in advance for trains they do not even know they might take. As you get a full refund the day before when returning the ticket, this has become the working system in India for buying tickets. So I am not surprised, when we buy our overnight train ticket and get told we are on the waiting list, the seat reservation will be confirmed on the day. Luckily, the other 3 tickets all have confirmed seats. We go outside and now finally take a look at the building itself, which is actually one of the main historic sights in Mumbai. With a mix of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles it is on the Unesco World Heritage list. And here is where we learn our next India lesson. Sights can look beautiful and impressive from further away, but when you get closer it is a shame to see how this beautiful sight gets ruined by piles of rubish, dirt and broken or damaged building parts. It feels like the word ‚maintenance‘ does not exist in the Indian language.

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We start our discovery tour, visit the Gateway of India and stroll through the streets passed bazaars and more beautiful, but old run-down sights. We stop at a cafe to try some Indian food and keep wandering around. What sounds like a pretty relaxed sighting afternoon, is actually incredibly exhausting. The minute you go out of your hotel room the honking concert of the cars is present all the time, not stopping for a single second, no matter where you are. The traffic is so bad and the driving so relentless, that you constantly have to take care not to get run-over. Your nose is being exposed to an extreme palette of smells from delicious to disgusting all the time. You are on your guard and vary of locals trying to sell you something or starring at you if you are a Western woman (it seems to me at least). Basically, all your senses are on full alert non-stop, while being bombarded with an immense amount of new impressions at the same time. Indonesia was a walk in the park compared to that. Throughout all that you are hot and sweaty, walking from one shady place to another. No wonder we have a headache at the end of the day and feel totally exhausted.

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But being us, we cannot resist to try some street food before going home :). Close to our station, we find a small street market which seems to be the place for locals to meet up to have some dinner. So we go there and after a short consideration, whether or not to risk having stomach problems the next day at the sight of all the rubish and dirt lying around again everywhere, we decide it is simply too tempting. So we try several small things from the stalls, which are all delicious, and end our dinner like the locals with a cup of hot Masala tea. Back at the hotel, a cold shower feels like a rebirth! Clean and tired we go to bed and I can still here the honking in my head. Will this ever go away?

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The next morning, we wake up to thundering rain and wonder if we can go discover the city at all that day. After 2 hours or so it stopps though and we decide to go see some of the big bazaars and walk along the waterfront promenade in the afternoon, which is supposed to be a bit quieter. When we leave the hotel room, it feels like we are stepping out of a bubble into the real loud India again. We take the train again, this time 2nd class and make our way to the bazaars. Somehow I have this romantic image of an old colourful Indian bazaar in my head, but when we get there it is maybe not surprising yet a bit disappointing to see that the things you get on the bazaar are mainly plastic toys and houseware, and cheap clothing with Starbucks or Disney on it. At least there are some stalls full of fruits and spices around and we buy a pack of the special Masala tea spice to make it at home.

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We have lunch in a restaurant that serves ‚thali‘, an all you can eat Indian lunch. When we go inside, it feels again like you are going through a magic door that shuts out the noise and dirt of the city while you are entering a little quiet oasis. The manager of the place must have seen in our faces that we never had thali before. He comes over and explains to us that there is no menu. Instead waiters will come and start serving small portions of different food in 4 courses and you just try. They start with starters, then small veggie curries and chutney with Indian bread, then rice and sweet deserts that you start eating during the courses already to balance the spicy dishes. All the time you can ask for more of the dish you liked. All is accompanied by a spiced fresh buttermilk drink that also neutralises the spicy dishes and helps digestion. We loved it, as you can probably imagine. Especially the mix of sweet and spicy is so addictive, you could roll us out of the restaurant in the end.

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After that we decide to walk through he city to walk along the seaside promenade and have a look at what is considered Mumbai favourite beach: Girgaum Chowpatty. It is a longer walk from where we are than we anticipated and we are quite exhausted again when we get to the beach. The view as we approach the promenade is actually really nice. You get a good view of the skyline with a beach stretching along before it. We see lots of locals sitting down on the wall along the promenade and we go and do the same, for 1 minute. Then our buttoms are so hot it feels like they would burn if we sit there longer. How do the locals manage to sit on these stones, heated up by the afternoon sun to extreme temperatures?! As we look over the wall onto the beach, we can then see piles of waste and dirt everywhere again. And as we continue onto to the main beach area, it is the same there. The beach is full of rubish,  but people are still sitting there and swimming in a dirty sea. It makes you wonder, if locals here even still see all that, or if they completely ignore all the smell and dirt by now. Well, for us it is definitely not a sight we want to stay longer and we decide to go back to the hotel early, as we are totally exhausted again. At the exit of the beach, we see a sign from the government warning citizens that leaving rubish in public places will be fined. How ironic is that?!

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For the third and last day in Mumbai, we decide to go and have a look at the ‚better‘ areas of town, where the upper class supposedly lives.  Not only does Mumbai host the rich and famous of the Bollywood industry, but it is also the economical capital of India and thus the home to many international company offices and their better off employees. One of the areas is called Juhu and also has a beach. So we go there to see how that compares to the day before. We take the train again, get off the station and follow the signs. We are suprised to be walking on a foot bridge that takes you over lots of poor streets for at least 10 minutes before it finally ends. We then find ourselves facing a main road with lots of traffic and a smaller parallel side streets with some stalls on, both leading to the beach as it seems. We take the side street to avoid the traffic. After a few meteres we start wondering about the poor state of the street, houses and people, as we thought this is a nicer area. After a few more meters we realize we walked into a slum, when Mathias reads a sign about it. Now I know why people are starring at us, probably wondering what we are doing on their street. We feel terrible bad, almost like intruders, as we do not want to be tourists who think poverty is a tourist attraction. We decide to take the next possible street out of it, but it feels like this street doesn’t come for ages.

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Finally it is there and we are almost at the beach. The last few meters to the beach and the beach itself almost look clean compared to the day before, but it is certainly not clean in Western standards. There is still some rubish here and there, but it is obvious that the city is investing money to clean this area up. We continue walking around with the aim to find a restaurant that we read about. Some streets are really nice and beautiful and we walk past modern malls, Western food chains and modern high rises, but again the extreme opposite is never far away and can be found just around the next corner.

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We finally find the restaurant and have some nice South Indian lunch. Afterwards we make our way back to the hotel to get our backpacks and go to the train station to catch our overnight train to Udaipur. Just when we thougt we have seen enough and cannot take in anymore, the journey back becomes more difficult than we could have imagined. Not only do we find ourselves in the middle of rush hour with people storming into the trains like crazy, but during the journey we pass a man full of bubbles and lumps on his body (google bubbleman and you see what we saw) and another man throwing up blood on the sidewalk, he probably had tuberculoses. And later at the main train station where we are waiting for our overnight train, we see a dead body being transported away.

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This city really shocked us in so many ways, we feel like we got a crash course of India in just 3 days. We are happy to embark our train when it arrives, full of hope that the next place will be less intense.

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