My last stop in India: Mumbai Mumbai was actually called Bombay up until 1995, when the government changed the name. Similar to the name change from Calcutta to Kolkata, the Indian government felt that Bombay was representative of lingering British colonial influence. "Mumbai" is apparently the more authentically Indian pronunciation, so they made it official. If you ask me, India needs to cool it with all the name changes. They have seriously done it so many times with so many different cities, it’s getting ridiculous.
ANYWAY, if you want to find a cheap flight into or out of India, your choices are basically New Delhi and Mumbai. I have always been interested in exploring Mumbai, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to New Delhi, so my path was clear. I flew there from Jodhpur for 82 USD with Jet Airways. Flying into the Mumbai airport brings you right over some of the city’s slums – low. It’s some powerful imagery. The airport though, by contrast, is as nice and as modern a building as you’ll find. The income gap in Mumbai is pretty substantial.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of a city’s size than I was in Mumbai. With a population of 21 million people, Mumbai is one of the world’s top 10 mega cities. New Delhi is bigger, but it’s harder to tell when you’re actually there. Mumbai sits on a large peninsula, so there is always a nearby shoreline to remind you of this city's scale. It takes a solid 3 hours (or more if there is traffic) to get from one end of Mumbai to the other. I made this commute a few different times during my stay.
Accommodations In Mumbai
Mumbai is, far and away, the most expensive city in India. Good luck finding cheap accommodations. The dire-ness of the lodging situation for a budget traveler in Mumbai only began to dawn on me a few days before I was set to depart, so I sent out some desperate messages on Couchsurfing.com. Apparently it’s a pretty popular site in India, so I figured that it wouldn’t take long for somebody to give me a spot on their couch. But nobody responded to me. It turns out that it’s pretty difficult to convince anybody to host you if you aren’t an attractive young girl. At 11pm the night before my flight left I gave up hope, and booked a hotel. I found a deal on Agoda that gave me a 100 USD/night room for 36 USD. I found a similar deal when I was Bali, which afforded me 3 days of luxury, the likes of which I had never known. Cringing at spending so much money, I pulled the trigger on the reservation, only for somebody to respond to me on Couchsurfing.com offering me a free place to stay about 5 minutes later.
My hotel was near the airport, in a coastal area to the north of the city called Juhu Beach (pronounced like "jew" beach). I had high hopes for it, but when I got there I was disappointed. I coudn’t believe that anybody had ever paid 100 USD per night to stay there. It was a dump. But it was a dump with good service, a western shower, and a good air conditioner, so I couldn’t complain too much.
Transportation in Mumbai
Mumbai does have public transportation, but staying in Juhu beach robbed that transportation of any practical application for me. It’s pretty far away from the heart of the city, so, even taking taxis, I had 2 hours of sweaty, miserable commute time ahead of me if I wanted to get anywhere at all. The cheapest way to get around (aside from the metro) is by tuk-tuk (although, in Mumbai they are called auto-rickshaws). Most tuk-tuks don’t go all the way into the city, so the common jumping off point to switch from tuk-tuk to taxi (and the visa versa) is a neighborhood called Bandra. Of course it would be easier to just get a taxi from the start, but doing it this way will save you a few rupees, which you will be glad of in Mumbai.
Haggling is not a problem in Mumbai, because every taxi has a meter. Indian cab drivers can’t not try to rip you off though, so it will often be a challenge to find a cab driver willing to actually USE their meter. They will take one look at your white skin, and quote you an astronomical price. If you ask for the meter they will try to feed you a reason why they can't use the meter. It's never true. Keep it civil, but call them out firmly and clearly. Sometimes they are less subtle though, and won’t even make an excuse. When I ask for the meter they’d just say “no.” That’s when I lean through the window and say nasty words to them.
When I first showed up to India, I frequently was taken aback at how terribly taxi and rickshaw drivers here were treated. Both locals and travelers alike would treat them like dirt, and that really bothered me. But not anymore. Make no mistake – these people are not your friends. 90% of them will fuck you over, if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance. You need to be sharp, ruthless, and unfeeling in your negotiations with them if you don’t want to get ripped off. If you’re okay with getting ripped off, then whatever. I, however, am a man of principal, and I’d rather walk home than get taken for a fool by yet another taxi driver. Even if it’s a long walk, I’ll walk home out of spite. Does that sound bitter? Well please hold your judgment until the end of your 1st month in India. Then we’ll see where you’re at.
1. Gate To India
This was, by all accounts, the number one thing to see in Mumbai. I was pretty directionless when I first arrived, so this seemed like a good thing to start with. It took me 2 hours and about 300 INR (4.51 USD) to get from Juhu Beach all the way down there. And then, there it was.
For real though, this was lame. 30 seconds is all you need here. Here’s a picture:
2. Crawford Market
Markets are usually pretty safe bets when you’re traveling. I have seen some pretty epic open-air markets in places like Calcutta (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh), and Bac Ninh (Vietnam). These kind of markets rarely disappoint, but Mumbai’s let me down a bit. There just wasn’t much to see. Nothing crazy was being sold. Nothing caught my eye as I walked through, besides the ‘pet’ section of the market, which was more depressing than it was interesting. The streets surrounding the market were bustling with life and commerce as well, but I didn't find it to be any more or less interesting. Here’s a few pictures though:
3. Juhu Beach
This is the area I was staying in, and if it hadn’t been for that fact I probably never would have visited. I’m glad I did though. I had heard some hilariously bad reviews of Mumbai’s beaches, so I didn’t expect much. Everything I had been told was 100% true – the trash, the crows, the crowds – but I still liked coming here. It was real. And it was good for people watching. Indian families came here to spend time together. Couples came here to walk. People played games of pick-up soccer. The ball had to be retrieved from the waves pretty often, but they were having fun anyway. It was a 2 minute walk from my hotel room, so I came here every day I was in Mumbai.
4. City Parks
I came here completely by accident. I was looking for item #5 on this list when I stumbled through these. Mumbai has a few different parks, but I wandered through Hanging Garden and the smaller Kilachand Garden in a leafy neighborhood called Malabar Hill. They weren’t much to look at, but they provided a pleasant, shady relief from the heat of the city. Kilachand Garden had the added bonus of being at an elevation. Through the trees, the entire bay is visible. I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to come to these places, but if you’re in the neighborhood you can come here for a cold drink. If you’re in Mumbai, chances are good that you’ll be desperate for some shade and cold fluids.
5. Tower Of Silence
A Tower of Silence is an elevated, circular structure used in Zoroastrianism for excarnation of the dead. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world, predating almost all modern-day religions. Today there are an estimated 2.6 million members of this religion, with most of them living in Iran or India. Excarnation means for the flesh to be removed from the bones in a natural way. It's even grosser than it sounds. After a person dies, in the Zoroastrian faith, their bodies are brought to the Tower of Silence and laid out to rot in the sun, and be picked apart by crows and vultures. That looks something like this:
Those are pictures that I found in the depths of the Internet. I have no idea how this picture managed to escape brick walls and spiked fences that enclose the compound, because the Tower of Silence is not open to outsiders. Indeed, this is not a piece of history; it is a piece of the present. Right now, as you read this, decomposing bodies are being picked, pecked, and pulled apart by the beaks of Mumbai’s sizable bird population. They’re probably fighting over the last eyeball right this very second.
Anyway, despite the fact that it is not open to outsiders, I had a fatal fascination with the whole thing, so I wanted to go see what I could. The Tower of Silence is also in Malabar Hill, surrounded by leafy public parks (see #4). I had a devil of a time finding my way to the actual gates of the area though. I was asking locals on the street for directions, but they mostly just seemed horrified that I was trying to find this place to start with. When I finally did stumble upon an entrance to this monument to carnage, it was the “back door”. A car had just driven out, so the gates were hanging wide open, which is not normal. Looking as innocent as I could, I wandered through the gates slow enough as not to look too nefarious in my intentions, but fast enough that I (might have) looked like I knew what I was doing, and wouldn’t linger too long. Unfortunately, about 100 meters past the gates, a guard spotted me and ran over. I played the part of the stupid, lost tourist as he hurried me back out the gates. I went down to the “front door” gates, but those were much more heavily fortified. Drat. Well, here are some pictures from what I did see:
Mumbai With A Local
While I was unsuccessful in my attempt to find a free place to stay through Couchsurfing.com, I was however, afforded the opportunity to make a few local friends. That’s the great thing about Couchsurfing.com – it connects people in a way that sites like Facebook or Twitter can’t. Those sites can usually only build on existing connections. Couchsurfing's business is to create new ones, and it happens in some of the most unlikely ways. So even though I had already paid for my hotel, my would-have-been hosts invited me out with them and a few friends one night. So shout out to Priyabrata & Karthik!
Mumbai is the most expensive city on the subcontinent for a reason – its citizens are the wealthiest. Some of them are at least. Mumbai is both the Los Angeles and New York City of India simultaneously. It is the center of all contemporary Indian culture because of – you guessed it – Bollywood. Bollywood is not so much a physical place as it is an industry that exists in Mumbai. If you haven’t seen any Bollywood films, you should know that they are much more Western than you might expect. Similar to how much of America’s Hispanic population communicates via “Spanglish” (Spanish + English), the script to many Bollywood films are written in “Hinglish” (Hindi + English).
The level of English in India is off the charts but, ironically, I found Mumbai to have the lowest level of English out of all the cities that I visited. The inability of the taxi drivers and shopkeepers to communicate with me served to accentuate the socioeconomic inequality that is present in Mumbai. There seemed to be a very stark divide between the upper and lower class of the city, and the ability to speak English is a trait of a higher class of people. That was my perception at least.
Anyway, why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know that Mumbai isn’t all slums and squalor, as was my impression before I arrived. That certainly exists, but there is also a substantial, wealthy, westernized, English-speaking demographic, and they like to go out at night. Most bars and clubs close around 1 or 1:30, but they are still fun. Most of them are in a neighborhood called Bandra, which is one Mumbai’s trendy areas. Here are the 2 bars I was taken to...
Address: Summerville 14th & 33rd Road, Ground Floor, Linking Road, Bandra West
This bar was pretty empty when we were there, but that was on a Tuesday. It’s a cool place! If you come here on a weekend it is sure to be a good time. They serve western food as well as a wide selection of drinks. They have outdoor and indoor seating, and the staff speaks English. You'll feel right at home. Or, as much as you can in Mumbai.
The Big Nasty
Address: 2nd Floor, Shatranj Napoli (Off Carter Rd), 12 Union Park, Khar West
This bar is your best shot at running into a Bollywood star (I’m told). I had my fingers crossed that I might end up having drinks with the cast of Slumdog Millionaire, but no. It was a Tuesday night, so Dev Patel probably had better things to be doing. That disappointment aside though, it was a very cool place. I had planned to go back the following night, but that never happened. The night that I was there though was Karaoke night, so I ordered a beer and listened to wealthy Indian socialites drunkenly slur through America’s Top 40. “Don’t read beauty magazines! They only make you feel ugly!” a man yelled in a drunk, effeminate Indian accent at the end of his song. Lolz.
On our way home that night we crowded into an autorickshaw. When we stopped, my new local friends were sorting out the price for the ride. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it wasn’t long before the driver was getting yelled at in Hindi. It was clear that he was attempting to rip us off in some way.
“What?! Did you see their white skin and just forget to set the meter??” came the translation. The driver awkwardly stumbled over his words as he tried to come up with an explanation. I chuckled sadistically as I watched the exchange. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I was still getting some serious pleasure out of it.
Here are some miscellaneous pictures from around Mumbai. I did a lot of walking so I have a lot of random pictures of street life. My favorite are the kids playing cricket in their local rec. league.
And that's it folks - that's Mumbai at a glance. But I'm not done here. In the next 2 posts I’ll cover Mumbai’s Red Light District & The Sassoon Docks, both legendary in their own rite. I found them to be the 2 most interesting places in Mumbai, so hopefully you'll also find them interesting.