Monday, January 15, 2007 India India

Mumbai madness

Mumbai dobi-wallah [Enlarge]

Because we didn't know the local geography of Mumbai (Bombay) at all, we booked (from Amman) a hotel close to the airport for maximum convenience when we arrived. We soon discovered that we were a very long way from the centre of town: at least thirty minutes by taxi. Therefore on the first day in India's most cosmopolitan city we got an extended lesson in Mumbai traffic as we took a taxi into the downtown area. We needed to go to the main train station to book our ticket to Margao in Goa, leaving on Monday (this was Saturday) on the 06:55 service.

Lorries; buses; brand new BMWs; Japanese MPVs; Indian hatchbacks; weird 1950s black and yellow taxi cabs; autorickshaws; motorbikes; scooters; bicycles; pedestrians; and oxen. All of it flowing slowly through the streets in one enormous turbulent, noisy, stinking mass. On a road with three marked lanes there are usually seven or more vehicles side by side. Horns are accepted in place of mirrors and signals. Many vehicles even have painted on the back "Horn OK Please!", which translates as the following: "I will not be using my indicators today. I will not be using hand signals either. I will not be looking in my mirrors at all, in fact I have almost certainly folded them flat against the body of my vehicle because they just get knocked off if I extend them. I will not have a clue that you are behind me so when I cut you up and nearly kill you, please do not take it personally. I would be grateful if you could sound your horn, loudly please, to let me know that you are there." Despite, or because of the craziness, we saw some spectacularly good driving from our taxi driver as he weaved in and out of the flow, taking full advantage of the tiniest of gaps. He needed six senses but he seemed to have seven or eight.

The twelve kilometre journey into town took us across the Mahim Creek. A creek is like a river, but is actually just a long inlet from the sea. In other words, it doesn't flow anywhere. Imagine what a body of stagnant water in the middle of a tropical city of sixteen million people smells like. As we crossed the bridge over the creek some traffic lights far ahead presumably went to red because the traffic stopped dead. Immediately the taxi was besieged by children at both of our windows. Spot the rich white people! We were in one of the 1950s black and yellow cabs, which unsurprisingly are not air conditioned, so our windows were down. Small hands came in through the window bearing cellophane wrapped paperback books. When we said no thank you they took the books back out, then just asked us for some money anyway. We went from saying no to ignoring them, but they didn't give up on us until the lights changed back to green, one of them even then continuing to cling to the side of the taxi as it moved off. We had come as mentally prepared as it is possible to be, but we still felt like Bad People.

Everyone has a different view on handling begging and the advice we've read just says that you need to make up your own mind. If you give money to the one or two who are pestering you, you will not be changing the world, and you will be surrounded by countless more people wanting some of the action. If you don't, you will have to live with your conscience. Apparently most of these children have adult 'employers' who take the money from them anyway. However, it is a fact that even the most tight-budgeted backpackers are unimaginably rich compared to these children. Their patter of "no mummy, no daddy" may be designed to tug at the heart-strings of the most hardened cynic, but that doesn't change the fact that they have absolutely no choices in life and no way out.

In future, we want to do more for proper charities aimed at really helping these people and countless others around the world, rather than just passing a few coins out of a taxi window—in our view, that merely keeps them prisoner, trudging up and down their patch of hot, smelly Mumbai highway.

We made it to CST station and we were accosted by a tout before we reached the pavement. He told us that he was a taxi driver, but a tour guide first and foremost. He offered to take us to a travel agent who would for a small fee go and queue up and buy our train tickets for us. This is common practice in India, where the ticket queues are long and the processes of buying a ticket and making a seat reservation are highly confusing and complicated. It would also mean that we didn't have to take 'tourist quota' tickets or show money exchange vouchers to prove that we had changed enough hard currency into Rupees to cover the cost of the tickets. We asked him how much the 'small fee' would be and it was reasonable so we agreed.

Having discovered how far out of town we were staying the taxi-driver/tour-guide then persuaded us to switch hotels to one within easy walking distance of CST. Glenn said in principle this was no problem as long as we could inspect the room, and then asked him how much commission he was on. He insisted that he wasn't on any commission, but that he does have an arrangement whereby the hotel sends tour business his way in return for him sending potential guests their way. Whatever. While the travel agent's runner went to the station to queue up for the ticket our new friend took us to check out the hotel. It looked okay, had air conditioning and was a lot cheaper than the Airlines International. But most importantly we would be only a five minute walk from the station to catch our early morning train. We agreed to take the room for Sunday night.

Back at the travel agent's office, his runner still wasn't back from the station. We were clearly getting good value for money given the length of time he was taking (or maybe he was just round the corner having a smoke to make it seem good value). Anyway, our enterprising taxi-driver/tour-guide friend then went for his hat trick and offered us a full-on city tour for INR 2000 (GBP 23.09 / USD 45.41) on Sunday. Yes, that was vastly overpriced, but the guy spoke excellent English and had already given us an idea of the sort of tour we would be getting on the way to the hotel. We decided that it would be better to just go for it rather than wasting precious time shopping around for cheaper deals in the midday heat. We arranged that he would pick us up from the Airlines International the next morning, drop us at our new hotel to check in and leave our bags, then take us on a tour of the city.

With that all sorted and the train ticket bought we went off for a wander and to find something to eat before embarking on the long, smelly drive back to our hotel.

Sunday came and it was actually our guide's brother who came to collect us from Hotel Airlines International. He was early and we'd overslept so he was kept waiting a while. The traffic was lighter than it had been before so we made good time into the heart of Mumbai. We dropped our bags off quickly at our new hotel, the Hotel Imperial Executive. Do not be fooled by the name, it's a flea pit. The room we'd been given was not the one we'd inspected the previous day and wasn't as clean. We realised we had not checked for hot water during our inspection, and of course there was none. However it did have air conditioning, albeit a unit which was leaking into a bucket in the middle of the room. And anyway it was only for one night with a very early escape the next morning.

Back outside again and we were ready to start our grand tour. The brother of our tour guide said not to worry, the main man would be along any minute, and indeed he was. He had an English couple, regular fare-paying passengers, in the back of his taxi as he pulled up in front of us and he proceeded to turf them out of his taxi and into his brother's one! Not sure what they must have thought.

The tour was as fast and furious as you would expect from a city like this. It certainly wasn't worth 2000 Rupees, but at least we got to see the sights that we would have missed otherwise. We were hopping in and out of the guide's taxi every few minutes. The most interesting things were the Jain Temple, the house that Gandhi stayed in (now an excellent museum, with his bedroom/study preserved exactly as it was when he lived in it), and the dobi-wallahs, the people who wash thousands of items of laundry from Mumbai's hotels and hospitals in huge stone troughs. But the images that will stay with us for longest were the ones of Mumbai's slums.

Mumbai is a city of contrasts. The billion-dollar Bollywood film industry is based here and Chowpatty Beach is a popular hang-out for rich, trendy starlets and wannabes. And two minutes down the road is Asia's largest slum. We only saw the edges of it: makeshift shelters, constructed from bits of wood, tarpaulin and corrugated iron; open onto streets of bare earth and rubbish. The air is full of that sickly smell that you get at rubbish dumps. The gutters are overflowing with a putrid soup. Babies and toddlers in grubby t-shirts and nothing else (nappies are an unimaginable luxury) play in the street, unless they are being used by their mothers as begging props. While stopped in traffic we were approached by one of the infamous 'baby milk beggars'. To try to prove that they are genuine, these mothers will convince you to buy some baby milk powder for their child, rather than giving them the money directly. Conveniently there is a stand selling milk powder nearby, and when you are gone the mother and the stand owner split the cash, and put the tin of powder back on the shelf so that the process can be repeated. Glenn didn't manage to wind his window up in time and the mother allowed her baby's fingers to cling to the top of the glass to stop him fully closing it.

When we returned to the Hotel Imperial Executive it didn't seem nearly so bad.

At 06:00 this morning we walked down the street to CST to catch our train. The pavements were dotted with human figures, sleeping where they lay. The better-off ones had a rug or mat to sleep on. These were the people who didn't even have a home in the slums. As we took our seats in the second-class air conditioned sleeper carriage (there are no fewer than seven classes to choose from) on the slightly delayed express train to Goa, we were not sorry to be leaving Mumbai.

We can't agree on what to write for the final paragraph, so we have each written one.

Isla says: Mumbai was certainly a culture shock. Maybe I missed something, but I just found it depressing to see so many people in such poverty. In a way it's worse to have the squalor juxtaposed against the affluence of some of the city's districts. If this is India's most cosmopolitan city I'm not sure I want to visit Kolkata (Calcutta) or Chennai (Madras). I can't pass judgement on the entire country until I've seen much more of it, but I now see that India has a very long way to go to compete economically with the rest of the world. I hope its problems can be fixed.

Glenn says: I have mixed feelings. Mumbai is without doubt the filthiest, poorest city we have ever been to, but there is honestly something compelling about it that I can't quite pin down. The warm air is always full of smells—sweet and spicy more often than foul and decaying—and around every corner it seems there is something new to surprise the visitor. They take their tea with milk and every patch of open ground has a cricket match going on. There is an energy about town, an enthusiasm and a feeling that India's time is coming. I believe its problems can be fixed.