Madness in Mumbai: First Impressions
To be honest, I was a little worried before going to Mumbai. Sensory assault, the heat, the stench, the grime, the chaos–they all don’t belong to weeklong vacations that I normally take.
India is beautiful and exhilarating, no doubt. But it also deserves a bit more time for a traveller to do it justice. Besides, my high tolerance level of crowds, shocks and constant discomfort have waned over the years. I was no longer the grubby backpacker that I used to be. Mumbai is not for the faint-hearted. It’s like, wanna do gnarly? Go to India.
Back when I was in Myanmar in 2006, a friend once remarked that if I found the levels of filth in Yangon to be appalling, then I shouldn’t go to India. “You can get real sick from just singing in the shower,” he’d chuckled.
On another hand, I did wanted to see the city where the novel Shantaram was set. It was one of my favourite books on the road. I also wanted to taste some decent, authentic Indian food. I’ve been craving for them since I moved to Germany.
Besides I’d never been to India and Chris could cash in flight miles to pay for the flights.
It was now or never.
GETTING INTO MUMBAI
The craziness began right away after our flight landed somewhere about 11.00 pm. We told our Airbnb host that we would probably get in about midnight since her place wasn’t far away from the airport. What we didn’t foresee were the long lines crawling infinitely through the immigration counters. We asked around and even double confirmed that we were queueing up at the right place, but the line just took forever!
We wrote to our host multiple times, embarrassed that instead of midnight, we would check in at maybe 1am. 1am became 2am before we eventually sailed through the Arrival doors. At the taxi counter, we were quoted a shocking price. It shouldn’t be so expensive if the apartment was only 10 minutes away! Another company offered to take us at a lower price, compared to the first, still at highly inflated prices. After midnight charges, after midnight charges, we were told. We stepped back and considered our options for a bit. At 2 something am, there simply weren’t many. A leathery-skinned Caucasian man stepped forward to fill in the gap we left and ordered a cab. In the local tongue. He seemed to be down with whatever price he got. He turned around to look at us. “Problem?”
We told him. He sighed in recognition of our struggles. He must be thinking, these dumb tourists.
“First time in Mumbai?” We both nodded.
“See, if it’s your first time, you have no choice. You have to take whatever they offer you. It’s 2 am. If you were to go out of the airport and try to take a rickshaw yourself, trust me, you’ll end up nowhere with double the price. It’s better if you take it and figure your way around tomorrow.”
Sagely advice coming from someone who seemed to have spent some time here. Later, as we all walked towards the taxi parking lot together, we discovered that he’d been living in Mumbai for years now. He’s practically local. Before parting, his parting words of wisdom were,
“Watch out for that wallet of yours. Especially in trains or when there are plenty of crowds.”
As we slid across the tattered taxi seats, we succumbed to exhaustion. The time difference, the 8-hour flight from Frankfurt, plus the additional 5 hours we needed to get from home to Frankfurt airport, all took its toll. Just when we thought our adventures were over, another problem came up. The taxi driver who spoke no English dropped us off at Grand Hyatt hotel. Technically our Airbnb apartment was near the Grand Hyatt but not the Grand Hyatt. I tried to explain it to him but he kept pointing at the grand hotel in front. I shook my head and poked at the scrap of paper that I’d the address written down on. Eventually, the guards at the iron gates of Grand Hyatt came to our rescue.
“Olive apartments?” I asked hopefully.
The security guard shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know either.
Thankfully Chris could GPS the location and found that it was within walking distance. 5-7 minutes tops. But finding our way in the dark, in the suburbs of Santa Cruz, Mumbai, wasn’t exactly very reassuring. Still, we had to do it. No one seemed to be able to help.
The streets were dark and quiet, with the occasional stray dog wandering around. A rickshaw driver approached us, insisting that he would take us to our destination. We said no but but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So we plodded on, with a the rickshaw driver on our side, honking and crying for our attention.
When we finally got to our Airbnb, we were delirious with joy. Our room looked amazing, our host was so hospitable and kind, despite turning up at almost 3am. And having a long shower after all that waiting, bargaining and walking, was nothing short of a blessing. After that we collapsed on the bed and slept the wee hours away.
Mumbai became our playground for the next few days.
With renewed energy, after waking up the next morning (that bed was super comfortable) by sounds of traffic and temple prayers, we plunged into the heart of Mumbai so that we could discover what the city’s made of. I later discovered that all my worries were for naught.
PATIENCE IS EVERYTHING
Mumbai’s a great city to work on your patience. You just cannot let anger and frustration get the better of you. If you’re a stickler to punctuality and efficiency, Mumbai can really test your zen skills.
Everything takes a while here. People aren’t slacking; they’re working real hard. But Mumbai’s home to more than 18 million residents. There will be lines everywhere. Roads are almost always congested unless you plan to move around between 01.00-04.00 am. Trains get delayed. People turn up late for meet-ups. According to an Indian journalist, locals don’t adhere to Indian Standard Time but rather Indian Stretchable Time.
On our first day after a good sleep, our first stop was the Vodaphone shop to get a local SIM card. We’d assumed that it’d be a chop chop process.
In that Vodaphone shop, before we could even get to the staff to ask about our options, we already had to stand in line. 30 minutes of waiting later, we were served by a young lady who then drowned us in paperwork. I kid you not. The amount of documents we had to fill up, you would think we were applying for a visa! They even asked if we brought a passport photo along. What for? No idea. She almost wanted to turn us away but an idea struck her and she came back with a compact digital camera. She took a picture of Chris and asked us to wait. We waited for a good 15 minutes before another lady turned up and asked us for the phone contact our of Airbnb host, our German home address and some other totally irrelevant questions. That took another 10 minutes for our application to be processed. After that, we were sent to line up at the “cashier” counter to pay for the SIM card. Another 15 minutes in a line.
Soon after, we had to queue up again for someone to set up our SIM card. The guy tinkered around Chris’ smartphone before he gave us some instructions about what to expect.
“How long would it take before we could start using the data?” I asked.
“It’ll take an hour for the SIM card to be activated but in three hours, you could start calling? I don’t know. Maybe.”
My jaw nearly dropped to the floor. All that effort and still we needed to wait for another four hours we could use the phone?
My tip? Get your communication needs sorted out at the airport. You just might be able to get your SIM card in less than an hour.
PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IS EASY (EXCEPT FOR THE BUS)
TAXIS AND RICKSHAWS
Apart from our first airport taxi fiasco, learning to navigate the public transportation in Mumbai was rather hassle-free. We travelled easily with rickshaws from Santa Cruz (where we were staying in) to nearby neighbourhoods like Bandra. There were tonnes of them tearing down the streets so all we had to do was to stick out our hands and flag one down. Unlike tuk tuks in Bangkok, riding a rickshaw here isn’t for thrills or for a sense of novelty. It’s brisk, efficient and it gets you to where you want to go. It’s the best way to get around for short distances. The only thing you have to watch out for is its breakneck speed and the choking smoke. Our experience has been rather pleasant and didn’t involve a lot of negotiation. Drivers were generally honest and if they took a detour, it meant that they could get us there faster on a unknown route instead of the familiar.
They don’t have rickshaws around downtown Mumbai, but they have regular taxis. You can’t be daunted by the sheer amount of moving traffic and wave limply whenever you see an available taxi. You literally have to step out on to the road, or sometimes if it’s to your favour, to the middle of the road (especially when the road forks out to a left junction) to hail down the vehicle. You have to watch out for the other cars, of course, but this is Mumbai: you have to steel yourself against your nerves and be a bolder version of yourself. Want a cab? Get off the sidewalks and stop one!
If you are however still intimidated by that, you can use the Ola taxi app instead. We enjoyed using the Ola app. We had a couple of regular Ola rides as well as Ola shared rides. Uber is also available if you’re a regular Uber user.
LOCAL AND REGIONAL TRAINS
Hopping onto one of the local trains was one of our favourite ways to travel. We got to observe the commuters and saw life unfolding in the swaying, shuddering train carriages. Despite cautionary advice dished out by the well-intentioned foreigner living in Mumbai, we felt safe with our belongings, even during rush hours.
On our first day, taking our Airbnb host’s tips to heart, we made our way to Santa Cruz train station with the intention of getting a first-class ticket to Churchgate. But since the ticketing counter lacked proper signs, we skulked around for a while, trying to figure out where we should get our tickets.
Sensing our hesitation, a man in a crisp white shirt and a briefcase, stopped and asked if he could help. We told him we wanted first-class tickets but we didn’t know how. He urged us to just go up to any ticketing window and just ask for a first-class ticket.
“You don’t have to line up if you’re buying a first class ticket.” Really? Just disregard the line like that? We weren’t comfortable and didn’t want to make any cultural faux-pas on our first day.
Come with me, he commanded. We followed behind timidly like a brood of lost ducklings. The crowd parted. The man said something to the ticketing staff and soon enough, we got our first-class tickets. Just like that.
A first-class carriage isn’t much different from the second class. You don’t get air-conditioning or plush leather seats. The only difference is the amount of people squeezing into it. And because the price is four times more expensive than the regular second class, (Santa Cruz to CST, First-Class 108 Rupees (US$1.54) vs Second Class 25 Rupees (US$ 0.36) most locals would take second class instead of first, thus resulting a more roomy interior for first class riders. You also have extra legroom. It was only on our way back home that we discovered that second class train travel was just as enjoyable when it wasn’t rush hour. Since then we never took a first class ticket ever again.
A crowded second-class train carriage is no joke though. Be prepared for elbow jabs, the jostling and the grabbing of seats (don’t wait if you see a seat open up), the butt squishing affair between strangers, other people’s sweat staining yours, the generous body odour, you get the idea. If your seat can only take 4 people comfortably, don’t be surprised to find another two trying to squeeze in.
I’ve to admit, we didn’t manage to get a successful bus ride. We tried, but failed. First, we had to figure out the bus routes via Google. Then, we’d to decipher the script written on the front of busses, because a #62 isn’t the same with #26. And then of course, we had to spend a lot of time under the sun, waiting for that particular bus. When the bus did indeed come, we clambered on gratefully, thinking that we had accomplished what we’d set out to do.
Wrong. Just when we were getting comfortable, the bus conductor told us that we were on the wrong bus and told us to get off. We got out in the middle of nowhere. Somewhere on a bridge with lots of traffic on both sides of it.
In the end, we returned to using Ola cab to get us to our destination.
STREET FOOD IN MUMBAI WON’T GIVE YOU THE BOMBAY BELLY
We were extra cautious with drinks we consumed and used only bottled water for teeth brushing, but did we really want to skip on Mumbai’s classics from the streets when food was actually the main reason that brought us to Mumbai in the first place? We learned to let go of our anxiety. We’d survived greasy roadside stalls in Indonesia and Myanmar, didn’t we? Surely Mumbai was no different.
Wandering around Linking Road and Bandra on our own on the first afternoon, our stomachs rumbled as we walked past the dosawallahs. We hadn’t had any food since our in-flight meal. We were ravenous. Our Airbnb host had recommended us to get Pani puri from the well-reviewed Elco Complex but it would take another 30 minutes before we got there. Our hunger got the better of us and we decided to get a pre-Panipuri snack. A few dosa stalls, cooking alongside each other, had a healthy line of people. People got their dosas served on plastic plates and then ate them on the spot.
It took us a while to manage the logistics of eating it while standing but we managed. That $1/€0.86 Mysore Masala Dosa, a thin layer pancake with spicy potato filling that comes with red and coconut chutney, sent us to right to heaven with every bite. The dosa was fiery, hot to touch and bursting with the right amount of tangy zest and flavour. When was the last time I had a dosa this good? This stall wasn’t even on some TripAdvisor or GoogleReviews or Zomato yet this humble dosa was a revelation. Opposite us was an air-conditioned Starbucks, where the occasional tourist would wander in and out of. We were certain that, between those tourists and us, we were the ones having a much better experience. We waited for the stomach discomfort to set in but there were none.
Over the next few days, our food experience levelled up. With the help of Vish, a Couchsurfer and a proud Mumbaikar, we navigated through Mumbai to find its best kept secrets like a pro. Vish apparently had taken Trevor James, the Food Ranger from YouTube around, and this time, the honour was ours.
The street food scene in Mumbai aren’t just found on the streets and the back alleys. They are also in small humble cafes, double-storey air-conditioned restaurants and in bars with pool tables. Without Vish, we wouldn’t have discovered all these places. It was so exciting, walking from one place to another, within the span of 10 hours, eating, talking and drinking. We ate from plastic places, from our hands, from fancy china, from cones made from newspapers, from metal trays.
The best part? We didn’t get sick. Not one time.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE
In Mumbai, one cannot walk down the streets and not be confronted by human misery and pain. It comes in many forms: the undernourished strays scrambling around, the homeless who live on the sidewalks, the wizened old man carrying a heavy load on his back or pushing a wagon, the overwhelming makeshift huts that fringe the edges of the suburbs, the young taxiwallahs hustling desperately for passengers on the street.
It’s hard out there.
But in the midst of all that, people still toil on with a smile. That is the miracle. Their energy at living and at making the best out of everything, despite their destitute, are infectious.
In general, everyone was kind and hospitable to us. People stopped to offer help and information, even if they didn’t speak any English.
Vish, the Couchsurfer for instance, could have stopped hanging out with us after the food tour but he didn’t. He invited to his apartment to meet his family and to play with his son, he took us out to clubs with his friends and then fed us with supper at 2am. He was ready to share with us his life and his experiences. His sms would always start with, “You guys wanna try this? We’re going here to eat this. Wanna come?”
HOW SAFE IS IT AND WHAT SCAMS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Mumbai, despite its alleged reputation for crime and violence, felt safe to us. We didn’t feel threatened in any way or felt like we needed to watch out for our belongings at all times. We went to Gateway of India to watch the sunrise and it was fine. No hassling, no shady looking characters. The locals if anything were polite, friendly and helpful with their information. Apart from the airport taxi counter guy and the obvious scammer or store vendor, no one tried to make us part with our money. This is not to say that you shouldn’t be careful or watch out for your things. We’re saying that you should be vigilant, just like how you normally would in a foreign territory but don’t be paranoid about it.
We also didn’t encounter so many beggars. One look at Chris and there would be one or two opportunistic ones approaching us. They would ask us for something but usually kept their distance when we waved them away.
According to Vish, the real beggars, in need of food and basic necessities, don’t actually beg. Instead they sit around and resign to life. If we wanted to give something, he said, we could offer food. Whoever’s hungry would never say no to food.
There was however a clever man, who came to Chris, asking if he could shine his shoes for 50 Rupees. It was silly because Chris was wearing sneakers which obviously didn’t need any shoe-shinning. He spoke English well and kept convincing us to let him polish Chris’ shoes. He wheedled on. In the end, we decided that, instead of paying him for shoe shinning, we could buy him some food. This was when, he told us, he wanted us to go to a particular stall (he told us to come with him…somewhere in a dark alley) and gave us a list of food that he wanted. His list included some simple sandwiches which cost more than 100 Rupees. That was a lot of money for those sort of sandwiches. It became obvious to us that it was a scam and we walked away. He followed us to a point and then vanished. Vish later told us that no beggar would have such good English. Or would have been fussy with food choices.
EVERYTHING’S CHEAP EXCEPT FOR HOTELS AND THAT JAEGERMEISTER SHOT
Food is cheap. Transportation is cheap. Touristy bric-a-brac is cheap. Fashion Street on Linking Road has fashion goods that you can afford. But in 2018, The Economic Times named Mumbai as the 16th Most Expensive City for a good reason. Real estate is costly and hence, hotels and guesthouses come at a hefty price tag. Our Airbnb in Santa Cruz was actually a room in a family penthouse. It was an amazing stay, it was less than €40 a day but it was in a suburb. To travel to the main highlights of Mumbai, we had to commute at least 30-40 minutes by train.
We later moved to Hostel Residency in Fort area, which is a business district of Mumbai. Excellent location but the room was at least €65 per night. In terms of comfort and service, it was not as good as what we received at our Airbnb’s host. As the hotel was currently under renovation, there was constant noise inside and outside of the hotel. We didn’t see daylight from our room.
Apart from accommodation expenses, we thought we did pretty well on our budget. Until we partied at Wink, a swanky bar in Vivanta by Taj hotel with Vish and his friends. We hung around the bar and wanted a drink.
Vish declined our offer to get him a drink. “Not here, my friend. Not here.” We didn’t notice the ominous undertones of his refusal. We thought okay, so it could be pricey, but we got in for free, didn’t we? Besides, we were letting our hair down tonight. Live a little, right? I spotted a Jaegermeister sign and asked Chris if we should get a shot each. The bartender poured us each a shot and we downed it quickly. The bill didn’t come until the bartender knew that we weren’t going to have anymore drinks. Our eyes widened when we saw the bill. $25/€21.75 for two shots (42 ml) of neat Jaeger. This trumped our expensive beers at CE LA VIE Marina Bay Sands. It was the most precious alcohol that we’d consumed in our entire lives combined. If we knew it were going to be so expensive, we would have sipped it.
Moral of the story? Don’t get a drink at Wink.
COLORS AND POLLUTION
This is my first Indian city (unlike Chris, who has travelled around Northern India) so I don’t have a baseline to make my comparisons with. But comparing it to other major Asian cities, Mumbai was surprisingly not as filthy as it was made out to be. Yes, there were piles of trash in some parts of the city, plastic bags clogging up drainage and the shores of Marine Drive, and so on but the pavements were generally swept and kept free from litter. It was baffling but true.
What was not expected was, the overwhelming strong stench emanating from certain parts of the city. When our rickshaw drove by certain parts of the city, the smell hit us and we felt like gagging. That was unpleasant but it wasn’t everywhere. Then there was also all that perpetual noise. Angry honks, beeps, shuffling of feet, rumbling of engines, Bollywood music blaring, cries and shrieks, drilling and hammering. If you can meditate in this landscape of chaos, you can meditate anywhere in the world. The noise pollution can be punishing, especially when it has been a hot day and all you want to do is to retreat to somewhere quiet and air-conditioned. Perhaps a Starbucks would be a good sanctuary to escape to when you’re at wits end.
But if you can see past all that–all that chaos, you’ll find beauty in Mumbai’s colourful buildings and colonial architecture, in its vivid prayer marigold garlands and the women’s rustling saris, in its savoury snacks and sweet treats, in its different shades of spices and foods, in its brightly-painted vehicles and houses. Mumbai shouldn’t be defined by its slums, it should be defined by its spirit.
Five days were enough for us to give us a taste of Mumbai and we’d enjoyed ourselves. We came at a time where the catastrophic floods had just recently ended but it didn’t put a dent to the city’s spirit at all.
It was instead, business as usual.