Introduction to Mumbai
Flying from Udaipur to Mumbai, we had to leave our driver of three weeks behind. Such as shame, as he was excellent at his job, and a lovely human being. Met our new driver at Mumbai airport – what a crazy place! Thank goodness we were pretty much the first off the plane and the first to get our luggage, because it still took 15 minutes to just get in a lift to get to the carpark! Others coming after us would have taken at least half an hour, if not longer.
It was an hour drive to the hotel from the airport – we thought Delhi traffic was crazy, but it’s got nothing on Mumbai, baby! It took us about 10 minutes just to get into the driveway of our hotel. There were so many people on holiday that there was nowhere that was not packed to the gills with tourists and locals.
City Tour Mumbai
A peaceful night’s sleep at the glorious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (see our article about the hotel here) was excellent preparation for our first full day in the city. There was a different driving dynamic with this driver – he was older and more aggressive in his dealings with the traffic, but clearly, he needed to be in this city! His ability with English presented the occasional challenge, but we all managed.
Our Mumbai driver also did not seem to have a plan of attack for where to take us during our time there, well, not a plan that was about seeing the sites that we were particularly interested in! (But more of that in a moment!) I made him a list of things we wanted to do and handed it over.
We began our first day of sightseeing at the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum – the house where Gandhi lived in Mumbai. It has been transformed into a tiny, but very interesting museum, full of photographs and some letters that he wrote (including ones to Hitler and Roosevelt). His office has been conserved as it was when he was assassinated, and that alone was enough to give you deep understanding of who this man was and for what he stood and believed in.
I had read about the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat – the largest washing ghat in India, and the size of the place and the scope of what they do there was most impressive. This is where all the sheets and towels from the hotels get laundered. What was surprising was how clean they are able to get the laundry and what a hard, physical a task it is!
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (previously known as Victoria Terminus) was high on our list of places to see. It is the biggest British edifice in India. I think our driver was disappointed that we wanted to actually go in and not just look at it through the window from the car! I am starting to understand the interests of his usual clientele (he wanted to take us to McDonalds for lunch, but we requested something local). Glad we insisted on getting out for a look; the inside of the terminus was a fascinating ants nest of individuals scurrying with intent. Our visit was outside of peak period, so I can only imagine the volume of people in the early morning work rush. At the end of each platform there was a shoe-shine guy with a line of people wanting to avail themselves of his services. We had a quick look around and started to head back to our driver, only to find him with his foot up on a foot perch having a shine! Clearly a lucrative business that provides quality work!
After lunch, our driver’s boss called and spoke to me to explain that the city tour was over and that we would now be taken shopping. This call set the tone for the rest of the days with our driver, and it was not a tone I liked. I told the boss that we had no interest in shopping, and that the driver had missed a museum that was right next to another sight we had already visited that day. He was not particularly interested in my concerns about the museum and pushed again with the shopping ‘suggestion.’ I was firm but polite in my ‘no’, and we arranged for the missed museum to be added to another day, as well as requesting a tour of Dharavi Slum.
Our final tour item of the day was the Afghan Memorial Church of John the Baptist, which actually is not an Afghani church, but is a memorial to the 16,000 who lost their lives in the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1842.
Our second full day was sans car and driver, and, thus NO TRAFFIC! The traffic in Mumbai really is obscene. We actually spent more time in the car than out of it on our first day of touring.
A nice early start to the day meant there were none of the usual crowds around the Gateway to India, and no gigantic line, which is there for the rest of the day and night, AND no hassles getting through security. The first boat was due to leave at 9am, but as others had the same idea as us, a full boat pulled out at 8:50am filled with Indians and a couple of tourists. The hour journey passed so quickly because pretty much every person on the boat wanted a selfie with me. Two teenage girls offered us homemade kulcha (leavened bread) and were calling me ‘aunty.’ So sweet. This sign of respect was bestowed the other day in a restaurant when a woman was changing her two year old’s ‘pull ups’ and was encouraging him to speak English and call me ‘aunty.’ Loving it.
A train on the dock of Elephanta Island moves people from the ferry to the base of the stepped walk if they are not particularly mobile. After the day before of sitting on our bums in a car, that was a ‘no’ from us. There was also the option to take a carry chair to the top of the hill lifted by four fit and burly men. We skipped that as well and braved what we thought would be an onslaught of hard sell from the stall owners along the path, but really, it was more half-hearted than any other so far. The guides were a little more instant, but we just kept walking and didn’t respond. The caves were interesting, especially in their cultural significance, but the best bit of the excursion was really just the joy of being out without a driver – the ferry, the walking up a big hill, the snapping of monkey pics!
Decided on a visit to the National Gallery of Contemporary Art, but were not at all impressed by the outrageous price hike on the entrance fee and their customer service in general. Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides had the entrance fee at 150 rps, and I do understand that published prices are often out of date, but the new price was 500 rps per person. Now, the price itself was not a huge issue, but when the ticket office had no credit card facilities and SAID they couldn’t change a 2000 rupee note, they clearly did not want our custom.
Instead, we went across the road to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, now the full name is Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), the biggest and best museum in Mumbai. THEY had credit card facilities. AND some fantastic exhibits. AND didn’t make us leave our bags in lockers.
Our final tour day in Mumbai was a bit of a fizzer for the whole middle section of the day, but luckily, we had a good morning and afternoon.
We were told by our driver’s boss that we would be collected at 9:30am so we could see the museum that he overlooked the other day, and our Dharavi Slum tour was scheduled for 4pm. When the boss told us this, I questioned the big chunk of time in the middle. Wouldn’t it be better to have the tour earlier or the museum later? Apparently, no, there was “much planned”. Bollocks. This is what was so frustrating about most about the day – time wasted sitting in traffic and doing stuff we weren’t interested in, when we could’ve been relaxing by the pool. The real reason for the big chunk of unallocated time, was he wanted us to go shopping so he could get his commission (either boss or driver or both).
So in the middle of the day we played a ‘killing time’ game, and we hit Basilica Mount Mary, walked along a beach and drove past Bollywood stars’ homes that looked like everyone else’s! Our driver seemed a little annoyed that we didn’t know any of the names of the stars he was mentioning. We were taken to a Hare Krishna temple that was supposed to be wonderful, but it was closed 1-4pm, and we arrived at 1:15pm. Sigh. But there was an option of lunch at Govinda’s: a vegetarian buffet restaurant attached to the temple. It was over priced, but there were not a lot of other options. I guess value for money was in the ability to consume a large quantity.
Quickly scouring the guide books for something else that was not shopping, we settled on the Dr Bhau Dadji Lad Museum and asked to be taken there. The museum itself was delightful, both in the architecture and content. It was a Victorian era building that had recently undergone restoration inside and out, all freshly painted and glowing with history. It contained many displays of interest, but we were charmed by the dioramas depicting the history of India. The only negative of this visit was the setting of the museum in a park with a rather sad and neglected zoo. The animals were in poorly maintained enclosures and looked miserable.
One item on the list of things we wanted to do was the street art wall that is over 2km long. I asked if it was going to be part of the Dharavi tour, as we were starting to run out of time to fit it in. He said it was. It wasn’t. We could’ve spent time actually doing something we specifically asked to do instead of sitting in traffic for two hours. The traffic time was all about getting us to a shop where they wanted us to spend money, and despite my clear comments that I did not want to go shopping, he insisted on driving us there. It was only when I refused to get out of the car that he believed me. So disappointed in this experience – nothing at all like our driver, Anand, in Rajasthan.
Dharavi Slum tour
A freelance guide called Maze022 (who was also a rapper) and who lives in the slum, showed us around. It was a fascinating lesson in ingenuity, industry and culture. This community generates $6 billion annually and is the second largest slum in the world (the Rio Favelas are the largest). Maze said, “It’s a 5 star slum.” It has hospitals, schools, colleges, fire stations, police stations and shops. There is no need for residents to leave the slums. The multi-layered industry in this compact area is extraordinary. It is a huge recycling industry: plastics, cardboard, metals, car parts, everything. It also produces clothing, leather and pottery. Some developed countries even send their waste to India to process at Dharavi. Since the release of the film Slumdog Millionaire the community of Dharavi have been trying to change their image. They are proud of their community. In fact, they have plans to go ‘high rise’ – 2 or 3 stories. Dharavi is the most prestigious of communities of its kind, and as a result, a lot of people can’t afford the rent to live there.
Our journey through India finished in Mumbai, but I am sure we will return for further exploration – there is so much of this country to see and experience, and we only scratched the surface in the four states we visited.
Our journey continues into Sri Lanka with a visit to Kandy…
Accommodation: The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel