It’s fair to say Mumbai was not what I was expecting. Before visiting, I remember reading Lonely Planet’s description of the city which used words and phrases like “cultural capital of cool”, “stylish nightclubs,” “Bollywood,” and “India’s elite”. Mumbai was the first stop on our trip around India and ironically I believed this to be a good thing as I thought a modern metropolis would be the best place to bed us in gently to a country which is notoriously challenging. I say ironically because I was wrong in thinking this. I was very very wrong.
On our first night in Mumbai, following a long flight from Scotland and after checking in to our far-more-rustic-than-the-price-would-suggest-hotel (which would emerge as a pattern throughout India), Paul said he was going outside to find a shop to get a bottle of water. Our hotel was in the heart of Mumbai city centre so we didn’t foresee any problem with this. He came back around 20 minutes later, his face white. “It… is… crazy out there,” he said. Bear in mind at this point Paul and I were not novice travellers. We had travelled extensively around the world, including to many third world countries with poor infrastructure. We would not have been easily daunted by a bit of chaos. Still, I dismissed Paul’s reaction as the result of jet lag and we both went to bed.
The next day, when we both went out to explore the city, it became clear he was not exaggerating. The best way to describe Mumbai is to say it is like Paris….. if Paris had been left to go to ruin and become completely lawless with no rules or regulations keeping it clean and civilised. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of order: people living on the pavements, traffic screeches wildy past, the locals are constantly, pushing, shoving, staring, following you, trying to rip you off. The city is made up of spectacular old buildings which are filthy and falling apart. Rather than the Western style metropolis I was expecting, I found Mumbai the most difficult destination on all of our travels around India, far more so than the capital, Delhi.
When Paul and I visit a city we like to get out and explore it on foot, spending our days wandering its neighbourhoods. In Mumbai this was extremely difficult. There is definitely money in Mumbai, it is the 12th richest city in the world, but there is a mammoth discrepancy between rich and poor and the rich are rarely seen on its city streets – they must hide away somewhere in five star hotel nightclubs and gated apartment communities. Paul and I did see glimpses of it; we went for a drink in a reasonably posh bar and overheard an eye opening conversation from the people beside us, students who had studied overseas and appeared to be very spoiled and very wealthy. We also went up to the five star Hilton Hotel for a drink on their rooftop bar and turned away when we discovered it was £20 to get in – this is just to get into the bar, not for a drink! In India things seemed be very rustic or very swanky, with few options in between.
Despite these complaints, Mumbai was a fascinating city and one, which despite its difficulties, I am glad I visited. I will certainly never forget it. I have discussed the challenges and rewards of travelling around India in this more detailed blog post and I feel Mumbai is the destination which encapsulates my views of the country the most: frustrating but exhilarating. Here’s what we did in Mumbai:
(Prints of the photography in this article, along with many other prints of Mumbai and India, can be purchased in my Etsy shop).
India as a country is obsessed with cricket and Oval Maidan, a large grassy lawn in the city centre of Mumbai, is one of the country’s most iconic cricket spots. Paul and I took a walk there and watched the locals play in their pristine whites.
Chhatrapat Shivaji Terminus
Chhatrapat Shivaji Terminus is one of the most famous buildings in India. The train station, one of the busiest in the country, is a spectacular example of Victorian gothic architecture. We squeezed our way through the packed crowds and busy traffic to survey the striking building.
We then made our way over to Crawford Market, the busiest market in Mumbai. Like everywhere else in the city the market was absolutely packed and you had to jostle for space to move around. Most of the stalls, mainly selling fruit and veg, are located inside the main market building but there are also many stalls in the streets outside. Crawford Market is also where we encountered one of the countless scams we were subjected to in India: a man accosted us, told us as we were foreign we needed a tour guide to show us around and asked to be paid at the end. All nonsense.
Gateway of India
We then made our way down to the Gateway of India, a colonial built archway which sits at Mumbai Harbour. The structure was very impressive but what struck me most about our visit there was the number of people who approached Paul to ask to get a picture taken with him! Four separate groups of people! I guess he did stand out, being very pale and over six foot tall. Paul happily posed for photos, content to play the role of the exotic big whitey.
Taj Mahal Hotel
Opposite the Gateway of India was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a hugely impressive five star hotel built in 1903. The hotel, the Gateway of India opposite and the harbour behind was an impressive waterfront scene, similar to the Bund in Shanghai. But unlike the Bund there were no nice shops or restaurants nearby, there was a lot of poverty, and it was very dirty.
On our second day, which happened to be Christmas Day, we headed to Marine Drive, a two mile boulevard which stretches along the coast. It is a popular spot for Mumbai locals to strong along and it also offers views of the city skyline.
We then visited Khotachiwadi, a heritage village. The main reason we visited Khotachiwadi was because it is mainly made up Christians and as it was Christmas Day we thought there might be some festivities. There wasn’t really, just a few small displays and Christmas trees.
We then wandered over to Chowpatty, a beach in front of Marine Drive in the centre of Mumbai. The beach was very crowded and the only sign of Christmas was a few people wearing Santa hats. Once again, Paul received a lot of attention and a few photo requests. Like pretty much everywhere else in Mumbai, Chowpatty was very dirty and filled with litter. I definitely would not have risked a dip in the sea.
The following day (Boxing Day, which doesn’t mean anything in India) we went over to see Dhobi Ghat, a massive open air laundromat. We stood on a bridge above it and surveyed the rows and rows of laundry hanging to dry and workers washing the clothes in basins by hand.
Haji Ali Mosque
We then visited Haji Ali Mosque, one of the most recognisable landmarks of Mumbai. The Lonely Planet description made it sound picturesque: it described a white mosque “floating like a mirage” at the end of a causeway leading into the sea. The reality was a grubby building surrounded by piles of rubbish (the sea water around it had dried up). The mosque was also a place where we got a lot of attention for being white; we were followed, had photograph requests, and at one point looked out to see a huge crowd of people watching us! It was like how I imagine it must be like to be famous.
The Great Wall Of Mumbai
After escaping the crowds at the Haji Ali Mosque, we made our way to one of my favourite sights in Mumbai, The Great Wall of Mumbai. The Great Wall Of Mumbai is a two kilometre stretch of wall which has been taken over by street artists who have painted their observations, frustrations and hopes for the city on the dilapidated stone. I can only begin to imagine what it most be like to live in a city as rich, chaotic and overwhelming as Mumbai – on that wall I caught a glimpse into the mindset of a Mumbaikar.
Toy train to Matheran
On our last day in Mumbai we got the toy train to Matheran, a hilltop town (the less said about navigating the queues at the train station in Mumbai the better). The toy train is over a hundred years old and is dinky and slow, meandering its way through the gorgeous mountain scenery of Maharashtra. We shared the small carriage with an Indian family who had a chatty, hilarious daughter who could speak perfect English. She told us all about her plans to be a Bollywood star and advised me to go back to Scotland wearing a sari “they will be very shocked.” Matheran is very scenic but our bright white skin was a beacon for hawkers who, as we experience throughout India, were very pushy. As were the monkeys, one of who stole my packet of crisps!
P.S. India Photography Prints in my Etsy Shop and Travelling Around India? You Should Know These Things First