The short two and a half hour flight from Dubai to Mumbai was nearly over. The captain had pinged ‘crew to landing positions’ as the lumbering aircraft lost height and descended upon the hazy overcast metropolis. All of a sudden we were catapulted into a scene from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as we overflew Mumbai’s infamous slums that surround the airport with shacks and dens right up to the end of the runway. Never before have we seen such a dense compression of humanity, this textured carpet of khaki corrugated cardboard and pallet housing occasionally set off by the odd blue tarpaulin. Yellowed electric lighting winked out here and there from cracks in the labyrinth and everywhere tiny little people were going about their business.
We took a prepaid taxi from the airport. What a fantastic idea! You tell the controller where you want to go, pay a fixed amount up front and then the driver takes you there with no extra charges for traffic hold-ups or detours, nor likelihood of any dumb-tourist taxi-scams. We hit the city at the onslaught of rush hour for an introductory taste of Indian driving. First impressions; it looked no worse than Iran but with a lot more ‘horn’. In Europe the horn is used as a last resort to warn someone suddenly that they may have not seen you. In places like Romania and Bulgaria it was used much more aggressively to signify ‘get out of the bloody way – can’t you see I’m in a hurry… MOVE IT!!! NOW!!!’ Here in India the horn is used in an altogether more polite manner; just a quick ‘mink’ to let the car in front know you are about to cut them up! Thing is, everyone does it but we didn’t see anyone get irate or lose their temper. In fact some big trucks have the words ‘Horn, Please!’ written large across their rear; they just want other road users to announce their arrival and intent to pass.
We drove past more slums. Staring out through the smudgy glass in the back of our little Hyundai taxi, the dwellings reminded me of huts and dens we made as kids in Belfast on wasteground out of old pallets and bits of wood, the gaps stuffed with plastic bags. Yet here families were actually living, wall-to-wall, in such accommodations right up to the kerb of this 6-lane highway. Later we learned that over half of the population in Mumbai live in these slums encompassing everything from beggars and street-hawkers to blue-collar workers. The word ’slum’ implies poverty and underprivilege but the view from our hour or so in the taxi showed an awful lot of industry, activity and community going on as well.
We selected the ‘Dakshin Heritage Hotel’ in Navi Mumbai (New Bombay) to be close to the port for our dealings with the shipping line when the bikes arrive. We took a walk round the block, stepping over a sprawl of sleeping dogs on the pavement outside the front door. Immediately our nostrils were assailed by the pungent whiff of spicy food from the temperance of street vendors just along the way. Around the corner a couple of guys were servicing huge office photocopiers, their tangled innards of gears, springs and inky-stained rollers cluttered all over the pavement. Another shop was busy re-covering sofas with garish fabrics, while next door a tiny shop-like manufactory of stainless steel furniture clanged and banged, the tang of grinder grit and metal polish joining the nasal assault. We were enjoying a case of first-degree culture shock, a mix and mash of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures at once so incongruous with each other, yet an assemblage unlike anything else we’ve ever encountered on this planet.
Time then for our first culinary foray, but first an ice-cold beer ending the enforced Dubai drought! Dinner tonight was a fish sheekh-kebab followed by a voluptuous vegetable jalfrezi, mopped up with buttery nan bread, both dishes making any previous Indian food we’ve ever eaten seem like insipid imposters. The following morning another walk and agriculture was added to industry. We watched a fisherman, with his wife and kid, marking off about fifty metres of busy road with rocks and then spread out a haul of shrimp to dry them in the sun, seemingly oblivious of the risk of traffic over-running their harvest. We paid 35p for a guy to slice and chop the top off a coconut, serving it up with a straw for a quick and healthy beverage as we absorbed the magnificent tapestry that is life in India…
One of the delights of travel are the happy collisions with the strange, the new and the unexpected, be it people, sights, foodstuffs, animals, customs and so on. Travelling through most foreign places, these collisions happen now and again and can shock, stun and delight but the incident rate is somewhat measured. That is, up to now. So far in India they are happening endlessly every day; it is ‘travel on steroids’ and it is incredible. On our third day in Mumbai we rode the train for an hour into the big city. We felt like true hoboes as the sliding doors to every carriage were wide open and we could hang out the side for photographs of the passing scenes of life in Mumbai. Huge office blocks, then massive slums with mile after mile of humanity heaped on piles of garbage. Vignettes of kids playing cricket and badminton amidst the squalor, tiny patches of agriculture as people harvested crops grown along the railside and the unforgettable sight of a couple of blokes squatting and having a poo on live rail-lines where minutes before an express train had just blasted past. Mumbai’s rail network moves ten million people every day, that’s nearly three times the entire population of Ireland – every day!
Having arrived in Mumbai at the grand central station (modeled on London St Pancras) we wandered the streets down to see the famous ‘Gateway to India’. As I snapped some photographs Maggie was graciously approached by a lovely little family and invited to have her photograph taken with them. A passing gentleman approached and explained that the family were all visiting from the country and Maggie was the first foreigner they had ever set eyes on. Later, we wound up at the tip of the peninsular in Colaba where we found a busy general street market near the docks area with a lot of brightly coloured fruit and veg stands served by smiling animated people and beautiful women in shockingly vivid saris. We saw a few chickens running loose, then some untethered goats, one of which was rubbing his head on the serrated motorcycle seat cover of a little Indian built ‘Hero Honda’. Turning a corner a young lady led an enormous bullock down the footpath and we took shelter in a doorway to let them pass, incredulous that this was all happening in the midst of such a vast urban setting as Mumbai, miles away from any countryside.
The seafood market announced itself upon our nostrils by a pungent piscine perfume. A woman was gutting fish on the ground. A few feet away lay a reasonably fresh dead rat covered in flies. The same flies were on a rotational migration to her fish… Then we heard a ‘clippity-clop’ sound and turned to see a young man mounted on a striking white stallion with a beautiful gold-embroidered, red saddlecloth. He rode into the midst of the throng then stopped to chat with a couple of mates; another surreal sight in this mad and crazy wonderland…
Returning to our hotel we saw the tail end of a rat disappear down a bolthole behind a power distribution box at the corner of our street. Walking past the same site the following day, ‘Ratty’ was there on top of his mound, a splendid specimen of rodent, feasting on leftover fast-food from the street vendors down the way. Anywhere else we would be horrified, but here it somehow seems normal; we now expect to see ‘Ratty’ at the corner of the street; the shock has gone and it’s all accepted as just another part of the magnificent kaleidoscope that is India. We both feel that everything that has happened on our 5-month journey to reach here has been a mere prelude to something great, something fantastic… That ‘thing’ is India and we are chomping at the bit to see more…
The full Photogallery for this post can be accessed by clicking on this link: Mumbai – Gateway to India