The slums came into view as the plane lowered towards the runway. They piled upon each other disjointedly; ramshackles with roofs and garbage strewn about. More than eight million people live in these settlements in Mumbai, the biggest of which is Dharavi, population one million. Poverty aside,the first thing I noticed about India, as many people who have visited here have, is the liberal ways in which drivers use their horns as they whip around corners in rickshaws, motorcycles and cars. But amidst the poverty and chaos, India is welcoming: its culture is both ancient and fascinating and people are friendly and eagerly helpful.
Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay is known for its role as India’s financial capital and the center film-Bollywood. As the capital of Maharashtra, it is also steeped in history. Ten kilometers off the coast of the city in the Arabian Sea is the island of Elephanta (formerly known as Dharapuri before the Portuguese renamed it during the age of colonialism), a man-made cave temple carved out of a mountain in dedication to Lord Shiva.
Overwhelming as it is, there are a couple no-brainer destinations.True to its reputation, Leopold Cafe was packed with expats, jaded tourists and fun loving locals alike. So, if you like beer and a bustling atmosphere, check out Leopold’s. People say Shantaram author Gregory David Roberts still makes frequent appearances. Its certainly worth a visit, as is the Colaba market at night time to see tons of arts and crafts and tons and tons of other useless crap. Be prepared to say no and heckle. Try it after splitting one of Leopold’s signature iced Kingfisher beer taps. People here are unbelievably industrious, so give them the credit they deserve. Check out this kid I met at the Hanging Gardens who speaks twelve languages:
If you’re more into getting off the beaten track, head to Hotel Kamat by the (huge) Mangaldas Market for the cheapest and best cuisine from South India to the Punjab. A large and delicious lunch for three was Rs 450, or about US$10. Afterwards, head to Mangaldas Market, an open air bazaar filled with everything and anything. There are tons of vibrant spices here, but be prepared to be taken advantage of on the price.
The food here is unreal. Another place worth checking out is Samrat by the financial area for its famous Gujarati tali plates. Tackling a tali plate is like an all-you-can-eat arena of food fun complete with sweet, sour, savoury and other flavors I didn’t think met a particular category.What my friend David and I determined later over dinner was that the key to eating Indian food is not being intimidated and not being afraid to stick your (right) hand all up in your mouth. We decided this could be a life lesson…minus the hand in mouth part.
One could live in Mumbai for a part of a lifetime amidst the horn honking, chaiwallas smog and slums (read Shantaram)and still know only the essence of the city, not its full flavor. I couldn’t catch enough sunrises over the India Gate-the beautiful stone structure backdropped by the Arabian Sea that the British departed under in 1947-if you paid me. This city pulsates with a unique heart, one that is inherently Indian, but global as well. With the 20 million people, more than 50,000 fiat taxis and nearly 100,000 rickshaws or tuk-tuks, Mumbai is a true sight to behold.
Sitting and writing at the Taj Hotel, the incessant sounds outside reminds me that the city is an organic entity. Mumbai is composed of slum dwellers, Bollywood big shots, chaiwallas, taxi drivers, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Jews, Parsis and pariahs; they all call this place home. For the passerby, the enjoyment is in watching the city beat, and trying to catch a few.