The hotel manager knocked on our door in the morning and handed us two paper plates with a rolled pancake and plastic baggies with a white sauce in them. I later found out that this delicious pancake with spiced potatoes and creamy sauce was a Masala Dosa, and a perfect introduction to Indian food (and the spice that came with it).
The flight to Mumbai was short, but Byron was stuck next to the chattiest Indian lawyer who had recommendations for every area in India, and kept saying, “Man, you really should have come a few weeks ago to X place,” or “You just missed X big festival”. Gee, thanks. However, I think we were able to retain at least a few bits of helpful information in the hour-long nonstop conversation.
As the landing gear extended, the plane skimmed above a sea of corrugated tin roofs, cardboard and plastic walls, and mountains of garbage that made up the slums of Mumbai. The hodgepodge of shacks butted up against the fence of the runway, containing the poverty in its designated area. The lawyer told us that although these slums look like wretched places, these people still pay rent or own their land and it’s quite expensive due to the rising cost of property in Mumbai. He explained that the businesses the people run within the slum, like mechanic shops, seamstresses, and restaurants, did quite well and gave the owners a decent salary. These neighborhoods are most likely where they grew up, and where they are determined to stay.
The taxi to our hotel did not have AC, making the congested commute stiflingly hot. If I thought the traffic in Vietnam was lawless, it was nothing compared to India. Hundreds of yellow metal Hindustan Ambassador taxis (circa 1950) were in a free-for-all with cows in the middle of the road, motorcycles, ostentatiously painted trucks and buses, and the constant unpredictable flow of humans crossing at their convenience. The back of the trucks had the words “Horn OK Please” painted on, which only encouraged the cacophony of horns, shouting, bells, and whistles to get louder. After several near-collisions, we made it to our hotel, near the General Post Office and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station. Contrary to the scathing trip advisor reviews that the hotel received, the room was nice, clean, and most importantly–Air Conditioned.
We braved the heat once more to see some of the sights Mumbai is famous for, especially its heavily influenced architecture from during British rule. The General Post Office, Victoria Terminus, Mumbai University, and the Gateway to India were all constructed with elaborate stonework and European flair. Everywhere we walked was insanely crowded with merchants harassing us to buy something, women in full length saris, men constantly staring or children running around. On top of that, the air was filled with blaring horns, shouting people, and barking dogs. Our nostrils were assaulted with smells of garbage, sewage, and body odor, occasionally interrupted by a hint a pleasant spice or incense. It was overwhelming and incredible at the same time, especially as I reminded myself to embrace this madness and accept it for all that it is.
The Gateway to India is a massive arch built at the end of a pier, theoretically connecting the city with the ocean. The area is littered with touts trying to get you to buy photos, and tourists attempting to take a picture just right to create the illusion of themselves holding the arch in their palm. We took a few photos of our own, but then started getting asked to be in other families’ photos. Indian women rushed up to me and smushed me in between their sister, their child, and themselves in order to get a photo with a blonde western girl. I was quite flattered at first, but it soon became an annoyance and became a pretty common occurrence during the rest of my time in India.
We wandered along the waterfront, past the impressive Taj Mahal Hotel, chai-wallahs, horse carriages, and vendors selling souvenirs. Away from the water, we weaved in between alleyways through neighborhoods and markets of shacks built from reused plastic signs, tarps, scraps of metal and wood. Children ran around chasing dogs while women did laundry on stone steps or washed their hair from a bucket of water.
Our first dinner in India made me thankful not to be subjected to the bland Vietnamese food any more. Our Colaba restaurant served butter chicken, chapati, rice, and Chana masala. We waddled out of the restaurant with full stomachs and continued down to the Sassoon docks, which reeked of fish from a kilometer away. Our walk back to the hotel brought us past impromptu markets in the streets where you could buy anything from saris to briefs, iPhone cases to antiques, and Bollywood movies to Hollywood movies.