Before our last world cruise, we never thought we wanted to go to India, but then we had an incredible experience and were looking forward to returning this time. Now that we have visited Cochin, Mangalore and Goa on this trip, we were waiting to explore Mumbai where we only spent one day last time.
What can I say about Mumbai? It is a study in contrasts. First of all, 22 million people live in the city, so it is a mass of humanity everywhere you go. You see the world’s most expensive home with more than 800 rooms, worth 1 billion dollars, some of Asia’s biggest slums, fashionably dressed people and people sleeping on the streets. Like New York, Mumbai is a city that never sleeps. And it is safe to walk around anywhere at any time of day or night. It is illegal to own guns and street crime is minimal. While many people who have never visited here have seen Slumdog Millionaire and have their impression of the slums from that movie, it is both similar and different. There are rich people living in the slums, this is what they know, and of course there are the very poor. Some of the places are just lean-tos and others have rooms but the conditions are very crowded. These are mostly hard working people, though, you don’t see them lying about. We heard that many get up and go to work at 3 AM and work until 10 PM.
The city is the capital of Maharashtra and it came into existence by the clustering of seven swampy islands which were formed into one island during the British rule. The word Mumbai is derived from Mumba Devi, the patron Goddess of the Koli fisherfolk, the oldest inhabitants of Mumbai. Now there is not much fishing in the harbor as hundreds of container ships and other vessels are here and the waters are quite polluted. The fishermen travel out to the sea for a week or more and then return with their catch. The air is pretty polluted too, you can’t see across the massive harbor. During monsoon season it can clear for days at a time. Monsoon season starts next week and we are the last cruise ship to come here until September. India is also home to the second largest Navy in the world, second only to the US.
The bureaucracy can drive you mad here. We had another face to face inspection before we could get off the ship. You need to have your yellow landing card and a copy of your passport and they were checked AGAIN three times before we could leave the port. And this happens every time you leave and come back.
There are stray dogs everywhere and because the Hindu people believe that every living being has a soul, they are allowed to live wherever they want. The traffic is unbelievable and as one of our tour guides said “pretend it is music and you will get used to the honking!” There are thousands of cabs and they maneuver around in ways that you wouldn’t believe! But somehow they don’t hit people or dogs or have accidents.
The train system is something to see. Trains (about 3000 daily) arrive and depart every 3-4 minutes here and carry 7.5 million commuters each day, some people travel up to 5 hours to and from work. There are separate cars for men and women and while the cars are made to carry 1700 passengers each, they are packed with 3x as many. The trains are not air conditioned and have no windows and doors so people are seen hanging out of them as they flash by. It is estimated that if the train tracks were laid out, they would circle the equator three times.
In 1996 Bombay was renamed Mumbai as part of a wider policy to replace names of any places, roads and features in the city that had connotations to the Raj. Because it was a decision by the state and not the nation, some of the Indian National buildings still have Bombay in their names.
On our first day in Mumbai, we hoped to meet Bhaskar, an ICF colleague. But as it turned out he was in an entirely different area of Mumbai and the timing didn’t work out as we had an evening tour scheduled. So we took a cab and made our way to the Gateway of India, on the massive harbor of Mumbai. There are separate lines for ladies and men to get in, and we had our bags checked too. This structure was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 and is considered the principal landmark of Mumbai. It is over 85 feet high and has four turrets and intricate latticework carved into yellow basalt stone.
After a bit of walking and having people wanting pictures with us, we went to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the first 5 star hotel in India. It was also the site of the 2008 bomb attack and we saw them carefully checking cars up and down and sideways. We had to go through a scanner to get into the hotel.
The hotel is truly massive and beautiful. This fresh flower arrangement in the lobby was just spectacular.
We did some shopping in the stores that are inside the hotel (pictures later as I wear the lovely caftan and the blouse that I bought). We then decided to have lunch in the Sea Lounge restaurant in the hotel. It was a beautiful place and we were seated by a window overlooking the harbor and harborwalk where we watched a colorful assortment of people pass by.
After our lunch, we shopped in the street markets where I bought a pair of shoes. And how entertaining it was! There are no shoe boxes on the display floor, just one of each of the shoes, presented beautifully. When you choose one you want to try on, the man (and it was all men) who is waiting on you yells up to a loft and someone throws down the box or boxes of shoes. When you don’t want one, the man tosses it back up. It was fun to see.
As you know, I love markets and here they sell anything and everything and it can be quite overwhelming, both the crowds and the merchandise. But fun.
We returned to the ship to cool off, shower and dress for our evening excursion, Bombay by lights. When the sun goes down and the lights come on, Mumbai becomes quite an entertainment center. Our guide was Maleini. She pointed out many landmarks which are beautifully lit up at night. We traveled past the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the Gateway to India, the Victoria Terminus train station and the Art Deco Marine Drive, referred to the Queen’s Necklace at night due to the vision it creates with the curved shape of the bay being accented by thousands of sparkling lights. There were many people on the beach and Maleini said they mostly go at night, never dress in bathing suits or swim and completely cover up in the day since they think their skin is brown enough and they don’t want to be exposed to the sun.
We also visited the night market which was the same market we went to during the day! It was busier, if you can believe it. Friendly people but no time to bargain and buy because we were on our way to a Bollywood movie at the Regal Cinema Hall, Bombay’s first Art Deco theater. We saw a movie, Noor, which was in “Hinglish”, a combination of Hindi and English. Very interesting and it was enough for us to understand the story. And they served us popcorn! We didn’t get to finish the movie, though, because the port gates close at 11 PM and we had one more stop to make for drinks at a Mumbai bar. We intend to download the movie and finish it when back in the US so we can find out what happens.
Bollywood is the combination of Bombay and Hollywood and the motion picture industry here is the world’s largest. Mumbai accounts for almost 60% of the Indian productions and they are really well done.
We stopped for drinks and snacks at Geoffrey’s and it is a good thing they poured the wine continuously because all of the snacks except one burned my mouth! The innocent looking quiche like thing was a 5 alarm fire. We shared our table with this fun couple from Belgium.
On the way back to the ship, we saw some of the crowds on the streets and the night vendors. Limeade is very popular and they make it up fresh. And of course there are bananas everywhere.
The next day we had a tour planned – the Elephanta caves. Our guide was Sudha, which she told me means “nectar”. We drove to the Gateway of India and boarded our boat to travel 9 nautical miles to the Gharapuri Island which took about an hour. The view from the water was nice, but we were cautioned not to take any pictures of the Navy boats and the island just off the harbor which is now uninhabited but may serve some function for the Navy. It was a museum for a time but only the Navy was allowed to enter which didn’t prove too lucrative!
No one seemed to pay attention to this sign on the boat, and Sudha didn’t even know about it! We sat on the upper level of the boat and had a nice breeze all the way there. Part way, we were stopped by a police boat (who knows why) but we were afraid to take any pictures.
We arrived on the island to see a very long pier which had a train to take you to the island. But the train wasn’t working. There are 2000 people living on the island in 3 villages. There is no electricity on the island and they are dependent on Mumbai for everything. During the monsoon season no boats can get there so they depend on dried food.
There is lots of trash around, and we were laughing at this sign with the trash right behind it.
The island resembles twin hillocks rising from the sea with the caves located halfway up the higher of the two. There are 120 steps to climb. For $30 (plus tip) you could ride in one of these chairs with four men carrying you. Not for us, but some people took advantage of it.
Vendors lined the way up and some followed us to get us to buy, but Sudha told us to wait until the way down.
The cave is carved out of solid basalt rock and represents Mount Kailash, the heavenly mountain residence of Lord Shiva. They were carved starting in the 5th century! The cave complex is a collection of shrines, courtyards and porticos filled with stone sculptures and reliefs of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. The Portuguese renamed the island Elephanta after discovering a large stone elephant statue near the shore. Unfortunately many of the sculptures inside were damaged by the Portuguese who took potshots at the Hindu Gods with their rifles but what remains is quite amazing. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987. Sudha took us around to each of the huge panels and described their meaning. She says that she sees Hinduism as not a religion but as a way of life and each of the panels does have a story to tell.
We were amazed by the quality of the carvings, the stories and the preservation over all these years.
Lots of monkeys live on the island and we saw other animals too!
It was a great day. On the way back, Sudha told us of her 13 years of trying to get her father to accept marriage to the man she loved. When he finally agreed, they got married 18 days later! She now has a 14 year old son and loves her career.
Back to the ship after a wonderful 2 days in Mumbai. Now we have 2 days at sea before arriving in Dubai. Tonight, dinner with two senior officers and milk and cookies with the captain!