Mumbai, India

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Mumbai, India

Monday, June 8, 2009

I have now been on several airlines; Swissair, British Airways, South African Airlines and Emirates and in several airports – most recently the Mumbai International Airport – lots of people from many, many different countries – all doing the same things. We watch the clocks – crane our necks around other people to read the departure boards – follow signs to our gate number – stand in security lines – stand in a passport/visa line and go through customs.  I hear all sorts of accents and languages and while much of it I don’t understand – I know that we are all there for the same purpose – to get from point A to Point B with our sanity and our luggage.

On another note — international flights rock!

On every flight since leaving Miami, I’ve been offered hot towels, a fresh pillow and a blanket upon arrival.  I’ve also been given a menu from which to choose my meals – ooooohhhh – a choice!  And the meals are really good!  They offer a vegetarian, fish and meat option plus salad, cheese, roll, desert and chocolate.  But the real bonus is the free alcohol!  Everything is complimentary except champagne.   I’ve chosen to take advantage of this offer — it helps me achieve that sanity goal.  I travel with all the usual comfort items – hand lotion, face towels and face lotion, visine eye moisturizer, gum, water, breakfast bar (just in case), reading material, music and other misc items that ensure my flights will be stress-free and so far…so good!

The headphones I’m given on each flight offer the option of TV shows, movies, games or music.  Today, I’m writing and listening to some music and the options change depending on where I’m headed.  Today, some of my music selections are Euromix, New Asia, Chinese Beat, Ichiban, Ghazals, Musikwelt, and Globa Jukebox.   I’m sampling a little of everything.The on-board announcements are made in a variety of languages too.  Today, they’re given first in Arabic, then Indian and third, in english.  It takes a while to get through it all but everyone is happy.  Flying…the great equalizer.  We’re all in the same “boat” so to speak – just trying to get to our next destination with as little muss and fuss as possible.

I’ve just and it’s official – I’m the only blonde on the flight from Dubai to Mumbai.  Actually, from what I could see, I believe I was the only westerner as well.  I followed the other passengers through the airport towards baggage claim and down an escalator where we were met by a sign that read “Screening of passengers against swine flu.”  There was a man wearing an infectious disease mask in front of us handing out forms for us to fill out with questions like – Do you have a fever?  Do you have any  flu symptoms? Are you coming from the UK, Spain, NZ, Israel, Germany, Austria, Canada, Mexico or the United States?   No, No, and No.  They stamped me.  I’m in India!

hotel at night

The Taj Mahal Hotel – home for the next three days in Mumbai

So I arrived in Mumbai, also known as Bombay. It’s the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It’s the most populous city in India with 18.4 million residents and it’s also the wealthiest city in India and has the highest GPA of any city in South, West, or Central Asia. Mumbai has the highest number of billionaires and millionaires among all among all cities in India.

The drive to my hotel, the Taj Mahal, took about 45 minutes. It started in north Mumbai  and went to south Mumbai.  The car was air-conditioned and relatively comfortable, so I sat back and just looked out my window as we drove through the streets of the city.

streets of mumbai 2

streets of mumbai

Metal corrugated roofs line the tops of the buildings along the road and everything has a very dilapidated feel to it.  The city feels old…you can tell it’s been around the block once or twice.  I’m told that northern Mumbai is worst than the southern end…but I was already getting a feel for the neglect and poverty for which India is known and in particular…Mumbai.  I was to find out later, from a guide, that 55% of the 18 million residents of Mumbai, live in the slums.

streets of mumbai 3

But Mumbai is also the financial capital of India and the third most expensive city to live – behind New York City and London.  Real estate in south Mumbai runs $1500 a square foot – that’s about $1,500,000 for a 1,000 sq ft apartment! Holy Moses! There is money here – no doubt about that – but the gap between the rich and the poor is indescribable.  This is why so many people do live in the slums.  What’s interesting, is the poor aren’t the only ones living in the slums – it’s where the middle class lives as well – they can’t afford to buy anything in this city!

Honking is a method of communication.  It says “hello…I’m coming up on your right.”  This system works.  I guess it has to because you certainly can’t tell where other drivers are coming from…they ignore what little sign of lines are on the road.

mumbai-traffic

The cab ride cost 1600 Rs or $38.  On the way back to the airport from the hotel…it cost 2600.  That’s a hotel car for you vs a taxi!

I’ve been looking forward to coming to India for months now and I’m finally here and staying at the very lovely Taj Mahal hotel in south Mumbai…right on the Arabian Sea.  I arrived at The Taj  and had to pass through two body scanners and one luggage/purse scanner before I could enter through the front door…and I was O.K. with that.

security

And one more…

security 2

The Taj Mahal Palace was one of the four locations targeted by 10 Pakistani members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organization on November 26th – 7 months ago.  Six explosions were reported at the Taj hotel – one in the lobby, two in the elevators, three in the restaurant. Firefighters rescued 200 hostages from windows using ladders during the first night.

I spoke to several of the servers who had been here on that day. They each had their own stories to tell of the event- everyone of them different – but each had felt the same thing – terror.  The Hotel Manager’s family was killed that day along with many other people – it was truly a personal tragedy for those who live and work here.  The hotel has a memorial set up just off to the right of the lobby.

memorial

memoril 2

My room

room

On Sunday morning I walked across the street to catch a boat over to Elephanta Island to see the caves.  The concierge suggested that I take the Luxury Boat instead of the Economy Boat.

Luxury boat…

luxury boat

Economy boat…

economy boat

I made the right decision.

Just getting on this boat was a challenge.  It’s not actually tied up to the dock for boarding — it’s just brought up alongside the gangplank and passengers jump on board – quickly.

boat ramp

So, I  grabbed up my skirt with one hand – waited for a wave to subside – and jumped on board – hoping I was on the right boat.  On the right boat you ask? There was no formal “ticket buying place” up above – just a bunch of guys selling round trip passes to different places. I bought a ticket to Elephanta Island and the guy pointed to the dock below and said “go, go”.  There were 4 other “westerners” on board with me and I overheard them talking about the Island so I felt pretty confident I was on the correct boat.  Then suddenly, as we were getting ready to leave the steps – those four people got up and jumped off the boat!  What the #$%?! Well, the boat is underway and I sincerely hope that I’m in transit to Elephanta Island.

on boat

Yes…this is the luxury boat.

The island is the site of the magnificent Elephanta caves, containing beautiful carvings, sculptures, and a temple to the Hindu God, Lord Shiva.

island

Coming up to the island…

As soon as I got off the boat, I hired a guide to take me to the caves.  He was a nice young man from the village on the island.

One hundred and twenty steps lead you up to the caves where along the way the locals offer food and souvenirs for you to buy. The sun is so hot and intense, they put blue plastic tarps up over the entire 120 steps leading up to the caves.

items for sale

Monkeys and dogs battle each other for every scrap of food that might either be carried in or dropped on the ground.  My guide told me that they’ll try to steal food right out of your hand!

monkeys

I think the monkeys have a leg up on the dogs…

dogs

dogs 2

My guide…Esra

my guide

Me and the Lord Shiva

me and Lord Shiva

My guide had my camera more than I did…he was a very enthusiastic photographer!

cave 1

cave 2

cave 3

cave 5

A couple shots outside the caves

cave 4

And then it was time to relax and have some water before making the journey back down.

cave 6

When we reached the bottom, we both realized that I had about 30 minutes to wait before the boat to Mumbai would leave.  So he asked me if I would like to come to his village and meet his wife and son.  I said sure!  Love to!  Let’s go! We turned left off the main path and started toward his village.

He was a very nice man with a beautiful family. I was very glad for the opportunity to meet them and spend a few minutes chatting. I also met his mother-in-law and she was very kind.  I didn’t take pictures for this trip — seemed intrusive at the time though now I wish I had.

The two women were dressing to go to a prayer ceremony that morning – only married women allowed – and so there was a lot of activity in a very small space.  But they welcomed me – asked me to sit on the bed  – turned on the ceiling fan – and continued getting ready.  I watched as one of them attached her bindi (dot) to her forehead and the other brushed out her long black hair before coiling it on the nape of her neck and we chatted as women do.  After about 15 minutes, I got up to leave and they took my hand and told me how nice it had been to have company for a few minutes.

As a single woman traveling on my own, I’ve learned to be cautious and while I was walking away from the main path earlier and heading off to the village with my guide…I admit to thinking to myself “what in the heck are you doing?  This is not smart”.   But if you don’t trust a little and have some faith in people, you miss out on the small events that make everything else worth it.  The caves won’t be what sticks in my memory of that day…it will have been meeting and spending time with that family. It was a great morning!

I returned to Mumbai a very happy traveler.

I had a quick bite to eat and then went back downstairs to meet up with my next guide and driver for an afternoon tour of Mumbai.

Our first stop was to a flower and fruit market.

fruit 3

fruit 1

fruit 2

They have beautiful baskets that they use to make the most lovely fruit baskets!  I was impressed!

basket

fruit basket

We drove by several landmark buildings and then came to the Jain Temple.  This picture is of a young girl, 15 yrs. old – who has given up all of her worldly possession and committed herself to her god.

girl 1

The banner announced three weeks of parties where she wore all of her clothes and all of her jewelry before giving everything away and moving to a little room just to the left.  That’s her in the picture.

girl 2

She’s in a room – up to the left – above the elephant – where the balcony is…

door

The temple itself is very elaborate with gold covering just about everything in sight.

silver dude

Next stop…laundry!  This is the largest open air laundry facility in Mumbai and I guess it’s where EVERYONE who’s ANYONE goes.  It’s called the Dhobi Ghat and is where Mumbai’s traditional laundrymen work in the open to wash clothes from different parts of the city. The open air laundry has about 700 washing platforms made of stones where about 200 washer-men families have been washing clothes as their family business for decades.

laundry 2

Clothes are washed by hundreds of Dhobis (laundry men and women) by hand, on concrete sinks and dried in the sun.  It’s has been done this way for generations and the job is actually handed down from father to son.

laundry

laundry 5

And sometimes they bathe in the tubs after washing is done.

guy taking bath

laundry 4

That’s a lot of white shirts…

laundry 3

After the Dhobi Ghat, we visited Gandi’s home / museum and saw some of the dharavi slums…

ghandi

I really enjoyed seeing Mumbai.  It’s a city of contradictions.

slums 2

The way the the poor live is just astonishing and it was hard not to stare.

slums

We passed by the new home of the wealthiest man in India who has a net worth of $22 billion. He is building a 27-story home for himself (and family) and 600 servants. It’ll include 6 floors of parking space for his cars (168 parking space), 3 helipads, elevated gardens, multiple “safe” rooms  and a health club. The square footage is greater than that of Versailles. It is said to be the world’s most expensive home…designed by Chicago architecture firm Perkins & Will.

condo

Yep…that’s it.  It’s not finished yet.

I did not see one area of this city (not that I saw the whole thing) that was not littered and dirty…regardless of the neighborhood.  The streets of Mumbai are just not clean.   It makes an impression.

With 18 million people – my guess is that it’s a tough job.  In their defense, over the past couple of months, most people that I’ve met have stated that they think Americans are a little over-zealous and compulsive about cleanliness, water, food and germs in general.  I have to admit to all of the above – so please take my observations with a grain of salt – it’s a bit of that American over-zealousness creeping in.

Tomorrow I begin my newest journey through the hills and rivers of southern India. The rains have started in the south already – people have been talking about them and of course I knew this because my ashram experience had been cancelled.  I’m actually looking forward to a little “monsoon-ing” as I’ve never been in one!  I’m busy spraying all of my clothes with mosquito repellant, diligently taking my malaria pills, checking my mosquito netting, purchasing bottled water and crossing my fingers! That’s about all you can do.

And so I say farewell to Mumbai – my first stop in India – and hello to my next city – Madurai!

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