March 19: Mumbai, India.
Our destination for the next two days is Mumbai (formerly Bombay), in the state of Maharashtra, India. We had scheduled an excursion for today, Marvels of Mumbai, but just as we had experienced in Cochin, we had to pass through Indian immigration procedures in order to leave the ship. Then, in order to walk on the dock, we had to show our recently inspected documents to certain officials. Then, while we were on the tour bus and before the bus could leave the port area, we had to show these same documents again to a different security officer. As today’s guide Heena pointed out, the key word in dealing with India is “patience.”
The purpose of our tour was to allow us to experience the highlights of Mumbai. [NOTE: the name change from Bombay to Mumbai happened in the 1990s, and our guide said that most locals still use both names.] Our drive started in South Mumbai, in the heart of the business district, where streets and sidewalks were crowded with folks attending to their daily business. Along streets planted with many, many trees, we passed parks and all sorts of public buildings, such as police headquarters, an art museum, naval dockyards, banks, the mint, and government offices. As we drove along, the neighborhood changed and the sidewalks became filled with one small business after another. They occupied a few square feet at the base of many of the buildings and sold every imaginable kind of product. The traffic was heavy on every street we traveled, but with liberal use of the horn, the bus driver just kept on going. Here’s a quote from Heena, who lived in the United States for a couple of years but who has been a guide here for 25 years: “There is some kind of order in the chaos.” She loves her city, is not intimidated by it, and finds it exciting.
Our first stop was at the Gateway to India, an archway built in 1911 to honor the current British monarch, King George V. There is a large plaza in front of the monument, and nearby are the striking Taj Mahal Hotel and a small park with a statue of a famous person (don’t know his name). Next we drove to the Victoria Terminus railway station, “an extraordinary conglomeration of domes, spires, Corinthian columns and minarets” which was built to honor Queen Victoria and through which today millions and millions of commuters pass on their way to and from the city. Our next stop was at the small, three-story home of India’s famous hero Mohandas Gandhi. This museum and memorial contains his personal library and all books ever written about him, dioramas which depict the major events of his life, and the room where he slept, complete with his bed, writing desk, and bookshelves. We had a little difficulty in leaving this building because two or three other tour buses arrived after us, and all these tourists made passage up and down the narrow stairway quite a challenge.
Next, we drove to Dhobi Ghat, a huge open-air laundry where washing from all over Mumbai is brought to be soaped, soaked, boiled, and beaten into cleanliness. We could see water-filled stone troughs, workers beating the pieces of cloth against the sinks, and clotheslines full of colorful clothes drying in the sun. The guide told us that nothing ever gets lost despite what looks to us like complete disorder. As we left here, we heard about what is evidently another aspect of life in India – bribes. To wit – The viewpoint for seeing the laundry was on a highway bridge. No parking is allowed on the bridge. But in order for the tourists to see the laundry, the buses must park on the bridge anyway. So the bus driver has to give the local official a bribe or risk being given a ticket. If he refuses to give the bribe and takes the ticket, he must take a day off work to resolve the ticket. So it’s just easier and cheaper to pay the bribe, which is about 100 rupees, or $2. Heena was very philosophical about the situation and implied that it’s just a part of life here. Hmmmmm.
On the way to our next stop, an Indian-made goods emporium, Neena pointed out how new and expensive apartment buildings are being erected right next to neighborhoods which surely must be regarded as poor. She said that this juxtaposition of rich and poor is possible because there’s no crime in Mumbai. And there’s no crime because family ties and religion are important to everyone and they do not tolerate criminal activity. I wonder if she’s right. Our final stop was the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, otherwise known as the Prince of Wales Museum, which featured artifacts of India’s history in a beautiful domed building. We also found that the museum shop had a nice collection of hand-crafted pieces by India’s master craftspeople.
March 20: Mumbai, India.
For today, we had selected an excursion to the markets of Mumbai, but our tablemates Juliana and Roger had found the excursion disappointing when they did it yesterday. Also, I didn’t feel like being on a tour bus for the second day in a row, so we decided last night that we would skip the excursion and go off this morning with our friend Jim, who had been told of a shopping area that we wanted to investigate. Once we made it through port security – two times because of two different checkpoints where two sets of officers looked at the exact same documents – we started on our walk towards Fashion Street with two other friends whom we had asked to join us, Sobie and Al. We had heard that Fashion Street was only a few blocks away from the ship and that it was easily walkable. What we had not heard was that its shops wouldn’t be open until 11:30. Well, it was easily walkable for us since we like to walk in cities, but when we got there and found that nothing was open yet, we decided to walk “a little further” and go to the main train station for Mumbai, Victoria Terminus, an amazing architectural wonder that all of us had wanted to see anyway. As the morning wore on and as the sun got hotter, we were thankful that Mumbai is a city of trees: we walked in their shade most of the way. We were not prepared with decent maps, so we weren’t really aware of the significance of the buildings we were passing, but we were getting a definite sense of what Mumbai is like on the ground, complete with crowds of people, vendor stalls lining all available sidewalks, cows munching on a pile of grass at the curb, lots of smells (like garbage, flowers, incense), and sounds of heavy traffic (engines, but especially honking horns). As we walked in the direction of the train station, we kept asking people if we were going the right way, and they were always happy to help our little group of tourists.
When we approached the Victoria Terminus station, we were across a wide and very busy street from it but noticed an underground passageway leading in the correct direction. After taking a few pictures, we took the stairs down and found ourselves in a shopping area with small shops selling all sorts of things. Our friend Sobie saw a shop she wanted to check out so all five of us went in, totally filling the store, especially since there were already four or five employees there. It was a shop which specialized in the salwar kameez. This is the outfit that many Indian women wear which consists of a long, loosely fitting tunic, long pants, and a matching scarf. On the ship we’re having an Indian theme night coming up in a few days, and Sobie and Denise wanted to have a non-sari garment which reflected our experiences in India. So all three of us eventually chose something that we thought would work and in the meantime had a pleasant time chatting with the male employees, who were very helpful and friendly. Jim and Al maintained their patience throughout, helped along perhaps by the air conditioning in the shop. Next, Jim wanted to try a men’s shirt store across the way but was less successful, so we continued on our way to the train station. Once back upstairs, we entered the huge cavernous space, as train stations usually are, and looked around for a while. Jim, who knows London very well, said it reminded him of Victoria Station in London, but less clean. Not surprisingly, trains were coming and going and commuters were rushing about, but there was also a man there who was trying to polish the floors. He was spreading some liquid on the floor and then pushing a mop back and forth, at the same time that people were walking around on all sides.
When we finished the train station experience, it was getting close to lunch time, and since we had no idea where to go, we decided to go back to our shop friends and ask for a recommendation. They knew of a restaurant, and one of them agreed to take us there. We walked a couple of blocks, thanked our guide, and went up a flight of stairs to the dining area. But after we were there, we thought better of our decision to eat at a non-hotel restaurant, so we left and started walking towards the Taj Mahal Hotel, which was about two miles away and which had been highly recommended as a place to refresh and eat lunch. Jim decided to go in a different direction, so he left us, and we saw him later when we returned to the ship. Our walk to the Taj was in the same direction that we had come from the ship but on different streets, so we saw different buildings and sights but saw the same amount of traffic, perhaps more since it was later in the day. When we reached the hotel, Denise and I were ready for lunch, but Sobie and Al were not, so they went their own way, and we went to the café in the hotel for a lovely Indian lunch. I even had an Indian dessert (gulab jamun) and realized that the food I get at my favorite Indian restaurant at home is comparable to what this hotel offers.
After lunch, I sat in the lobby and watched the people while Denise looked into the hotel shops, which had very nice jewelry, clothing, fabrics, books, shoes, etc. This hotel break revived us, and we decided that we would prefer to walk back to the ship rather than take a taxi. But our walk back had another challenge for us. For much of our route, there was no sidewalk, so we, and many other walkers, were having to squeeze into an eighteen-inch wide space between a wall and the oncoming cars, bikes, and motorbikes. So why not cross to the other side of the street, one might ask. Well, we tried that a couple of times, but the traffic was so heavy in both directions that it seemed safer not to attempt to cross. Eventually, sidewalks appeared again, and we made it back OK.
In India we were hot, crowded, and sometimes uncomfortable, but we met many lovely people and feel enriched by having experienced some of India’s contributions to the history of humankind.