Monday, June 4, 2012

Mumbai masala.


Good morning from Mumbai! I'm not completely well rested but good enough to get going.   My plan was to be downstairs by about 8am. The receptionist had told me last night that breakfast, which comes free with the room, would be served starting at 7am. I always need a good meal to get me started - especially when I travel since I never know when my next meal will come.


I made it to the hotel's restaurant a few minutes after 8am. The young man who checked me last night was behind the reception desk to greet me this morning. He surprised I was up so early considering the hour I arrived.

Breakfast was served buffet style. Nothing memorable but I could cobble together a meal. The waiter asked if I wanted eggs so I ordered a plate of scrambled ones with two slices of white toast.

While I waited for the food to arrive, I checked email on my BB. I also decided to give the tour company a call to verify our meet up point. My voucher said to meet in front of the Chhtrapati Sevarji Terminus (aka Victoria Terminus), in front of the Times of India building. It took a couple of tries before I was able to get the call through but the man on the other end of the line confirmed that was the meeting spot. As we drove to the hotel last night, Dinesh had pointed out the train station to me and told me it was only about a 10 minute walk from the station. The voucher said to show up 10 minutes before had so that meant that I had to finish eating breakfast at 8:40a. A few bites of egg and toast, washed down with a cup of tea - that was my breakfast.

I was keen to get going and with a full belly, I headed out the front door. The hotel is conveniently located right on the corner of Rustom Sidhwa Marg & Dadabhai Naoroji Road (aka D.N. Road). I headed towards D.N. Road and then turned right to walk in the direction of the station. The heat and humidity again hit me the moment I left the front door. Oh....it's only going to get worse.

Mumbai was starting its work day. Lots of people heading to work, coming from the direction that I was heading in. I felt like the lone salmon swimming up stream.

D.N. Road is lined with buildings dating back to the times of British colonial rule. They are beautiful. The street itself is wide and although the drivers in Mumbai do the occasional honking of the horns, the driving here is pretty tamed compared to Delhi - for one thing, drivers actually stay in the lanes and they seem to obey traffic laws. Also, I've yet to see any rickshaws, ox pulled carts or cows in the streets!

I walked under the shade of the covered walkway that fronted the stores which were still all closed, artfully dodging the swarm of people coming at me.

It didn't take long for me to arrive at the station. Formerly known as the Victoria Terminus, the station was built in 1887 commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Today, it is the busiest railway station in India serving as both a terminal for long distance trains and commuter trains of the Mumbai Suburban Railway.  The beautiful building is also a UNESCO Heritage Site.








I walked pass the main entrance which led out to the underground cross walk. The place was packed with daily commuters heading to their places of wor.








So I was at the station. The burning question was which building is the Times of India building. I saw a lovely one on the corner but that turned out to be some other building. It was the building next to that one that was the Times of India building. I had arrived but no sign ofanyone that looked like a guide. I stood around and waited. 9am came and went. I decided to call the tour company. The first call didn't go well as I couldn't hear a word of what the guy was saying - drowned out by the sounds of the traffic. I found a quieter spot to stand and this time, I was able to hear the guy. I told him I was in front of the Times building and he told me the guide was running about 5-10 minutes late and to wait. So, I waited. A short while later, a young man walked up to me and asked me if I was the one signed up for the tour of Mumbai. I replied yes and told him I was glad to see him. We introduced ourselves before getting underway. His name is Ahbishek. My first impression was that he seemed to be a very nice guy and his English was perfect!

With Abhishek guiding me, I could finally just kick back and take in the views.  At the main entrance to the train station, we headed down into the underpass. Most of the small shops were closed. There were a few street vendors serving up food to commuters. It smelled good and if I was certain I wouldn't get sick, I would have indulged. Back up above ground, we were now on the opposite side of the street. The street sign said Mahatma Ghandi Road and I recognized that from my pre-trip reading as the street that was lined with all the colonial British buildings. Eventually we would end up at the Gateway of India. Ahbishek confirmed that was indeed the case.

Before we started walking, Ahbishek bought us each a bottle of cold water. He said to drink a lot and I told him not to worry - the bottle would be empty in no time. Cost of a 1.5 litre of bottled water? 15 rupees....less than 30 cents!

We made our way down the broad tree lined avenue and as we walked, we chatted. Young Ahbishek is in his last years of study - preparing to enter the ranks of the Indian Merchant Marine. A very engaging young man, we had a good time talking, our chats interrupted by the occasional need to look at a beautiful building and have Ahbishek describe it to me. We passed High Court, the Prince of Wales Museum (which unfortunately, is closed on Mondays) and the administrative buildings of Mumbai University.


Across the street was a large open field when informal cricket matches are held on the weekend. I can imagine how lively this area would be with locals out and about enjoying their time off from work. Today though, everyone who passed us by was walking with mission to get to either their place of work or the university.

I could see the open air of the ocean blocks before we arrived at the Gateway of India.


We soon left behind the shade of trees and walked across the small plaza that fronts the arch. Beyond that was the Arabian Sea.





Ahbishek pointed out the single most famous hotel in all of Mumbai - the Taj Mahal. My father had stayed here on one of his missions for the WB. I'm travelling on my own rupee, so to speak, so no Taj Mahal for me.

















I followed Abhishek around the side of the arch. It was hot, hazy summer's day so the view of the water was less than spectacular and surprisingly, little breeze blowing off the water. It was hot!!









There were a few ferry boats headed out to sea but overall, things were quiet. This is where I would have come had I arrived yesterday and gone to Elephanta Island. The small flotilla of ferry boats were docked. Seems like everything other than work shuts down on Mondays.

After just a few minutes of wandering around under the blazing sun and I was kicking myself for not having packed in a hat even though I had it on my packing list! Oh well.

We headed back towards Mahatma Gandhi Road and there we caught a taxi. Next destination? A Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. I'm always ready to go to a temple.

The scenery of downtown Mumbai whizzed by my window. I was trying to take in as much of this place as I could. It's a far prettier place than Delhi and though they don't refrain from using car horns here, the traffic in general is much better behaved than in Delhi. The streets belong to the cars, the motorcyles and the tuk-tuks. According to Abhishek, ox pulled carts as well as rickshaws are banned and I have yet to sea a single cow. Life is a bit less chaotic here....a nice change of pace from Delhi.

The driver deposited us outside the double arched entrance to the temple which was located in a quiet neighborhood. If not for the vendor selling flowers and other offerings, I would never even known that this was the entrance to a temple!

In fact, we were standing at the entrance to Babulnath Temple which is an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.  

We followed the stepped path up to the temple. Along the way, there was another small altar that devotees were leaving offerings behind at.

Lining the walkway were small homes and people were going about their daily lives.

At the top of the steps was the front of the temple. I could only take pictures from the outside which there was not much of so I only have a single photo of the place.

We took our shoes off at the designated shoe drop off place - there's always one of these at an Indian temple - and entered into the small temple. Devotees bring small containers of water (presume it's blessed??) and I'm guessing some of it splashes all over the floor so my feet were wet in seconds. Since Ahbishek had left his socks on, he stood back while I attempted to peer inside the small devotional room. There were people, standing all around a small rectangular area that had been marked of by a railing. Each person leaned over and placed their offering on what I could not see.  I later learned that was the stone lingam (i.e., symbolic stone) representing Shiva.

In fact, as hard as I tried and as many spots as I could stand in, I couldn't really see the offerings being placed on and around the lingam. It's times like these that I wish I was a foot taller!!

Aside from the devotional room, there wasn't anything else to see so we back tracked to the same spot that the driver had dropped us off at.

Ahbishek hailed down another taxi and we piled into the back seat. This was a really, really old taxi. The fare meter which was attached to the exterior of the taxi (on the passenger side) was no longer being used, a relic of ancient times. I thought it was kind of cute....in its own old fashioned way :-)

We were headed to a place in Malabar Hill, to a spot where Hindus scatter ashes of dead family members. 

We continued our trip through the neighborhoods of Mumbai. This time the driver deposited us on the side of the street. I could smell lunch being cooked.
 
We veered off the main road on to a quiet walkway that wound down hill. Homes lined the way and there was a small temple. As we walked, Ahbishek explained to me about the significance of what we were about to see.  I interpreted it as a place like Varanasi but in the heart of Mumbai. 

Later, I learned more about the place known as Banganga Tank. The tank was rebuilt in 1715 AD, out of a donation for the Walkeshwar Temple by Rama Kamath. The story behind this place goes as follows.  Legend has it that while looking for his wife Sita, the Hindu god Ram was overcome by thirst and told his brother Laxman to bring him some water. Laxman shot an arrow into the ground and water sprung out. They say this water is an underground offshoot of the Ganges, hence the name Banganga - baan meaning arrow, and the water being from the Ganga.

People living in the surrounding neighborhood consider the tank to be a very sacred place and on religious occasions, hundreds turn up to take a dip. Prayers are recited, homage paid to gods and diyas and flowers float in the tank.

I was expected to experience the chaos of Varanasi but it wasn't like that at all. It was very quiet time when we were there - barely anyone hanging around the pool.  There were plenty of ducks and geese calling the pond home. I had expected to more people here but there was none of that. Just the ducks and geese. Off to one side, there was a family preparing to scatter the ashes of a deceased loved one.

Staying in the Malabar Hill neighborhood, our next destination was Kamala Nehru Park.  It was nice to be in a bit of greenery.  The park as lovely views over the sea and the city.

This is not tourist season so I stick out in the crowd like a sore thumb.  As I was standing, admiring the views, a man tapped me on the shoulder.  I thought he wanted me to take a picture of him and his wife with the view as the backdrop but it turned out they wanted to have a picture of me with his wife!  I gladly obliged;  I've done this on so many of my trips, it no longer surprises me.

Abhishek and I found a bench to sit on and rest for a few minutes.  The heat and humidity were brutal and I had pretty downed my bottle of water.  We chatted to pass the time.  Abhishek told me of his goal to join the Indian Merchant Marines.  He's young but comes across as very mature.  I think he has a good future ahead of him.

Back on feet, we headed back to the street where Abhishek hailed yet another cab.  Back into the chaotic traffic of downtown Mumbai.  We were heading towards Dhobi Ghat which has the dubious reputation of being the largest outdoor laundry in the world.


The taxi driver dropped us off at the curb.  We were standing above the train tracks.  Just to the right of the tracks was a large space occupied by cement vats and a mass of lines hung up with clothes to dry in the hot sun.  What a sight!  It was like looking at a huge collection of backyard clotheslines!

In a couple of spots, I could see the main water trough that fed the vats with water.

I wonder who designed this place?

Under the cover of the corrugated tin roofing, men were collecting the dried laundry and packaging it up - presumably for delivery back to the customer.  Other men were doing exactly the opposite, unwrapping bundles and empty the dirty clothes in to the vats for washing.


I was completely fascinated by the sight.  It's not surprising that this place has become a tourist attraction.

According to Abhishek, many of the clothing items were being washed to be sold in local markets.  Only men do the laundering and at the end of the day they take home the equivalent of about $2 in pay.  Standing in sudsy water, out in the hot sun and hefting up wet clothes cannot be an easy job.

The heat had sapped my appetite from me but apparently it was lunch time and our next destination was Matunga, a neighborhood that is chock full of temples and restaurants.  To get there, we had to take the train.  Just so happens that Dhobi Ghat is located right next door to the Mahalaxmi train station.

While I waited, Abhishek stood in line to buy our tickets.

It's midday so there weren't many folks at the station.


From what I've read, during morning and evening rush hours, all the train stations in Mumbai are packed to the brim.  Considering how cheap the tickets are, I'm not surprised that train travel is popular here.  Our ticket cost 4 rupees each which at today's exchange rate is less than 7 cents!  For that, we would ride a distance of about 9km and it would take four stops.


The train arrived on time and ordinarily women can ride in a separate car but since I needed to stay close to Abhishek, we both boarded the same train.  After the train pulls into the station, you have some insanely short amount of time (15 seconds??) to board the train.  If you can't get on board in that time, you have to wait for the next train because it's too dangerous to board a moving train.  We missed the first one thanks to me being too slow.











We got on board the second train and the compartment was pretty empty.  I could have taken a seat but I opted to stand by the open door so I could capture video of my ride.  I did hang on tightly to the pole to make sure I would not accidentally end up falling off the train. That would not be good.


When we reached our destination, I followed Abhishek off the train.  After a short walk, we were standing on the side of a busy street lined with shops and restaurants.  We were in the Matunga neighborhood which is filled with temples and restaurants.....mainly South Indian restaurants.  Abhishek headed towards one restaurant and it was closed so we headed towards another South Indian Veg (vegetarian) restaurant.   I was seeing a masala dosai in my future!!  My absolute favorite bite of South Indian food. 

Over lunch, Abhishek and I talked about life and his aspirations for his future.  Of course, once the dosai was put in front of me, my focus completed shifted from chatting to stuffing my face!  I'm so greedy :-(

After lunch, we hopped into at taxi and headed to the neighborhood of Bandra to visit Mount Mary Church, a Roman Catholic church that is one of the most visited churches in the city.  On the way, we passed Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Mumbai; it is the slum of Slumdog Millionaire movie fame.  As we drove by, Abhishek the seemingly endless sea of ramshackled buildings.  We didn't get out and walk through the area so I  don't have a feel for what Dharavi is really like.


Our drive took us back along the water's edge.   We then veered back inland, up a hill, into a quiet tree filled neighborhood.  The taxi deposited us right in front of the church.  While Abhishek paid the driver, I started to take pictures of this pretty little church.  I was using my Blackberry to take pictures and with all the humidity, my lens immediately fogged up.  Fuzzy pictures.  Oh well.









The front gate was locked so we walked towards the side gate.  It too was locked so no chance of us going inside and taking a look at the interior of the church. 








Officially known as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount, the church was originally built by the Portuguese in 1570 and has been rebuilt and added to over the centuries.  For more information about the church, check out the official website.


Since the church was closed, there was nothing we could do but leave.  Abhishek and I walked back, down the tree lined streets, to the sea.  There, my tour came to an end.  I had a choice to either ride the train back or take a taxi.  By now, the combination of jet lag and the heat and humidity had sapped every ounce of energy and adventurous spirit from my body.  All I wanted to do was get back to the hotel, cool off in a cold shower and take a nap.  So, I opted for the taxi.  A half hour and 360 rupees later and I was back at the front door of the hotel.  Before I went upstairs, I walked around the corner and found a small market to buy water and snacks from.  That would turn out to be my dinner.

Tomorrow,  I will be heading off to Kochi and will have to put the rest of my vacation plans on hold til my work assignment is over.   For now, I'm just going to unwind and rest.