Having spent two months slumming it around India in my early twenties, I was very excited about returning to the region now that I was older, fussier and a bit better off. I knew this trip was going to be the complete opposite of my backpacking adventures and I was eager to see how the other half live in a country just as famous for its palaces as it is for its slums…
I was heading to Goa but with no direct flights from the UK, I decided to break my journey up with a day in Mumbai, the ‘economic powerhouse’ of India.
Jet Airways, the ‘Airline with Best Business Class Service in the World’ was the natural choice when booking my first ever Business class ticket. Nine hours spent stretched out on luxurious 180 degree flat seats just fly by, helped of course, by the excellent in-flight entertainment and complimentary cocktail menu. Aside from the individual compartmentalised seating and 15.4 inch LCD touch screens you are treated to a table cloth, china plates and real cutlery, something that I haven’t seen on a flight since the 90’s. I slept well and really did disembark feeling rested and ready to face Indian immigration, which I’m ashamed to admit was much more organised than arrivals at London Heathrow even without the queue jumping pass that business class includes.
A 15 minute taxi ride brought me to my bed for the night, The Leela Mumbai. The proximity to the airport makes this 5* hotel excellent for a short rest before or after a flight and the rooms and facilities are of a very high standard. On entering the hotel, I was greeted with a glass of ice cold coconut milk and a cool jasmine scented face towel, refreshment that was much needed after only a few minutes in the humid midnight heat. After surrendering my passport for check in, I found my room and was out like a light.
On my first trip to Mumbai I stayed on the Colaba Causeway, only moments from the iconic Gateway of India. Inspired by the book Shantaram, I hung about the street stalls buying all sorts of exotic trinkets until finally I was approached by a Bollywood scout. I had read they stalk the causeway hunting for westerners of any shape, age or size willing to be extras in big budget Bollywood blockbusters and pay you 500 rupees a day (about £5.50) for the experience. I am very proud of my copy of ‘Tees Maar Khan’ nestled in my DVD collection and if you have the time to spare I would really recommend you try and volunteer.
Being on a tight schedule this time round I took advantage of a day tour of the city, first stop: the Dhobi Ghat. The world’s largest outdoor laundry, the Dhobi Ghat, features row upon row of open-air concrete wash pens, where the Dhobis both sleep and work washing and sorting the cities laundry. Later I visited Churchgate station and waited with my guide at an ordinary seeming crossroad for the Mumbai Dabbawalas to appear. These “men with boxes” are part of a catering industry unique to Mumbai. Every day the Dabbawalas collect around 175,000 freshly cooked lunches packed in Dabbas (Tiffin boxes) from the homes of the city workers and deliver these lunches while still hot to the correct worker in the city, an amazing feat considering most Dabbas are completely illiterate.
I saw Mani Bhawan, the house that acted as the focal point of Gandhi’s political activities while in Mumbai and in stark contrast gawped at Antilia, the 27-storey, billion dollar home of Mukesh Ambani (the ninth wealthiest man in the world). This imposing jigsaw like skyscraper boasts multiple heli-pads and six car parks all exclusively built for Ambani’s family of four. As if this towering show of wealth wasn’t enough to annoy the neighbours the Ambani family have been unable to reside in the property overnight because of a lack of windows facing east. Yes, Antilia has fallen foul of Vastu Shashta, a Hindu version of Feng Shui, meaning that unwilling to risk ‘bad luck’ the Ambanis head to one of their other homes each evening to sleep, leaving the 27 storeys of Antilia fully lit, air conditioned and abandoned.
Mumbai is a melting pot of every culture and religion you could care to name as the last stop on my itinerary, The Tower of Silence, demonstrates. Those of the Parsi faith do not believe in burial or cremation, instead they have for the past 2000 years laid their dead to rest in dakma or ‘places of the dead’ which like the Tower of Silence are high towers with open air areas at the top for the dead to be laid out. The bodies are then left to be consumed by a combination of the baking sun and the cities vulture population which the Parsi’s believe where created by God for this specific purpose. Unfortunately Mumbai’s vulture population is in decline due to a combination of poisoning and over development so until the birds can be reintroduced to the area the bodies are covered with lime and left to disintegrate naturally. Whatever your beliefs about what comes after it is hard not to feel calmed and even a little spiritual after passing by the entrance to this sacred place.
Although I was able to cram a lot into one day, I would recommend spending at least 3 days in Mumbai to get a feel for the city. A guided day tour is a great way to get your bearings before you head off to explore and make your own discoveries. There are many other sights I will have to leave out such as the Victoria Terminus, Elephanta Island and slum tours (which I don’t altogether agree with), but I am heading back to the Leela for one last swim beneath the palm trees before my onwards flight to Goa and the next chapter of my blog.