Wednesday, 29 January 2014

A weekend in Bombay

Last weekend we talked about maybe going to Mumbai. Tuesday night we got on the computer and booked flights, Wednesday night we made an itinerary (with the help of an amazing Lonely Planet guide book) and Thursday evening we manically rushed to the airport after our afternoon placement to catch our flight. As we ran into the Departures part of the airport I announced that we needed to be prepared to run onto this plane. The website had told us to arrive three hours before departure time, we arrived 45 minutes. Luckily, once again, the totally chilled out/disorganised Goan attitude saved us. As we manically looked around wondering where to check in a guy just walked up to us and shoved four plane tickets in our hands. With amazement we realised they had our names on and were astonished that he didn't even ask to see our passports, let alone our E-tickets. He'd obviously just paired up four western looking names with the four clueless looking girls sweating it out. Oh Goa.

After travelling to India all on my own and spending flight time in an unbearable solitude we all took advantage of having company and talked non-stop, much to the delight to all the people sat around us. Just as we were emotionally describing the perfect sandwiches in the whole world with intense detail and hungry eyes our plane landed and we were in the big Bombay city.

We walked through Mumbai airport and all wondered why the Domestics side of the airport was a glorious glass haven full of restaurants and cafes when the International side that we had all arrived in on the way here had been a maze of ugly plaster walls and old, smelly lifts. Determined not to be ripped off for a taxi we opted for the prepaid option which was just as well as the journey took hours and the driver had no idea where he was going. Instantly the buzz and electricity that fills all big cities spread to our nerves and we stared out the windows in awe at the flashing lights of extravagant movie-star weddings and horse-pulled carriages decked out in flashing disco lights. The driving in Goa is mental and completely nonsensical but at least there is so little traffic that it doesn't seem to matter when the driver pulls out on the wrong side of the road. In Mumbai we were amused/terrified at the 'every cab driver for himself' attitude as the road had about 8 lanes of traffic that all zigzagged across each other like a clumsy synchronised dance to the music of beeping horns. Our silent taxi man who knew no english kept stopping and getting out to ask for directions and the four of us shared concerned glances at the fear of being stranded on the streets of Mumbai at night.

Finally, we drove down a road that was quiet in terms of traffic but busy in terms of people. The pavements were decked out with families and friends sitting around sipping Chai and children chasing each other round the large trees. There was an all night mosque buzzing like a night club and suspicious looking fairy lights dangerously wrapped around everything, glowing aggressively on the people's tired faces. When you looked closer the makeshift homes of cardboard, sticks and tarpaulin indicated that rather than a festive street-party this was actually a makeshift neighborhood of poverty where the homeless had congregated and made themselves a home out of rubbish and friends. We were all so captivated that the magical appearance of our elusive hotel suddenly crept up on us and with squeals of relief we passed the cardboard homes and entered our shining hotel lobby. West End Hotel is described in the Lonely Planet guide as: The West End’s spacious art-deco rooms have modish beds, balconies, and moments of mid-century modern and Hollywood regency. Bless their hearts, the look is totally accidental.

Accidentally stylish was bang on. The hotel boasted 24 hour room service, a luxury I've never experienced before, so the girls very kindly let me do the honours of ringing and ordering some food. I then giddily picked up the phone but spent about 20 minutes working out how to get it to work, I then exasperatingly shouted my order very slowly down the phone again and again, when you say the word Roti about twenty times very slowly it makes you wonder if you've been living a lie and no such breaded delicacy exists because he certainly had no idea what I was on about. Feeling very stupid and embarrassed and wondering what was wrong with my accent an old, grey haired Indian man in a white butler suit knocked on our door and asked me to point at the food we wanted off the menu. Room service never looks so stressful in the movies..

We all took advantage of the hot showers and even watched HBO while curled up eating banana splits on the peculiar brown leather sofas.

The next morning we got up super early and I went out on the balcony where hidden between two building was the most magnificent tree and I felt a little sorry for it because it must hardly ever get noticed, whereas if it was situated in the countryside somewhere surrounded by nothing but lush grassy fields the tree would be seen for how amazing it really is. But as the day went on it dawned on me that that is the reality of big cities. Magnificent buildings and beings all competing with eachother to be the best thing and before you know it you're casually walking past a beautiful building or an amazing restaurant or a talented street performer but you can't help compare it with the next big thing only a few blocks down.

After a disappointing buffet breakfast in the hotel we grabbed a banana each on the way out and headed down the bustling street to search for the Gateway to India. Once again, working down the street felt almost like walking through peoples sitting rooms/bathrooms/bedrooms as we passed mothers washing their children, elderly people still curled up fast asleep and men shaving each other's faces to compensate for the lack of mirrors. A little child came running down the street after me and saw the banana peeking out my bag and started yelling banana at me with a big expectant grin on his little face. Of course I gave it to him and his little face lit up and I felt so weird inside because it was only a banana, I could have grabbed a whole plateful of food from that awful buffet breakfast and brought it to him.

As we walked around the streets we saw the sleepy city wake up. The air was still cool and the streets not too busy. In a large park big groups of men were practicing cricket while others pressed their heads up to the bars to watch.

A cool mist was ever-present, making anything more than 100 metres away merely a wall of translucent silvery fog, and yet everything around you was so clear and bright and beautiful. Instantly I was comparing Bombay to Bangkok and was pleasantly surprised with how much better it was. In Bankok the humidity sat heavily on your shoulders and the streets were a hectic mess of tourists and heat. Bombay felt more like Paris, with it's wide boulevards lined with grand, shady trees. The people had a laid-back efficiency about them, everyone seemed to know where they were going, but they were in no real rush to get there. 

We had found a walking-tour route map in the Lonely Planet guide that started at the Gateway to India and apparently took an hour and a half to complete. Anyone who completes this tour in an hour and a half is an absolute fool. It took up our whole day in the end, but what sort of boring, unimaginative person would simply look at a sight and then move on. We all sat on the harbour wall and watched as the sun started to glow stronger and lit up the Gateway to an illuminating sandy gold splendour. 

Behind us the water stretched out like a glossy ball-room floor, still and opaque, with static boats randomly dotted upon it fading into the mist. 

Eventually, we carried on up the street and the stunning architecture astounded us all. None of us had any idea that Mumbai was home to so many magnificent buildings, the English and Portuguese influences melting into India grandeur to form palaces and castles.

As we passed the Prince of Wales Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) we couldn't resist entering. Little tip: take your student card, I learnt in Paris that being a student aslways seems to have perks when it comes to museums and so the entrance fee was 25 rupees as opposed to 300. 

With our audio guides, a lovely smooth talking man called Sunny who would 'pop out like a genie' at the push of a button and even crack jokes then laugh at them himself, we all headed our separate ways and wandered around curiously at the intriguing displays. My favourites were the little clay toys dated from around 3000 BC purely because I can barely get my head around life existing so long ago and these little sculptures were so cute and fragile, then also the rooms full of taxidermy, morbid fascination has always made these dead yet positioned as if about to pounce alive animals hypnotize me, and finally the miniature silk paintings. These were tiny little illustrations that had been painted to accompany old fables often with comical morals in a book called the Panchatantra. A couple of my favourite stories was this one about a tortoise and this one about the bear.

Sally and I both agreed we could have spent hours in there but after succumbing to peer pressure (and our hungry stomachs) we all decided to leave and search for a cafe to get some lunch. We set off on a search for Cafe Moshe which the Lonely Planet guide said had amazing sandwiches and juice. In the end we got completely lost and stumbled upon a little backstreet cafe called The Pantry, that did amazing sandwiches and juice. This tiny little cafe was decked out like a Parisian haven, with kitsch lace curtains and a bicycle positioned at the door. There were little glass jam jars on the table that had little flags in them, the system being that if you wanted a stranger to come sit with you then you should put the little flag up and make a new friend. 

After weeks of spicy, oily curry and a carb fest of rice, potatoes and naan, I ordered an amzing french onion soup and berry smoothie and for a moment wished I was back in Paris. Only for a moment mind. 

We spent quite a long time indulging in fresh fruit and we even drank the tap water that they served us in fancy glasses, risk takers. Full to the brim with french fancies we carried on our walking tour and took a detour into a fancy looking bookshop that everyone seemed to just enter like they were magnetised. It was pretty similar to all the bookshops I ever enter at home and so I used it as an opportunity to sit down on the comfy bean chairs near the kids section. Suddenly, a big pile of colourful graphic novels captured my attention and I flicked through the comic book pages of 'The Tales of Krishna', in love with the vivid colours and crazy adventures, of course I bought a couple. 

Next we found a gorgeous circular park enclosed by grand black gates that look just like the ones around London. Exotic flowers and tall jungle trees surrounded you with the odd British lamppost peeking out here and there. Uni students and large groups of men were sat around in the shade, staring of course at the gaggle of white tourists taking photos of everything. 

In fact, as we walked around Mumbai we all were quite surprised to once again be the only white people on the streets, particularly as there is quite a few girls as well we stand out startlingly. Everywhere you look a majority of the crowd is men, it seems to be such a large part of their culture for men to be in big friendship groups and do big group outings, leading you to wonder where they're hiding all the women. Male friendship is a very different concept here. It is perfectly normal for friends to hold hands and put their arms around each other and they are do activities and meals out together, and when I think of back home I can think of next to no situations in which a big group of middle-aged men would all be hanging out together. On one hand it's quite sweet, but on the other hand the absence of women in the streets is slightly unnerving.

The final place on our walking tour was Mumbai's High court, a towering building with spiral staircases and stone archways and alcoves occupied by marching men (and occasionally the odd woman) in sweeping black robes walking with pomp and purpose. 

sneaky photo before I got told off

 A few of us who were deemed to be dressed appropriately were allowed to enter, after agreeing to hand over our cameras to security. Sally is studying law at the University of Sydney and was like a giddy child as we peeked through old window panes at foreign law cases full of complicated terminology.We exercised out right to watch a court case and silently entered one at the back to be met by dozens of staring eyes glaring disapprovingly, funnily enough we didn't stick around long, it's scary enough when the people glare at us, but when it's a man in long black robes you feel like a naughty Hogwarts student. We found a hidden away spiraled staircase and ran all the way to the top and hung over the wall to stare down at all the busy people strutting their stuff. We passed a room especially for filing that had a horrific queue of people holding stacks of messily piled folders waiting to drop them off and then we peered through the window of one room where dozens of men were noisily crashing out more documents of paper on ancient type-writers, the noise of clicking keys, the smell of sweat and ink and the sheer ludicrousness of the whole situation baffling us. 

Finally, as the day was coming to a close, we jumped into a taxi and got dropped off at the Mahatma Gandhi Museum which was a little display of photos, books, ariticles and letters he had written on the walls of a crumbling, old house that he had once stayed at whilst in Mumbai. 

I felt guilty walking in as I had to admit knowing nearly nothing about Gandhi and wondering why I had never been taught about him in school like all the Aussies had, I wondered if maybe it was because England are the bad guys in the story. One of the bits that interested me the most was the library full of books that he had read,including the complete works of Shakespeare, tons of Tolstoy and heaps of H.G. Wells.

One room was full of what looked like big, old, wooden television screens, but inside the boxes were little scenes from Gandhi's life, enacted by little wax dolls, each one with a completely unique facial expression, even in the scene of his funeral with crowds of people, every doll had a unique image of mourning. Having entered pretty clueless, I left quite enlightened, and although it looks like an old shack of a house from the outside, this building actually houses a fascinating collection of the past.

We had booked earlier on in the day a large table at a restaurant called Indigo which we had read about as being an amazing restaurant with a menu of creative and extravagant dishes with exciting ingredients. We accidently booked a table at the Delicatessen rather than the restaurant, which was just as well as we all felt rather under-dressed as it was in our baggy Goan clothes. Because everything in India is so cheap, even fine dining comes in at about the same price as a meal at Nandos, and so we all took advantage of this with large bottles of Indian Rose wine and fancy appetizers and jugs of Sangria. Our rule number one of Mumbai had been to not be out after dark, but with such a large group of us, including boys who we knew could throw a decent punch from experience (but that's another story...) we set off to a famous little haunt called Leopold's Cafe, supposedly a favourite with backpackers although once again we felt like entertainment for hoards of Indian youths. The bar was in a tiny room upstairs full or people and noise. Luckily, Bollywood music has grown on us massively, even to the point where we requesting certain Indian songs and singing along in our own made-up words. (a few of our favourites being the Sunny Sunny song , Get on the Dancefloor and of course Chennai Express)

stolen from Sally's phone

After more wine and finally finding other backpackers to socialise with we suddenly all decided to leave and see the Gateway to India once more before getting a taxi back to the hotel. Back at the hotel we all stayed up in the living room section of our hotel room and one of the boys went out on the balcony and shouted at the room next door to come join us, at which point 4 students from Edinburgh University entered our flat and instantly became our best friends.

When we remembered our strict itinerary for the following morning at around 4am we decided to fall into our lush, double beds and of course I fell straight asleep.

I was going to right about the whole weekend, but one day alone has turned into a short story. You'll just have to wait for the next installment which will come when I can be bothered to drag myself away from the hammock again.

Bye for now.