After a three leg, fifteen-hour journey we disembarked our plane into warm, humid air. We set foot on the tarmac in Mumbai, India, on time at 2:50 am. Except for me booking our flights for the wrong date (a costly and annoying mistake, as I’m usually good at travel planning), our journey had gone well so far; until that is, we landed in Mumbai. Our very first impressions of Mumbai were a little jaded but this changed once we’d recovered from the journey.
Arrival in Mumbai
It took two hours to get out of Mumbai airport. A combination of renovations and too few passport control desks open, resulted in long, unruly queues snaking through arrivals. It was chaotic. Finally, we reached the front of the queue, only to be told that as we had tourist visas we had to go to a desk in a different area….arrgh. Being one of only two groups of westerners who stuck out like a sore thumb, you’d have thought we’d have been given a heads-up on this one earlier.
Hot, dirty and tired we took a forty minute pre-paid taxi to our hotel, cue scam number 1. The taxi cost 1,400 Indian rupees (INR) or £18 GBP. We later found out a metered taxi for the same distance costs around 400INR (£5 GBP).
The roads weren’t too busy due to the early hour, but they were far from deserted. Remnants from the partying the night before were visible. These included some drunk locals on motorbikes swerving about and glittering multi-coloured lights strung everywhere. We’d arrived in the middle of the Ganesh Festival (Ganesh Chaturthi), the Hindu festival celebrated in honour of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha. Every so often we’d pass a Ganesh effigy partially hidden from view behind scaffold draped in tarpaulin, garlands, and more lights.
As we approached West Mumbai and our hotel the neighbourhood started to look a bit shady, the closer we got the worse it became. Our taxi pulled up near an alley and pointed to a run down building with a filthy sign. We could just make out the name of our hotel on the sign – it didn’t look promising.
We decided to give it a go anyway after all the reviews had been o.k so it couldn’t be too bad could it? It was! It was pokey, dirty, smelly and stifling hot, with a juddering fan and broken aircon. Not to mention the stained sheets and grimy pillows, it was nothing like the photos online. Deciding there was no way we were touching those sheets and despite it being stupid o’clock in the morning we jumped in another taxi in search of somewhere better to stay.
Eventually, we found a hotel in Colaba (Hotel Strand), it was over our budget but by that point we didn’t care and checked in. It turned out to be quite nice and a good location right on the waterfront and near the Gateway of India.
Exhausted and hungry, we quickly showered and ventured out to find some breakfast. The first place we stumbled upon that we fancied eating in was Leopold Cafe, one of the most established and famous cafes in Mumbai. It’s mentioned in the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and was also the target of the 2008 terrorist shootings. We’d accidentally ticked one of our must sees’s off the list very early on in our Mumbai visit.
Integration and Assimilation
The next couple of hours were spent wandering the streets for what Andy, I, and some friends call ‘integration and assimilation’. In layman’s terms – ‘finding our bearings’ and ‘getting into the swing of things’. For us, this consists of wandering around to see what we stumble upon and familiarising ourselves with where we are and how things work.
Traffic and Crowds
This time it involved pottering around some markets, avoiding crazy taxi’s, or ‘Johnny Cabs’ – as Andy calls them (based on the Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger film) and noisy buses belching plumes of choking smoke.
We also had to dodge the crowds milling on the sidewalks going about their daily business and the various street vendors and hawkers trying to sell us their wares. I loved the ‘giant balloon’ sellers – Andy’s answer was always – ‘no thanks I’ve already got one of those’ which I, of course, managed to twist and find amusing.
Markets and Slums
On the way back to the hotel we found ourselves in the midst of some street markets and one of the smaller slums (Apollo Bandar I think) dotted along the seafront and near Sassoon Docks. At first I felt uncomfortable being in the slum, however, no-one seemed to mind and gave us friendly smiles as we walked by. The children seemed to find the white man in his short-brimmed jungle hat and the ginger white lady very amusing. A chorus of ‘Hello, how are you?’ followed us up the road.
Lunch, Tailors and another Scam
After a much-needed power nap, we were peckish again by 4 pm. Jet-lagged and still finding our way we opted for the easy option and popped back to Leopold’s rather than wandering the streets looking for somewhere else. We were seated in the upstairs bar and had a delicious meal of very spicy Mushroom Hakka and Mixed Vegetable Masala with Rotis, it was delicious. Being a touristy location through the prices weren’t cheap (by Indian standards) but was very good nonetheless.
Next stop was a little store for Andy to buy some lightweight jeans to fit in better with the locals, as the men don’t tend to wear shorts in the street here. All the jeans were extra long and needed shortening, so once purchased we visited a small tailor’s stand on the side of the street, Andy was measured and we left the jeans to be shortened.
We needed to book flights to Goa for a few days time. Thinking it would save us finding somewhere to print tickets if we booked them ourselves online we decided to go to a tourist agency whilst Andy’s jeans were shortened, cue scam number 2. They ended up costing us a good £20 GBP more each than if we’d done it ourselves. Oh well, lesson learnt.
The blow of the flight booking scam was sweetened a little when we picked up Andy jeans thirty minutes later and only had to pay the tailor 300INR (£3.50 GBP).
Dinner and the Dark Side of India
As it was Ganesh Chaturthi the town was even busier than usual (I expect) and had a festival atmosphere. There were a few Ganesh effigies being paraded through streets towards the Gateway of India to be submerged. We couldn’t get through the crowds to be close enough to see them though. We bumbled about for a while longer taking in the sights, sounds, and smells; then finally decided to go for a spot of dinner and a couple of beers to try to send us to sleep.
We chanced upon the Cafe Royal, once visited by Bill Clinton, where we enjoyed our first two Indian Kingfisher beers of the trip. I promptly knocked mine all over the table and menu – I blame lack of sleep. We then ordered some dishes to share. Masala Papad for starter followed by Yellow Dhal and Kitchari Dhal, with Raita and Rotis. When it arrived it became clear that our eyes had been bigger than our bellies, we could have managed with half the food.
Walking back to the hotel, things had quietened down and the streets were emptier. It was now we got a clearer glimpse of the darker, sadder side of India. Many homeless people, men, women, and children were bedding down for the night on paths, in doorways and in alleyways whilst the odd stray dog or cat meandered along and several large rats scurried by.
First Impressions – An Assault on the Senses
Neither Andy or I have ever been to India, and despite doing our research and talking to others who have visited we weren’t sure what to expect. Everyone has different views. Our first day over and integration and assimilation complete our first impressions of India and Mumbai agreed with what many people had said. It was quite intense and an assault on the senses.
In comparison, everything in the UK seems a little flat, bland even. Here in India (Mumbai at least), you never know what’s around the next corner. One minute all you can smell is sewage or horse manure, the next you catch wafts of the gorgeous scent of jasmine or delicious spices. In the centre of town your ears are pummeled with a cacophony of blaring taxi and bus horns and shouting street vendors, whilst near the seafront you can just hear the quiet chattering of couples and families strolling, passing the time of day. Down one street are dingy, dilapidated buildings and down another colourful lights and garlands.
We definitely jumped in at the deep end having Mumbai as our first stop in India, but wouldn’t have had it any other way. Our first impressions of Mumbai were good ones and we couldn’t wait to see what else it and the rest of India have in store for us!
Have you been to India and was Mumbai your first stop? How did you find it?
P.S. You can read more about our time in Mumbai in our useful 3 Day Mumbai Itinerary.