I don’t know why, but I’ve been fascinated with Bombay (or Mumbai by its new, second name) for some time. A big part of the research for this trip revolved around YouTube videos and blog posts from fellow backpackers, and it seems that Bombay is a place you either love or hate, very much like Delhi (or marmite obviously). After watching a number of cookery shows from Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay on touring India, it seemed like the natural place to finish, and after FINALLY finishing Shantaram after over a year of trying to find the time to finish it, that sealed the deal. What made the end to our India trip that bit sweeter was that we’d be there for Diwali and the start of the Hindu new year as well. Only one word can summarise this succinctly enough; AWESOME!
Our experience of Bombay has been fantastic, but the three main areas we’ve seen have been totally different and need special mentions, hence the title of this blog.
Versova and the other suburbs
We decided months back to book an Airbnb as we suspected it would be insanely busy at all hotels due to Diwali. We were very fortunate to stay with a guy called Baljit and his parents in an area called Versova, north of the main body of Bombay. Versova is the main suburb where Bollywood stars and staff from the film industry reside, so the level of affluence is en par with parts of London. When trying to compare, it probably rivals areas like Chelsea or Knightsbridge. This was obviously a very nice experience, as we were staying in a gated complex, in an open and quiet (by Indian standards) area, with a fantastic array of bars, cafes and boutique restaurants, and literally a stones throw from Versova beach. Whilst this beach didn’t rival the beauty of those we frequented in the South (this one also had a small slum, a sewer/dirty river feeding into the sea and a hefty amount of rubbish across the beach), it was still a lovely place to walk for a couple of hours near sunset.
As we were staying in this area, we were fortunate enough to see it in all its guises. One thing that really was apparent for me in Bombay was the change in the city from day to night, it really is the city that never sleeps. What starts the day as a placid and calm district turns into a bustling, lively and exciting area by night. We spent one evening just scoping out the local bars and venues for a cheeky beer, another dodging fireworks and bangers whilst admiring the beautiful light displays erected for Diwali, and another learning about the Sikh culture and visiting a local temple with Baljit and his mother. We even got given local clothing to borrow so we fitted in with activities (codeword forndidnt stick out like a tourist as much).
Following this we went for dinner and had probably the best butter chicken and mutton Bhuna I’ve ever had which was a great way to finish off a great day.
Versova and the surrounding areas were such a change from what I expected of Mumbai. Everything I’ve read and seen describes this place as wall to wall noise, smell and general madness, but this in the main was totally the opposite. Maybe we are just becoming more accustomed to the general carnage of India? Either way, we really lucked out staying in such a great place and with such a great family, who welcomed us so warmly and made us really feel at home and part of the community. If you guys are reading this, thanks for making our time in Bombay so wonderful!
Central Bombay and Elephanta Island
We decided to try and squeeze the majority of the ‘sites’ into one packed day during our stay. To be honest, I’ve started to realise quite quickly on this trip that so many ‘must see’ sites or attractions aren’t actually that must see; I think I just hate tourist traps to be honest. I think both Kelly and I agree that some of the best things we’ve seen or done have been unexpected, and normally just happen because we are walking around and somewhat off the beaten track. Anyway, I digress…
We started the day off by heading to Leopolds cafe, a critical place in the book Shantaram. For many of you going to a cafe probably seems like a very strange place to head to, but for me this had to be visited. Shantaram for those of you who don’t know is the story of a man named Lin who escaped prison in Australia and ended up living in the slums of Mumbai where he becomes the slum doctor, gets involved with the mafia and ends up in jail again for months to name but a few critical points. The story spans everything from love, war, crime, philosophy, pain and passion over about 1200 pages. To be honest if you like reading and haven’t read this, just read it. I’m barely scratching the surface of describing it and it’s multiple layers. One thing I will say is it’s not really known if this is fiction or non fiction, but I believe it’s non fiction with an embezzled plot. To be honest everything I said earlier about tourist traps is kind of what I felt at Leopolds. The place was full of westerners and the prices were inflated easily by 200% on any other local establishment. Kelly and I shared a meal and went on our way. I’m still really glad we went but wouldn’t describe it as a must see place.
Following this we made our way to the Gateway of India via the Taj Mahal Hotel and a number of other historical buildings we Brits stuck all over the place. If it wasn’t for the palm trees all around, so much of this part of Bombay could easily be mistaken for central London, the architecture is so similar from Victorian age buildings in central.
On this walk to the jetty, we walked through the Oval park, which was absolutely riddled with cricket matches. I’ve never seen anything like it! There must have been 30 matches being played on what I’d classify as a normal size pitch, I have absolutely no idea how the different teams kept track of their team mates, balls, the score, and those other important things for a match. To be honest it was wonderful to see and experience, and I can see why India are so good at cricket now! This photo doesn’t adequately show how busy it was sadly but believe me, it was heaving!
Once we made it to Gateway to India, we boarded a boat to Elephanta island. The island is an hour boat ride from the jetty, and contains almost untouched forest areas and some historical caves with monuments carved straight into the stone. This was such a wonderful change from the city madness, as the whole area felt fairly untouched and tranquil. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely rammed, full of people selling cheap crap to tourists, and people taking selfies in the most obscure of places, but looking past all that (as you need to do across India) it was a very special place. I Also managed to get a bit of OCR practice in on the tress at the top of the hill we trekked; the locals were fascinated!
But seriously, the selfie thing here is crazy! We’ve been asked well over 100 times for bloody selfies on this trip. We’ve seen people having almost full blown photo shoots for selfies, it’s a little ridiculous to be honest. I had enough at Elephanta and just started photobombing people, and taking photos of people posing for photos. Here’s a small sample of said snaps…
For the evening, we decided to go on a street food spree. We’ve heard so much about the street food in Mumbai but hadn’t had many opportunities to tuck in, so we really went for it. We walked from the gateway to an area regarded as the street food Mecca of Mumbai, Mohammad Ali Road. Whilst on the 5k stomp past the famous CST station (which is absolutely stunning for the record) we tucked into some PROPER tandoori chicken in a roti, some Vada Pav (regarded as the Bombay burger, even though it’s basically potato cake in a bun). By the time we were done at Mohammad Ali road, we’d tucked into an array of Indian sweets, snacks, and small meals, all of which was superb and seldom seen in the UK (yes I got recipes where I could). Because we decided to do this on Diwali, the walk again involved dodging some very interesting and explosive banger and firework displays on the narrow streets. Health and safety well and truly went out the window! As you can imagine though, this really made whole experience of being in in the thick of it come to life.
Before visiting the slums, I had a feeling this place was going to be riddled with crime, and poverty, and I’d see people living miserable lives and living in some absolutely appalling conditions. I was expecting to find my experience quite challenging and rather emotional. I think this is in part fuelled by things like Slumdog Millionaire, and the imagery the media use to paint such a picture and tell such a story to be honest, because boy was I wrong!
Dharavi slum is the largest in Bombay (and in Aisa to be fair), with over 1 million people living in an area half the size of Central Park in NYC. The unofficial number of people living here is likely to be much higher though. The slum basically has a population density about 20 times larger than the rest of the city, and average salary for those in the slums is less than £2 a day.
We went on a tour around the slums with a company called Reality Tours, a fantastic company who run a community outreach centre to educate those living in the slums. 80% of their profits go into this centre, and they run sessions on everything from computer use to basic numeracy/literacy qualifications that are endorsed by the British Council, but even sessions on personal hygiene, LGBT rights, elocution and CV writing/interview techniques amongst other things. They do some fantastic work and I’d really recommend checking them out if you are venturing to India at any point.
We started the tour by exploring the commercial areas, that included the plastic recycling zones, pottery makers and leather workers. About 80% of the recycling for all of Bombay is done in the slum, and the majority of this is plastic. As you can imagine, the working conditions are not great, there’s no health and safety, and the smell of chemicals fills the air to an acrid level, but this is just the norm so everyone gets on with it. In a strange way it was really nice to see the end of the line, as we’ve seen so many people collecting plastic on the streets and now we have seen what happens to it. One thing that really amazes me about this whole process was the array of stages and ways the locals worked in challenging conditions and without all the modern technology we would be used to in the UK. Likewise with the pottery and leather workers, the work is undertaken using machinery, but due to cost and space restrictions many tasks are done by hoards of people.
One thing that really jumped out at me about the commercial district is how much stuff you see on the streets clearly come from the slums. We saw Breads and cakes being made and packaged for large companies to be sold all over India, we saw leather bags being made for some very well known top name brands, all the crap that’s sold on the streets for ten times the actual cost, beautiful fabrics and saris, the list goes on. It’s a real shame though that none of this is promoted as coming from this area, probably because of the false perceptions from the general public, just like my initial misconceptions! Likewise, it’s really obvious you shouldn’t buy any of that crap off the streets as regardless of your quality of bartering, you’re still getting ripped off.
Following this, we made it through to the residential districts down the labyrinth like alleys. Now this was exactly as I expected! You had to have your wits about you, as there was no lighting, low ceilings or awnings, broken pavement, open sewers, and trailing electrical cables daisy chaining over your heads in some crazy tangled mess. However, the living areas felt totally different. Unlike my belief that we’d be surrounded by horrific poverty, the area was alive with life. People took great pride in their homes, which were beautiful colours and had amazing street art on the sides of buildings. We saw children dressed up in beautiful outfits for the holy celebrations, more kids playing cricket in the streets (I may have got involved again), and you rally got the sense of a wonderfully close knit community all around you. The area, albeit a slum, actually reminded me of the area we stayed in Kolkata, just with corrugated iron houses.
The thing that really hit home with me, was how wrong I had got it. I reckon I saw less poverty, rubbish and general harshness in the slum than I have in any city in India so far! Come to think of it, I didn’t see a single person begging for the first time in India! Honestly, it was wonderful, and once I had realised my understanding of the slum was totally wrong I felt so comfortable being here. I felt so honoured to have met the amazing people, to see what I’d seen and to get involved in local activity in and around the slums; definitely the most eye opening thing we have done and something I can’t recommend highly enough. The slums are an organic and evolving city within a city, just go with an open mind and be prepared to be amazed.
Sorry, I’ve done it again. I’ve written far too much, but there’s so much to say about this city. I appreciate that being here over Diwali may have enhanced my experience somewhat, but I will go as far to say I bloody love it here! This city is so different to all the others we’ve visited over the last 5 weeks, but with subtle similarities in pockets. There’s so much going on that with every turn down an alley you get a different experience.
This is the last place we visit in India. It’s been a magical time to say the least. I’ll be reflecting on the trip whilst we are en route to Hanoi and will probably write an overview of the whole journey so far. Needless to say, I’ve fallen in love with India a little bit, and WILL be back to explore some more!