Category Archives: Mumbai


Run, Mumbai, Run


15 January 2012

20120126-235007.jpg Mumbai from above

The newspaper under my door in the morning is an interesting read. It is a Hindu paper (the Hindustan Times) but in English, and appears to contain as much spin as it does news, though the pages devoted to arranged marriage ads is diverting – owning a house or having the right to settle abroad appears to be a bonus, there is a separate section for divorcees and even an ad from a couple in New Zealand seeking a wife for their son, who has a good job in Sydney.

Of more interest is the map on the back page, for today is the day of the great Mumbai marathon!

I can’t say I’ve noticed anyone out jogging since I’ve been here – the heat and pollution would be enough to put off most mortals – but the newspaper has photos of the Ethiopian team training in their track suits, and a map of the route which, conveniently, runs directly past my hotel. There are regular updates on TV (the run began at 6am, though there are shorter publicity runs for celebrities and fundraising groups later in the morning), and Bollywood stars pop up with soundbites about their love of running and their support for various charities. The marathon is sponsored by Kingfisher – whether the beer or the budget airline is unclear, though given the latter’s financial difficulties the former seems most likely. They’re both owned by the same family, in any case.

I wander out along D. N. Road after breakfast, following the route for a kilometre or so. It’s not quite the London marathon, with only 38,000 participants this year, but the event is only a few years old, and it’s growing. As well as the regular runners, there are unlikely groups of elderly Indians waving banners, who seem to be walking a much shorter course, and a few brave souls in fancy dress.

20120126-234851.jpg This guy was loving it.

Along the way, I pass the marker for the final 1km. A few girls in jeans carrying pompoms stand in a row on a small stage, giving the pompoms an occasional hesitant shake, as though not really sure why they are there and not really wanting to bring attention to themselves. Next to them a man with big hair and the unmistakeable tones of a radio DJ does his best to drum up excitement in the small crowd of spectators lining the route.

By midday, when it is time to catch a taxi to the station, the roads have reopened, and the last stragglers must compete with regular Saturday traffic as well as their own exhaustion for the final stretch.

I’m looking forward to my first long-distance train journey, an 8 hour stretch to Aurangabad, near the northern border of Maharashtra. Despite my fears, the station is crowded and the correct platform and carriage stop are easily found. As I look for a place to perch with my pack, another traveller comes up to me and asks if I’m heading to Aurangabad. I can’t quite place her accent, which turns out to be French Canadian. Alizé is part way through a year away from home, and fresh from a stint on the Christmas markets in France. By happy coincidence we are on the same carriage, and arrange a sneaky seat-swap so that we can sit together.

AC chair class is a pretty comfortable way to travel. It’s still pretty cheap, but the seats are like airline seats, with a lot more legroom. Even with AC the carriage is reasonably warm. Unfortunately the windows are tinted, so the countryside all the way to Aurangabad takes on a blue tinge.

The landscape, once we escape the city, is rocky and desert-like. We pass dry rice-paddies, cornfields reduced to rows of husky stumps, the plants themselves stacked in high pyramids to dry. There is the occasional ravine with a trickle of water at the bottom, and anywhere there is a trickle of water there is also an array of colourful washing drying in the sun. People walk along the tracks next to the train, some with huge loads on their heads. A man on a bicycle is nearly invisible in between a huge pile of sugarcanes. There are small clusters of houses, more of mud huts with tin or thatch on the roof. Then, unexpectedly, a row of shiny wind turbines appear on a ridge up ahead.

20120126-235241.jpg India through blue-tinted glasses

Inside the train, the aisles are a stream of attendants and a random assortment of vendors. There is the chaiwallah, the coffee wallah (I try one – it is Nescafé, which I expected – but it comes in only one variation: milky and sickly sweet), there is a boy of about 14 hawking small plastic helicopters (his double appears later selling “magic” wipe-off plastic books), the official train attendant selling bottled water and frooti, and the official in-house catering service, which comes in veg or non-veg. We opt for the veg, which turns out to be greasy fried rice. Still, there is plenty of it and it’s cheap – about 100 INR for the meal and the coffee (about $2).


20120126-235135.jpg Indian Railway Cuisine

At Igatpuri the train stops, and vendors on the platform swing into action, hoisting huge bowls of samosas and pakoras onto their shoulders and winding through as many carriages as they can manage before the train engine revs again. Each vendor has a distinct cry – one, who seems to be selling sweets, roams the train calling “cheekywallah, cheeky cheeky”.

As dusk begins to fall, just past Nasik Road, I notice two small boys flying kites from a roof top. Then another, and another – for the next few hundred metres there must be a hundred kites. Leftovers from Makar Sankranti?

We finally pull into Aurangabad station, to be greeted by chaos. The train terminates here, so it’s everybody off, and pushing and shoving to find the entrance. My hotel has sent a car to meet me, and we cause the young driver no end of confusion trying to get him to drop Alizé at her hotel first. He just wants to “chello hotel!”, but eventually we sort it out. I’m a little disconcerted to be kept waiting 30 minutes or so when I arrive – it’s 10pm and all I want is sleep, surely they knew I was coming! But after a brief sense-of-humour failure I’m finally allocated a room and collapse gratefully into sleep.

A tale of two tours, part 1: Mumbai by night


13 January 2012

With only a couple of days in Mumbai, I wanted to see as much as I could of the different facets that together make the city. As a solo woman traveller in a country where women don’t generally venture out alone at night, it seemed like a good idea to sign up for some kind of tour where I might meet a few fellow travellers as well as getting the kind of insight into Mumbai that only a local could provide.

With this in mind, I got in touch with Reality Tours, a local Mumbai outfit which is best known for its educational tours of Dharavi, the massive slum which will be familiar to anyone who has read Shantaram. The tours operate a strictly no-photo policy, and focus on the positive aspects of Dharavi life, the small businesses and examples of the entrepreneurial spirit required to survive there. All profits are put to work running a community centre within Dharavi, and because of this the locals are more receptive to tourist visitors than might otherwise be the case. I didn’t have time to do the Dharavi tour, but they have recently started a “Mumbai by night” tour, which promised to show the main tourist sights as well as some less well-known places.

After some delicious chana masala and a beer or two with the English/Sth African couple from the hotel, I set off to the meeting point for the tour. My first surprise was that I was the only one on the tour – so I had an “exclusive” tour for only INR850! As I was the only customer, we took a series of local taxis rather than the usual rented car. My guide was a young Hindu man who had grown up in Dharavi. We’ll call him J, mainly because I failed to write down his full name at the time… We meet at the Regal cinema, a British relic in 1920s style, then navigate our way across the lanes of traffic (I say lanes, they are more of a guideline) to the first taxi, a black and yellow special.

Our first stop is Chowpatty Beach, where the snack stands are in full swing and small children weave in and out of the crowd while families picnic and couples try to find privacy in the shadows.



We drive along the parade and climb Malabar Hill, pausing at the hanging gardens (and dodging the morality police, who stop J – apparently they are known to inform parents of unmarried couples they come across, and to impose fines on anyone acting “inappropriately”. Satisfied that J is a tour guide, they allow us into the park). From the gardens there is a stunning view back along the bay, with a string of street lights picking out the Queen’s Necklace below. One building in particular glows brightly – not the famous Taj Mahal hotel, but what my guide calls the “Indian Taj”, a Muslim-run hospital which is lit up only on special occasions. This weekend is Makar Sankranti, a festival celebrated by flying kites with lethally sharp strings, and he speculates that this is the reason for the lights.


Leaving the gardens, we pass by a Tower of Silence, the site where Parsi take their dead to be laid out to decompose (macabre, I’m sorry – and more so that vultures hover at the site). According to J around 50% of the land in South Mumbai is Parsi-owned. I’ve noticed a few compounds in the city already which are signposted “Parsi only”. Stopping at a Jain temple, we peek inside – tourists were once allowed inside, but after too many covert photographs we are now confined to the courtyard.

A highlight of the tour is a trip to Banganga, reputedly the site where Lakshman, on having his request for fresh water refused as the locals themselves had none, shot an arrow (ban) into the ground, causing a freshwater spring to flow. Locals believe that the spring is connected to the river Ganges (ganga), and the terraced reservoir provides a local alternative for those who cannot make the trip far north to cast the ashes of their loved ones into the river. When we arrive, the air is hazy and the lights give off an eery glow. We enter through the courtyard of a shrine, which feels more like somebody’s backyard – a woman is changing a baby’s nappy, and small children stare up at me – but J assures me this is the priest’s family, that in fact the shacks along the edge of Banganga are mostly inhabited by priests and their families. The reservoir itself is deserted and still – its hard to believe we are in one of the world’s most populous cities.


Returning to the clamour of the city, we drive through night markets and then turn along Grant Road. This is the city’s red light district. J says “no photos here”, but my camera is already packed away. According to J, few years ago there were as many as 60,000 sex workers in this area. Girls are sold to pimps by their families or conned into servitude, their meagre earnings never quite enough to buy their freedom. Now, apparently, official records list a mere 8,000 – not that there are fewer, more that they have been dispersed across the city. Prostitution is illegal, but J says the police turn a blind eye, and run patrols along the street for the safety of the girls (the cynic in me is less sure of their motives). Many of the girls I see are heartbreakingly young, and I am glad when we reach the end of the road and move on. I have seen real poverty here, but this is the first moment that Mumbai really reaches out and seizes me, and I feel so much anger towards the men who create a market for this. It is a relief to move on (but I am intensely aware of how lucky I am to be able to do so).

The tour comes to an end at Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), a Gothic Revival masterpiece and one of the busiest stations in Mumbai. It’s also conveniently close to my hotel, the Fort Residency, so (after checking with J that it’s safe to do so) I set out on foot for the sanctuary of my hotel room.

If you’d like to see the rest of my Mumbai photos, they’ll be available here.



13 January 2012

I am here! Arrived at Mumbai airport at 2am, a mere 30 hours after my journey began at 2:30am in Auckland. The flight was long, with stopovers in Brisbane and Singapore, but not exactly a hardship (I managed to blag my way into the Air NZ lounge during the Brisbane stop, despite traveling with a rival carrier and having no right to be there, and in Singapore had time for a shiatsu massage to iron out some of the cattle-class kinks in my back). But after months of dreaming, planning and negotiating the tortuous visa application process, I have finally made it to India.

Just to reinforce that life now operates on Indian time, the bus from the plane crawled to the terminal at slightly less than walking speed, taking a full 20 minutes to move about 1000 metres (we were passed by a tractor! Actually, in hindsight I’m not sure what the tractor was doing on the runway in the first place…). To amuse themselves the ground staff waited til we were all crammed around the designated luggage belt before arbitrarily changing the belt number, causing a stampede of luggage trolleys and sharp-elbowed passengers guarding their patch. I’m sure it was funny the first time…

Luggage eventually secured and, after the horror stories I had heard about huge crowds and pushy taxi touts, it was almost disconcertingly simple to to change a few USD into INR and pick up a pre-paid taxi voucher. The promised crowds outside the terminal were almost disappointingly tame, and even locating my taxi driver (number 7988) was easier than I’d expected, though when I saw the state of the cab (which looked suspiciously like a little black and yellow Trabant) I wondered if I’d made a mistake choosing the bargain non-aircon option (only 450 rupees!). 

It looked a little like this...

The driver emerged from under the open bonnet, I squashed in the back with my bags (the car boot was jammed, naturally), and off we puttered.  And what a ride! I soon discovered that I was sharing the back seat with a small cloud of mosquitoes, but with my deet buried in my pack all I could do was pull my scarf around me and hope for the best. I was a little disconcerted when the driver pulled into a tiny petrol station and popped the bonnet again – to my relief, it turns out that’s just where the gas tank lives. Off again, and my Indian newbie bingo card was filling rapidly – stray dogs, stray people, someone camping on the motorway (complete with campfire), ancient havelis hemmed in by tenements, gleaming new office buildings hard against the motorway overpass that we were picking our way underneath, ragpickers squatting by the roadside sorting through piles of rags, roadside shrines and even a token sacred cow, all emerging eerily from the hazy gloom.  The driver continued to inspire confidence by asking me for directions – turns out he couldn’t read, and the map I had didn’t seem to be helping much either. We settled for the train station nearest the hotel, and eventually he stopped to ask a local.

We finally pulled up outside the Hotel Residency at 4am, by which time all I could think about was a shower and bed – but India had other ideas.  The advance notice of my arrival time had been overlooked, and there were no beds to be had. A young English couple were scrolling through confirmation emails from the hotel’s reservation desk in an effort to prove that they too had a confirmed bed, with similarly futile results. Eventually the concierge conceded that rooms might be available at 8am, so we picked our way past the mattress on the lobby floor and the pipes hanging down from a hole in the ceiling, and settled down on sofas in the lounge to try to get some sleep until then.

Everything looks better in the morning. We were woken by the delightful sound of phlegmy hoicking from the next room, as the occupant of the mattress made his morning ablutions, and a staff member came in to make sure we were up and awake before the rest of the guests came down for breakfast. Nothing like a bunch of scruffy backpackers to lower the tone. It turned out that the hotel (which came highly recommended) is undergoing renovations, and the hole in the ceiling was a temporary glitch – when we emerged into the lobby it was swarming with contractors looking busily at the hole and the protruding pipes.  

But things were looking up when I was shown to the penthouse suite (it was on the roof, at least) which was at the top of its own set of narrow stairs (well, I say stairs, maybe more of a fire escape…). 

It even had a view… Well, kinda….

The only thing it didn’t have was wifi…but it turns out that the hotel has a new wing next door which is freshly renovated and does have wifi, so I reluctantly said goodbye to the view and moved next door, where I appear to have the whole shiny new building to myself. Life is good! 

A shower, a nana nap, and I was feeling just about human again – time to venture out into Mumbai for a few essentials: a sim card from a hole in the wall shop around the back of the hotel (thanks to the terrorist activity here, this requires a passport photo and a copy of your passport, as well as proof of your hotel booking, verified by the hotel – they sent a porter with me to make sure it all went smoothly), and a few bits and pieces from the gorgeous FabIndia emporium. And now, it’s most definitely gin o’clock, so I’m off to meet up with the English couple from earlier this morning, and check out Mumbai by night. Wish me luck!