Arriving in a new city after dark could quite possibly be one of my favorite things about traveling. Instead of being distracted by the sun, heat, traffic or the thought that you may have to continue through the day without much more sleep, the night life seems like a pure insight as to what life really is like in San Francisco, Bamako, Rome, -or in this case, Mumbai. The second greatest thing about arriving in the night is that waking up in the sun is like waking up on Christmas morning. So many sounds, smells and surprises.
[So, without any further ado, Merry Christmas from Mumbai!]
After a lovely set of flights through Seattle and Seoul, Joe and I arrived at 2:45am to a mass of people in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. With the florescent lights and gate after gate of chatting or sleepy families, one would never guess that it was the middle of the night. Shops were open, people sipping chai, women looking fabulous (as always)- and… Christmas music! After accepting the thought that we wouldn’t be celebrating the holiday this year (especially after having a two day delay in leaving the US due to weather through Heathrow), Kenny G’s ‘Joy to the World’ was the last thing we expected to hear walking toward customs in Mumbai. We seemed to be the only travelers delighted by this classy rendition- but it was a nice laugh after over 24 hours on a plane.
Getting through customs was relatively quick (even though we were mistakenly in the Indian passport holders line- don’t laugh, every line was marked International) and after successfully picking up our packs from the baggage claim (which of course came almost last), we pushed our way through to the exit into the muggy night. Like many other international airports (in warm climates), visitors, taxis and friends all have to wait outside ‘behind’ the guardrail- and again, I wasn’t expecting for it to be so busy. But, as I’m learning, there are literally people everywhere in India. It’s impossible to go somewhere ‘quiet’ even in a ‘small city’ of over 1 million people. Fortunately enough, we spotted Rushabh in a bright green polo shirt only after a few minutes of standing in the exit area/main stage. And honestly, it felt wonderful to pass by the taxi drivers and say ‘We’re meeting a friend!’
With a great welcome and smiles, Rushabh and his uncle Dilip helped us with our bags through the throngs of anxious travelers and rickshaw drivers to their car parked in a new parking garage. After experiencing a situation much like that in Leh (with everyone feeling as though they need to honk from thirty feet away), we stuffed our bags into the trunk and off we went.
Before leaving for India, I was told by a friend that there is construction everywhere -particularly in Mumbai. At the time, I just nodded and put the thought in the back of my mind, but I was instantly reminded of this as we drove away from the airport. Instead of a new thoroughfare that may take you away from the arrivals area, we wound our way through detours, back roads and potholes surrounded by high construction gates and numerous high rises in the process of expecting a next floor or facade. Apparently most of the buildings are to be five or seven star hotels (since when are there seven star hotels?!) and most are connected by mid-rise parking garages and new expressways which rise thirty feet or so off the ground.
I really had no idea what to expect when arriving in Mumbai- and like I mentioned before, I hadn’t grasped the concept that Mumbai’s population is 14 MILLION . You can’t even begin to compare the size of Mumbai to New York and during this 30 minute car ride through the city, I came to realize that New York (population 8 million) does sleep, Mumbai does not. By this time, it was about 4:30am on Christmas morning (a Saturday) and still there was gridlock (but less traffic than any other time of the day). The air was relatively cool but slightly sticky and smelled of spices, car exhaust, incense, and a sniff of cow every now and then (which may sound awful, but really isn’t). Men gathered around televisions along the roadsides in small shops or in lines meandering away from milk depots, all waiting for the day’s first chai.
The first breath of ‘silence’ (which can only be said relatively) came after passing through the Dharavi slum – (the largest slums of Mumbai and where portions of Slumdog Millionaire were filmed) and stopping on the corner of a less busy intersection. Rushabh hopped out of the car, moved a moto out of the way and Dilip moved up the car into a tightly fit spot. Dilip and Rushabh showed us into their apartment building (passing a sweet, yet sad looking guard dog) and upstairs to their unit. Neeta, Rushabh’s mother answered the door looking sleepy, but with an amazing smile and kind eyes, and welcomed us inside. After a short tour, Dilip took us across the hall (ten feet) to the other apartment where we would be sleeping. He showed us the fan, bedroom, shower, and loaded us up with bottled water, biscuits, “Special” white bread and butter. Then it was time to sleep!
Waking up a few hours later (still on Christmas) was such a treat! Even though it was almost sunrise as we were heading to sleep, it was still relatively dark. Opening the windows after showering was wonderful- and if we hadn’t any place to go, I could have easily spent hours sitting by the kitchen window watching the events of the day (like the men washing their motos or shaving, the women hanging laundry, and the crows finding every bit of edible crumb in the courtyard). But as we promised, we cleaned up and prepared ourselves for a tour of Mumbai.
Rushabh and his family (mother, father, and uncle) live in the neighborhood of Wadala- which is north of central Mumbai, in an apartment with an amazing balcony overlooking a busy street corner (where we did stand for some prolonged amounts of time). Dilip and Rushabh’s father’s father bought the apartment when the building was constructed in the 1950s, and have lived their since. My dear friend Rachel Kadakia’s mother, Amita, grew up across the hall (in the apartment where we slept)- and Rushabh and his family adopted Joe and I without question. I still can’t believe how lucky we were to have stayed with them- thank you!!
After an amazing breakfast of powa, toast, and tea (and a short walk around the neighborhood and to the ‘Five Gardens’ with Dilip), we hopped in the car and headed toward downtown Mumbai. There wasn’t too much traffic, but Joe and I both sat in silence gazing through the windows at the amount of people (really, so many people), the haze, crowded commuter trains, and specs of Christmas spirit (still a surprise). For the next four hours or so, we went from one spot to the other with Rushabh, Dilip, and Neeta- stopping for coconut water (after asking innocently what the fruit that the man was selling from the cart- it was not brown and fuzzy), at the India Stock Market, India Gate, Taj Hotel (where the terrorist attacks of 2008 occured) and Rushabh’s office. The best stop of all would have to be at the World Trade Center Exposition Hall. Earlier that morning, Neeta had asked me if I liked or wanted to go shopping. I politely responded that I would love to go with her when we come back through Mumbai in March since I would have to travel through South India with a heavier bag (and I’m sure Joe would not like to help me carry my pack). She smiled, nodded, and the next thing I know- we’re entering a exposition hall boasting similar items to those found on the Home Shopping Network or at the state fair.
It was absolutely fabulous- despite the crazy looks we were getting from the other women and families shopping. Products ranged from vegetable chopping devices, bean bag chairs, rugs, water purifiers, juicers, and women’s clothing. Rushabh, Joe and I sped through the aisles not really stopping to buy anything, but Dilip and Neeta went slowly from table to table. I think most people can relate to this- where you’re along for a family shopping trip or vacation where your parents are overly excited about something and you’d rather be doing something else (like talking on your phone or with your friends), so you walk fast, then stop and wait for your parents to catch up- then once they do, you walk fast again, hoping they will get the idea. The whole situation was quite bizarre, but it was clear that young adults are the same wherever you may be.
From here, we made the trek back to the apartment for lunch (and ate a snack of puffed corn with chili powder along the way). Dilip wanted to take us out to lunch, but we insisted that we would love a traditional Gujarati meal instead. Neeta and their maid, Susma, prepared one of the best lunches I have ever had (I’m wishing now that I had taken a photo and diagrammed exactly what each taste was like – I’ll do some research). After lunch, it was time for a nap- and an opportunity for us all to rest up before another outing in the evening.
Looking beautiful, clean, and rested, Rushabh, Neeta and Dilip (with R & N in wedding-going attire) took us on another outing in Mumbai, this time dropping us (and Dilip) off at a shopping center while they rushed off to the wedding. Once again, not the typical tourist destination, but so delightful! By this time, it was dark and the shopping center was decked out in bright, flashing Christmas lights and three-story blow up Santa Claus. Along with thousands of others, we made our way through a metal detector (which I don’t believe actually worked) and into the central court of the mall (all open-air). Apparently there was going to be a show- and Dilip wanted to make sure that we saw the Christmas festivities. We followed the crowds to the third level where we could overlook the even larger central space to witness the beginning of a dance number. Yes! Really! I couldn’t believe it- it was just like a Bollywood film! About eight dancers started and maybe 20 others joined in throughout a montage of 10 songs or so. Dilip and Joe were bored and wandering off in various directions, but I just couldn’t stop looking! They pulled me to the ground level just as they were finishing to the song “Waving Flag” by K’Naan (the World Cup song). The production went on to include a stage show, but we were distracted by the bright lights and a Santa posing for pictures with scared little kids. Mind you, this Santa was a very skinny man in a Santa suit with a mask on, with a red face- a little scary, but we’ve seen about twenty since throughout South India. The evening came to an end at a “Pure-Veg” restaurant with Dilip not far from the shopping area. He ordered all sorts of staples that he felt we should know before traveling like dosa and idlis. Delicious.
By the time we arrived back at the apartment, it was around 11pm. We said our goodnights and started to pack for the next part of this adventure- a 24 hour train to Cochin, in the state of Kerala. Neeta and Susma made us a delicious breakfast of upma AND packed a lunch and snack for us to take on the train (complete with plates and utensils). Neeta and Dilip gave us a taste test of the chapatti and chutney and specific instructions on what to eat when and how to eat it. Rushabh took me downstairs to a small shop on the street for water and snacks (tomato banana chips…mmm!!). Then after hugs and kisses, it was off to the train station.
Despite feeling as though you’re never alone in Mumbai, it was an amazing twenty-four hours with even more amazing hosts. I’m loving everything- even the traffic, heat and smog, and can’t wait for our next days with Rushabh, Dilip and Neeta in Mumbai in March.
[Stay tuned for the train stories…]