Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Mumbai, if such a thing can be said at all, has the correct amount of pollution for maximizing the brilliance of a sunset, the very peak amount before the excess causes diminishment.  Instead of clouding the sky in a grimy grey film, the congested air lends a boost to the saturation and vibrancy of the cotton candy pinks and indigo-blues swirling over the city in its dusky hour. The city of black brick and red sandstone and creamy marble.  English architecture topped with Mughal domes and minarets, but strangled with jungle vines, palms, and tropical trees with additional trunks dripping from their boughs.  Throw in some red double decker buses and English barristers with Indian faces, and voila, you have the vibrant and humid alternate-universe tropical London, Mumbai.

Mumbai’s poverty is immense, but I was astounded by how much more cheerful slums can look when complemented by lush tropical growth.  And for contrast, sprawling up high above the slums and the foliage: luxury towers, imaginative in both their shape and scope.  Wedged between shanties: Audi dealers.  Overlooking a four year old boy squatting to relieve himself on the sidewalk while his fingers are in his mouth: a banner for designer robes: “Because you can’t wear your Bentley.”  The wealth isn’t evenly distributed in Mumbai, but the people are, with execs and moaning blind beggars shoulders apart on the same sidewalk.  Economic status is less defined by geographic lines than other cities, and there seemed to be something particularly honest in this.

Like Manhattan, Mumbai is an island bursting through its seams with commerce and human beings.  Knowing this to be the case, I was prepared to use all the tactical knowledge I had accumulated in my other Indian Metropolises, to thwart what I was sure would be tidal waves of touts, beggars, and pickpockets, but to my unexpected pleasure, downtown Mumbai – Colaba and the fort area – was actually quite peaceful, very walkable, and extremely stately.  Heightened security due to past acts of terrorism proved to be the biggest inconvenience of exploring the downtown area and this of course is both appreciated and very manageable.

The Gateway of India sits elegantly at the very most southern tip of the city, a grand European style arch welcoming those entering by sea, much like my own lady liberty.  Nearby looms the fabulous Taj Mahal Hotel where I spent more on a cup of tea than I ever had in my life, while enjoying live piano played by a man in a tuxedo and the chattering of overweight and well-dressed goras.  In the bathroom, a tenant turns the knobs of the sink and depresses the soap button for me.  Shrouded in palm trees and overlooking pickup games of Cricket on the Oval Maiden green, Mumbai’s High Court welcomes guests to check their cameras and wander about live legal proceedings uninhibited.  The former Prince of Wales Museum (its new name I couldn’t pronounce or relate to you here) boasts an excellent collection of Indian art and artifacts from recent centuries to the very beginning of civilization, as well as impressive displays of Nepalese, Tibetan, and actually quite good European art.  I had never looked at western art through an eastern lens before, and I gawked happily at the creamy skinned Europeans with their dully hued but elaborate dress and immodest regard of gender relations and female nudity.

I stayed with an Indian man named Thomas in the I.C. Colony, way up north in the suburbs of Borivali.  I.C. for the Church of Immaculate Conception in a once predominately Christian neighborhood, but now it stands for “Indian Community,” Thomas explains with pride for his city’s diversity.  He is one of those rare hosts in the Couch Surfing community that keeps his doors open and welcomes as many as many as his home can accommodate.  Without leaving his home, I enjoyed the good company of a Welshman, a German, an Italian, two Americans, a Japanese, and Thomas with his roommate.  The swapping of war stories and polite debates about religion, economics, tourism, hygiene, and etiquette were stimulating to the point that we were always late to sightseeing and late to bed.

The city’s public transit system is hard pressed to keep up with its 19 million or so inhabitants and getting around on the city’s trains is nothing short of an athletic event.  Before the train can even come to a halt at the platform, waves of men pour out of each door while simultaneously even more men are taking running starts at the train in order to achieve the momentum necessary to lodge themselves inside (women have their own car, but I’ve heard the experience in one is somehow even more viscious).  Once in, you try to pull yourself to the center of the car as much as is possible, to avoid getting tumbled about in the human tides passing through the door.  I had several times before Mumbai experienced transit where there was simply no square inch of the floor exposed, as the feet on top were so tightly and efficiently packed like Tetris blocks, but in Mumbai there were occasions were there wasn’t even enough real estate for both of your soles to have purchase on the ground, and you might have to shift your weight onto the toes of one foot and the heels of the other.  And the human density might force you awkwardly into a 45 degree angle from the ground, but you’re so tightly compressed you could let go of the hand rails without falling.  As the train lurches away from each station, those that could afford no more clearance in the car but perhaps a handhold, cling on by the dozens from outside the train.

An hour away from the Gateway of India by ferry lies Elephanta Island, a verdant place surrounded by oil tankers and full of monkeys with terrible haircuts and an addiction to junk food.  The island is famous for its tremendous cave set temples beset with tremendous wall carved statues, with a behemoth three headed Shiva as a centerpiece.  Were it not for the tourists and worshipers  it would have been the kind of setting you’d expect to see Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft hunting for artifacts between the crumbling stone columns.

Heading north from downtown, you can find the largest train station in Asia near the most expensive home in the world.  Head north-west toward the Arabian Sea from there and you’ll find Haji Ali’s Mosque a stone’s throw from the beach, and depending on the time of the day you might find a bazaar lined passage to the palm filled mosque, or you might find the path washed away by the high tide, making the commute impossible.  A stroll east from there puts you on a bridge overlooking the railways and the Dhobi Ghats, a bafflingly large outdoor washing service processing what must be many thousands of garments daily in water that makes you wonder just how much cleaner the clothes might be getting.

Misunderstanding a conversation I had, I spent a day believing the tap water in Mumbai was actually very clean, and used this as a license to go crazy around the city’s many fresh juice stalls.  Pineapple juice, orange juice, sugar cane juice, carrot juice, and pomegranate juice – all for just seven to ten Rupees a glass!  After being deprived of real juice for so long, it was heavenly to taste all the color and feel the pulp swim around my gums and down my throat.  When relating my delight to my host and his friends they all looked at me like I was crazy.  Suicidal even.  They were Indians and even they don’t drink Mumbai water.  The clean water before mentioned was specifically referring to the fact that a central filter filters all the water in Thomas’s home.  How westerners deal with India’s famously bad tap water seems to be a very polemical issue.  Many wouldn’t let their toothbrushes touch tap water, and I’ve read about expats who boil even their bottled water before drinking it.  I’ve also met travelers who've long given up on trying to avoid or cure the perilous tap water and have had yet to experience consequence.  I enjoyed my brief hours of abandon, but I think I’ll be sticking to purified water from here on out. 

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