India is about the people, not the architecture.
12th of February 2014
We’re waiting in Mumbai’s Domestic airport for our flight to Coimbatore. Akila’s wedding is on the 17th and me and Milto are very excited to see everyone and try our new sarees on. Our three days in Mumbai were chaotic, exciting, refreshing but also sad. How people in the 21st century can still bring offerings at temples dedicated to zoomorphic gods, I cannot comprehend.
Coming from the airport on the 9th of February, we were greeted by three neatly dressed indians, who quickly grabbed our bags and led us to a cab. After managing to get away with offering them 100 rupees, the driver started off what seemed to be a 20th century car, which puffed methane gas on the dusty streets of Mumbai. The white haired driver advised us that 10 rupees would have been enough. He was rushing his rusty car through the crowded areas, filled with a range of terribly poor people, living in dark nylon tents. Some buildings were so old, there were plants coming out of the walls, tearing the stone apart.
Children running around half naked, doing their buisness in front of the house, people carrying fruit in big baskets on their heads, colourful circus cars with images of vampires, scaring some indian ladies to a scream…”the slums” as they call it, where most of Mumbai’s population dwells, in utter, tragic poverty. The taxi driver quickly dismissed our judgement or, rather tried to, as he stated “third class”.
After about an hour, we reached the hotel and checked in. The entrance to the hotel was between two small shops and had 2 flights of stairs, which we had to climb with our 20kg suitcases. The receptionist was a tall, thin man with a black, brush-like moustache. He was very kind and reassuring and showed us to our room through one of the bell boys. He gave us the key with the inscription: “Please return to the reception for cleaning.”
The hotel consisted of one long corridor, filled with doors marked “Deluxe” or “Superior”. Milto and I got the “Deluxe” Olive suite, right next to the 1×2 square meter kitchen, where they made omelettes and sweet chai every morning. The corridor had an open side with a metal skeleton of flower motifs, oriented towards a sailor’s square. Every day at sunrise loud men would come to collect their sailing passes. They were one of the reasons I couldn’t sleep properly for the next 3 nights.
We unpacked, with Milto having considerably more creams that I did and then went on a search for a sim card. The receptionist suggested the marketplace nearby. We stepped out into the loud, crazy street, where cars would honk every 5 seconds to get access in front of other cars. Scooters, three wheelers without windows, 20th century taxis would brush against each other almost like in an attempt to survive. People would cross the street fearlessly, taking advantage of the frequent traffic jams.
We managed to cross the street eventually as our European feet were a bit too cautious. We walked across the bridge over the railway station and reached the market. Hundreds of merchants were yelling “excuse me madam” and shoving electronics, silks, shoes and other forms of merchandise under our noses. Brightly coloured silk sarees, spices, fruit, toys, mobile phones, more mobile phones, but no sim cards, despite of the giant Vodafone sign in the middle of the square.
We walked for a bit, not knowing what to believe and then entered into what looked like a dirty, abandoned market space. We were soon greeted by three old locals who quickly rose from their slumber when seeing us. One of them was talking about how we should wear tags to keep our goods safe, another convinced us to follow him to where his friends sold spices. He was like the guide to where everything was in the little marketplace.
We passed counters filled with nuts, fruit, shampoos imported from far away lands. After about five minutes of walking we got to the end of a dimly lit alley, where two indians were packing masalas and curries for a couple of skeptical Europeans such as ourselves. The “guide” as I like to call him, was dressed in a long, white kurta. His right arm had been cut off from the shoulder. His left arm, however, was sufficient for him to show us each type of spice in a tiny metal bowl. We were encouraged to try and smell all the spices: mild, sweet, spicy curry, masalas, digestives and many more. I bought a red curry and a masala, plus some chimen seed mouth freshner.
On our way back to the hotel, we took a few photos of the men and women selling vegetable in the streets. We also had a (respectful) laugh at the “holy cows”, who were slowly walking around as a sign of prosperity for the sellers. Needless to say, the fruit and vegetables were plentiful, which explains why so many indians are vegetarians.
Many narrow roads led to the residential homes of hindu and muslim families living together in harmony. We took one of these roads to meet a small group of girls playing in front of a mosque. The holy place was beautifully carved in white stone, with many flowery ornaments. At the top of the mosque there were two large patephones, ready to transmit the daily mass. Although beautiful and inviting, the mosque was crammed between the old and deteriorating buildings of the residential area. It looked a bit like a jewel in the desert.
On the 10th of February we had a lovely time with Raaj and his wife Priyanka. To be honest, after seeing the devastation from yesterday, I was grateful for a guided tour through the “pretty” places. My hopes were high, but not my expectations. Although Mumbai is a grand metropolis, it has the majority of its population living in poverty.
Raaj came to pick us up at around 11:30. A beautiful feeling of friendship filled our hearts as we ran to greet him. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. A cab took us to the Victorian train station, where British and Indian architectures could be seen together.
Queen Victoria’s Train Station, libraries, colleges, a great clean, green, beautiful park filled with palm trees and young couples under the warm sun….lifted me up with hope and joy. Milto bought a few antique coins, while I contemplated the beauty of this part of the city. And, as Raaj pointed out, everywhere you look is full of people. For me, India is about the people and not the architecture.
I tried some sugar cane juice from one of the many ambulant carts with 8 and 10 rupees signs flying in the wind. I felt wonderful, watching so many different types of people, all together under a roof of palm trees and banyans. Milto, Raaj and I then went for lunch at a place where both Asian and European cuisines were embraced. Milto could finally enjoy some plain food, as the menu so far had given her too many tears.
After a good hour chatting to Raaj about the good old days at Bournemouth University and a yummy masala, he thoughtfully exclaims: “A beautiful lady is coming.” I turn around and there’s Priyanka, Raaj’s wife with a great grin on her face. She was carrying a large bag of gifts for us and for Akila’s wedding. We were so glad to finally meet her after all the time we had known Raaj.
After lunch we took another cab to the Gateway of India, the border between India and the rest of the world. We were told that the giant stone arch by the ocean was the place where the English used to come through a while back. The great square in front of it was filled with walking sarees and photographers asking people to pose for them while holding the tip of Taj Mahal hotel, next to the arch.
We walked around aimlessly for a while. Milto asked the silly: “Anamaria will you marry me?” question (inside joke, I said no). Nevertheless, we went on a tonga ride around the square to celebrate. The tonga is a silver carriage, with a white horse, a multitude of fake flowers and aromatic incense. It reminded me of the gipsies from back home. We got on it for 400 rupees, which is a fortune for the locals (about 4 pounds for us).
Lastly, the four of us headed to the Queen’s necklace gulf. This beautiful place gets its name from the street lamps that form a necklace at night. We admired the sea at sunset and enjoyed a couple of cups of very sweet chai. We eventually went back to the hotel in a cab, which Priyanka ordered for us.
The 11th of February was a spiritual day, as Raaj called it. Me and Milto went to Mahalaxmi temple, where hindus worship the god Ganesha. The elephant god, as he is also known, had his father chop off his head in a misunderstood act of jealousy. When the father realized what he had done, he replaced his son’s head with an elephant head. Sounds plausible.
We took off our shoes and first entered in what looked like a small temple dedicated to a few gods, amongst which the holy cow was watching. Men would ring a bell as they entered the worship place. They would visit each god, which had its own statue in a tiny box room, and pray a few times by shaking their hands up and down.
The larger temple was up a hill and the path to it was through a tiny market, where people were selling flowers, food, icons, god statues, coloured powder for worship practices. At the foot of the steps leading to the altar, we took off our shoes again and walked through security where we had to leave our cameras. Men and women were separated in long queues on either side of the offering altar. Women were bringing plates of flowers to a god with a dotted swastika sign on its forehead.
Our next temple was the Haji Ali mosque in the middle of the gulf. It shone bright in the sun as we walked towards it on the long and narrow pier, filled with merchants and beggars. The mosque had grand walls, engraved with models similar to the ones found on the little mosque near the market place. Inside, we had to take off our shoes, cover our heads and go left in a separate room designated for women. The men could be seen inside the altar, throwing and catching Mohamed’s holy canvases on what looked like a shrine. Two little girls came, stroking a couple of red threads, praying and tying them to the altar entrance. They urged me not to take photos there, as it was a holy place. I obliged. Outside the mosque, people were cooling down in the sea.
Our third, less religious place was the Branda Bandstand, where we met a few friendly Europeans who were teaching there for a month. Quite a few of the locals asked us to take photos with them as we looked out of the picture most of the time (we were white). A few men carrying a giant stone column were smiling at us as we took a photo of them. These people love to pose 🙂
There are many more memories from our stay in Mumbai, but I will leave it at this for now. Milto thinks her half a page is enough to describe our trip so far 🙂 Until next time!