Mumbai day 1: horn OK please
It was Rubin's first time in India and he wanted to get to know more about his background even though he had been separated from it by about 400 years of history. He had a rough idea of the whereabouts of his relatives in India, but had no intention of visiting them during his two month-journey.
We encountered the first demonstration of Indian opportunism before we even left the terminal building. A man in an airport uniform approached me and Rubin and assured us that buses and trains would not start running before several hours and said he could arrange a taxi to bring us into town for only $20. We asked how much the price in euros would be and he answered: 30 euros. That seemed much too steep, never mind that the price in euros should be lower than the dollar price. We had to kindly turn down his offer about 15 times before he would leave us alone.
We laughed at the tenacity in trying to make money. "No offense," I remarked to Rubin, "but Indians are a bunch of sly bastards."
"Yes, I know," Rubin laughed.
Walking further, we encountered a row of six foreign exchange booths. Upon seeing me the occupants of the booths commenced a chorus of "Yes sir, please sir" and started wildly gesturing me to come over. The exchange rates were the same for all of them and I settled for the 2nd booth from the right and changed the 100 euros in my wallet to about 7000 rupees.
As we walked outside the terminal we were greeted by a nice 20 degrees Celsius and a thick layer of early morning smog. A whole bunch of locals tried to persuade us into a taxi even after we had already turned several of them down .
Rubin and I agreed to take any form of public transportation into the city and settled on Colaba as our destination. From talking to about 10 different people, we learned that no bus went directly to Colaba, and there was no train service directly from the airport. We could take a bus to a nearby train station and either get another bus into town or take the train. After a little more asking around we learned that the nearest train station was Andheri and bus 308 would take us there.
The both of us felt thirsty and before heading onward we went to a juice stand right outside the terminal. Rubin had brought an old winter jacket (it was freezing in the Netherlands when we left) but he obviously had no use for it in India. He tried to bargain with the juice stand people and exchange his jacket for a free drink, but they wouldn't have it. So he just gave the jacket to the very confused looking staff member. Several other Indians gathered around in amazement and examined the jacket.
The bus station was just beyond the juice stand. There were two problems however: firstly the buses used the Hindi numerical system making it very hard to determine which bus we needed. Secondly the buses came around a corner directly before the bus station. This only gave us a short time to determine if the approaching bus was in fact the 308 to Andheri and we missed it three times before finally catching it.
While waiting at the bus station we were joined by a travelling student couple from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I was about to explain to them which bus we were planning to take, when a bus stopped and about 20 to 30 Indians rushed towards it, yelling and pushing each other away to get on the bus which clearly had some time to catch up on. The four of us witnessed this scene with utter amazement and hoped we didn't have to do the same thing to catch our bus.
A little while later our bus arrived (I knew it was ours because I had managed to figure out the right Hindi numerals by then) and we got on with relative ease. Once inside we positioned ourselves and our backpacks on the back row of seats. The conductor slowly made his way towards us as he cashed the fares of all the other people who had gotten on at the airport. When he reached us I told him our destination was Andheri. He looked puzzled at the four of us and conversed in Hindi with an Indian teen in the row in front of us.
The teenager turned to us and said: "This bus not go to Andheri".
"So where does it go?" we asked.
"Not west, south."
"Is it going towards a train station?"
After some deliberation with fellow passengers and the conductor, he reported: "Yes, Kurla station."
That was something, at least. "Can we get from there to Colaba?"
The boy conversed with the boy beside him and finally turned to us: "Yes, you take train to CST station."
The conductor stood by with growing impatience and was happy to see us conclude that our destination was the Kurla railway station. We each paid him 7 rupees.
The bus ride was pretty rough and bumpy, resembling a rollercoaster at times, but eventually we ended up safe at Kurla station. We were in the middle of a poor neighbourhood. The surroundings and the early dusk gave the station a very gloomy impression. We talked with the teenager from the bus as he led us to the ticket office. I asked him if he was in school and he replied: "No, work. At airport."
"Ah, so you had a late shift?"
He tilted his head to the left and right a couple of times, an answer I wasn't sure how to interpret.
All four of us tourists bought a ticket to CST (Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus) for 8 rupees each, and the teen handed the man behind the counter what looked like a 2 rupee coin.
The five of us went to the platform and waited for the next train. It was already nearly full and the four of us had to squeeze ourselves in between the people on the balcony with our backpacks on. And so we started on a very uncomfortable ride. I was trying hard not to move, fearing I'd knock somebody off the train with my backpack.
At some point a lot of people got off the train, finally giving everyone aboard some breathing space. The teenager from the bus also left and we said goodbye and thanked him for his help.
As the train went on, some locals informed us that we were standing in a luggage compartment and urged us to move to a 2nd class compartment at the next station. One problem: the train didn't completely halt at every station, sometimes it only slowed down to a speed equal to human running. We saw some locals get off the train by jumping off it onto the platform while running and we weren't too happy at the prospect of having to do this with our backpacks on.
Soon the train arrived at the next station where it slowed to a complete stop. Relieved, we got out of the luggage compartment and made our way forward to a nearly empty 2nd class compartment.
The remainder of the ride, me and Rubin stood in the doorway of the train, watching the city zoom by as it slowly woke up. Occasionaly we had to retract our heads back inside the train to avoid getting hit by sign posts by the side of the tracks. About 20 minutes later we reached CST. The sun had completely come up and thousands of people were on the way to their jobs, all dressed in sari's or 'busymen shirts'.
Rubin and the Czech couple had their sights set on a guesthouse in the Colaba area, a 1 km walk south of CST. I on the other hand had decided to look for accomodation in the area around CST. One of the Czechs commented: "Next tuesday is the major national holiday, so it might be hard to find accomodation here." I decided to try anyway, thinking I could always walk to Colaba if all the hotels turned out to be full.
The area, known as Fort after a British fortress that once stood there, didn't have as many sights as the more cosmopolitan Colaba area, but according to the Lonely Planet accomodation was cheaper. Three hotels in particular had caught my eye and they were conveniently located on the same street.
The first one was the Welcome Hotel. The security guard at the front door sent me up a marble-clad staircase to the reception on the second floor. Fortunately they still had rooms free. The hotel manager sent an orderly to show me the clean, marble-clad room, and the shared bathrooms which were also spotless. But the price of 1250 rupees per night was more than I intended to spend. I told the hotel manager that I was going to be staying for a week and could he give me a good price?
"Sorry, price is fixed. Is good price sir," he declined.
"Even if I'm staying for a week?" I tried, but we were interrupted by two British travellers who came to complain about the taxi driver the hotel had arranged for them. Apparently he had asked for more money than the agreed fare, which does not sit well with the Mumbai tourist police. The hotel manager called out to someone on the hallway and within a few minutes a tourist police officer walked into the room. He conversed with the hotel manager and went outside again.
"Are they fetching the guy?" the British girl asked, amazed at the unexpected thoroughness of the police officer.
I was making my way for the door and said goodbye to the hotel manager when he called me back.
"Hey friend, wait five minutes, okay?"
As I sat down on the couch opposite the reception desk, the police officer came back. To the amazement of the British couple and myself, he had produced their taxi driver within minutes (in a city of millions).
The taxi driver was firmly spoken to by the tourist police. He hung his head powerlessly and produced several bank notes from his pocket. Some of the notes were handed to the tourist police and some to the hotel manager. The driver retreated outside with a defeated look on his face.
When the affair was settled, the hotel manager called me over and took a pen and a piece of paper.
"Okay my friend, here is what I can do for you," he told me while writing the number '1134' on the paper.
I said: "Can you take it down to 1100 rupees?"
"Oh no," he said as assuringly as he did when telling me the prices were fixed, "we don't work with round numbers here, only exact prices."
"Thank you," I said, "but I'd like to check out two other places."
"Okay, but when you come back I don't know if I can give you this price anymore" he threatened and I hoped one of the other two hotels would turn out to be good so I wouldn't have to come back with my tail between my legs.
A bit further down the road was the Oasis Hotel but I went directly to the furthest of my choices, the Traveller's Inn. The rooms here were not half as nice as those in the Welcome Hotel but at 1000 rupees per night they did have aircon and private bathrooms. At the reception I made a half-hearted attempt to bargain down the price but when the manager declined, I gave in and took a room for 7 days.
Once I was settled into my room, it was about 9 in the morning and I still had the whole day ahead of me. I changed into shorts, a t-shirt and flipflops and decided I'd get some food and water, then head down to Colaba.
I crossed the SB Road into a very lively and charming maze of streets filled with shops of all kind (a lot of them sold paper and stationery). On the streets people were selling fruit and vegetables. People on bicycles and scooters made their way through the crowd. I did not regret choosing to stay in the Fort area.
It often wasn't easy to tell what a shop sold and I had been fruitlessly looking for a convenience store for about ten minutes, when I decided to walk up to a store that looked like it sold various snacks. I asked the store owner if he sold water and he tilted his head left, right, left, leaving me puzzled.
Again I asked if he sold water, hoping for a clearer answer, but again he tilted his head left and right a few times. I didn't know what to make of it and decided to walk onward.
Around the corner I found a similar storefront and again asked for water. Thankfully, the owner responded with a clear "yes" and retrieved a bottle from a box under the counter.
"How much?" I asked.
"Thirteen rupees," he replied, seemingly irritated with my question.
I handed him a twenty rupee bill and received my change. I put my palms together and solemnly said "namaskar" but he waved away my first attempt at a polite goodbye in Marathi.
My feet were not used to flipflops anymore and the further I walked, the more they started to hurt. After about twenty minutes I reached the Colaba waterfront. In front of me lay the majestic Gateway to India, partially obscured by a performance stage. Facing the Gateway were the equally grandiose Taj Mahal Hotel & Tower, which had literally been shot to infamy in November 2008.
By then I was feeling pretty hungry so I walked away from the waterfront towards central Colaba. Along the way I passed the Salvation Army guesthouse which the Czech couple had mentioned. It looked as run-down as the Lonely Planet said it was.
Around the corner I walked past the Leopold Café, popular with western travellers who apparently didn't want to feel too much like they were in a different country. As I stepped in to look at the menu, I was stopped by a security guard by the door. He told me to open my bag and examined it thoroughly for about five minutes then brusquely commanded me to go inside. It only took a short glance at the menu to see the prices were of the ''lazy tourist with too much money'-variety. I went on around the corner to find a restaurant called the New Laxmi Villa. Reading through the menu I realized I had absolutely no idea what all the names meant and ordered something that turned out to be two cold balls of fried lentils in yoghurt sauce.
That was pretty much all I did that day. I was so tired I can't even remember where I ate that evening. I was probably in bed by eight.