Monday, May 17, 2010

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India
April 16, 2010

The ship arrived in Mumbai on Saturday, April 16. How can I describe Mumbai? It is perhaps the most interesting place I have ever been. The one word I would use to describe Mumbai is “teeming”. Mumbai is truly a teeming city. It is like an ant hill, with untold numbers of ants, each one scurrying to accomplish its mission, moving chaotically in every direction with intense purpose, and yet not aggressive and not interfering with other ants. Men seemed more noticeable than women on the streets; crowds of men were everywhere, seemingly either gathered for work, or perhaps looking for work. Although the city is dirty, it is not filled with litter and rubbish except in the slum areas. The city seemed to be covered with a layer of dust; everything seemed to be brown and gray and black. Although there are high-rise apartment buildings, they were not so numerous as in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, and few seemed to be new.

The ship tours of Mumbai included stops at two museums, which was not the way I wanted to spend my time in Mumbai, so I decided to try to get an individual tour guide. When we were in Chennai, I spoke with the tour guide (Gita) and she introduced me to the manager of the tour company running the tours in Chennai, and would also be running the ship tours in Mumbai. He said that he would arrange for an individual tour guide in Mumbai; however, when we arrived at the port in Mumbai, he had not spoken with them, and no tour guide was waiting. When I spoke with the representative of the tour company on the pier, I was told that an air conditioned car with a driver could be available to us for $50 for the entire day; however, we would have to wait for 45 minutes for him to arrive at the dock. We talked with taxi drivers; however, they wanted more money and also used non-air conditioned cars. I preferred to wait. After a wait of only 5 minutes, a driver appeared, driving a new Toyota minivan, fully air conditioned, and we were off.

As we drove from the ship to the gates of the dock, I realized that we would have had great difficulty finding our way out -- the distance was at least a mile through a maze of roads filled with trucks loading and unloading cargo. I was very happy that we waited for this car.

The driver first drove us along a long street toward some of the beautiful buildings built by the British a hundred years ago -- the Prince of Wales Museum, the Rajabhai Clock Tower, the Mumbai High Court, the Victoria Rail Station. As we started off, my first impression was that at 9:00 a.m., the streets were filled with cars and people walking everywhere on their way to work. People were dressed in typical Indian clothing -- women in colorful saris and men in loose white shirts and pants. We were near the docks, and it was a typically poor area, as one would expect near a port in any city.

As we drove along, we passed block after block of shanties that had been “constructed” along the street, spilling out onto the sidewalk. Families lived in these shacks, made of scrap wood, tin, plastic, and whatever other discarded materials they could find -- homes for the homeless. We also noticed lots of trash strewn everywhere. There seemed to be no trash collection system, despite the large number of people available to work.

The streets around the rail station were even more congested with traffic than previous streets. Thousands of small, black-bottom, yellow-topped taxis filled the streets, each pressing to fill every crack in the traffic. The streets did not have lane markers, and drivers squeezed into every space wide enough to permit passage. Horns were constant, although they were not loud. Drivers used their horns to let the driver ahead know of their presence, particularly when passing, and particularly motorbikes, which were numerous, but not as numerous as in Vietnam. I was amazed at the way the drivers filled every space on the road, but without touching. Often cars were only inches apart. Gita had explained in Chennai that drivers expect other drivers to be unpredictable and not to follow the “rules of the road” too closely, and since everyone drives that way, it is accepted. At one point in Chennai, the bus was forced to drive on the wrong side of the street because he could not make a sharp turn; other drivers seemed to accept his solution to the problem.

After some time, we found ourselves along Marina Road, and we stopped for photos of the beautiful waterfront, with miles of high-rise hotels and apartment buildings looking out onto the bay. It was beautiful. We passed Chowpatti Beach and stopped several times for photos. Then our driver told us that we were entering a very wealthy area, and the feeling of the area changed. The streets were lined with very large trees whose canopies reached out to cover the streets. This area was also somewhat hilly, with narrow, winding streets, and the driver said that we were in the Malabar Hill area.

Soon we noticed parked tour busses, and the driver said that we were near the Jain Temple, which we had wanted to see. He parked the car and after removing our shoes, we entered a beautiful temple. A man took our shoes and kept them for us as we entered the temple. Our driver told us that we were permitted to take photos inside the temple; however, when we entered, we saw many people praying and performing religious ceremonies, and I was hesitant to take photos until an official inside the temple said that it was okay. I also noticed other tourists taking photos.

The temple was somewhat dark inside, and it was very ornate, with statues located at the front center and in niches around the side walls and in corners. Other statues were located in side rooms off the main room, and as people passed into and out of these side rooms, they reached above the doors to clang a bell, usually three times. Incense was burning, and many of the worshipers were carrying lighted incense sticks.

Men were dressed in a cloth that covered their groin areas, and women were dressed in saris. Worshipers could be seen kissing their hands and touching the numerous statues, and some women were seated on the floor arranging rice and flower petals on trays to form religious pictures and designs. I noticed that the male worshipers seemed to be older, while the women seemed to be of all adult ages; there were no children. The temple was several floors high, with a beautiful, colorful dome, and an official suggested that we climb the stairs to see the upstairs of the temple and get a closer look at the dome. With my wonderful camera, I was able to take photos inside the dark temple with no flash, including beautiful photos of the dome.

When we left the temple, the man who had taken our shoes returned them to us, remembering which shoes belonged to us even though several bus loads of tourists had also arrived and deposited their shoes. I gave him a dollar and he seemed happy. Later, our driver told us that this temple was for Hindus who were not only vegetarian, but ate only vegetables grown above the ground.

Outside the temple on the street, I saw two children playing along the curb, and took their photo. Immediately, the older of the two ran to me with her hand out, and I gave her a dollar for letting me take her photo. Later, when I looked at the photo, I realized that the children were not playing, but the older one was reading from a scrap page to her little sister, who was listening intently. What a poignant scene; I wish I could help them go to school, but what can I do to change India. I can only observe. Incidentally, my practice throughout the day was to ask if I could take a photo of people, and then give them a dollar. When the driver noticed what I was doing, he felt that I was giving the beggars too much, and suggested that I give them a small amount of Indian money. However, I had no Indian money and continued to give one dollar, which didn’t seem like too much to me.

After leaving the temple, the driver dropped us off at the Hanging Gardens, which were nearby, and told us where he would meet us down the street. The gardens were beautiful, and if not for the haze in the air, we would have been able to take a beautiful photo of downtown Mumbai from the hillside overlook. I did take photos, and I hope Photoshop will improve them.

After leaving the Hanging Gardens, we passed a hill with a brown cement building with no windows, and our driver told us that the building was the burial place used by Parsis. (See Wikipedia for Parsi burial rituals.) The driver said that the hill had been donated to the Parsis by Tata, who is Parsi. He told us that most of the rich people in Mumbai are Parsi.

After a time, we came to a narrow, tree-lined street, and the driver said that we were near the Gandhi home, which was now a museum. He gave us 10 rupees each for an entrance fee and we went inside for some photos. Outside beggars were selling trinkets, and I gave a dollar to a pretty woman for her photo.

After another drive, we arrived at the Dhobi Ghat, the large area set up as an outdoor laundry; we were able to take photos from the elevated street. It was very interesting to see the men washing the clothes, and hanging them up on lines and laying them on the tin rooftops of laundry buildings, the white clothes hanging together, the blues, the reds, the denim jeans, etc. How could these clothes ever be returned to rightful owners?

After leaving the Dhobi Ghat, we passed another waterfront area, and we noticed a long winding pier stretched far out into the water. At the end of the pier was the Haji Ali Mosque. The driver stopped several times to let me take photos. Around the curve of the road, on the tip of land was another beautiful building, which I also photographed from the road.

Nearby, the driver pointed out a new building with a very lovely green lawn. Many Indians were visiting the building, including bus loads of Indian visitors. He told us that the building was new and it housed the planning department. Something inside the building must have been an attraction for the Indian visitors, although we did not go inside.

As the driver moved into the parking lot to turn the car around, we noticed a slum area, and he said that he lived in that area. He asked if we would like to see where he lived, and we quickly agreed. After parking the car, he led us through winding pathways to his home. We noticed the garbage in a creek, and the odor was horrific; the creek served as a garbage dump and a toilet as well. As we walked along, we passed a barber shaving a man, who refused to let us take a photograph of him, and later, the barber also refused to let us take a photo. We also passed a group of 8-10 school girls who were dressed in their school uniforms, happily going to school. Each of the girls was neatly dressed with perfectly combed hair.

After winding our way through the maze, we came to the home of the driver, and after he announced us, he asked us to enter. It turned out to be the one-room home of his landlord, and his room was above on the second floor. A woman welcomed us to a spotlessly clean room, about 15 by 15 feet square, with a kitchen area along one wall, and a bed along the opposite wall. We noticed a woman sitting on the floor cooking, and we were told that she was a cook, hired from the slum, making flat bread (roti). A young girl, about years old, was the daughter of the cook. The woman of the house left the room and soon reappeared with glasses of Coke for us. I was permitted to take photos, and soon the little daughter of our driver was brought in; she was about 6 months old. After a time, the driver’s wife also appeared. We were given sliced mangoes to eat, and they were absolutely wonderful -- so sweet and tasty, and not at all like the mangoes at home (which I do not care for).

One interesting difference between Mumbai and Singapore concerned ethnic groups or castes. In Singapore, ethnic groupings were discouraged, while in Mumbai (and I assume in all of India), ethnic groupings are almost mandatory. In Singapore, ethnic groups are not permitted to live together; instead, families of each ethnic group are split so that neighbors are not of the same ethnic group. All children of all ethnic groups attend the same schools. In contrast, in Mumbai, children attend only the schools of their own ethnic group -- Hindus of each caste attend Hindu schools of their own caste, Muslims attend Muslim schools, etc. Consideration of caste seems to follow one not only in schools, but also in jobs as well; individuals of certain castes perform some jobs, while other jobs are reserved for individuals of other castes.

After leaving the slum, we drove for a time and came to an area where our driver wanted us to shop. Drivers seem to get a fee for taking tourists to certain stores, and these stores were State-operated stores of Indian crafts. We went inside and many of the items were very beautiful. At first, we did not want to purchase anything, but I decided that perhaps I should buy a souvenir, and picked out a small elephant of marble with colorful inlaid stones.

The driver then took me to the Taj Mahal Hotel, where I had planned to have lunch with a friend. The hotel is still being renovated after the terrorist attacks; plywood corridors fill the hotel lobby and plywood still covers many of the ground floor windows. The former grandeur of the hotel is hidden. Incidentally, the hotel is owned by Tata, who seems to own much of Mumbai. The name “Tata” is everywhere. My lunch was great, both because of seeing my friend, and because our table was beside a window looking out over the promenade with the Gateway Arch and the harbor, with dozens of colorful boats. After leaving the hotel, I quickly took a couple of photos of the Gateway Arch, just across the street from the hotel, before returning to the ship.

I was completely enthralled with Mumbai, and I would happily return there. I found the people friendly and the culture fascinating, and I could spend months taking photos of fascinating and color filled sights.

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