Ballin’ in Bollywood

Apr 27th-May 1st, 2017

Our 12-hour night bus from Mapusa to Mumbai was mostly uneventful as far as night buses go, except for the violent stomach pains that Tracy still experienced prior to boarding.

Unfortunately, in the morning when we caught a taxi to bring us to Colaba, the southernmost portion of the Mumbai peninsula, our cab just conked out and died at the side of the highway. The driver insisted on continuing the journey but the car just kept on dying, and rather than us dying, we refused to go any farther with him. He flagged down another driver who brought us the remainder of the way. One thing that was also ridiculous about the drive through the city was the sheer amount of people and families living on the streets with only a sheet of plastic (if anything) over their heads and a few pots to their name. We have both been to many shanty towns in many different parts of the world but these people didn’t even have a typical tin panel (although they all did have a handful of children). 

Once in Colaba, we found our accommodation, the spotlessly clean Seashore Hotel, which required us to climb up 76 steps in order to reach it. The man at the reception, Kumar, was an absolute legend and we would recommend the hotel just for him. He addressed us by name from the moment we arrived and was just a really great, helpful guy. 

Hotels in Mumbai are very similar in price to those in western cities, so if you can find a room for under thirty dollars (CAD), you jump on it! 

We checked in and decided to explore Colaba as our introduction to this mega metropolis. Right off the bat it seemed as though the city’s economic disparity was through the roof even more so than in other cities in India. On our way towards the Colaba Market, we passed Range Rovers, BMWs and even a Bentley followed by half-naked street kids playing in the putrid waters of Sasoon Dock as if it were their own personal apocalyptic waterpark. 

We wandered through what looked like a small slum and before long were in the Colaba Market and the bustling streets surrounding it. The market itself was rather small so we soaked it all in, putrid smells and fish guts on our feet and all, and made our way back to Seashore.

We decided to saunter down the upscale Merewether Road, which boasts rents on par with Manhattan. Unfortunately, it was heavily under construction and the opulence of it was kind of hard to distinguish. After a brief walk through the residential portion, we found ourselves surrounded by some fancy looking restaurants and behind the incredibly impressive hotel and famous Mumbai landmark, The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower.

We decided to get a peak inside because Tracy knew I would never splurge for a night there. The lobby was beautiful, grandiose and incredibly well air-conditioned. We window-shopped at the luxury stores, perused through the menus of five- star restaurants and the photos of Oprah and Obama’s visits on the walls, and most importantly, let the air-con dry off our sweat-soaked clothes. 

In the Taj, but not accessible from the main entrance, was the Mecca of western indulgences: Starbucks. I knew I would be stopping here on the daily for some proper coffee before heading back to regular Nescafé-loving India. 

For the rest of the afternoon, we went through the arduous process of getting Tracy a SIM card for her phone and hilariously had passport photos taken in a parking lot by a guy with a printer in his backpack. 

We met a man-child named Abdul who helped us out with the SIM card and also introduced us to a tour guide who was willing to follow Tracy’s ridiculously thorough itinerary with his own car. We took down their numbers and had our first of many meals at Pa Pa Ya (www.gopapaya.co.in), which was an incredibly delicious and meticulously hygienic pan-Asian restaurant. After eating curries for week after week after week, something different (and clean!) was so refreshing and worth the extra rupees.

The following day we decided to do a walking tour of Mumbai’s historic Fort area. This area contains many of the citiy’s impressive Victorian buildings constructed by the British in the 1860s and 70s. 

Mumbai is made up of seven islands and the British government took possession of them in 1665, but quickly leased them to the East India Company. They called the city Bombay and it quickly became a trade and economic powerhouse. 

The British built a fort in the area in the 1720s but it was eventually dismantled in 1864 and this led to the construction of the fancy buildings we were about to visit; however the area retained the name “Fort”.  

Our tour started at the iconic Gateway to India, but I decided not to visit it first because the lighting was bad (I know, I’m a photo snob). Instead we continued and passed the Royal Bombay Yaght Club and Dhunraj Mahal. 

We continued up MG Road and passed the beautiful Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or, more simply, the Prince of Wales Museum, with its large Buddha head in front of it. 

We passed a few more impressive colonial buildings such as the Elphinstone College and David Sassoon Library.

We crossed the street and visited a cool little café district with the art deco Knesseth Eliyahod Synagogue. We took a little break here but no photos were allowed.

Our next stop was the Central Flora Fountain but it was under construction so instead we made a brief stop at St Thomas’ Cathedral, finished in 1718, and watched some kids defecate right at its entrance. 

After seeing these street children relieve themselves in the street, it was once again very contradictory to see the Hermès store in the posh Horniman Circle, right around the corner. Also in the Horniman Circle was another Starbs, so I had to stop for a brief coffee break. 
After the caffeine fix, Tracy went inside Mumbai’s incredibly impressive (according to her) High Court, which I wasn’t allowed to enter because I was wearing shorts. She was amongst hundreds of lawyers and judges, confused at her presence, making her way through the maze of hallways throughout the massive complex. We then went to the University of Mumbai, which neither of us were allowed to enter. Still nice to look at though! 

From there we went into the Oval Maidan, which is a large field where scores of Indian children and adults were playing cricket flanked by the beautiful British-era buildings on the surrounding streets. 

There was a huge Indian Premier League Cricket match being played in the city in a few days so we decided to go to the stadium to see if we could score some tickets to cap off our authentic Mumbai stay. 

The stadium wasn’t too far from the Oval Maidan so we just walked over. A guard told us we weren’t allowed in, but an Indian woman just told us to follow her so we walked in anyways. We couldn’t actually see the pitch itself, but there were a lot of cool photo-ops and posters to pose with. 

We got to the box office and unfortunately all the tickets had been sold out weeks in advance. Even playing the old “but we’re whities” card couldn’t get us any special treatment. 

We dejectedly caught an auto rickshaw to Fashion Street, which is essentially just hundreds of people selling counterfeit or second-hand clothing, as well as electronics, on the street, before cutting through the Azad Maidan and coming face to face with Mumbai’s most iconic building, the Victoria Terminus. 

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, as it is now known, is still in use and was completed in 1887. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 and is well worth a visit.

We walked back towards Colaba and I deemed the lighting to be suitable to visit The Gateway of India. It was completed by the British in 1924 and has remained the symbol of Mumbai ever since. Since there were tons of photographers there, we finally got a good picture together. 

We walked back to Seashore, freshened up, had another delicious meal at Pa Pa Ya and made our way to Regal Theatre. On our previous walk to The Gateway of India, we scored tickets to the opening night showing of Bahubali 2, the most anticipated movie in Indian cinema ever!

Tracy had anticipated coming to Mumbai and seeing a Bollywood movie for a while. Bollywood just means that the movie is filmed in Mumbai and the language spoken in the film is Hindi. Since India has hundreds of different languages, there is also demand for movies to be made in other languages as well. 

Bahubali 2 is actually from South India and is a Telugu-language film, but it was dubbed in Hindi and had English subtitles so we couldn’t tell the difference. 

Since it was opening night, the theatre was packed and everyone was cheering, booing, screaming, and laughing and it was an amazing atmosphere. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. 

The film itself was awesome! It was kind of like a campy 300 with some comedic elements, musical numbers, romance and over-the-top special effects. We both loved it! In fact, it ended up being India’s highest grossing film of all time! Suck it Bollywood! 

At this point, we had gotten in touch with Abdul and he had hooked us up with a guide. We usually tend to do things on our own but time was of the essence and there was just too much to see. Our guide’s name was something unpronounceable so he told us to call him Allan. He was sharply dressed and had pristine suede shoes on – I have no idea how he kept them in such good condition considering all the filth everywhere. 

Our first stop was the Colaba fish market located on Sassoon Dock. It smelled like shit but was a feast for the eyes. I would never want to eat seafood caught in those waters, but the market was visually stunning; however, since it was government property we couldn’t take any pics. 

Our next stop was Mahalaxmi’s Dhobi Ghat, which is essentially an immense outdoor laundromat, but done in the old-timey beat-the-clothes-against-a-rock kind of way. Seen from the bridge above it is really quite nice. It is said that in the early morning you can see literally hundreds of men beating the shit out of the city’s laundry in hypnotic unison. 

From this ghat we continued on to the notorious Dharavi Slum. Allan was the perfect guide for this because he lived in Dhavari for a year when he moved to Mumbai from his small village in Uttar Pradesh. 

Dharavi is home to approximately 1 million people and is the third largest slum in the world. It is here where the movie Slumdog Millionaire is based, and, just before entering, Allan showed us the two large sewage pipes featured in the movie.

We started our walk inside in the industrial sector, which contains tons of small recycling plants and thrifty people doing menial jobs to make some money. Apparently, the recycling plants alone generate millions of dollars for the slum annually. 

While surrounded by festering puddles of water and makeshift walls to buildings, it was still quite impressive to see the level of productivity in the slum. People were also very friendly and generally open to having their picture taken. 

As luck would have it, I cut my arm open on something and it was bleeding down to my elbow. I was just hoping that my immune system would fight off the super bacteria inhabiting the slum (it did!).

From there we headed to a more residential area and were once again surprised by the quality of the houses and organization of the community. Even though the slum’s electrical system was a fire waiting to happen, everything seemed to run really smoothly. 

We continued to walk around and saw some other local businesses like a leather tannery, textile embroidery, and ‘sweat shop’ type places, but the amount of beggars and your stereotypical “slum dogs” were nowhere to be found. 

Allan explained that because of the rising rents in Mumbai, many non-traditional slum dwellers had to relocate in order to afford accommodation and as a consequence property values and quality rose accordingly. Not to mention, the slum’s many self-sustaining businesses and factories made many people slum-rich. 

To tour the entire slum you need several hours and we only did a brief version, so perhaps there are areas that better reflect the squalor in the movie, but otherwise Dharavi didn’t look much different than any other neighbourhood in India. The only exception was the ‘river’ that snaked along the slum and doubled as the community’s trash can and sewage pipe all in one. Disgusting! 

Allan actually had a friend from his village who was living in Dhavari for the season and asked if he could join along. He looked like a kid and spoke no English, but we figured he would love to see the many sights and sounds of this monstrous city rather than just hang out in the slum all day, so we welcomed him along.

After slumming it up, Tracy and I went to the complete other end of the wealth spectrum of Mumbai and had Allan drop us off at Palladium mall, where luxury stores outnumber the number of auto rickshaws outside. 

Tracy and I looked like slumdogs ourselves wandering around this mall and we revelled in the cleanliness and artisanal products being sold in an Indian-style hipster farmer’s market.  

Allan picked us up and we attempted to visit Haji Ali’s mosque, but it was high tide and we would have to swim to it if we wanted to get to it at that time.

On the way, we passed Antilia, the 27-storey home of Mukesh Ambani, touted as the world’s most expensive single-family residence. Said to be worth over 1-billion dollars and looking like a weird apartment building, it houses a man, his wife, three young children and a staff of….. six-fucking-hundred!!!!! Holy shit that’s excessive!

After, we visited the more humble Mani Bhavan, which is the building where our main man Gandhi stayed at during his visits to Bombay from 1917 to 1934. 

It’s a really nice building and has a really informative museum that enabled us to actually learn something about the iconic man instead of just running through it like in Madurai. 

Allan brought his friend up too and I think they both really enjoyed the museum as well. 

We weren’t too far from Malabar Hill, our next stop. Behind the luxury apartment complexes lies Banganga Tank, said to be possibly over 1000 years old and is surrounded by picturesque temples, dharmashalas, and local kids swimming in its murky depths. It was a really nice contrast to the drab apartment complexes surrounding it. 

We were only a few minutes drive from a famous Jain temple that we checked out and Mumbai’s famous hanging gardens, which were quite peaceful and popular with couples. 

The hanging gardens are right next to the Tower of Silence. This amusement-park-ride sounding place is actually a funerary complex, where Mumbai’s Parsi (descendants of Persian Zoroastrians) community lay out their dead to be eaten by vultures. Unfortunately and fortunately, this site is off limits to tourists and non-Zoroastrians, but the concept is downright bizarre and would make quite the spectacle.  
From here we took a brief 5 minute rest at Mumbai’s famous Chowpatty Beach. On the flight from the Maldives I read about a famous food stall called Sharmajee’s and decided that if its good enough to be listed in Emirates Air magazine, it probably wouldn’t give me diarrhea. I tried Bhel Puri and Pan Puri. When the latter was served to me, the guy working there showed me how to eat it by shoving his dirty thumb through it and dunking it in a sludgy-looking liquid and then proceeded to put it near my face. I figured I might as well increase my chances of getting Delhi Belly (lol), so I smiled and ate both plates, much to the surprise and disgust of Tracy. (It was actually really good, and I didn’t get sick from it!)

Our next stop was the Chor Bazaar, which is a street lined with antiques, curio and weird ass objects for sale. 

It was actually really picturesque and much more enjoyable than a typical market. We took our time walking up and down this interesting yet very chaotic area. One thing that has stuck with Tracy about this area though were the dead puppies, which had bloodied ears and heads and were obviously just beaten. 

Following our time here, Tracy had her heart set on visiting the Kamathipura district, which is Mumbai’s largest and Asia’s second largest red-light district. She had read a bunch of articles and wrote numerous papers on it and was fascinated and disgusted by the child prostitution going on within it. Allan suggested we not get out of the car, but we did a quick drive-through and saw the women starting to take their sidewalk positions as the sun was beginning to set. 

Since it was now low tide, we decided to retry our luck at Haji Ali’s Mosque, which contains the tomb of the Muslim saint of the same name. 

There was a muddy, slippery causeway leading there and it was jam-packed with pilgrims, beggars and small shops selling a variety of wares. 

Just the walk over was a treat in itself. The mosque was quite beautiful but way too busy to be considered peaceful. 

It also provided a pretty nice view of Mumbai and allowed us to take some nice pics and selfies with Allan’s friend. 

Our final stop of the day was the Mahalaxmi Temple. While not so impressive on the inside or out, we decided that it would be a fitting end to our extensive, exhaustive tour of India’s largest city. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t any parking nearby and my phone died so we had no idea where Allan was waiting for us. I kept on going back to the temple hoping to see one of them, but it took 45 minutes of waiting until I finally crossed paths with Allan’s friend. They wouldn’t have left because I hadn’t paid Allan yet, it was just a pain in the ass to find them. 

On our way back, Allan stopped on Marine Drive, a fancy hotel-lined street which at night looks like a string of pearls. 

We were all (Allan included) exhausted. A normal Mumbai tour usually lasts 4-5 hours and with Tracy’s exhaustive list of Mumbai’s sights and sounds, it took over 12 hours to complete. We are eternally grateful for his patience and extensive knowledge of this gigantic and impressive city. 

The following day we started off with the daily trip to Starbs. After my caffeine recharge, Tracy’s stomach wasn’t feeling too great. We wanted to go to nearby Elephanta Island, but Tracy decided to sit this one out, as the heat, crowds, and lack of bathroom facilities most probably would have made it a bad idea.

Elephanta Island is an island 9km away from the Gateway to India and a major tourist draw. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. 

The origins of the caves on the island are uncertain, but experts believe they were constructed between 450 and 750 A.D. 

To get there one must buy a ticket at the Gateway to India and then take an hour ferry ride to the island. The boat ride itself is rather enjoyable as you get to see the Gateway to India and the Taj from the water, which is a pretty iconic view. 

Once on the island, it is a 30-minute sweaty hike up stairs and past scores of Indian tourists. 

Once at the top, though, it is worth the trek over. The caves are all devoted to Shiva and include numerous different events in their story. 

The first cave is the most impressive but I still took my time in the remaining caves.

Because of its proximity to central Mumbai, the place was absolutely packed with people and getting pictures with only me in it were next to impossible – especially with incompetent camera holding people all around me. 
After seeing the famous Trimurti statue and all the Shivas (and other identified statues), I continued to climb higher and got a pretty beautiful view over Mumbai’s harbour and another nearby shipping yard. 
All the way at the top are two large cannons but I couldn’t find any information as to their history. 

That evening Tracy and I had a nice dinner at Basilico and went to Koyla Lounge for shisha. We both dressed up nicely and planned on going out that night but when we went in search of the Bollywood club in our neighbourhood we found out it had closed down 2 years prior. It just wasn’t meant to be. 

On our final day in Mumbai, we took it easy and decided to try to participate in the country’s most important religious ceremony: watching a cricket match!

We had already attempted to get tickets once but were unsuccessful, so we decided to go to the stadium itself on game day and see if we could score some scalped tickets. 

Neither of us had any idea about the rules and our budget was rather reserved, so we wanted to go primarily for the atmosphere rather than the game itself. It was an apparently important match between the Mumbai Indians and the Bangalore Royal Challengers. We were going for Mumbai because we were there and we also hated Bangalore when we were there on our first day in India. 

We had a few offers for scalped tickets but they were way out of our price range. Hundreds of others also had this idea and security was tight in the area, with many streets being blocked off. It’s also apparent that they take scalping tickets as a serious offence but that didn’t stop Tracy from batting her eyelashes and speaking to a guy working there who actually managed to get us two tickets in a pretty good area, the only consolation being that we got them 30 minutes into the beginning of the match. 

We didn’t really understand what was going on but enjoyed the cheering, bizarre Russian cheerleaders, and loud Bollywood music. The fun was infectious but the crowd wasn’t nearly as rowdy as what it looked like on TV. 

We had a night bus to catch that night and unfortunately had to leave the game early to make it in time. Mumbai still won the game! 

Our time in Mumbai’s super city was complete. We absolutely loved it, both the sights and culture, and if someone forced us to live in India, we could probably deal in Mumbai. From slumdogs to mega-rich, Mumbai has it all. I mean, at least they have Starbucks! 

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