We arrived in Mumbai a few days ago at 4AM local time. We had previously decided to wait in the airport until sunrise. After wandering around the airport to find an ATM that didn’t work, we needed to change some US dollars into Rupees in order to get a taxi. Unfortunately, once you leave the Arrivals area, where the money changers are located, they won’t let you back in (for security reasons). So after being turned away once, we found a security guard that would let Patrick in only if Diane stayed outside with our backpacks.
Mumbai is a huge city of over 16 million people, with a good mix of Indian culture, colonial history, and modern development. It is also the home of the Indian film industry known as ‘Bollywood’. We had heard that India was overwhelming, an invasion of the senses, and that it would be difficult. Many people had said that if you can survive the first couple of weeks that you’ll grow to love it, but it can be hard at first. Our experience has been exactly the opposite. Mumbai has been easy by comparison to a lot of other places we’ve already been. We’re really enjoying it and it feels safe here (which may surprise you after you read on below).
Here are some of the interesting things that we’ve experienced…
There are international stores here, probably because Mumbai is the wealthiest city in India. Nearby to where we are staying there are Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Benetton stores. There are also coffee shops, much to Diane’s delight. And McDonald’s! All these things were virtually nonexistent in most of Africa. Because most Indians are Hindus for whom the cow is sacred, there is no beef sold at McDonald’s here. They do have chicken and veggie burgers, and Patrick had a ‘McAloo Tikka’, which is a spiced potato patty burger. We suspect that many of these things won’t be widely available beyond the large cities and tourist areas.
There are a lot of beggars here. They follow us on the street. Late at night there are people sleeping in doorways. Unlike in Vancouver, the beggars and homeless people are not just adults – there are a whole families begging and sleeping on the streets are night. When our taxi stops at a light, children come out to beg. They press their little faces up against the glass and shield their eyes with their hands so they can see in. If the window is open, they reach in to try to touch us. Patrick tried to close the window, but they hung on the glass, and he didn’t have the heart to pry their little fingers off the window.
We’ve spent a lot of time at a restaurant and bar called Leopold’s. It is one of the few nearby that serves alcohol. The beer comes in large towers with a spout at the bottom, and we’ve shared more than a few with some nice young guys we met from Holland.
Leopold’s is one of the places where a lot of foreigners go, and it was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks here. In addition to bombings at two large hotels, which are currently being repaired, gunmen fired many bullets into Leopold’s from the street. Eight people were killed, including six tourists and two staff. Many of the staff who work there now were working on the night of the attack. Whether to maintain the history of the event or perhaps due to lack of funds, Leopold’s hasn’t repaired some of the damage. There are still many bullet holes in the glass, wood, and cement, some of which have been covered by pictures on the walls.
Our hotel room has television, something which was rare in Africa. There are three English channels, two for news and one playing mostly old movies. The Indian channels seem to be a lot like we have at home – news, music videos, and a shopping channel.
We went to see a Hindi movie the other night called ‘New York’. It was not your typical Bollywood movie, as there was no singing and dancing, and it was actually filmed in America. It was a thriller about some Indian people living in America who got involved in a terrorist plot. There was a sprinkling of English words throughout, just enough that we could follow the plot, and the production quality was actually very good. Unlike in Canada, people stood to sing the national anthem before the movie, there was an intermission half way through, and the concession served sandwiches, ice cream, caramel corn, and tea. Also unlike Canada, there were metal detectors upon entering the theatre, and messages on the screen that said you could not leave the theatre once the movie started (not even at intermission), and in the event of an explosion, that you should try to help your fellow theatre goers.
July 3rd was a Hindu festival day here, and it was also a ‘dry day’, which means that shops, restaurants, and bars cannot serve alcohol. Leopold’s was still serving, but only upstairs (which is not visible from the street), and only to foreigners who provided their passport. It felt discriminatory that only foreigners and not local people could enter, but is also seemed a bit like an elite club from colonial times.
India is currently experiencing the monsoon, the rains which just began and will continue for the next three months, coinciding perfectly with our time here. It has rained at bit every day that we’ve been here. Yesterday it rained so hard that we got wet to the skin on a ten minute walk, while we were using our umbrellas! The weather is likely to have some impact on our travel plans, but we’ll have to see.
So far, India has been great. The Indian food is terrific and cheap. We can both eat a good dinner for under $4 Canadian. Taxis are also cheap enough, usually under a dollar, that we can use them more frequently. We’ve started to figure out the train system, and are taking our first trains later today. We’ll let you know how it goes.