Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.
When I bring up images of Mumbai (Bombay) in my head, I think of gangsters and movie stars mingling with beggars and pickpockets, knee deep in the muck of the slums. Mumbai is India’s most populace city at 25 million (add the surrounding areas to that and it jumps to 40 million), so I was mentally preparing myself for crowds, smog and stink.
Puducherry was a fantastic seaside town of 200,000 people (650,000 if you add the surrounding metro, still small for India). An oasis of waves, sun, good food, and warm people. It had become a base of operations to see some of the other parts of Tamil Nadu that I wanted to see, and it was such a source of relaxation that I ended up staying there for an extra five days. The town slogan for Puducherry is actually “Pondicherry, give time a rest”.
To go from that to the crowds and hectic lifestyle of Mumbai would surely be a culture shock, so I was thinking I had better be prepared.
I hired a car to take me to Chennai, and from there I was to take a flight to The Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. The drive from Puducherry to Chennai gave a great look at the Indian Nation Highway system. I was expecting ill maintained roads with oxen carts and potholes littering the roads (like Nepal), but the 6 lane divided highway was smooth and efficient.
Once out of the sprawl of Villupuram Junction, the driver was able to maintain a cruising speed of 80km/hr and with the exception of a coffee stop at a roadside stand, he didn’t have to stop at all… Until the Chennai sprawl started. I had forgotten how dirty and noisy Chennai is, but I thought that this will be a good preparation for Mumbai which has 4 times as many people and is supposedly built on garbage.
The Chennai airport is reminiscent of an old run down bus station complete with dirty washrooms and dripping ceilings.
I boarded my plane and started to freak out about the possibilities of Mumbai. All the worst images from Slumdog Millionaire and that cheesy episode of Star Trek where they were on the grossly overpopulated planet and Kirk gets transported to an exact replica of the Enterprise to infect a girl with germs so that their race could get disease and start dying off, entered my mind. I had visions of getting off the plane into an impossibly dense crowd and being robbed and raped and being torn apart by the locals wearing my skin as a coat and my beard as a trophy.
As I hyperventilated exiting the plane, the same thing happened in the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai that happened at the Indira Gandhi Internaional Airport in New Delhi… There was nobody there…
The airport was vast, but surprisingly empty. I went to luggage carrousel 12 out of 2940, collected my bag with ease and without being hassled, and proceeded past the very nice man with the very big gun who stamped my luggage and then… SMILED AT ME.
I mean he actually smiled, a grin from ear to ear, a genuine sign of warmth, a “welcome to my city” kind of greeting that left me flabbergasted with an open mouth and the sound of “whaaaa?” emanating from my throat.
The very smiley man with the very nice gun then said “Sir? Is everything alright? If there is a problem that you are having, there is a medical clinic directly to your left that can help you with any of your needs”.
I assured him that I was alright, and smiled back at him, which produced a head bob and a wave.
I approached the Pre-Paid taxi counter to get a lift to my hotel in the Churchgate district of South Mumbai, which according to my e-edition of Lonely Planet India, was about 18km away. “OK, here we go” I thought, “This is where I’m going to get taken advantage of”. I was expecting to spend well over 1000 Irp for this ride since a cab from Chennai airport to my hotel was half the distance and cost 600 Irp and the one from the Train Station to my hotel in Puducherry cost 300 Irp and went all of 800 meters (that one was my own damned fault for not looking at the scale of my map close enough).
The gentleman behind the counter smiled at me and asked me where I was going, and then quoted me 240Irp for a non A/C cab. I replied “No, I said I wanted to go to Churchgate district… C h u r c h g a t e”.
“Yes sir, 240 rupees” he said while still smiling.
I paid him, and he asked if I knew where to go, and then pointed to the very well marked signs that formed into 5 queues: Limo, Taxi A/C, Taxi Non A/C, Cool Cab, Rental Car.
I exited the airport through the doors into a very orderly and calm pickup point.
I entered the very fast moving queue for Non A/C and a man with a smile put my bag into the car with the smiling driver who looked at the taxi chit and took me on my way…
The time from exiting my plane to getting into a cab was under 15 minutes and I didn’t get harassed once. Inside or outside the airport.
The streets of Mumbai are unlike any of the streets of the other cities I have been to so far in India. Quieter and cleaner than Chennai, less busy than Bangalore, not as smelly as Thiruvannamala, not as granola as Auroville (I think Woodstock was less granola than Auroville), and less smoggy than New Delhi… It seems that Mumbai has all of the aspects of India, but nothing that is extreme. The other thing that stands out is the complete lack of autorickshaws, most of the taxis here are Hindustani Motors Ambassadors.
I suppose that if this had been my first stop on the trip, I would have been terrified of the traffic and crowds and noise, but I’ve seen far worse in other parts of India (and because my first full stop was Kathmandu, I don’t think any city will scare me ever again), so Mumbai is just…. Well… anticlimactic.
The driver finds the hotel very easily, and he carries my bag to the front of the hotel, and I hand him a tip of 50 rupee. I get a head bob and smile while he says “No sir, my gratuity is included in the price sir, thank you but I must refuse”.
I think you could have flown an 747 into my mouth it was so agape at this statement. I have never, ever had a taxi driver refuse a tip. Here, in Canada, in the states, Europe, ANYWHERE! I am stunned.
“Is everything alright sir? There is a medical facility right down the street if you would like me to take you there.”
The hotel I choose is a 3 star hotel called the Chateau Windsor that has rooms like the Grand McGrath in Bangalore but smaller. It’s very clean and quiet, although the view from the balcony isn’t that great.
But I had my wonderful view in Pondy, and I’m very close to the beach and some major sites and shopping districts of Mumbai, and now that I’m over my Western prejudice about this city, I’m ready to explore having learned my lesson…