Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
My first full day in Maharashtra saw me awake at 6 in the morning ready to see the sights and sounds of South Mumbai, Churchgate and Colaba. The hotel offered coffee and a limited breakfast menu delivered to your room, so I opted for a coffee for 20 rupee (40¢)… and they brought me an entire pot! And it was half decent too! An auspicious beginning to the day…
I started with a walk down Marine Drive and the concrete boardwalk that runs adjacent to the hotel and along the Arabian sea. At 7am the temperature was already 28ºC and there was a fair amount of smog in the air, but I’ve honestly seen it worse in Toronto.
Marine drive forms a crescent along the harbor and the boardwalk is about 5 kilometers long. A lovely walk along the ocean with an occasional chai wallah selling small morning chai for 6 rupee (12¢). The traffic is surprisingly light on Marine Drive, and it has a number of controlled intersections as well as pedestrian bridges over it to the four separate suburban train stations (or subways)
The boardwalk ends at Chowpatty beach, a beautiful white sand beach looking on to the Arabian sea. By the time I reach it, it’s 9:30 am and three things strike me right away about Chowpatty:
1) Where the hell are all the people in one of the more popular spots in the most populace city in India. I mean seriously, it feels like that cheesy episode on Star Trek where Kirk is stranded on the planet with the Gorn looking for diamonds and coal to make a primitive bazooka, and Spock is watching me saying “Fascinating… good… Good! Now just find some sulfur…”
2) This beach is cleaner than most beaches I’ve been to in North America let alone India. I mean seriously, there is almost no litter. Chennai’s beach in comparison was a garbage dump. It’s like that cheesy episode of Star Trek where there is no garbage and Scotty is in love with that ensign who falls in love with Apollo, until Spock blows up his temple and he calls out to Zues “Take me…. Take me…”
3) Something smells GOOD! I mean seriously good. I have no Star Trek reference for this.
I walk around the corner and find a bunch of food stands all neatly arranged under the shade of trees and tarps. There is everything a person could want too. An ice cream stand, a coffee and tea stand, sugar cane juice, chaat stand, breakfast nook, shwarma stand, thali, curry, dosa, you name it and there was a stand for it.
Now, the food and drink places that were near the beach in Chennai and even in Puducherry were actually carts, and the cleanliness of them were doubtful at best. When you went by them, they were almost like touts, calling out “Hello sir, come and see, you will like my (insert food item here)”. These were permanent stands, and very clean, and nobody was forcing themselves onto me. I fact I was there for about ten minutes before anyone said a word to me (which has been unusual in this country).
Then I saw the greatest thing ever. Near the stands, were large carpets and tarps, spread out on the beach in the shade… with menus on them. You take off your shoes, sit on the carpet, and order from the menu(s). I looked towards the chaat booth and noticed that there were no piles of food items at his stand, which means that he cooks to order (this is a good thing because you know it will be fresh and the hot oil will kill any nasty germs that might be in the food). I ordered a chai and two samosas for a grand total of 65 rupee and sat lazily on some carpet on the beach looking at the ocean…
After lunch I decided to go on a mission to find out the status on a train ticket that I’m on a waitlist for. I needed to find the Victoria Terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST train station. It is the busiest train station in Asia and has been designated a World Heritage site for it’s unique colonial architecture and its importance to the people of India. I knew from my map that it was very close by, and from the vantage point on the beach, I spotted it.
I approached the area and stared up at the building that sparkled against the afternoon sky.
There were a number of entrances from the street marked Gate One, Gate Two, and so on. I was looking for the reservation counter and spotted a sign that said information. I walked through one of the entrances and was immediately stopped by a very big man with a very nice gun who simply said “Backpack Check”.
India is a little skittish these days due to several bombings in different cities over the past few years, the most recent in New Delhi about three months ago. Mumbai had a very serious set of coordinated terrorist attacks in November 2008 that killed 164 people and wounded over 300 at various hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and other important sites. The CST train station was one of them, where Pakistani terrorists entered and opened fire with AK-47s killing over 40 people. Some of the terrorists holed up at the Taj hotel for 3 days until they were killed by the Indian army. The whole event is known as 26/11.
Random backpack checks and checkpoint sites at train stations, shopping malls, and upscale hotels has become a fact of life here, so I’m used to it, and since this was the train station, I didn’t give it a second thought.
Then the very nice man with the very shiny gun asked “Are you here to make an enquiry?” and I answered “Yes, which way should I go?” “You need to enter the main hall and then turn left and… hey… what is this?” as he pulled out my iPad.
“That is my iPad, it has all of the information on it for the enquiry I need to make”.
“This is not allowed! You cannot bring this here!”
“Oh, but I will need to get information off of it to make the enquiry”
“Wait one moment! Do not move!” and then he makes a call on his walkie talkie.
A different nice man with a very nice stick comes by who has many more stripes on his shoulder.
“You are here to make an enquiry?”
“Yes, and that iPad has the information I need to make that enquiry”
“My daughter has one of these, but they are unusual here. Wait a moment, we need to check it and then you need to register it. Do not move!”
At this point I’m seriously questioning how anybody can take a train with any type of computer equipment and go through this registration every time. It just didn’t seem efficient.
“Ok, take this pass and go into that door, turn left until you see the information counter.”
“Thank you.” I said, and entered the building, turned left, and immediately noticed several signs including Cancer Ward and OBGYN.
This wasn’t the train station… it was a hospital… and the guys at the front gate thought I was making an enquiry about a patient… I also noticed that I was on the other side from the general public with the doctors and the nurses.
I very slowly smiled, and walked back towards the two very nice men with very big guns and explained my error…
Their laughter could probably be heard in Nepal it was so loud. The first guy was crying he was laughing so hard. I laughed along with them as they radioed in the joke that I’m sure will make the rounds of every army base in Maharashtra. Then I heard a laugh above me and looked up at the sniper on the balcony about three stories above me. I now knew why I wasn’t supposed to move.
They gave me directions to CST and I left to go find the real train station and came upon an enormous gothic building.
CST has 18 domestic platforms, and another 10 national ones, 57 ticket booths, over 1000 trains a day with over three million passengers a day. It takes up a huge piece of real estate and looks nothing like a hospital. I went to ticket booth 45, which handles foreign tourists (a really nice touch I might add) and was told to come back the next day because nothing gets decided about waiting lists or foreign ticket quotas until then.
I went back to the hotel, and did some reading up on Mumbai, and looked at some pictures of sights, lest I walk into some other restricted zone thinking it’s a tourist attraction.