Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
If Maharashtra were a country instead of a State in India, it would be the 10th most populous country in the world just behind Mexico. I was beginning to think that the throngs of people were being hidden somewhere out of sight from the tourists, because I had yet to see them.
My first order of business was to get to the CST train station and look into a Foreign Tourist ticket for train #12137 The Punjab Mail with service from Mumbai to Firozpur with 56 stops over 40 hours. I wanted to get off after only 26 hours at Agra which was stop number 32.
The India Railways puts a few tickets aside for tourists on most trains and I wanted to try to do the rest of the trip on the ground by either train or bus. The CST ticket counters opened at 8am (The station itself never closes although there are no suburban trains from 2am to 4am).
The station is about a 20 minute walk from the hotel so I set out at 6 am to get in line and perhaps grab a coffee or chai on the way. Traffic was light and most shops were closed (including the big coffee shop on the corner which didn’t open until 11… Didn’t quite understand that one but whatever). The only people on the street were some sweepers and the odd taxi driver asking me if I wanted a tour of Bollywood.
I arrived a CST to find it’s large “Chai n Chaat” stand open and got their extra large 3 ounce jumbo coffee and two fresh samosas that the wallah had just taken out of the pot. I couldn’t have been happier with my 25 rupee breakfast (50¢). And gleefully skipped along to the foreign ticket booth, which drew a lot of stares and head bobs from the maintenance staff of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Once again, the huge line ups that I had anticipated, did not appear. Not only was I the first in line, I was also only one of about a dozen people in the whole ticket office. Around 8am, a very nice man with a very big stamp, opened the foreign tourist ticket booth and said “Fill out this form and have your passport ready” and then he opened his newspaper. I already had a form filled out from the last time I was here so I produced it with my passport. This brought a sigh from the clerk now that he couldn’t look at the cricket scores in his newspaper and had to deal with me.
After about 5 minutes of sighs and nods and taps on the keyboard of his terminal he said “You have a beard”.
“Yes I do”.
Another sigh and several head bobs later, he sells me an AC2 ticket for 1500 rupee ($30) with something called the upgrade option that sounds suspiciously like an extended warranty.
I look at the screen on the way out of the ticket office and see that there is a waitlist of 146 people for that train, and I feel a little guilty for jumping the queue because I have a passport from another country, but Canadian citizenship has to be good for something around here besides “You are from Canada? Very nice! Justin Bieber! Very Nice!”
I sit on a bench in the station and pull out my e-edition of Lonely Planet to see what’s close by because I’m done early. While I’m reading about Colaba, I hear a loud train whistle as the longest suburban train I have ever seen pulls into platform 3 with two more trains of equal length behind it destined for platforms 5 and 7.
As the train slows down, it bleeds people, as thousands of commuters pour from the open doors. I gaze in horror as the tidal wave of humanity rushes towards me. A lone maintenance man leans on his push broom and utters two words to me just before the crowd hits us… “rush hour”.
I secured my things and dove into the crowd like a twig being swept downstream, unable to control which direction I was going. Then I was belched out one of the exits onto the streets as the crowds disappeared into office buildings and awaiting busses.
I had found some of the crowds that Mumbai was so famous for.
Acording to Lonely Planet and my trusty iPad GPS, ethe district of Colaba was not too far away, so I decided to take a stroll and see the Gateway of India, and the open markets and bazaars. What I didn’t realize was that the streets that I was taking to get there would take me out of British Bombay, and into some of Mumbai’s slums.
I was surprised how clean and vibrant the slums were, and I’ve smelled worse neighborhoods in my life (the canal in Puducherry, and the rendering plant in Saint Boniface come to mind). Most of the buildings and shacks had electricity and there was some running water, and no piles of excrement like one was lead to believe. In fact I have seen more human feces in the alleyway behind the Manitoba Theatre Centre than here, and I’ve certainly felt less safe in the north end of Winnipeg than I have in India.
I emerged into the main bazaar in Colaba that sells almost anything. Clothing, jewelry, food, antiques, books, art, you name it and it’s there. The sellers did tout a little bit, but they weren’t aggressive like they were in Chennai or Kathmandu. Past the markets, the crowds started getting a little denser and at one point I had to go through a checkpoint where a very nice woman with a very big stick stamped my knapsack and frisked me.
Past the checkpoint was the Gateway to India… And around it was where the rest of Mumbai was hiding.
I asked the very nice woman with the very big stick what the occasion was, and she said “Thursday”.
After the gate, I circled around through more of the bazaar and back to the start of Marine Drive. This area has a lot of construction with million U.S. dollar condominiums going up to take advantage of the sea view. At the base of these construction sites are some of the poorest slums in India.
The juxtaposition of the two is very strange. At the wharf you can see all of the fishing boats docked against the ramshackle dwellings in the foreground and the construction in the background.
I followed the beach back to Marine Drive and then to Churchgate for dinner at Pizza By The Bay, a renowned joint open to the beach air serving up pizza by the slice and refreshing drinks that can be seen here.