24 Hours in Mumbai
For anybody not interested in my elaborate adventures (which I, of course, think are the most interesting parts…), you can skip right on to the more informative sections of this post like the hotel, Elephanta Island, etc.
The Getting-There (Un)expected Ordeal
An almost perfect train ride…
Men and chocolate
I was scheduled to fly back home September 23rd, 13:00, from Mumbai Airport. Air India would take me to Delhi and from there I had a direct 6-hour flight to Israel.
My friend’s uncle got me the train ticket. He, of course, had tried to prevent me from paying him back, so I reimbursed the money to his nephew.
Sachin drove me to the train station, but not before paying a visit to our friend Karen’s wife. She showed us proudly her beautiful home and sweet young baby.
It was a small, relaxed train station, nothing like Ajmer or Manmad. I asked my friend if there was chocolate somewhere, and before I could say Jack Robinson he was already rushing outside to get me the snack… While he was gone, Uncle came, all perfectly dressed and ironed, like the good civil servant that he had been all his life, both government and military.
Vishal (see below), who watched me and my travails, still remembers the man running to get me the chocolate…
There were no announcements, so when the train came, it was abrupt and there was no time to mess around. The two men carried my bags and I ran along to comfort car B1, where Uncle reserved for me a lower berth right by the door.
There were only men in the car. In this somewhat costlier A/C sleeper car they were mostly intellectuals or middle middle class. Still for good measure there was the one who put his dirty feet on my bed-to-be. I gave him my coldest fiercest look and the feet went down to the floor.
Buffalas and sugarcane
Ride was calm. No loud vendors except for the one selling pani (water). Otherwise neither food nor songs…
Outside it was flat country. Sugar cane, buaffalas, soy, a pair of colorfully decorated oxen tied to a plow.
Darkness set in early. The guys arranged their beds and climbed onto their berths. It was impossible to sit up as the head would bang against the upper bed. I laid down, blessed my Kindle and read about Lila’s advantures in Ferranti’s fascinating Neapolitan stories.
Another toilet nightmare
Tried to sleep, then woke up. The usual toilet nightmare – could not get my pants down without getting them wet from the revolting drenched floor. Cursing, I got into my clean bed with my wettish pants.
I know I am not being fair. Train toilets are disgusting everywhere in the world. But even in some private houses in India I did not see squeegees or floor rags, and the shower water is simply allowed to spill all over. For some obscure reason people seem not to mind wet floors.
As usual I curled into my sleeping bag liner. My daughter commanded me to buy one before the trip. The train’s sheet and blanket went above.
I woke up around 3a.m. and decided not to go back to sleep. A nice-looking guy in decent business-like clothing on the opposite side told me, yes, CST is the last stop. He gets off there as well. I relaxed. Kind of.
…but, it’s India
The Indian Murphy rule is always in operation. Something more serious than the bathroom had to go wrong.
The train was apparently two hours late. The company’s solution was simply to cancel the last stop… The other passengers explained to me that we were not going to CST station after all. No, we stopped SOMEWHERE ELSE. Later I found out that this was Dadar station, about 10 km from the CST and about 17 minutes train time.
As far as I was concerned, we were in any old place in the vicinity of a very large city, but I had no clue where. It was very early in the morning, 4:15 to be precise, and still totally dark.
The neighbor guy from the opposite berth tried to calm me down. He said he’d get us a taxi; he was going the same direction; I would not even need to pay.
Shady characters in the early morning
Once we disembarked the train and got on to the platform, there were a bunch of shady-looking characters around. One of them clung to us and spoke with my companion in the local language. I thought he was the taxi driver, but later understood he wasn’t. He snatched my suitcase out of my hand without permission, presumably to help me, which I wasn’t very happy about, and led us to a taxi that was waiting a bit ahead. Then he put it on the roof. I asked him to tie it, believing he must be the driver.
The real driver was inside, but I was still confusing driver and passenger seats which are reversed in India, the English way, so I thought he was a rider. The dubious guy said he would tie the suitcase, but did not. I argued with him and insisted I wanted the suitcase with me inside the vehicle. Eventually he capitulated. Breathe.
Another strange moment followed. The guy tried to hand me a bunch of money. I did not touch it. He wanted me to give him a ₹2000 note in exchange for a pack of smaller money. I declined. It smelled like a scam. A white gullible woman falls unexpectedly into this guy’s hands like a ripe fruit at this early morning hour. But eventually he left. Probably because the guy from the train had stayed with me. Who knows how this guy would have behaved if I had been alone. Another breath.
Saving the princess
I was happy my suitcase was still with me. I was happy I did not exchange any monies. And, furthermore, luckily for me, both the driver and the guy from the train were decent. Even more than decent – helpful!
The student-businessman type guy introduced himself as Vishal. He made an effort to locate the Sea Shore Hotel on his local app, then gave the driver directions.
The building where the hotel was located on the top floor seemed funky, as well as the area. But after all, I reserved a ₹700-room. Vishal (his full name was Vishal Prafulchandra Chauhan as I later found out) called the number advertised on my Lonely Planet guide. The driver waited patiently. It took a while, but a very sleepy guy answered eventually. He knew I was scheduled to come, but did not understand I was arriving at this wee hour, or perhaps did not want to understand. Yes, he would bring my suitcases, but it took some time.
Everybody kept waiting for my sake and safety. At this point I gave Vishal ₹200 to cover the driver’s waiting and the meter ticking. Eventually a sluggish figure – a Nepali hotel employee – came down and took care of my bags. There were five flights of stairs to climb.
Lasting travel contacts
Vishal and I exchanged WhatsApp numbers. I thought he was interested in showing me around town in the morning, but several hours later he sent a cute picture with his wife…
If it wasn’t for him, I would have had no idea how to manage the situation safely.
Vishal Prafulchandra Chauhan and Deepali Vishal Chauhan
Following this chain of events and my return to Israel, we kept some intermittent correspondence on Whatsapp. He was interested in visiting Israel, but his wife wanted to go to Turkey. I asked him if it was OK to put his name and picture on this post, and he sent me his full name as well as the newer pictures that are presented here.
The Sea Shore Hotel
My cubicle at the Sea Shore Hotel with a view on the sea
The bare necessities of life
From my diary, later in the evening:
Like other places in India, this hotel is clean and nice, even meticulous, once you reach it, but the entrance to the building and the stairs are horrid and dirty, with homeless people sitting on the steps. There was a dog chained to a wall in a small room on the ground floor. A weird cat followed me up the stairs…
Room very small, but totally clean. Organized in such a way that actually has more storage and usable surfaces than a large room like the one I had in Bhagsu, Dharamshalla. There’s a small table under the bed that can be drawn out and there are decent shelves, not the type that attracts termites and cockroaches. There are large air holes in the closet and everything is practical and modern. Better clean and utilitarian than large and fancy but with old furniture, disgusting upholstery, carpets, etc.
How I found this place was a story onto itself. The Lonely Planet guide I was carrying around all this time finally justified its existence! Sachin, my friend, was looking for places at around ₹2000 and up, but investigating my Lonely Planet I found out there were recommended places for much cheaper. Sachin called this hotel, and surprisingly, they did not request a credit card number. The prices in the book were current: ₹700-1000. I asked for a room with a view over the sea mentioned in the book.
It’s all about the climate
Everything is connected to climate. There is no blanket on the bed, only the bottom sheet and a pillow. On the other end of the Indian climate spectrum, in Likir, Ladakh, I was given two super-thick duvets just a few weeks back…
Another strange thing: nobody uses a top sheet! Even the family in Belapur, who slept next to me on a mat on the floor, covered themselves directly with a blanket… [And, of course, they gave me the only mattress in the household, not acepting “no” for an answer…]
Somehow people save on things that are actually cheap and simple and that in my humble opinion can make their lives easier and more comfortable, like a shower curtain or a squeegee, yet they prefer to spend their good money on other items they value more. Cultural preferences. I’m sure people judge our preferences according to what they are accustomed to as well. For instance, mattress covers were introduced to Israel only recently.
The window here is a tropical louver-style shutter that lets air in without the need to open or close the actual window. Since it is so high up, insects do not seem to be a problem, or maybe that was because of the naphthalene the workers spread everywhere. My heart went for the workers who had to breathe this stuff all day every day…
I had to wait until noon for the ₹700-room to be ready, but a ₹1000-room was available right away. I paid that, not willing to wait, took the cold shower, put my bags in the room and went out to search for the famous Starbucks.
The picture below was taken as a landmark to find my hotel if I got lost, but I thought it gave a good feel of the neighborhood and the contrasts in Mumbai.
The Gateway of India
I walked along the waterfront towards the famous Gateway of India. A male street cleaner was working with his face covered up. Garbage was floating in the water of the beautiful bay.
[You can read more about environmental and ecological issues in India in my post series “Point Finger at Polluter – Who Cleans India”]
Cleaning Mumbai and the aquatic garbage problem
I had barely arrived at the “Gateway of India” when an unpleasant middle-aged “guide” clung to me, trying to cajole me to take a 10-attraction-all-day Mumbai tour with him for ₹3000, or, alternately, a trip to an island called Elephanta I had never heard of before. At the time, though, I just wanted to see the illustrious Gate and then have my breakfast and go back to the hotel for a rest before deciding what else to do with my day.
Gateway to India
Dining – high and low
I was famished. Having previously heard about the Starbucks, I made the effort to locate it with the help of Google and some bystanders. Uncharacteristically, here in India it was a pretentious high-end venue. They checked my bags thoroughly at the entrance, asking security questions. Since the Second Intifada this kind of scrutiny is rare in Israel, but here it was clearly also a class issue.
When I was finally allowed in with my very casual clothing, I looked at the prices and the menu and decided to pass. A few streets down I found another place, more popular and without security and had a Masala omelet on white bread toasts. It still was above the price range I got used to in the north, but not quite as bad as the Starbucks.
Later in the day, and walking a bit aways from the shiny meticulously-maintained avenues by the ocean, I found the “real India” down-to-earth side streets. A bunch of simple people were waiting in line in front of a coffee joint. It was good and tasty and cost only ₹20 (compared to ₹90 at the restaurants!!!)
Later on I tried a simple and friendly small eatery and experimented with a local rice patty and a “shira” – a sweet dish Jaya, Sachin’s wife, had also made for me and for her family with a lot of love. Delicious.
Living in the bathroom
Back in the hotel I discovered there was a worker “living” in a tiny room by the bathroom, whose job was to take care of it… When I was about to throw some garbage, he rushed to help me, pulling out the bin. It felt very uncomfortable. Over-servicing always makes me uncomfortable. In the evening I discovered he actually slept in that cubicle.
What a sad life, but maybe he doesn’t know it.
24 Hours in Mumbai - The Boat Trip to Elephanta
After my breakfast adventure I came back to the Gateway of India plaza, and in a matter of minutes found myself dragged into a stream of people going to Elephanta Island. I love boat rides, so I allowed myself to be dragged. I still had no idea what I was in for. It was easy to get a ticket without having the “guide” mediating it for me, and was obviously cheaper. Only ₹200 for a back-and-return one-hour trip to the island.
The boat trip was fun, especially since a group of young students from Bangalore (now called Bengaluru for some obscure reason) added a lot of color and fun to the adventure. They were on a week-long school trip and were clearly enjoying themsleves – singing, flirting with each other, taking selfies. The girls screamed whenever a large wave shook the boat, and everybody was jolly and pleasant.
My student companions on the boat to Elephanta
24 Hours in Mumbai - The Climb to the Caves
Since I came totally unprepared for what I was about to experience and see, I had no idea what the climb to the caves entailed. I knew nothing about the caves either, so I was in for a wonderful surprise. I came simply because I am a boat freak, and given several options always opt for the waves.
The road to the caves from the boat proved to be a challenge though. Hundreds of steps and then a climb.
On both sides of the road there was a market, where everybody was trying to get my attention and my rupees.
You can get a very good idea about the climb and the market from this Youtube clip.
Walking down market steps, Elephanta Island, by Ben Slivka
With these many temptations I ended up buying a pair of loose pants (sharwal), a little marble elephant with holes in it through which you can see a “baby elephant'” inside, a decorative fan and a turtle and another elephant for the girls. After all, I was flying home the next day. Can do a minimal “tourist thing”…
24 Hours in Mumbai - Elephanta Caves and The Glory That Was India
AMAZING!!! MUST SEE!!!
Here was finally the legendary ancient India I saw in my dreams.
Elephanta Island- by the triple Shiva godhead, Mahesamurti
Note: I took many pictures, but most are worthless due to the darkness and the limitedness of my cellphone camera. Clearly, the Internet is full with better pictures. Google “Elephanta Caves” and see the statues in all their glory.
Elephanta was what I was waiting for. This was the quintessential Indian experience that luckily I came across at the last minute before embarking on my flight…
The ancient cave temple is what I needed to see, FEEL, from the minute I landed on Indian soil even without knowing it. Additionally, I sought this verification that yoga and Hinduism share roots, that dance was indeed a major componenet of the religion, and that sexuality and sensuality were held sacred in the Indian past.
The direct experience
The power of the caves is awesome. Personally, it connected me with primeval memories, feelings and sensations locked in what I see as the universal human DNA, or maybe also specifically in mine. Who knows?
On the one hand I should have taken a guide, perhaps, to better understand what I was seeing. On the other, excessive verbosity would have detracted from the direct experience and diminished it. To compensate, I later bought a small booklet guide at a market stall on the way down. Reading it later, I better understood what I had just seen.
But then – anger
After the initial awe, Ooo and Ahh came anger.
Elephanta Island – hermaphrodite Shiva with Nandi
Everything good on this planet seems to always get destroyed. In Elephanta’s case it was the blessed Portuguese soldiers who liked to do their practice shooting at the magnificent statues to keep their “chastity” (reminiscent of some modern Islamic terrorist groups, isn’t it?)
Elephanta Island came under the dominions of at least half a dozen powers over its history, but none were as destructive as this batch of Portuguese colonial militaries.
The lower sections of the statues were destroyed, the faces disfigured. The Portuguese did everything in their power to break the massive elephant that once stood on the shore, even as they named the island “Elephanta” to commemorate it. The elephant finally collapsed in 1814, and the British moved it to the mainland and reassembled it at the Victoria Garden in Mumbai. I made a raincheck to go there if I ever get another 24 hours in Mumbai …
Additionally and very lamentably, in 1540 a large inscribed stone at the entry point to the island was taken to Portugal by viceroy João de Castro, presumebaly to study the inscriptions written on it. In reality this precious stone had disappeared and with it a very important piece of historic information that could have thrown light on the circumstances under which the sculputres and the caves were originally created.
The glory that was India
In the library of the Yoga Institute in San Francisco a book title caught my attention and lit my imagination at the time: “The Glory That Was India“. Well, here was that Glory. Carved in stone. For posterity.
Despite the Portuguese devastation and quite miraculously, some statues remained almost intact. Beautiful Parvatis and gorgeous Shivas can still be seen carved into the rock, with “celestial figures” flying above.
Elephanta – Shiva and Parvati
The most glorious was the three-headed Shiva, or Mahesamurti (above). I learned from an English-speaking tour guide who was showing a group around, that Shiva by himself can be creator, preserver and destroyer. In the non-dogmatic Hindu religion that does not contradict the other view of a three-god triumvirate: Shiva as destroyer, Brahma the creator and Vishnu the preserver.
I loved to discover that the ancestral Shiva was also the god of yoga, standing on one foot with the other raised to a semi lotus position, one of my own favorite postures… Plus, alongside some beautiful dancing goddesses, he also dances gracefully in his avatar as the god of dance. The universe is an eternal dance-play – Lila.
I was happy to see proof that yoga and dance were indeed an inherent part of the Indian culture for a long long time.
On the way back I stopped for lunch at a busy joint and got a wonderful Masala Dosa dish and a refreshing pineapple juice after queueing again at their juice stand.
Walking to the boat, I also bought corn on cob that a cow immediatly tried to grab, and a popsicle that a monkey almost snatched out of my hand. Must keep watch at all times!!!
Back in the hotel – a Mumbai night
More from my diary:
22.9. 2018, 20:30 Mumbai, Sea Shore Hotel
Mumbai night. Surprisingly romantic and exciting. Car horns aside, the hot air, the fan, 5 floors up overlooking ocean, port, seagulls, crows, ships and boats. Another world…
It’s this hot night air. It does it for me. Would have been nice to have someone loving for the night, but that was not in the cards.
Israel is worlds away, but after these intense 24 hours in Mumbai even the family in Belapur seemed far.
24 hours in Mumbai - Sunrise over the Bay
Sunday, 23.9, 5:30 a.m, Mumbai
Woke up early. A lot of noise outside. Dogs screeching ( feral Indian dogs are only noisy during the night…) and then, strangely, a shofar sound (or perhaps a conch?). Birds.
People are already walking busily in the street below. Huge shadows are fluttering on the pavements, emanating from a single street post surrounded by tree leaves.
The room stayed nicely ventilated even without leaving the window totally open. 28°C is not really hot. Only when air is not moving. Humid. Tel Avivi-kind weather.
Keso, the Nepali, was still sleeping when I needed his help, and I felt bad waking him up – again… Eventually somebody rushed me a basic breakfast and I was all packed and ready to go by 9:00. Keso, who was awake by then, tried to hinder me, saying the taxi driver was drinking his tea, but I needed to get going and demanded they take my stuff down without further delay. The driver finished his tea and we went on an interesting excursion through Mumbai’s suburbs to the airport.
My experience was not quite over yet. I still had an opportunity to learn some about the different faces of this city, and for sure more about the “real” Mumbai, from my taxi ride to the airport…
Taxi Ride to the Airport and The "Other Mumbais"
I took photos of some monuments and erased some. The traffic did not enable taking a decent picture of Victoria Station. At any rate, it is all on the Internet.
Passing the fancier part of town, we first drove through a modern city full of skyscrapers, reminding a bit of Tel Aviv in the sense that there is no overall design and things are kind of haphazard, but it was beautiful. Strange ads selling luxuries across the streets.
Taxi ride to the airport – from glamor to gory
Soon things started to deteriorate, though. We drove through poor Muslim sections of town. By that time there were rickshaws and tuktuks that were not allowed in the fancier, touristic sections of Mumbai. Further on, it was people living on the sidewalks in unimaginable filth. Finally, at my very last minutes here I witnessed the true horrors of India…
Still, the road to the airport emerged out of all that with the expected highways leading to the familiar Terminal 2, Terminal 3…
Airport was beautiful. There was an exhibition of religious antiquities with explanations to foreigners about some aspects of the religion. Very considerate…
I was happy to meet A., a young, good-looking, tall Israeli guy. Uncharacteristically for army graduates he was very anxious and therefore very happy to see me at the check-in line. He had fear of flying and wanted to sit next to me so he can be in the presence of somebody who is not scared and relax….
We decided to stay together, and succeeded mostly, though separated after the gender-trekked security check. We met again at the gate, and even succeeded to sit together on the second flight, since the plane had many empty seats.
The security was a nightmare. I experienced this before in Leh. Two bodily examinations and carry-on searches in succession. Doesn’t make sense, but no use arguing even mentally. The lady stands you up on a platform, tells you to stretch your arms to the sides and caresses you with a metal detector. Still, they did not detect my money belt. Curious.
Connection in Delhi was painless as they had a dedicated steward leading all Israelis and Israel-bound passengers through a maze of stairs and corridors straight to the relevant gate. Unlike previous experiences, as in Frankfurt Airport during the Intifada, where all Israelis were herded into a high-security gate with no toilets and no emenities, here I felt that the word “Israel” was mentioned with special appreciation.
The “India bug” – coming back?
We flew over Amman, Jordan. The pilot looped over the Med before we made our landing in Tel Aviv. Mixed feelings. I’m home, my Indian trip is over. I was glad I succeeded to shove in those amazing 24 hours in Mumbai at the last breath on the sub-continent.
Now planning for my next India trip. Once you get the bug, it apparently never leaves you…
So if you are wondering what to do with spare 24 hours in Mumbai, I hope my above post gave you some ideas, and for sure there are many many more things to do. Each person’s travel is by definition uniquely his or her own.