After two weeks in the city I can say one thing for sure: Mumbai is INTENSE.

I have not been to any other large Indian cities yet. But two weeks has taught me that Mumbai is not just another large city in India. It is a furious panoply of India’s past, present, and future, all smushed into a city too small for its inhabitants, too relentless for the weary.

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The Colaba skyline at night

 

The most salient feature of Mumbai to me is the sheer number of people there. There are people everywhere in Mumbai, and they’re all moving, fast. They have places to go, appointments to make, errands to run, business to conduct. As my first Couchsurfing host in the city told me, people come to Mumbai for one reason, to work and make money. There are jobs available if you want to work. There are places to live if you’re willing to commute. There are connections to make, deals to strike, and opportunities to uncover. Indians both inside and outside of Mumbai will tell you that the city is a place of opportunity, both legitimate and fabled.

The city is expensive by Indian standards, which is a bit difficult for me to put into perspective as a virgin traveler with no other Indian travel under my belt. Many of the prices in India are far cheaper than what I am used to in America, so hearing that Mumbai is expensive is hard to compute. Food, for example: you can fill your belly all day in Mumbai for about the price of a bag of chips in America – masala dosa, samosa pav, bhel puri, a glass of fresh made lassi, a glass of fresh squeezed mosambi juice, and a glass of fresh squeezed sugar cane juice will run you about $2 USD. Yummy! I’m told, however, that the same masala dosa that costs 45rs. in Mumbai costs 15-20rs. in many other Indian cities of less capital density. I look forward to testing this in time.

Sheer unadulterated talent

Sheer unadulterated talent

I found Mumbai interesting because the city is home to large contingents of Indians from every other state in the country and they collectively contribute a diverse blend of languages and regional cultures which express themselves throughout the city. By Mumbai locals’ estimates approximately 40-50% of the city’s residents moved there, which is a pretty big proportion. Talking personally with residents of Mumbai you often hear sentences start with “Back in my village…”. It’s much like New York or L.A. that way, except that Mumbai is not an international city in any sense of the word, with perhaps the exception of multinational business. Most of the world’s businesses which have an office in India have it in Mumbai – Colaba, South Mumbai, specifically – but the city’s residents are overwhelmingly Indian; almost shockingly so to me, as I was perhaps naively expecting to see many more foreigners around the city and was surprised not to. You do not see the representation of ethnicities throughout the street in the same way that you see it in a city like New York.

The addition of Bollywood makes the city an interesting place culturally as well. Many in the young generation throughout the city are fast shedding conservative cultural mores as they take cues from the silver screens, holding hands and publicly displaying affection, sneaking away into the nooks of Colaba’s Back Bay at night, zipping through the streets together on motorcycles, staying up late drinking and smoking in apartments and so on, practices practically unheard of in Mumbai even seven or eight years ago and much less often seen today in other cities in India from what I am told. A young guy in Colaba told me that there is a notable and growing divide in Mumbai’s generational prioritization of cultural norms and standards which he identifies as coming largely from Bollywood. “Kids these days” are dressing more casually, experimenting sexually, secularizing, listening to “that awful music”, and so on, while their exasperated parents curse the changing influences, claw back at their offspring’s rebellious tendencies, and wonder what the world’s coming to. The same stuff of every generation which finds itself in the midst of changing times, right?

Bollywood glitters and shines for aspiring Indian talent in the same way that Hollywood does for aspiring American talent. Like L.A. and New York Mumbai is populated with untold numbers of working professionals who came to make it in showbiz and ended up staying to work when their breaks did not come, now begrudgingly resigned to the working-class jobs they were forced to take to stay afloat, adjusted to the insane pace of the city, attached to the money they make that is impossible to fathom in the villages they came from, or too proud to return to their roots for fear of being labeled as a failure.

I found it interesting that money and connections are prime movers in Mumbai for actors and actresses, much more so than talent and looks. This was described to me as a relatively straightforward formula by more than one person: If you have money, a good bit of money, you can more or less pay your way onto the big screen. Or, if you have big connections in the industry, you can network your way onto the big screen. Of course networking is a universal advantage and there is no shortage of that in Hollywood, as evidenced by the notable amount of bad acting from well-connected people throughout American cinema. But to my knowledge money doesn’t really go far in Hollywood by way of actors and actresses simply buying their way into roles. Maybe I’m wrong, someone please correct me if I am. My utterly naive understanding of Hollywood does credit actual talent as a valuable skill that goes a long way in the industry. Apparently Bollywood really doesn’t care much if you can act or not.

(I was offered a place as an extra in a Bollywood movie one morning in Colaba. A well trimmed guy came up to me and said way too enthusiastically, “Hey! Want to be in a Bollywood movie?!” I asked for the details…it was a 13 hour day in some hot-ass studio. I politely declined.)

Mumbai traffic piling up for blocks, and blocks, and blocks

Mumbai traffic piling up for blocks, and blocks, and blocks

More than one Mumbai local told me that Mumbai is a city that never sleeps. By Indian standards I guess this is true, but the city does quiet down substantially around 11:30 or midnight. What rather struck me is the amount of random loud noises that the city manifests, particularly after dark. I don’t think a night passed without at least one utterly unidentifiable clang, boom, gnashing, rustling, or other short expletive issuing forth from the city’s machinations in a cacophonous burst of urban staccato.

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Mumbai is still growing at a steady clip, although some of the new development money is looking elsewhere in India.

I also noted that the Mumbai work day schedule is well spread out and also runs a bit later than the American work day schedule that I grew up on. The average white collar day seems to run somewhere between 9ish or 10ish to 6ish or 7ish. But the trains start getting packed as early as 7:30-7:45am and don’t quiet down again until at least 11am, and then get busy again around 4:30pm and don’t lighten up until well past 8pm. The long rush of the trains is at least in part due to the sheer numbers of people who ride them though: there is literally not enough room in the trains for the number of people who want to get on them for several hours every day, weekday and weekend included.

Another interesting thing about the Mumbai work schedule is that the city’s districts all take different days off. Dadar’s shops, for example, are either closed or close early on Tuesdays. In another part of town like Andheri it might be a different day of the week.

One of my favorite things about Mumbai is the quick pit stops that practically everyone takes at the street stalls, be it for a samosa, a chai, a smoke, a ban, a snack of behl puri, or just a breath mint candy. The city moves quickly and street sellers capitalize on the convenience of a quick fill-up of whatever it is that keeps people going throughout the day. Everyone from mothers and daughters to businessmen, school children, rickshaw drivers, other sellers, and everyone in between pops in to these stalls for a quick fix. It makes for an interesting convergence of commerce throughout the day. It also got me over my street food hesitation very quickly. When you see a well-trimmed middle-aged dude in a nice suit and shiny shoes with a briefcase between his legs standing at a stall outside of a alleyway slurping down pani puri that the vendor is dunking into a vat of ambiguous seasoned water with glistening hands, handling money from another customer and then back to dunking and serving, well…when in Rome, eat as the Romans.

The three places in Mumbai that I spent the most time in were Andheri, Dadar, and Colaba. Of the three, I’d say Colaba has the most charm, Andheri has the most intensity, and Dadar has the most character. I’m sure most of the Mumbai locals who read this will laugh and think that is ridiculous for their own valid reasons, but that’s the way I found them for myself.

Andheri is a bustling stop on the trains with a big bus depot right outside the station on the bend of a long, wide L-turn street that is constantly packed with rickshaws. Andheri is, at the moment at least, about as far south as the tuk-tuks are allowed to operate in Mumbai before they are banned and taxis rule the roost. This makes for interesting territory because, Andheri being as busy as it is anyway, the addition of rickshaws tips the area over into madhouse territory.

Dadar West just outside the train station

Dadar West just outside the train station

Dadar is about half way between Andheri and Colaba. The area outside the train station is great. There are two long streets that feed out to Dadar West, starting under the station overpass where a thin road runs parallel to the train line. These streets are absolutely packed full with produce and plants, starting under the overpass with the flower market where fresh marigolds, roses, and myriad other flowers make their way to Mumbai early each morning. There are restaurants and sweet shops in the buildings lining the streets, and you will find the occasional puri vendor on the street amongst all of the produce, dishing up pani puri in rapid succession to commuters. At the top of the streets there is a kabutar khana, or bird feeding place, set in the middle of a roundabout, where millet seed is literally a half inch deep on the ground and hundreds of pigeons congregate to gorge themselves all day, occasionally getting spooked and exploding into the air to drop poo missiles on passerby before landing and continuing their feast.

Colaba is just flat out groovy, no way around it. The two train terminals are both notable pieces of architecture, with CST being particularly amazing, if a bit scary with its gargoyles staring down at you menacingly from thirty feet up. Back Bay is a beautiful place – a long arcing shoreline stretching from the bottom of South Mumbai to the beach north of Marine Lines near Grant Road, trimmed with a wide walking path and retaining wall, below which are placed the weirdest choice of fill material that I have ever seen: six-foot steel-reinforced concrete jacks. Jacks as in the jacks you used to play with as a kid, except these are freaking enormous and made of concrete. And they stretch for miles and miles. Just weird.

The sun sets over Colaba, South Mumbai

The sun sets over Colaba, South Mumbai

Colaba is the most touristy area of Mumbai, of course, so you get hit up for a lot of touristy stuff. A couple funny stories to this end:

Story one, I walked around Mumbai with a camera backpack most of the time, which includes a collapsible tripod hooked to the side of the bag. A guy comes up to me while I’m drinking a chai on the street corner and says in very good English, “So, you new in town?” I say yes, been here five days, enjoying it so far. He asks me if I’m German and when I tell him no he says my moustache had him thinking I was. I laughed. Seeing my tripod he asks if I’m a photographer and I say yes but amateur, not really a full-on professional. He’s a very nice guy, drops a couple interesting tidbits about Mumbai and the Colaba area, and then pitches me on a day’s tour for 1000 rupees.

To date, and mostly because I’m trying my hardest to be ruthlessly frugal on the road, I have avoided guides, tours, luxury transportation, and pretty much any hand-holding type services entirely. I’m sure there will be times and places for these services to play a role in my travels but as of now those times have not made themselves known, and this was no exception. I politely declined and said that I prefer to explore the area myself, and I already had a good idea of where I was going, which was true. He persisted a bit and sold himself really well. I was tempted but, as I said, ruthlessly frugal.

Story two, a lesson in mediating the ebb and flow of politeness and assertion: I’m drinking chai again on the street corner and a young flashy guy chats me up on my time in Mumbai and where I’m going next. I say Goa, looking forward to it, blah blah. He says, “Oh! You’re going to Goa! I have a friend who has all kinds of free information on things to do in Goa. His office is just around the corner. Come, come, no charge, you will like it!”. I think meh, finish my chai, and follow this guy around the block and upstairs into an a/c (flag 1) room with another flashy guy behind a desk and surrounded by generic India tourism posters (flag 2).

I think meh again and sit down. The guy behind the desk gets into trains and have I booked yet, dah dah dah. I say no, I’m going to CST now to get my ticket. This was on a Thursday. He asks when I want to go (flag 3) and I tell him next Tuesday. He smiles and shakes his head and says, “I’m sorry but there are no tickets for Goa for next Tuesday. They are all booked up now.” (red flag)

Now this could have been true, and at that moment I didn’t know whether he was right or not because I hadn’t made it to the station yet to find out. That was what I was in Colaba to do that day and I got roped into this wacky meeting before I could hoof it over from Churchgate station on the Western Line to CST on the Central Line.

A quick lesson about Indian trains, which if you read the brilliant website of train travel wizard Mark Smith at seat61 you probably already know: India has this interesting little thing called a tourist quota on some of their long-distance trains. They set aside a small number of seats on some of the most popular routes and they don’t sell them to anyone but foreigners. I think they won’t even sell them if no foreigners show up to buy them; the seats just stay empty if foreigners don’t fill them. These seats number in the single digits on each train for the most part, so it’s not a huge thing to bank on, but it’s something.

Failing that, there’s also what’s called Taktal tickets, which means ‘immediate’ in Hindi. The railways (India’s largest employer, by the way) hold a handful of tickets back on the most popular trains that often sell out weeks in advance and they sell them off for a couple hundred rupees extra in the morning of the day before the train’s departure. These too are not plentiful in number and they’re not on all trains, but they’re definitely another option, although not one to bank on if you’re trying to get somewhere on a specific date and you’re trying to secure your ticket in advance to be sure you’ll be on your way.

Failing that, you’re basically in queue for cancellation. After all the tickets are gone, they sell a handful of ‘RAC’ tickets, which stands for ‘reserved against cancellation.’ You get one of these and you’re guaranteed on the train. You just might have a weird seat or something. If you can’t get one of these then you have to buy a WL ticked, which stands for waitlisted, and these are not guaranteed. As a rule of thumb, if you buy a WL ticket and you’re 30 or less in the WL queue with a few or more days left before departure, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get a spot, although there’s no guarantee.

So back to the story: I tell the guy, well, maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, but there’s no way to be sure until I go to CST and find out. He says no, I have already checked that train and they are all WL tickets. But luckily for me, he continues, he has tickets for the train that I want and he can arrange for me to have them, and if I’m not interested in that then he also has a deal with a private bus service to Goa leaving the same day that I want to travel and that will get me there faster and for just a little bit more money than a 1AC train ticket would have cost me.

Another note: 1AC is the best and most expensive train ticket. Private cabins with locking doors and decently comfortable beds. 2AC is very acceptable, no doors so you’re open to thieves, and yes it happens a lot even in 2AC, but curtains that velcro closed and still a very nice ride. 3AC is meh, more cramped, less privacy, but quite cheap and it is air conditioned. Sleeper is a bit rough, especially for long haul trains, but the tickets are super cheap so if you’re really stretched then this makes it possible to go from like Chennai to Kolkata for $20. (That’s just a guess, it’s probably cheaper than that.)

Back to the story again, now at this point I know he’s laying down the BS a bit, so I start BSing him back. I ask him how he knows there are no tourist quota tickets available and he said he checks their availability first thing every morning. I suppose this could be true. So I say, “I just talked to a couple who got tourist tickets for Goa earlier and they’re leaving in two days. How do you think they did that?” This was not true, I just wanted to see what he’d say. He said, “This must have been a mistake. There is no availability so soon before train leave, even for tourists.” Again, could be true, but I was almost 200% it wasn’t.

I wanted to leave at this point, so I said, “How about this? I will go over to CST and see if I can get a 1AC, 2AC, or 3AC ticket. If I can’t, then I’ll come back to you and we can talk. If I can get a ticket though, I won’t be back. Does that sound fair?” He said yes and I excused myself.

And yeah, it turns out I got a 2AC ticket no problem for the time that I wanted to leave.

I got the feeling that things like this happen pretty much only in Colaba because that’s where all the tourists hang out when they come to Mumbai. On a given day in say Dadar, I usually wouldn’t see a non-Indian all day, whereas in Colaba I’d see at least a small sprinkling of foreigners, usually touristy types but also a good number of backpackers like Rene from the Nederlands. What’s up Rene!

I also stopped off in Mahalaxmi, Bandra, and spent a few nights couchsurfing in Mulund, although I did not get to explore Mulund much in the day time.

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Ending this post with a cat picture ftw. And if you’re concerned, this little kitty received a little meal of milk and egg from two different street food sellers just after I took this picture. To that end, many of the ‘stray’ dogs and cats in Mumbai are actually more like neighborhood pets, particularly in the more affluent parts of town. People all chip in for vaccinations, the restaurants and food stalls feed them regularly, and they are generally treated well and with respect. Other parts of town the strays do not fare as well, but all in all these animals are super friendly and not abused.

Many people told me when I was planning my trip to start in a country other than India, or if I was set to start there then to start in a quieter place than Mumbai. But I’m glad that I did start my trip in Mumbai. It raised my attention and awareness very quickly, got me open and alert to thinking and moving quickly when necessary (which in Mumbai is often), and set the bar high for multifaceted problem solving. Trains, buses, rickshaws, neighborhoods, times, places, connections, multiple languages, nuanced body language, all there to break me in quickly and efficiently.

That said, my time in Mumbai strikes me as much more of an exception than a rule to the average experience of urban travel, if there is such an average to find at all. Mumbai has a strong English speaking population. Signs are largely in English as well as Hindi and Marathi. Transportation is cheap, efficient and relatively timely, particularly the local trains, which seem to get a bad rap with Mumbai’s residents but ran no more than a few minutes late in my experience. There is squalor in the city, but I’ve been told that it pales in comparison to other places that I will visit.

Time will tell how Mumbai compares to other cities in India and elsewhere; with little else to compare it to for now perhaps I will think differently after spending time in other big cities. But something tells me that I will not, if for no other reason than that Mumbai will forever be cemented in mind as my first stop on the trip.