Must Do’s In Mumbai

Once you’ve survived the initial shock of Mumbai it can be easy to find yourself wondering just where to begin. Built over seven islands and the reclaimed land in between the area that would become Mumbai has been inhabited in some form or another since the stone age. From Koli fishing villages to the financial capital of a space faring civilisation Mumbai is steeped in history.

During it’s time it has had many rulers including the Mauryans, the Gujarat Sultans, the Portuguese and the British to name a few. Mumbai has also had a long history of naval commerce being an important trade hub with the Egyptians, the Persians and the Romans.

This rich historical narrative is evident throughout Mumbai from her temples, docks, parks, food, architecture and sculptures. So it’s easy to see just why it can be daunting knowing where to start with Mumbai. This being said the are a number of must sees for anyone visiting the city.

If you are staying in Colaba or Fort you can pack the main attractions in three or four days. You can start the day with breakfast at Leopold’s, a famous eatery in the city, not just for it’s appearance in Shantarm. Opened by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran in 1871 Leopold’s (named after the Belgian king of the day) has survived different incarnations and upheavals, even having been directly targetted during the 2008 terrorist attacks on the city.

From Leopold’s it’s only a short walk to the ornate Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Opened in 1903 the Taj is a glorious example of Indo-Gothic architecture and considered an institution of the city, a bastion of luxury and hospitality where no detail is missed and no demand too great. Over it’s prestigious history it has hosted scores of notable guests from royalty, industrialists, tycoons, heads of state, film and rocks stars.

Over the street is the Gateway Of India. Began in 1911 to commemorate a visit by Emperor George V, His Majesty only ever saw it’s cardboard model. Completed in 1924 and built with basalt rock this triumphal arch would have been the first sight greeting visitors coming by sea to India. In the days of the British Raj this was the point where dignitaries would alight from their voyage. This was also the place where, in 1948, the last British soldiers ceremonially left India when the country gained independence. You can easily walk around The Taj but you have to pass through a security check-point to access the Gateway. Here you’ll be approached by photographers offering to take you picture for a fee (personally I don’t think it’s worth it).

There are touts that will try to sell you tickets for ferries to Elephanta Island as well. Whereas these are accepted they’re usually overpriced as well, you can buy a ticket directly for the ferries if you just wander behind the gate itself where the boarding point is hidden. They shouldn’t cost more the 200 Rs. for a return journey. While you’re appreciating the Gateway you might find some Indian tourists taking an interest in you as well and coming over wanting to have their picture taken with you leaving you feeling like a celebrity for a few minutes.

After the ferry crossing to Elephanta you might be met by “guides” waiting to give you a tour of the caves. Though somewhat knowledgeable these are locals more interested in taking you to their shops than giving a value for money tour. If you do want to be given a proper, informative tour you’ll find licensed guides waiting for you just after you step through the ticket office. To get there you have to go up a stone stair-way lined with stalls, which is mercifully under canvass providing much needed cover from the sun while climbing the many steps.

The caves themselves are a collection of Buddhist and Hindu rock carvings depicting scenes from the Vedas and other important religious texts. The precise date of when these were begun is a topic of historic debate but are most commonly placed from the 5th-6th Century A.D. The caves, unfortunately, were not treated favourably by the Portuguese after the island was ceded to them in 1534 and some of the sculptures are defaced or in a state of ruin (though some point the finger at earlier Gujarati rulers). The main cave has since been restored and despite evidence of vandalism the caves remain a testimony to the artistry, genius and meta-physical beliefs of a civilisation gone by.

While you’re visiting you’ll notice monkeys and dogs wandering quite prevalently here. Though it might be tempting to approach them to try and get a good picture be careful, they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. The Macaques don’t respond well to smiles either, considering bared teeth as a challenge to fight.

Back in Mumbai there is plenty more to be seen, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is a fine example of architectural fusion, mixing Victorian and Indo-Gothic styles that are reminiscent of the grandeur of Indian palaces. Finished in 1887 to commemorate the fiftieth year of Queen Victoria’s rule the CST, as it’s otherwise known, is one of India’s busiest stations. It serves both Mumbai’s metro and long-haul journeys out of the city. If you’re heading to your next location via train you will most likely leave from here.

Marine drive makes for a splendid walk along the beach front, if you’re lucky you might even catch a wedding taking place on the east side of the road which is highly popular for wedding venues. As the sun starts to set you’ll notice young couples lining the walk way, holding hands and enjoying each other’s company. Public displays of affection between the sexes, so much as holding hands in the street, can still be taboo in India. But here, along this 3.6 kilometre stretch of road, as twilight draws in there seems to be some sort of magic here where this does not hold sway and couples can openly share their fondness for one another.

Toward the north-side of Marine Drive is Chowpatty Beach, popular with city residents and tourists from further away in Maharashtra and India. People often flock here to play cricket, football and to perform ceremonies and rituals. It is not advisable to swim in the sea here as many storm and sewer drains find their way into Back Bay. More wholesome than the sea, though, are the numerous fast-food stalls that the beach is famous for. Here you’ll find a varriety of vendors offering sweet and savory dishes that are well worth trying out.
If you really want to be immersed in India cuisine I’d personally recommend making the small pilgrimage to Mini Punjab’s Lakeside Restaurant. Located in the north of the city in Powai, this restaurant boasts Mumbai’s largest thali whose size demands that two waiters are needed to carry it over. With a selection of forty-four different traditional dishes this is a colossus of a feast, if you’re not sure what it is your eating ask the staff, they’re more than happy to tell you about the individual items. You’ll need a friend or two at least to tackle this one.
The Haji Ali Mosque is a shrine to a Sufi saint of the same name placed on a small island in Worli Bay. Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a wealthy Uzbek merchant and traveller who would come to settle in Mumbai in the 15Haji Ali Shah Bukhari was a wealthy Uzbek merchant and traveller who would come to settle in Mumbai in the 15th century. Having made the pilgrimage to Mecca Ali would go on to preach Islam in the city and gather a following to himself, legend states that he even performed a number of miracles. Built in 1431 this tomb is a wonderful example of Indo-Islamic architecture and is reachable by the causeway that connects it with Worli, which itself was one of the seven original islands of Mumbai. century. Having made the pilgrimage to Mecca Ali would go on to preach Islam in the city and gather a following to himself, legend states that he even performed a number of miracles. Built in 1431 this tomb is a wonderful example of Indo-Islamic architecture and is reachable by the causeway that connects it with Worli, which itself was one of the seven original islands of Mumbai.
Finally, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, there’s the Dharavi Slum to visit. This is one of the largest and most densely populated slums in the world. Made famous in Slumdog MillionaireSlumdog Millionaire the slum has a number of cottage industries such as leather tanners, potters, plastic recycling, repairing and re-supplying white goods. All this is packed into 520 square acres of prime real-estate along side a population of just under one-million. Finding a guide is a sensible idea as most are former, if not current, residents and you, as their guest, will be left alone by potential thieves. You can find these online or by asking your hotel or hostel. A tour of the slum gives visitors a taste of a vibrant community spirit and the industriousness of the people who call Dharavi home.
While you’re in the process of getting to grips with how things are done in Mumbai these are the best places to experience. In between dodging cows and hailing auto-rickshaws these locations will give, figuratively and literally, a taste for a city that has been through drastic changes during it’s history. From humble stone age villages, to Islamic, to colonial rule and now a global financial powerhouse, Mumbai thrives with it’s history very much still on display and interwoven with a boisterous modern city. Enjoy and mind the monkeys.
Dharavi Slum Tour
AYAN KHAN +91 77385 09198
dharavitours@gmail.com

Wading In The Nature Of Things

After a slight debacle with a cash machine in a near by village we returned to Hampi ready for the day. We headed down to the Sacred Ghats and caught a motorised boat at the crossing there, less scenic than the coracle but also less expensive. On the other bank I hired us a moped and we headed toward Anjeyanadri Hill, believed to the birthplace of Lord Hanuman. Shell quickly dubbed the bike The Colostomiser, it was a rickety, rusty old thing that lurched to the right of its as though possessed. The state of the roads didn’t help either, especially as there was no suspension, the ride was more like a beating specifically for our bottoms and genitals. I expected the thing to fall apart underneath us at any moment and I prayed to the Gods that nothing pulled out suddenly in front of us as the brakes we almost none existent, something I neglected to tell Shell.

Luckily we got to the foot of the hill in one piece, purchased some bananas in the dusty car park there and started our ascent up the zig-zagging white stairs. Very soon we were drenched in sweat as the mid-day sun beat down on us making us wish we had gotten there earlier in the morning. It wasn’t long, either, till the macaques started to gather expectantly around us. A large, rather brazen male sat in the middle of the stairs and fixed us with demanding eyes. We edged past and he followed us on the edge of the stairs until some others climbing the path took his fancy.

After some huffing and puffing we reached the top, all sweaty and panting. The temple itself was not overwhelming, inside it rang and thumped while the Vedas were recited, pilgrims bowed before idols in praise. What really struck me was the view, before us was a vast landscape, doted with brown-gold rocks beyond reckoning, even the hill we’d just climbed looked like it was made of several enormous boulders just stacked haphazardly on top of each other. Out from the sun baked rocks called banana plantations and fields of crops, a vibrant green as the cobalt river snaked its way through the land. We sat around for a while, feeding the macaques and watching their habits before starting down again.

We rode around trying to find a route to Cesare’s shrine, eventually we were pointed down dirt road which ended in a ford. Leaving the moped I splashed my face in the river to cool off while buffalo and white robbed pilgrims passed by. As we crossed I noticed the ford itself had been made using discarded blocks from temple ruins. It was great crossing history like that and I daydreamed about where they may once have stood and how they had come to lie there. The whole place was like that, it whispered with a promise; a promise that every rock, temple and discarded block had a story to tell. I would gladly hear every one of them. I thought back to Elephanta Island where we’d seen the sculpture of the Triumti. Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. Birth, life and death, the three cosmic functions deified, each function existing for and because of the other. The very machinery of the cosmos which binds all things in a cycle of deaths and renweals, here I was walking across it. Watching as the crystal waters flowed over those old blocks it was so very clear to me then. That which is made fades, crumbles and through it’s own destruction is made a new, not as it was but something else. As the water refreshed my feet it was with a thrill I realised I was wading in the very nature things.

Beating The Backpacker Blues

37333618_10156568453819413_8581801126532218880_oYou’re home. Now what? The past few weeks or months have been filled with experiences and adventures that you’re still convincing yourself really happened. You’ve met like minds and unique individuals, some scary, others delightful. Maybe you’ve picked up new skills, been tested in ways you never thought you would be and learned things about yourself. You’ve been to another world, immersed in a different culture, seen the world through different eyes.

Now you’re home things don’t really feel like they’ve changed much. It’s easy to start feeling stagnant when you have to start thinking about getting back to the daily grind, especially if you’re looking for a new job. The joys of re-writing your CV while feeling no one will really be impressed that you can fill two industrial bins with onions in an hour or spot a rabid monkey at fifty paces.

It can feel a bit depressing when all you want to do is get back out there but lack the capital. When looking at your bank balance that untravelled horizon can start feeling all too distant. While you wait, save up and long for something different from this there are a number of ways to keep the backpacker blues at bay.

Make a plan. Not all those who wander are lost, but it’s easy to feel that way if you don’t know what direction you’re heading in. If you really want to get back out there start planning for your next trip. Do it now. This will give you something to look forward to and something to work for. Plan your budget, get talking to people who have been, figure out how much you need for how long. You don’t need to know every aspect of your trip in fine detail but having an educated guess of how much you need helps. Once you have an idea that clues you in to how long you’ll be around for, which is far better than not knowing at all. Suddenly every shift, every pay day brings you that little bit closer to where you’re going.

Re-connect with people. Now that you are back it’s time to see your friends and family. Go and see those people that wanted to talk to you at ungodly hours while you struggled to find enough internet signal to send a message. They’ll want to hear your stories and they’ll have ones of their own as well. Maybe your pictures and stories will inspire someone to come with you next time and you’ll have a travel buddy to start plotting with. If you’ve learned a new recipe while you’ve been away invite people over to try it out. This might be one to try and the parents first because even if it’s a disaster they have to like it. If you surround yourself with loving company being home is never really a bad thing.

Stay in touch with those you met during your travels. There are few things better to keep the spirit of your adventures alive than talking to the people you share those memories with. Now more than ever it’s easy to stay in touch with people, you don’t have to let time zones and distance separate you. If you’re feeling the blues contact them, maybe more than your friends back home they’ll understand how you’re feeling. Even if just you happen to think of something you did together get hold of them, see what they’re up to, ask them what their plans are, catch up. They might even be headed in the same direction you are.

You don’t have to look too far for an experience. Adventure is out there and you don’t have to go jetting off to find it. If you find yourself getting particularly bored look around you. Sometimes we spend so much energy thinking about exploring foreign places that we can forget that there are adventures to be had right on our doorstep. Get on a train and go on a city break. If you don’t want to spend too much money then hop on a bike or pack a car with friends and gear, go camping, hiking, find somewhere to spend a few days in the countryside. Use your imagination and go have some fun.

Keep perspective by asking yourself, is it really that bad being home? The weather might not glorious everyday, you might not be able to head to the beach or step out onto the piste. You can’t eat excellent food for next to nothing or go to a rave in a rainforest but there are definitely some benefits to being home. Not being an all you can eat buffet for mosquitoes and wanting to bathe in Tiger Balm is a relief to be sure. If you’re adverse to creepy crawlies at least the ones back home aren’t as menacing or abundant. You know the language and asking for directions doesn’t turn into a game of charades. While getting to your destination people actually follow the rules of the road instead of treating them like suggestions. Always being on the go, spending a few days here, a few days there can be stressful, especially trying to lug a backpack around under hot sun and high humidity. Washing your clothes is not a rare treat any more. You can even drink the water without worrying you might spend the next week trying to hold your guts in and mapping out toilet stops. Most of all be grateful, for the people you met along the way, that you have had experiences worth missing and to yourself for having the drive to get out there and do something different.

Keeping the blues at bay while you’re home is pretty easy when you try. Every now and again they might creep in and that’s fine. Try not to wallow in longing for a new adventure, make a new one happen instead. Just because you’re home it doesn’t mean the journey is over. What you’re doing now is part of it, the struggle, the sweat and the effort to get back out there again is all part of a bigger story. With some imagination and some mindfulness you’ll find yourself out there soon enough but hopefully not before feeling it’s not so bad being home.