One of the most repeated cliches about Mumbai is that it’s “an assault on the senses.” It’s true that none of the serene, polished images of the city I found online resemble what I’ve seen so far. BKC, which is the area where I live and considered a nice part of town, is messier than I’ve seen anywhere in Asia. My neighborhood has pretty new buildings but the streets are already crumbling, the traffic is mayhem, dogs lie around on the street, and there are people everywhere you look. I’ve been to Beijing, Manila, Islamabad, Tokyo, Jakarta and Bangkok, but nothing quite prepared me for this: a city of 22+ million people with what looks to me like completely inadequate infrastructure.
I don’t feel assaulted though. Worried sometimes, when I’m in a rickshaw that adheres to none of the traffic rules I know. Surprised, when I find a trendy brewery in a chaotic street market full of hawkers behind some hidden entrance. Disgusted, with the filthy river and the surrounding slums that resemble landfills. Overwhelmed with options, with the sheer amount of people I could potentially meet, destinations I could visit, and foods I could try. All of this makes me feel a bit disoriented. Where should I start exploring this city, and this country?
Last Sunday we decided to conduct a bit of cultural reconnaissance. During my first week in Mumbai I already went to a colleague’s house party, a couple of restaurants and a formal event. Now it felt time to roam the streets and admire some of the parks and architecture. The logical starting point is the famous Gateway of India—built in 1913 to welcome the English King and later used to kick out the last British soldiers with as much symbolism as possible.
As soon as we entered the tourist area people wanted to take pictures with our kids, whose giant blue-green eyes never fail to attract attention. But we also wanted pictures of our own, so we enlisted one of the many photographers working the square. The photoshoot included pictures of us with the Gateway to India, the Taj Hotel and the Taj Mahal Tower and cost only five dollars for 14 printed pictures. That’s indicative of how cheap everything is here (besides alcohol).
After that we went inside the Taj Hotel and walked to the beautiful Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria) train station, where we took a ride back to Kurla. We had a lovely family day! Probably the most challenging part was figuring out where the traffic was coming from when crossing the road, since people here drive on the left side of and we’re not used to it yet.
Three days later we were lucky enough to have a work holiday—the first day of the Ganesh festival. We returned to South Mumbai to continue our exploration tour. We saw an exposition by Rini Dhumal at the Modern Art museum, walked along the water on Marine Drive, and lunched at the Leopold Café—a simple street cafe that’s been in business since 1871, where a diverse crowd goes to buy pastries, drink beer towers, or eat Indian/Chinese/British food. (Also, 10 people were killed here during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.)
Next week we’ll make our first trip out of town!