Saturday, March 14, 2009

India 7: Mumbai

We finished our stay in Kerala and boarded a train for our 26-hour ride to Mumbai. The Indian trains we rode were pleasant enough, despite the presence of bugs and rats, and we had enough reading material on us that the time passed pretty quickly.

These are pictures I took of train platforms in Kerala.

It was my last night on an Indian train. I went to bed in northern Kerala and slept through Karnataka and Goa. I woke up in Maharashtra. The language written on signs outside the train was different, and the landscape had changed from Kerala's wet tropics to arid scenery with distant plateaus and rock formations.

As our train approached the city of Mumbai, I saw something out the train window that I hadn't seen yet in my two and a half weeks in India: slums.

Oh, I'd never lost sight of the fact that India was a developing country. In my time traveling in Karnataka and Kerala, infrastructure had not been that great and Internet connections were spotty. Run-down, decaying buildings had been numerous. And despite inflation, price levels in India are still quite low - which is a sign that most Indians, by global standards, still make little money.

But I'd never felt like I was surrounded by dire poverty, certainly not the sort of poverty that I'd read about and had prepared myself mentally for. I never felt like a rich man tresspassing in the land of the poor. There were plenty of signs of affluence - satellite dishes, ubiquitous cell phones. In large cities there had been beggars - but they had been individual cases. I hadn't been asked for money nonstop.

Approaching Mumbai, I saw my first real poverty. I saw residents picking through the garbage lying by the railroad tracks, in front of the shantytown where they lived. And Mumbai is the financial and business center of India, home to the country's richest and trendiest people.

It reminded me of the first time I flew into Manila, and from the airplane I could see a neighborhood full of huge, opulent homes located literally right next to a depressing slum.

We arrived at the train station, hired a taxi to take us to our hotel (surprisingly, he charged less than Rough Guide had predicted), and got settled. For Jenna's description of check-in at the Hotel New Bengal, see here (the "city hotel").

Mumbai is huge and confusing. Even if you stay in the city center and you have a map. It's full of interesting stuff to see, do, and eat. But - particularly if you look like a foreigner with money to burn and you hang out downtown - you have to adopt an attitude of not trusting anybody. It's not just a matter of being approached by touts who want to set you up at their brother's restaurant or offer you a guided tour of Colaba. That sort of thing is common enough in South Asia and can be easily brushed aside if you've adopted the right mindset.

But in Mumbai, for the first time, I was approached by people who mimic the way Indians strike up conversations with foreigners when they're being genuinely friendly. And then these people ask for money. We had two girls come up to us in Colaba who did a good job imitating the way Indians will start talking to foreigners when they want to be friendly or practice speaking English. And they said, when we seemed on guard, that "We don't want to ask for money". And then they asked that we buy them lunch in a nearby restaurant.

Aggressive selling is nothing new in India, and both Hampi and Cochin have many, many people who make good livelihoods seperating tourists from their money. And frankly, I figure that's OK. But those tourist-centric businesspeople and touts in Hampi and Cochin seemed to be following a code of honor that was routinely being broken in Mumbai. They might be enticing foreign tourists into their art shop to try to sell them Chinese imports at ten times their actual value, but they weren't fundamentally pretending the transaction was something other than what it was. In Mumbai, I felt like I was being trained to be automatically distrustful of every stranger on the street. (As it turned out, it was good training for Egypt.)

We only had one day in Mumbai, so after seeing the Colaba sights (generally meaning the buildings that terrorists targeted last November) we took a ferry to Elephanta Island, where Hindu temples were carved into caves hundreds of years ago.

The island is very touristy and full of various India kitsch vendors, but still seems a friendlier place than the Colaba streets.

Elephanta Island is full of dogs and monkeys. I saw one monkey steal an orange soda right out of one tourist's hand, then drink its contents on the spot in front of the tourist.

Here's a dog begging for food from a monkey. I was highly amused. I just don't see a monkey having the same interspecies compassion as a human.

After a few minutes the dog gave up and wandered off. So a different dog started begging.

(Here's a thought: What if dogs see humans and monkeys as merely two different varieties of the same basic type of creature?)

After returning from the island, we settled down in a restaurant for something I hadn't eaten yet in India: north Indian food.

Most generic Indian restaurants outside of India serve north Indian food. Tandoori and naan and rich creamy curries are, to me, what epitomizes north Indian restaurant food. That sort of cooking is available in restaurants throughout the South, but it's not the greatest examples of the cuisine you'll ever find. Why eat subpar Northern food when excellent Southern food is available for far less money?

But we were in Mumbai, and Mumbai is in South India in much the same sense Baltimore is in the southern United States: it sorta is, but not really. So we went to a place in Colaba that had a comprehensive menu, and I got my first and so far only north Indian food in India.

It was a mutton curry and a vegetable curry with naan, and... it tasted pretty much like Indian curries taste in restaurants in other countries. Except the mutton was still on the bone. (I've heard that most mutton in India is actually goat meat, but I can't tell the difference when it's cooked in a spicy curry.)

The iconic view of Mumbai. You may remember seeing this scene
on the news last November under far less peaceful circumstances.

And that was it for downtown Mumbai. We traveled by taxi to the edge of Mumbai to meet and chat with a friend of Jenna's; then it was off to the airport for our flight to Egypt. At one point we drove through an affluent suburb of Mumbai that seemingly was in a whole different universe from the slums I'd seen from the train window the previous day.