Namaste from India! Now that I’ve graduated I’m backpacking across India on my own over the winter until either my visa or my money runs out… I’ll be back in time for festival season though!
Expect lots of posts about my adventures in the East starting in the city of Mumbai.
In classic Dulcie style my trip did not start as planned and I ended up applying for my visa too late, meaning that I had to cancel my flight and book another one. Whoops. Aside from the money lost I wasn’t overly stressed as I was actually a little bit nervous about leaving England on a solo trip and I was having a pretty good time bopping about between Bristol and London.
That all changed the day after I was supposed to catch my original flight, incidentally bonfire night on the 5th November, when I realised that it was fully winter and I was freezing cold, wearing a puffa jacket, drinking cider in a pub in Bristol when I probably could have been on a beach somewhere…
Two weeks later with my bag packed and visa safely in my passport, I set off on early morning trek to Heathrow. Even being on the tube at 7 am in wintery London, which is never fun for anyone, only heightened my excitement! I was feeling very prepared with only a niggling concern over the financial problems happening in India.
In case you’re not up to date with your international financial news there has been huge issues in India for the last month since the president decided to demonetise 500 and 1000 rupee notes in an effort to tackle black money. You can read the Guardian’s take on the situation here and also some great advice for tourists courtesy of Breathe Dream Go here – if you’re coming out and want some advice, feel free to drop me a message!
The flight with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul was wonderful as well as surprisingly cheap considering I only booked a week before leaving. I’m so used to flying the most budget of European airlines that it was ultimate luxury. Free pillows? Good films on the telly? Edible vegetarian food? Turkish Airlines you have my heart! In Istanbul on my stopover, I even bumped into an acquaintance from Bristol that I met at Glastonbury this year… the world is a small place.
Upon landing in India my Bristol pal kindly accompanied me out of Mumbai airport, through the visa checks, through customs, through the massive queues to change money and even helped me to order a taxi which was really nice. He’d been to India several times and said that Mumbai is ever-changing… I was ready to be met with sweating masses and a hectic environment at the airport but instead was greeted with cool open spaces and massive art displays lining terminal two of Chhatrapati Shivaji airport.
The taxi ride from the airport down to Colaba
We parted ways and I took off in my little yellow and black taxi heading downwards towards Colaba in South Mumbai. The journey was fascinating, so much to see even at 6 am! Dilapidated stalls lined the street in front of apartment blocks with a background of high rise hotels whilst old colonial-style architecture juxtaposed with the new builds as it was left to decay with vines creeping over every surface and paintwork peeling. We crossed a long winding cable bridge which my taxi driver informed me was Sea Link road, officially Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link bridge, where I could see the freshly risen sun burning huge and red across the sea behind the Mumbai smog and urban skyline, lots of which is still in construction with many cranes atop roofs.
We came closer to some of the shanty buildings I saw earlier, corrugated roofs and dusty sheets of tarpaulin cover mismatched signage and blue wire cages full of white chickens. This point was also my first introduction to the very unique way that Indians use their horn whilst driving… i.e. all of the time with seemingly no rhyme nor reason!
We passed a billboard proclaiming ‘Let’s make India a better cleaner place for the future’ with a pair of spectacles pictured, very reminiscent of the omniscient Doctor T.J Eckleberg billboard in The Great Gatsby. The sights on either side of me were ever-changing and I was struck by how lush and green many patches were… though I shouldn’t be surprised considering how much rain falls here in the summer! We passed a cricket field where there was a team already playing at 6 am and I noticed tropical plants lining in the middle of the road for the whole journey. So cliché but everything was so colourful even with the greyness of the cityscape and the fogginess of the sky. Even the water tank trucks are painted and decorated!
When I arrived at Hotel Blue Bird (after some driving around and getting confused by street names!) I was very ready to crash out but unfortunately the manager seemed to have had the same idea and was asleep on a sofa opposite the reception desk. One of his staff managed to wake him and he opened his eyes groggily and grumpily seeming pretty annoyed that I was there. I politely explain that I had arranged to arrive at this time and booked accordingly, he grumbled in reply and took so long finding my reservation in his book that I ended up having to find it myself. After another long expanse of time standing and sweating in the smelly reception I was finally taken up in a tiny little mirrored elevator to my room. There were no windows but it was spacious and clean with air conditioning so I had a shower and got some sleep.
In the evening and after a few more unpleasant interactions with The Grumpiest Hotel Manager Ever™ I met up with my friend Aditi who was an old colleague of mine from my university newspaper. She is now studying for her masters in Mumbai so I thought she would be the perfect person to impart some local knowledge to me.
We started off in a restaurant serving strange Indian-continental mash-ups which Aditi told me was a common occurrence here… apparently you can expect to find that even the most Western offerings on many menus are often ‘Indianised’. We chose some Paneer Makhani and decided to have naan bread to accompany it rather than the spaghetti that was on the menu – it was delicious! What was exciting food for me was the norm for Aditi so afterwards she took me to her favourite place ‘The Nutcracker’ a very European cafe for the most yum (and very un-Indian) buttermilk pancakes.
In the morning I took stroll down the road I was staying on to buy some bits from the tiny local supermarket where everybody stared at me the entire time. Luckily I had read about this happening, especially to girls with blonde hair like me, so I was prepared and it was kind of amusing… I even crossed my eyes at a little boy who followed me around the shop which seemed to help!
I can’t stress enough how useful all of the research I did before coming to India was, I’ve still got a lot to learn and it has still obviously been a culture shock but not as much as it could have been! Even though I stayed in Colaba in South Mumbai which is widely regarded as the most touristy district I barely saw any non-Indians. However, on that morning wander I was very excited to see the very first (of very very many) cows in India! I don’t know if it’s my upbringing in Devon but I love all the cows roaming about everywhere in India… If you follow me on Instagram you may already have spotted a few.
I had plans that afternoon to go and visit the modern art museum and the main museum the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (say that three times really fast!) as well as The Gateway of India but typically I fell asleep at midday and didn’t wake up until six… I really didn’t fancy venturing out on my own after dark just yet so ended up staying in my little windowless room reading and sleeping all night.
To make up for my missed day (although a day of sleep is never a waste of time in my opinion!) I planned to get up for sunrise and visit the Gateway of India at that time, I set my alarm and left my hotel at 6 am.
The Gateway of India
It was really nice to see the city slowly waking up at this time, although stuff doesn’t really get going until 10 am… India is a lot more laid back than the UK! I got to The Gateway just after the sun had risen and after figuring out how to get into the area around the police barricades (security is higher in Mumbai after the 2008 terrorist attacks) I sat by the shore watching the sun come up over all of the little boats and tested out the selfie capabilities of my new camera.
It was still a bit foggy but a lovely atmosphere, there were barely any other people there and very cool compared to how it would be later in the day.
Sun rising over the Arabian Sea
Although it is Mumbai’s biggest tourist attraction I wouldn’t say that the gateway was particularly special. I saw it as kind of an Eastern Arc de Triomph… In essence it’s just a huge monument to colonialism but also ironically apparently the site where the last of the Bristol soldiers left India following the country’s independence. I think I’d prefer to see proper old Indian architecture and temples etc… Watching the women feeding the birds as the sun was rising behind the archway was a pretty beautiful site though!
This was also my first introduction to my new found celebrity as a blonde white girl! At first, I thought this sweet lady was asking for me to take a photograph for her but actually, she wanted one with me… and then with her teenage son and then her husband etc. etc. Obviously I got one myself and then was hounded by another group of teenage boys on my way out.
Afterwards (please don’t judge me) I popped into the Starbucks in The Taj Palace Hotel which is another famous landmark, just opposite the gateway… I hated myself for doing it but the appeal of air conditioning, a frappucino and good wifi was just too much. If you’re in Mumbai and need a break from the hecticness, a place to gather yourself and sort out travel arrangements then Mumbai Starbucks is an absolute haven for all of your basic bitch needs.
On the walk back to my hotel I saw this geeza sitting outside a small Hindu temple, he grabbed my arm and tied some red string around it whilst babbling something in Hindi and giving me sweets to eat. And then he charged me 100 rupees for the pleasure! I didn’t really mind though, I quite enjoyed being blessed.
If you don’t fancy a blessing, don’t be caught off guard like I was! If you’re thinking of going to India read this great article on scams and how to avoid being tricked into paying for things you don’t need to over on Hippie in Heels.
Thali of dreams!
I asked Aditi for a good Thali recommendation for lunch (as the Thali Cafe LINK in Bristol is my Indian of choice at home) and she recommended Chetana Veg in Khala Goda. I went for the mildly spicy option and at 495 rupees I’d find out later it was really expensive for India. However, everything in that area of Mumbai is slightly pricier… buuuuut still half the price I would pay in the UK.
It was definitely worth every penny though (or every paise!)… Every time I thought the waiters had finished bringing me food they just kept arriving with more and more delicious dishes, starting with little pastry nibble bits and dips, fives types of curry, three types of bread and even two small sweet dishes. I was waddling afterwards!
Yes ma’am I give you good price!
On the way back to the hotel I wandered through Colaba street market, a veritable feast of colour and trinkets. I refrained from buying anything here, apart from a pair of sandals, as I knew that it would be more expensive than other markets in the future. The mounds of jewellery, gorgeous embroidered bags and colourful scarves were more than tempting though and it was very good practice in saying “no thank you, not today!” It was also my first practise in haggling, which I don’t think I did particularly well at… remember to never accept the first two prices you are given.
After some umming and ahhing I booked a coach down to my next stop Goa… I would have liked to stay in Mumbai for longer as I only really scratched the surface but it was costing me three or four times my daily budget so I had to get out of there.
My first impressions of India are that all of the cliches are true… India is as dirty, noisy, smelly and hectic as it is colourful, delicious, beautiful, kind and interesting and this is something I imagine I will only find out more as I continue to travel. Mumbai is truly a place of oppositions, it might be the home of the glamourous multi-billion dollar Bollywood industry but I walked past several entire homeless families sleeping on mats together and had many children holding out their hand to me for money.
“The thing about Mumbai is you go five yards and all of human existence is revealed. It’s an incredible cavalcade of life and I love that” – Julian Sands