January 5, 2015 - Day One, Mumbai, India
We arrived in Mumbai after a grueling fourteen hour flight from JFK, seated in coach. Needless to say, we were seriously sleep deprived! Fortunately, our tour planner, (Abbas Slatewala of IndiaSomeday) had arranged a car to pick us up at the airport, so we didn't have to worry about catching a cab to our hotel. This first taste of India, via our drive, provided many fascinating sights including a parade and celebration of a Muslim holiday and these wonderful revelers who greeted me with a smile through the car window.
We checked into our rooms, showered and met in the small hotel restaurant for a delicious light meal and then crashed! Eight hours of delicious sleep later we awoke to our first day in Mumbai! Wow - we certainly are not in Kansas anymore! Our hotel provided the most delightful breakfast buffet (not your typical American continental breakfast mind you!) They did have the obligatory granola and milk but otherwise, everything was Indian cuisine and very appealing: Chana masala and poori, Meduwada (a savory fried donut), Sambar, Shree (a wonderful sweet cooked cereal with farina and cashews). They also served cheese omelets and fried potatoes (surely for the westerners), but the potatoes were spiced with Indian flavors and delicious! Then sadly, there were things I've been warned not to eat: fresh mango, pineapple, and fresh fruit juice concoctions.
We ventured out into the steamy morning air and onto the street. What a sensation to be thrust into a land so foreign and exotic! We were met by our beautiful, exceptionally charming guide Hemali Talsania, who runs her own tour company called Bravo Bombay. She had arranged a small, comfortable bus for our day's travels. I was soothed by the fact that we would be well taken care of in a city so foreign to us. (Interesting that as I snapped this picture of Hemali, a young beggar snuck into the picture.)
Our first stop was the Sassoon Docks, founded in the 1700's. Hemali explained that this is the primary marketplace for the seafood industry in Mumbai and it was also the port of entry for the terrorists who attacked the city in 2008. She warned that because of this, security is high and taking pictures is not allowed in certain areas. I was in artistic bliss absorbing the riot of colors: bright yellows, pinks, blues, and orange - every object (even the most mundane oil cans) are painted a vibrant color! And then of course there was the olfactory experience: warm salt air mixed with fresh and not-so-fresh seafood (at first alluring, eventually borderline nauseating)! We all concurred that the bus smelled like seafood the rest of the day!
Next stop was Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air laundry which is the central cleaning facility for many residents, hotels and hospitals in central Mumbai. As we walked around there were clothes drying everywhere (even the grassy median strip outside the complex), and small stalls with everything from dime bags of laundry detergent for an individual who needs to wash their own clothes to huge bags for those who own larger businesses in the facility.
Hemali told us that the laundry workers ("dhobis") are often single men who come here to work and are given a roof to sleep under and two meals a day. For this they toil thirty days a month and make the equivalent of $40. We saw men bathing here as well and she explained that many people in the surrounding slums have nowhere to bathe, so they come here to wash themselves and their belongings. People can also get water here during certain hours, as many people have no other source. It was a humbling and awesome experience to witness.
We drove to the tip of Marine Drive (also called "The Queen's Necklace" as it glitters around the harbor at night) where you can see the entire city perched on the edge of the Arabian Sea. The most expensive homes/apartments in Mumbai are here, which house the famous Bollywood and cricket stars, wealthy CEO's, and folks who have figured out how to beat the system. We drove by the "house" (really a fifteen story modern building) of the wealthiest man in India, Mr. Ambani. Evidently, he and five or six other family members live here, along with 600 servants (who occupy four floors of the building - at least they are living a small piece of the good life!
Next stop was the Sri Sri Rhada Gopinath Mandir: a beautifully crafted temple to Lord Krishna. In our short tour, we were able to experience a devotional ceremony underway and were greeted by a lovely disciple from Montreal who lives here for five months of the year. We also had the privilege of meeting Swami Radha Nath, the current head of the temple who graciously chatted with us, sharing that only a few short weeks ago he was in the US and visited of all places - Woodstock!!! I love this picture of the alleyway next to the temple which perfectly expresses the contrasts of Mumbai: the ancient architecture vs. the modern, the bright fabrics drying next to the air conditioning units!
The adjoining restaurant, "Govindas", provided the most delicious lunch: all vegetarian cuisine and exquisite pairings. I have never enjoyed vegetarian food so much in my life! We dined on Pani puri, Samosa chioli, Uttapam (Indian pizza) and I had my first and most heavenly Mango lassi. Part of my goal on this trip is to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of the cuisines of India.
After lunch, we were back on the bus for an unusual stop to watch the dear men called "dabbawala". They are the lunch box movers! Hemali told us that only in Mumbai has this system been truly effective. Each man is assigned homes where he picks up the hot lunch in late morning; it is then delivered via bicycle or train, to it's recipient promptly by 1:00. It's a mystery how they make this work, rain or shine but they do. After the lunches are delivered, they stop and eat lunch themselves, then pick up all the lunch boxes (as we saw them doing) at 2:00 for the return trips to their individual homes. Amazing! It appears working people in Mumbai just won't tolerate anything but a home-cooked meal for lunch!Hemali also mentioned that the movie "The Lunch Box" is very authentic. Looking forward to watching that when I get home.
By this time we were all anxious for the culmination of our afternoon: shopping at Fabindia! I've heard nothing but great reports of this store and was told to pack light in anticipation of buying a lot of great clothes here. It met all of my expectations and more. Can't believe this is only Day One of an Indian shopping spree! If you see me with an entirely new wardrobe when I get home, you'll know why!
We were bushed so we all rested in our rooms for a few hours, got freshened up in our new attire, and headed out for the most delightful home-cooked meal at Hemali's home. We had the honor of meeting her whole family which included her mother-in-law, daughter and husband. We feel blessed to have been taken care of today in such a loving and thoughtful manner. A great introduction to this land of enchantment.
See you tomorrow for Day Two of this great adventure in India.
Mary Anne Erickson is an artist who has been documenting the demise of our American roadside culture for over 30 years in paintings and photography. Her work can be seen at www.vanishingroadside.com.