We had a non-stop, fifty minute flight from Goa to Mumbai, which was the last city on our seven week tour through India. I can't believe our time here is almost over. It went by as fast as a shooting star, which is a pretty good indication we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Walking off the plane and getting a cab was so much easier than when we first landed in Delhi on that late January 14th night. Maybe it's because we've been in this country for forty seven days and have acclimated to the culture or maybe because it was mid-day and we weren't exhausted from twenty four hours of travel. Either way, it was an easy breezy, smooth as a baby's bottom kind of experience. While we were on the highway, we saw some creative messaging to promote sober, safe driving that made us chuckle out loud. The first one said "driving hammered will get you nailed" and the second one said "drive like hell and you'll soon be there". Given how absolutely insane the roads are, it's refreshing to know that they not only realize it but are taking a unique, almost funny, approach to changing it. Two thumbs up to that.
After about an hour drive, we arrived at the Taj Mahal Palace, our home for the next three nights. You are probably thinking, wow, that's so fancy pants of you. What happened to that tight budget you keep mentioning? And you are totally right. However, we gathered all of our credits from Hotels.com and some of our points from our Chase Sapphire card in order to have the privilege of staying at this iconic establishment. We were seriously like eight year old kids collecting every penny they had in their piggy bank to buy that new cool toy everyone else had but couldn't really afford. And it was sure worth it. The architecture on the outside was stunning and the moment we stepped foot inside, it smelled of fresh roses and Benjamin Franklin bills. You could see, taste and hear the money being spent. The people working and the people visiting all radiated class.
And then there was us. Two young adults, with backpacks, wearing the same clothes they've been wearing for weeks and weeks. There was nothing about this place that made us fit in but we didn't care. At least we shower every night, that's a plus. They welcomed us with necklaces that are believed to attract good luck and ward off evil (so yes, we'll be wearing those proudly), Moksha (third eye in the Hindu religion) and the very much appreciated surprise of a complimentary upgrade (never argue that). Shortly after we entered our room, which overlooked the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea, they had cappuccino's sent up. Something tells me I'm going to really really like it here.
The Taj Mahal Palace has a wealth of history behind it. Since it was built in 1903, many notable guests have stayed here including past US Presidents, Oprah Winfrey, the Beatles, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Mahatma Gandhi, Mick Jagger, Prince Charles, Jacqueline Onassis and so many more pertinent figures. Additionally, during World War I, it was converted into a 600 bed hospital. Lastly, but certainly not the most positive memory, was on November 26, 2008 when it was part of a four day, six location attack on Mumbai. Today, the security is extremely intense to prevent such a horrific act like this from reoccurring. All cars have to stop outside the property before entering to be searched (tires, hood, trunk), all guests have to walk through a metal detector and have their bags scanned. Even those just wanting the attached Starbucks has to go through these same measures. Better safe than sorry.
Around 7:30pm, we were getting hungry so per usual, we went on TripAdvisor to get some ideas of where to eat. But when the page listing out all the restaurants in Mumbai loaded, we both were instantly overwhelmed. There were 13,186 different options one can choose from. And Mumbai is a fairly large city so it's not like everything is right in your backyard. And we have no idea where we are located nor where we should be going. Oh geez. We took a few deep breathes, narrowed our search as much as we could and decided on Mahesh Lunch Home, ranked 6th. Don't be fooled by the name though, they are open at night too. Mahesh sure didn't disappoint either. Garlic prawns soaked in butter with a little spicy kick to them made us two very happy tourists. Not to mention the service was the best we've had yet.
The next morning, our alarm went off at 5am because we were going on a 6:15am sunrise bike tour through Mumbai. Reality Tours, the company who organized the excursion, has a mission to improve the quality of lives in their communities by having 80% of the profits fund their sister-NGO, Reality Gives. It felt good to know that we inadvertently helped out those that are far less fortunate than us. Our contribution wasn't a lot but it was still something. The Taj was a short twelve minute walk to the meeting place so we decided to take advantage of having the city to ourselves while everyone else was still dreaming. The streets were so quiet you could hear a leaf drop. The air was so pleasant given the humidity hadn't fully hit nor were there thousands of cars driving all around you. The shops were all closed and the lights were all of. It's fascinating to see one of the largest cities in the world at this very moment before everyday life begins.
When we safely made it to our destination, we were greeted by our guide, Rajesh (Raj for short). He was an energetic little thing. I could tell this was going to be a fun adventure with him leading us. As the other four people showed up (two guys from London, a girl from Italy and her husband from Belgium), Raj casually mentioned that he had to wake up the bicycle shop owner in order to retrieve our bikes. Hearing this, I figured he had to make a quick phone call or possibly walk a short distance to his house. But no. The owner sleeps on the ground, outside, in front of his shop. I was speechless. I thought I had overcome my culture shock weeks ago but just when I assumed I had fully adjusted, this happened. Crazy. We all got on our bikes and rode away.
The first stop was Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST, where over seven million people travel by train each and every day. Built in 1888, this was originally called Victoria Terminus Station (named in honor of Queen Victoria from Britain) but just like many other places throughout the country, names are being transitioned from the British reference back to an Indian reference. The building is absolutely beautiful on the outside with the architecture resembling that of a Victorian-Gothic Revival style. Many scenes of the Oscar-winning feature, Slumdog Millionaire, were shot here. And CST was also witness to India's first flash mob, where 200 people broke into an impromptu dance on a popular Bollywood song in 2011. I wish I was there for that.
The second stop was Crawford Market, which was built in 1871 and became the first market in India to receive electricity in 1888. Spanning around 72,000 square yards, it is a popular spot for buying fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, spices, condiments, pet food, imported foods, meat and poultry, imported cheese, homemade chocolate, bakery products, household items and even animals. Yes, animals. You can buy dogs, cats, birds and random other creatures of your liking. Since we got here so early, we saw tons of people sleeping on the ground, in front of their shops, just like the bicycle owner was. Raj was telling us that since most don't have homes, they sleep outside when its hot and inside when its cold. Completely breaks my heart to not only know this, but to see it first hand.
As the clock struck 8am, Mumbai went from a quiet sleeping town to a loud bustling city within the snap of a finger. Shops were beginning to open, cars were beginning to honk, people were beginning a new day. And all of this chaoticness definitely intensified our ride as we were no longer the only ones on the roads. Good thing we stopped for some Masala Chai tea to soothe our soul.
Next up was the historical Mumbadevi Temple, which is what Mumbai was named after when the Indians no longer wanted the British name of Bombay in 1995. Built in 1731, it is one of the oldest temples in the city and was dedicated to the goddess Mumba, the local incarnation of the Devi (Mother Goddess). We couldn't take any photos of the inside or the outside due to the November 26 attacks, which was unfortunate but most certainly respected. As the Hindus entered the temple, they would ring a bell letting the Gods know they are entering then kiss each step that lead them inside while saying a prayer. The visits don't seem to be for a long duration but they do seem to visit quite often.
After the temple, we rode our bikes to Bombay Panjrapole, a sanctuary for the welfare of more than three hundred and fifty cows nestled away in the heart of the city. In the Hindu religion, there are over thirty three million gods and goddesses and all of them are believed to live in the stomach of a cow. Which is why cows are so holy. Holy cow. So people come here to increase their karma by feeding the cows which in turn, is feeding the gods and goddesses. And some ducks reap the benefits as well.
Following the cow sanctuary, we moooooo-ved on to Marine Drive, which is a three kilometer long, six lane concrete road that stretches north along the coastline, forming a natural bay. Large crowds of people come to this place to stride along the walkway and to view the stunning sight of the setting sun at dusk (assuming the pollution doesn't get in the way). The scenic beauty of the perfectly lined palm trees adds to the already calming atmosphere. One way you look has the Arabian Sea and the other way you look has restaurants, offices and hotels. Marine Drive is also referred to as Queen's Necklace because the street lights make the road look like a string of pearls in the evening. Across the water on the other side is a very rich neighborhood called Malabar Hill. But we couldn't see it this morning due to the overwhelming amount of smokey haze and pollution. Yummy.
Here are some random action shots...
The final stop on our bike tour was the Sassoon Dock, which opened in 1875 . This dock is the main fish loading and trading center in South Mumbai. The people working here are Kolis, original inhabitants of Mumbai and represent the city's original culture. Men go out to sea to catch the food while women and children stay back to peel, clean, sort and sell everything including lobsters, baby shark, calamari, eels, shrimp, prawns and endless varieties of fish. As I was walking by, trying not to slip on the wetness of the floor, I kept reciting to myself the Dr Seuss book "One fish. Two fish. Red fish. Blue fish". It was mind boggling. Piles and piles and piles of sea life, displayed as mountains on the ground, took up every inch of the walkway for miles. There were live auctions happening and people were bargaining hard core. It was dirty and smelled awful but it was one of the most exhilarating scenes I've ever witnessed. Due to the 2008 attacks, we couldn't take photos or video. It is believed the group of people who were behind this awful initiative came into Mumbai through this dock. I was so bummed because this scene was just too good not to capture. I did get a few from a distance prior to realizing I couldn't.
After a fantastic four hours of cycling through the fascinating city of Mumbai, we all treated ourselves to a much deserved breakfast at Madras Cafe, which included maysore masala dosas and chai tea.
Oh and I forgot to mention that I completely fell off my bike about twenty minutes into our ride. Go figure. Typical Cantor move.. It was still pretty early in the morning so I can't even use the craziness of the streets as an excuse. I'm obviously still alive and nothing major broke; however, I did rip my only pair of pants (maybe it's a sign that I should buy new ones) and I did scrap my knee. Being the tough girl I am, I didn't cry on the outside but on the inside, I was sobbing. I refused to give up so I continued along as if nothing happened but my knee sure was paying the price every pedal at a time.
When we got back to the hotel, I called the front desk because I wanted a first aid kit to clean up the area a bit and make sure it didn't get infected. But little did I know, The Taj had their very own doctor on the third floor. Seriously? Of course they did. Why was I so foolish to not think of that myself. Well this was convenient. She examined my boo boo, cleaned it up as much as she could, put some ointment on, then wrapped my knee like a Mummy. I couldn't bend it and I couldn't put pressure on it. Boy did that hurt. I was in a good amount of pain but all I kept thinking was it could have been a lot worse. Thankfully I didn't get hit by the bus I initially swerved away from. I wouldn't look good as a pancake. 1,500 rupees ($22) for the consultation and 470 rupees ($7) for two different antibiotics later, I slowly hobbled back up to my room. As I laid on the bed resting for a little, there was a knock at the door. "Come and knock on our door, we've been waiting for you". Ring a bell? Three's Company? Anyways, It was someone from the front desk with a dozen red roses, an octopus stuffed animal (not sure the meaning behind this one but it's the thought that counts) and a "get well soon" note. Wow. Talk about hospitality and white glove service. I carelessly fell of my bike, I'm not dying. But to them, it's all about the little touches. And it sure was touching.
Since I needed to take my medication with food, we grabbed a bite to eat at Pizza Express, which is a chain restaurant originally from London. Nothing makes me feel better than pizza. And when we returned to the room, there was yet another surprise of a "get well soon" pillow on our bed. I mean, come on. This is too much. But I'm not going to lie, it feels good to be important.
Later that day, we visited the Gateway of India since it was literally across the street from our hotel and I couldn't do much anyways. What an impressive monument. It was built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of Kings George V, but wasn't completed until 1924. Ironically, the British builders of the gateway used it 24 years later to parade the last British regiment as India marched towards independence. Locals and tourists alike were all hanging out, laughing, people watching, taking selfies and enjoying the beautiful day that was slowly coming to an end.
That night, which was March 1st, we wished my mom a very happy birthday via FaceTime. Missing celebrations like this makes me sad but being able to see her made me feel better. My mom's strength, energy and unconditional love has greatly contributed to the woman I am today so for that, I am forever grateful. And it was my best friend since preschools birthday, Lindsey. For dinner, we walked (extremely slow) to a place called Woodside Inn which was an awesome gastropub with delicious food, fun music and fabulous energy.
So far, we absolutely love Mumbai. The area that we are staying in, Colaba, seems to be where all the happenings are. Streets are made out of cobblestone, canopies of trees shelter you from the intense sun, buildings all have a Victorian charm to them and the overall vibe leaves you feeling alive.