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Night train and Mumbai

sunny 34 °C

We arrived at Falma station a good 80minutes before our train was due to leave and, unable to see anywhere selling hot food, we stocked up on snacks - that night's dinner consisted of chai, fruit, crisps and Oreo cookies. The journey to Mumbai would take us 13 hours arriving at 8.30ish the following morning. We were in the three tier sleeper carriage - beds were arranged along a corridor, two sets of three tier bunks faced each other perpendicular to the corridor and then there were two bunks along the corridor. I had the middle tier and, once the bed was set up, there wasn't enough head room to sit up straight. Staff waked up and down the corridors for the first few hours of the journey selling chai, crisps and even train-thali (packed into tiny bags and sold with a tray to eat from) which seemed a relatively impractical food for a wobbling, moving vehicle but Jenny, Zahid and Ole seemed it enjoy it. For 25rupees each we were given two sheets and a flimsy little pillow and, after a visit to the shaking, smelly squat toilet, we settled down for the night. I actually slept surprisingly well and the rocking motion of the train was quite soothing. I woke up only once in the night when the Indian family, several members of whom were sleeping on the bunk below me, got off at about 5am.

At 7.30 I woke up to discover that the sun had come up and we seemed to be passing through the outskirts of the city. Despite the early hour there were several people moving around. All along the train line for miles we passed tiny slum houses, some more permanent looking than others, packed tightly together with tarpaulin across the roofs.

From what I'd been told, I was expecting Mumbai to be somewhat like Delhi on crack. Driving to the hotel however, I noticed a distinct lack of beeping, the cars seemed newer and the air cleaner. Whilst Delhi was a city to be endured, survived and perhaps eventually conquered, maybe Mumbai was somewhere to actually enjoy?

Our hotel was small and pokey but seemed initially okay (there was warm water and a fan), the main downside being that I was still sharing a room with Jessica who, even with my most tolerant head on, I was beginning to find challenging.

After freshening up we headed in taxis into town. There was a distinct lack of rickshaws in Mumbai but several uniform taxis, black with yellow roofs and Zahid told us that they all used meters. We drove along Marine Drive, a road that follows the beach, a bit like Mumbai's answer to Ocean Drive but with faster moving traffic, and headed to the Gateway of India and the port. My expectations of Mumbai continued to be proven wrong - not only were there continuos, unbroken pavements but people were actually using them to walk on as opposed for littering and pissing, I could count the number of cows we saw on just one hand, I enjoyed breathing without feeling like I wanted a SARS mask and there were fewer piles of rubbish on the street. The Gateway of India, a large archway by the waters edge built to commemorate the visit of George V, was teeming with tourists, photographers and giant balloon sellers. It's opposite the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. We ate lunch nearby on a touristy street lined with stalls selling pashminas and jewellery at a place called Cafe Mondegar - it was the least Indian place we'd been so far, sort of like a German themed diner - they did a pretty good veggie burger though and it was cheap. After lunch we wasted a lot of time trying to get a taxi to take us around the major sights. For some reason we'd only had one day (actually two half days) scheduled in Mumbai so there was a lot to cram in. I'd suggested walking - there were pavements after all - but Mumbai is pretty big and spread out. It was also 34 degrees.

Eventually, after much arguing from Zahid, we managed to get two cabs for the afternoon. Neither driver spoke English so Zahid, who wasn't joining us, explained to them in Hindi all the places we wanted to go and, when we got to each stop we held up fingers to indicate how long we wanted him to wait for us. First stop was Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the gothic Victoria train station - we held up 5 fingers and took a few pictures before getting back in. Next stop was the Crawford market, which was difficult to enjoy as we were followed round by a guy wanting to 'guide' us, and we quickly moved onto Chowptty Beach. Apparently chowpatty means beach in Hindi so it's called beach beach. We walked towards the water which was disappointingly but unsurprisingly dirty with a lot of rubbish in the water. Apparently it's a popular place at dusk, perhaps because the dark hides the dirt. Although even the locals seemed to be mostly avoiding the water, I dipped my feet in anyway having at this point not read the Lonely Planet's description of the water as 'toxic'. After a couple more stops, the last destination was Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai's open air manual launderette - over 1000 troughs of water where hundreds of people were beating the dirt out of clothes with thousands of garments hung out to dry. Apparently if you send your laundry to be done in Mumbai, it would most likely go to the dhobi ghat - I was glad I'd become practiced at washing by clothes with shampoo in a bucket in the shower.

Back at the hotel we were told that there would be no hot water until 6pm but when I made a fuss, two buckets of hot water were brought to our room. On hands and knees I washed my hair under the cold tap below the shower before using the jug to pour hot water over my body. Having become accustomed to washing inventively, it was actually a pretty good 'shower' and I was able to go out for the evening feeling clean and refreshed after the sticky city heat. I was excited about the evening's choice of restaurant - we were going to Leopold's of Shantaram fame. I'd made it my mission to seek out this bar once in Mumbai and it was a lot easier than expected - turns out Leopold's is the number one tourist hotspot in the city. It was also another site of the 2008 attacks, along with the Taj Mahal hotel and the Victoria station. It was packed with foreigners but the food was good and the drinks were cheap and it was cool to be somewhere I'd read so much about - almost on a scale with a visit to the Leaky Cauldron for butter beers.

After a couple of happy hours at Leopold's the group made its way to a club called Bluefrog. In a way it was everything I'd wanted to leave behind in London, an expensive club where we had a table, chatted inanely outside and danced to minimalist music. But at the same time it was great fun - from everything I'd seen in India so far, it was sort of good to be somewhere just like home - or at least to discover that it existed - a club where locals went to drink and dance. I chatted outside with a couple of Indian guys who were genuinely friendly and were pleased that I was enjoying India. We talked about where I'd been so far and they gave me some suggestions for placed to visit further on in my trip. Oli, Christine and I left at about 12.30 and after arguing with our taxi driver who'd fiddled the meter, paid him half of what he was asking (although still more than it should have been).

While many of the other slept, we met the next morning to go to theTaj Mahal Hotel where we'd planned to have a coffee. In the end we had a wander around and had an interesting conversation with the concierge before breakfast at a nearby bakery before leaving for the airport and a flight to Goa. I'd liked what little I'd seen of Mumbai and was looking forwards to revisiting in a couple of weeks time.

Posted by madeinmold 19:30 Archived in India

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