Last time we came to India, Mumbai was not included in our tour. Perhaps it was too far away from the other places we visited, but I was left with the impression that it was too big, polluted and crazy for Westerners to enjoy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We loved our tour today; the great guide surely was a contributing factor and we would gladly come back again.
Getting here at all was a challenge for our captain. He tip-toed through the murky humidity past vast quantities of commercial ships anchored hither and yon. Mumbai is also a naval base and occasionally a military ship loomed out of the fog. Then we came to oil drilling platforms and tankers. India only meets 30% of its petroleum needs, but every bit helps. When we finally got near the city, the murk thinned and a vast metropolis lay before us. We had a hard time getting off the ship. The folks here are still smarting from the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal hotel and we queued for half an hour to have our documents inspected. As the bus left the port our documents were inspected again and the bus assistant had to open the bus storage areas for inspection as well. Incredibly tedious, but any New Yorker well tell you, it’s hard to forget what happened that awful day.
When the Portuguese were here, Mumbai was a collection of seven separate islands and they called their port Bom Bahia, beautiful harbor. When the British came along, their mispronunciation turned into Bombay. Finally, in 1995 the locals said to themselves, why are we calling ourselves this colonial name and returned to its original local name, Mumbai. No one seems exactly sure, but metropolitan Mumbai has about 20 million residents and is one of the biggest cities in the world. Some live in the squalor dramatized in Slumdog Millionaire, and the richest man in India lives here as well with his wife and three children in a 27 floor building that is solely occupied by his family. Days must go by when they don’t see each other in this huge building. The contrasts are stark.
The dense traffic here is a nightmare, but air pollution has been brought down to an acceptable level, because all the taxis and most of the buses run on CNG. Few people have private cars and tuk-tuks are not allowed in the central city. Indians are a calm people who believe in karma: what will be will be. When they sit in their traffic jams they honk to let each other know where they or that they are about to creep up four inches, but they don’t honk in anger. There are functioning traffic lights here and people follow them for the most part. Traffic police stand in the busiest intersections and try to make it all work. It’s terrifying to cross these jammed streets as a pedestrian, but the key is to walk out into the traffic in a slow, predictable pace and the vehicles just work their way around you. The worst thing you can do it to stop walking in sheer terror; then someone will hit you for sure.
There is much less garbage laying around here than we have seen on our previous stops. Sacred cows don’t wander around and eat garbage as we have seen in other Indian cities. The owners of the cows in town are always close by keeping them on chains and furnish water bowls and hay and grass. Those who wish to contribute to the upkeep of this sacred animal, give donations to the cow’s owner and they can afford to take good care of them. Our guide claimed that the greater sense of order and decorum we witness here can be attributed to a well educated populace. But I must add that our tour only visited the parts of the city where those well educated people work.
The British have left behind a huge mark on the city with their magnificent buildings. Most of them were so huge and festooned with vegetation that they were tough to photograph. The railway station is amazing; 500,000 people pass through here every day. The Gate of India is the symbol of the city and the spot where the British left the continent when India finally achieved independence. The university educates 500,000 students annually. Their main campus puts Harvard and Yale to shame. The High Court, the Municipal Building - all have the same style with dark gray blocks of granite trimmed with lighter shades of stone. The newly refurbished Taj Mahal hotel is equally magnificent, but was not built by the British. A rich local man built it after the British would not allow him or anyone else with dark skin into their hotels. Revenge is sweet.
We passed a lovely beach area along Marine Drive, much more accessible than the famous Malecon in Havana. But the beaches were almost totally empty. Ironically, Indians try very hard to be whiter; bleaching creams are commonly available. So they only go to the beach at dusk, when white people who want to be tanner are long gone.
Because India has a minimal social support system, everyone needs to support himself. If you are too old to work, your family is supposed to care for you and for the most part they do. Many people are employed in labor intensive work that would be much too expensive in our country. We visited a dhoti ghat where much of the city’s laundry is done every day. People pick it up from your house, beat it clean in concrete cubicles, and hang it on lines to dry without clothes pins. Then it is ironed by folks using irons heated by charcoal. The laundry is sorted by color to be washed and has to be reorganized for delivery back to your home. Somehow it all gets back to its original owner. Four thousand people are employed at the laundry we saw today.
Another complex organizational scheme is the lunch delivery program. Every worker has a container with three compartments. After he leaves for work, his wife cooks his lunch and puts it in the container. A worker picks it up and puts it on a train heading to a rendezvous point near where he works. Workers as the other end pick up the lunch buckets and deliver them to the workers at their job at the exact moment specified. After lunch the entire process is reversed. We saw a statue honoring the workers who make sure everyone gets fed every day.
Our tour had a lunch break and we were free to eat where we wished. Those who love Indian food went to restaurants they raved about. We went to a coffee shop in a department store and enjoyed sandwiches and iced coffee. There we met a man who lives ten miles from our house and we had a great chat about politics here and back at home. It’s a small world.
Of course, our tour included a produce market, and we went to a cloth market as well. It was a warren of cubicles each the size of our bedroom crammed with cloth. The workers sat on the floor until a customer approached. Then the salesman showed them bolts of fabric until a selection was made. Someone would deliver the purchase to a tailor somewhere else to make the garments. This market was so hot I could hardly breathe. The fabrics, especially for saris was beautiful, but the temperature and crowds did not put me into a shopping mood.
We visited a home where Gandhi spent much of his time and the temple built by the originator of the Hare Krishnas, who used to annoy people at airports. They claimed that they are still going strong but we don’t hear much about them about them anymore. The temple was supposed to appeal to all of our sense: incense for out noses, bright colors for our eyes, chanting for our ears and sweets made out of garbanzo beans that tasted just like peanut butter balls for our tongues.
Our return to the port was just as full of inspections as our departure. Our bags were search in the terminal and again on the ship. It all made me feel so much safer.