Exploring Mumbai

Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is India’s finance centre, the economic powerhouse of the nation, heart of the Hindi film industry and the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals.  It is the glamour of the Bollywood cinema, cricket on the “maidans” (open grassed areas), outstanding colonial architecture and red double-decker buses.  We were excited to be here in this lively, colourful city.

We stood up on deck and watched the Constellation slowly make her way into her berth, where we were due to remain until tomorrow night.  We watched the bustling dockside activity below, where a crane lifted the gangplank into place and a red carpet and some barriers were erected to lead us into the cruise terminal building.  Our excursion was not until 12.30pm so we had a couple of hours in which to relax and take in our surroundings.

After enjoying a cold beer and a light lunch, we made our way to the Celebrity Theatre to collect our stickers which would allocate our tour bus.  Then it was down to the gangplank and the usual farcical rigmarole regarding our passports and visas; you were checked inside the cruise terminal (where your bags were also scanned), then you were checked at the exit to the cruise terminal once again.  Then, when the bus reached the dock gates we all had to hold up our cruise cards for the security guys to view.  Finally, we were on our way.

Our first impression of Mumbai was that it was a lot more organised, cleaner and seemingly more civilised than the squalor and chaos of Delhi.  We saw the ornate façades of many impressive colonial buildings, shops and offices as well as the usual crowded, frenetic traffic on the roads.  We passed roadside vendors selling anything from street food to handicrafts, and our guide pointed out the dabbawalas, who constitute a lunchbox delivery and return system that delivers hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people who work in Mumbai. The lunchboxes are picked up in the late morning, delivered predominantly using bicycles and railway trains, and returned empty in the afternoon. They are also used by meal suppliers in Mumbai, who pay them to ferry lunchboxes with ready-cooked meals from central kitchens to customers and back.  Our guide told us that there was a Bollywood film made in 2013 called The Lunchbox which is based on the dabbawala service; I will have to make the effort to watch it.

Presently our bus pulled up and we all got off, as most of our heritage tour of Mumbai would take place on foot.  We were no sooner on the pavement when a gaggle of beggars and children started tugging on our sleeves, saying “dollar, dollar” and miming putting food in their mouths.  They were pretty persistent, and vied with the “looky-looky” men and women trying to sell you anything from embroidered handbags, wraps, wooden mobiles, colourful beaded jewellery and the usual tourist tat such as postcards and fridge magnets.

Trying to cross the street was taking your life in your hands.  Not all the traffic stopped at red lights or pedestrian crossings, and at one stage we saw two lanes of cars crammed into one lane, zig-zagging around each other.  Pedestrians would inch their way out into the roads, and dodge in and out of the cars, buses and lorries; it really was nerve wracking.

After a short walk, where we were followed by the ubiquitous street vendors, we entered the grounds of the Cathedral of the Holy Name, one of the few Catholic cathedrals in Mumbai.  While 80% of India’s religious is Hindu, there is also a substantial population of Christian, Muslim and Sikh followers, as well as other religions.

Inside the cathedral it was blessedly quiet and cool, compared to the noise and heat and dust outside.  We had a look around at the beautiful stained glass windows and distinctive altar, then we had a few minutes spare so I went out to one of the street vendors, who was selling colourful embroidered and sequinned handbags, and I asked how much.  “Five dollars” was the reply.  I told him I’d take four of the bags for 10 dollars – they’d made nice little presents.  At first he wasn’t going to agree, but when I started to walk away he gave in.  😊

When everyone was ready, our guide led us once again into the frenetic streets and we spotted some cows at the side of the road, as well as one street where people had cooked big pots of curry and rice at home, then brought them out to sell to passers-by on the street; several were standing around eating their meals from paper plates with plastic knives and forks.  Apparently cooking meals then selling them on the streets was a good way to make extra cash (there obviously is no need for such trivia as Food Hygiene Certificates and such like).

As we precariously followed our guide across the road, the discordant cacophony of vehicle horns clashed with some loud, sitar-based Indian music and we wondered where it was coming from.  A man had a motorbike to which was attached what can only be described as similar to a gypsy caravan; it was ornately designed and contained four large speakers at the top, from which the music blared forth.  At the front of the strange vehicle a couple of ragged children sat, and at the rear a woman carried a crying baby to add to the racket.  It was certainly an eye-opener!

We passed the decrepit shell of what must have once been a distinctive, impressive building and our guide told us it was the Watson’s Hotel.  Watson’s Hotel, now known as the Esplanade Mansion, is India’s oldest surviving cast-iron building, and is located in the Kala Ghoda area of Mumbai. Named after its original owner, John Watson, the building was fabricated in England and constructed on site between 1860 and 1863.

The hotel was leased on 26 August 1867 for the terms of 999 years at yearly rent of Rupees 92 and 12 annas to Abdul Haq. It was closed in the 1960s and was later subdivided and partitioned into smaller cubicles that were let out on rent as homes and offices. Neglect of the building has resulted in decay and, despite its listing as a Grade II–A heritage structure, the building is now in a dilapidated state.  We could see the ornate “W” (for Watson) in what remained of the rusting balconies.

Playing tag with the traffic once again, we eventually reach the large square that leads onto the Gateway of India.  This monument was erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary at Apollo Bunder on their visit to India in 1911.

Built in Indo-Saracenic style, the foundation stone for the Gateway of India was laid on 31 March 1911. The structure is an arch made of basalt, 26 metres (85 feet) high. The final design of George Wittet was sanctioned in 1914 and the construction of the monument was completed in 1924. The Gateway was later used as a symbolic ceremonial entrance to India for Viceroys and the new Governors of Bombay.  It served to allow entry and access to India.

While we were looking around, we were constantly accosted by guys wanting to take our photographs; I felt like just holding up a sign saying “No, thank you!”.  We decided to have a well-earned rest on a nearby marble topped wall, and we found a shaded area that allowed us to people watch; I particularly like the ladies in their colourful saris and Indian tunics.  What a colourful country India is; there is certainly nowhere else like it.

We continued our interesting walk but this time we were finishing our excursion for today with a trip to a restaurant for afternoon tea (and a long-awaited loo stop).

Inside the restaurant, I made a bee-line for the ladies’ WC which already had a fair queue outside.  The reason became clear when it was evident that there was actually only one toilet. In front of me in the queue were a couple of ladies in full Muslim robes; each one took quite a while in the cubicle, as I would imagine it would be a lot harder getting ready for the toilet than just going in and dropping your jeans!  😊

Eventually I was all done, hands thoroughly washed and cleaned with a little bottle of antiseptic hand-gel I always carry when travelling.  Then it was time to go and get my tea.

I enjoyed a couple of finger sandwiches, some shortbread and a couple of delicious macaroons, accompanied by a very good cup of tea.  After all, if you can’t get a good cup of tea in India, where can you get it?

Once we were all done, we waited outside on the pavement for the bus to return.  There was a young woman, with a half-naked toddler, begging outside.  I was amazed by how flexible her facial muscles must have been; she had the most haggard, forlorn, droop-mouthed and downturned eyes imaginable as she put on her “sad” face and held out her hands to passers-by.  One of our party gave the girl a five dollar note and instantly her face was transformed; she seemed to lose 20 years in age as her eyes lit up and she dazzled us with a wide smile, showing very white teeth.  Then, in a flash, the forlorn look was back in place to take in the next tourist.  Her toddler, who had been gurgling away happily, suddenly started crying, and I have heard that the mothers sometimes pinch their babies to make them cry, as they are more likely to receive money that way.

Eventually our bus pulled up, and we only had about 15 minutes until we arrived back at the Constellation, around 5.10pm.

We didn’t go back to our cabin, but instead went straight to the Celebrity Theatre where some locals were putting on a Bollywood-style singing and dancing show for us. As expected, there were lots of beautiful costumes worn by attractive nubile young girls and handsome young men.  The music and dancing were infectious and it was certainly something different and reminded us without any doubt that we were in India.

After the show we hotfooted it back to our cabin and got a quick wash and change before going along to the Sunset Bar at the stern of the ship to enjoy a cold beer or cocktail.  We weren’t too hungry because of the afternoon tea, so we decided we’d just go to the Oceanview self-service buffet later on for a light meal.

The main entertainment in the theatre tonight came in the shape of comedian Anthony Scott, who had previously entertained the troops in Afghanistan.  It was a very good show with laughs aplenty, and it seemed to appeal to the Americans on board as well as the many Brits.  It was unfortunate that he played to a half-empty theatre, but as the Constellation is staying in port overnight, I expect many people were still ashore.

Afterwards we were quite tired after our very interesting, very full day, so we just finished off the evening in the cosy, dimly-lit Rendez-Vous lounge, where we enjoyed a couple of cocktails before bed.

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