So the big day finally arrived…. I landed in India, ready for a month of adventure. I’d read so much about India before the trip and listened to hundreds of travellers stories. My head was full with contradictory messages. Some people seemed to detest the place (and would give me a long scary list of reasons not to go there) and others loved it. Most warned me that I would probably get ill and be hit by terrible culture shock (gulp). Advice from various people included ‘don’t eat anything’ and ‘don’t believe anything that anyone tells you’ to ‘I wouldn’t go there alone if I were you’, so as you may imagine I was a little nervous about stepping off the plane in Mumbai to begin a month of solo travel!
From the books I’d read I was imagining that the moment I stepped foot on the airport tarmac, I’d be swept along in a terrible chaos of beggars, scam artists and purse snatchers. Mumbai airport couldn’t have been further from the truth. Smiling immigration officials stamped my visa and welcomed me to India then I stepped out into a calm and empty arrivals hall to the site of a driver holding up my name on a card and escorting me to a nice air conditioned car.
As we drove through the city I got my first glimpse of life in India. Crazy traffic, car horns blaring, dirt and crowds and heat, so much detail to take in, but it was more interesting than scary.
I was right about being ‘swept along’ in Mumbai, but in a different way than I had anticipated. The city has its own rhythm and if you ‘go with the flow’ then it’s pretty easy to get around without problems. It’s ridiculously hot and humid on the street, so I’ve found that I have to walk slowly and not think about the sweat constantly dripping down my back, but I’ve not had too much hassle (except one attempt at the powdered milk scam…. luckily I’m pre-warned and spotted it a mile off). Armed with a copy of Lonely Planet India (every Westerner here seems to have one tucked under their arm), It’s not too hard to navigate the well signposted streets (even for someone like me who has zero sense of direction).
Crossing the road is a challenge however, and I soon learned that traffic lights aren’t going to help (a red light means nothing to the average Mumbai taxi driver) and instead I started crossing in crowds of locals (they’re the experts and it’s safety in numbers). There is an underlying order to what seems at first glance to be chaos here. The hussle and bussle of city life ticks along efficiently despite the noise, the dirt and the heat.
My first challenge was to go out and buy a local prepaid sim card for my mobile phone. I was surprised to discover that I needed a stamped and signed letter from the hotel where I’m staying, a passport photograph, photocopy of my passport, and three completed forms with local and overseas address details before they’d even consider my application! The whole process took around an hour (as I stood sweating in a tiny dirty stationers office in the midday heat). Luckily I kept my sense of humour, and now every time I pass the shop the men working there smile and wish me good day. I even got a proposal of marriage at one point…!
I had a full day exploring the streets yesterday. I’m staying in an area called Fort, which has lots of nice ornate buildings to see. There’s a magnificent station, University and Law Courts (I went up to the maze of public corridors here to walk through the flurry of activity as legal sessions took place – very cool). I drank chai in the canteen (delicious and at around 10 cents it makes Starbucks seem rather expensive) and then walked up to the serene St.Thomas’ Cathedral, past the Flora Fountain and around the Horniman Circle (a little round park which offers a pleasant spot of green within the city streets). There were groups of men playing cricket at the Oval Maiden – I have no idea how they could bear all that activity in so much heat, but they seemed to be enjoying it!
I finally ended up at the ‘Gateway to India’ at the mouth of the harbour and took the opportunity to board a boat to Elephanta Island.There was a welcome breeze blowing across the water on the hour-long trip but the water was murky and brown (quite a contrast to the beautiful clear waters of Indonesia!).
Once we docked a local guide came and led me up the many steps (I was sweating like a dog of course) to the caves which contained some lovely carvings of the various adventures of Shiva. The trip home was well-timed as the sun was setting over the harbour and the pink smoggy sky over Mumbai cast a lovely light over the water.
By this time I had never been more ready for a shower and a hot meal in my entire life, so I headed back to the hotel then out to a local restaurant to eat vegetable curry and drink sweet lime and ginger juice.