Mumbai & Chowpatty Beach
"Mumbai is big. It’s full of dreamers and hard-labourers, starlets and gangsters, stray dogs and exotic birds, artists and servants and fisherfolk and crorepatis (millionaires) and lots and lots of people. It has India’s most prolific film industry, some of Asia’s biggest slums (as well as the world’s most expensive home) and the largest tropical forest in an urban zone. Mumbai is India’s financial powerhouse, fashion epicentre and a pulse point of religious tension. It’s even evolved its own language, Bambaiyya Hindi, which is a mix of…everything.
If Mumbai is your introduction to India, prepare yourself. The city isn’t a threatening place but its furious energy, limited public transport and punishing pollution makes it challenging for visitors. The heart of the city contains some of the grandest colonial-era architecture on the planet but explore a little more and you’ll uncover unique bazaars, hidden temples, hipster enclaves and India’s premier restaurants and nightlife." -Lonely Planet's Mumbai (Bombay)
The first time I read about Mumbai was when I picked up Gregory David Roberts' book Shantaram. Over the years, I have re-read it countless times, falling in love again each time. When I was offered the opportunity to travel to India on a medical trip as a student doctor, I didn't think twice. I booked a flight into Mumbai, a sprawling metropolis in the western part of Maharashtra. I planned to spend a couple days acquainting myself with the country before traveling down south to the Medical University. I would travel back to Mumbai to welcome in the New Year - 2011, before departing for Delhi and the Taj Mahal.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, the heat and humidity stuck to me. I peeled off my long sleeve shirt and tied it around the waist, waiting for my backpack to slide toward me on the baggage belt. In India, there is no shortage of people and this becomes obvious the second you step off the plane.
Due to its location, Mumbai is a tropical climate and rarely dips below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The city itself hums with its own rhythm under the surface, and I was immediately excited to explore it. After taking a taxi to my hotel for the evening to drop my bag, I grabbed a guide book and headed out. After walking for a while, I opted to jump on one of the most popular forms of transportation in Mumbai, an auto rickshaw. As we cruised in and out of the heavy traffic, we passed so close by to other travelers that if I had reached out, we could have grasped hands.
As the evening set, the atmosphere of the city shifted. My rickshaw driver suggested he drive me past Chowpatty Beach on the way back to my hotel. This beach is a favorite spot of locals, with its abundant food stalls and beach rides. It comes alive like a carnival at night, with lovers strolling on the beach, the smell of spice in the air, and the breeze from the water encircling it all. As soon as I stepped out of the rickshaw, I was approached by a handful of men with laminated menus, praising their food as the best in all of India.
After meandering through the small alleyways in between the stalls, I chose one that seemed popular with the locals and got in line for food. The stall was selling pav bhaji, which is buttery bread served with a spicy mixed vegetable curry that is mashed. This snack is a specialty from Gujarat and the Mumbai area. It is served with onions, cilantro and lemon, and is delicious!
With my belly full, I strolled along the sand, and was approached by a woman claiming to do henna. She asked if I wanted a small henna tattoo on my hand. I like to try and support the locals to wherever I travel, so I stopped to chat with her. Within a span of 2 minutes, I found myself with multiple plain ink stamps all over my hand and to my dismay (but not my surprise), the woman was demanding payment for each stamp. I begrudgingly handed over some money (what amounted to a few dollars) and considered it a lesson learned.
I made my way back to the rickshaw stand, pausing to watch a man with a monkey on a chain surrounding my clapping children. He stretched his arm out toward me, offering to make the monkey do a trick for me and I politely declined, not wanting to unwillingly part with any more cash that evening.
As my rickshaw driver meandered through the darkness, we passed cows on the street. In the religion of Hinduism, prevalent throughout Mumbai, the cow is deeply respected as sacred, and are often seen moving along the street with the traffic.
That night, as I fell asleep, I wondered what the rest of India would have in store for me. I knew that Mumbai was probably the most developed place I would be during this trip and, although it made me nervous, I longed to delve deeper into 'the real India'. And eventually, I would do exactly that.