Notes from the Entry Point: Crash Landing in Mumbai

Things they don’t tell you about Mumbai:

1.  It’s huge. Massive. Gargantuan. Staying in Juhu Beach (one of the Lonely Planet listed “Central Suburbs”), though (relatively) upmarket, beachfront and (apparently) home to many Bollywood stars, you are 45 minutes by local train and an hour plus by taxi from the city center.  However, taking a taxi is ill advised because…

2.  Traffic is horrendous.  Mumbai’s congestion may not yet match L.A.’s gold standard but what it lacks in bumper-to-bumper standstill it makes up for in lane improvisation, sidewalk hugging, pothole swerving, alley veering, light ignoring, rickshaw vs car vs scooter death match.  And yet somehow very few of the vehicles are dented and road rage seems rare.  The trains by contrast are often crowded but at least relatively clean (even by New York standards), run frequently and on time, come with overhead fans (and lack doors providing further airation), and include ladies-only cars, where ladies cannot only purchase bindis, cosmetics and household sundries from the traveling teenage train vendors hopping on and off with heavy laden baskets and hanging displays of their wares but also avoid the vaguely insidious encroachments on personal space and penetrating stares available in mixed cars.  Tickets purchaseable at highly civilized Ladies & Foreigner-only counters, however…

3.  You need to carry your passport at all times.  In addition to police having the right to request it at any time, buying a long distance train ticket can be tricky without it.  The Indian rail network is extensive, convenient and massively utilized.  Purchasing a long distance rail ticket two days in advance during a school term break might see you 185th on the waiting list.  Unless of course you can prove you’re a foreigner for whom a small quota of seats are held back on each train.  Not that you can book those seats if you’ve left your passport in your hotel room… in Juhu Beach… an hour plus away by taxi…  And when you finally get *back* to your hotel…

4. Don’t pay the amount on the meter (assuming you’ve found a driver willing to use the meter).  Mumbai rickshaw meters display a code, not a price.  11.20 is NOT 1120 rupees.  It’s around 320.  But for every three dishonest rickshaw drivers that will take the triple payment you naively give him, there is one who will not only explain the system to you, but give you his own laminated copy of the fare structure.  I really wish I’d taken his picture because he was the first of many:

5.  Really nice Mumbaikars!  Whether joking with in markets, chatting in bars and restaurants or volunteering information on sights and history, the general impression is of a people proud of their city and history, patient with language differences and open to tourists.  So much so that….

6.  People will want to take your picture.  It’s not a scam.  You don’t resemble some obscure Bollywood icon.  In possibly the most bizarre and possibly my favorite all time local custom, Indians will ask foreigners to pose for pictures with them.  The first three times I was asked I backed away nervously, hands upturned in an apologetic shrug while my feet shimmied me out of danger.  The third time I was approached (after I’d turned down a very sweet sareed lady who’d explained the religious iconography in the temples of Elephanta – I later felt extremely ashamed of myself) I finally found the gumption to ask why.  I was told “It’s just something we do.  We’re from here so we want to have our picture taken with the people who aren’t.”  Imagine a New Yorker taking photos of themselves with camera toting tourists in Times Square or showing all your friends the grinning photos of all the foreigners you met on your morning jog through Central Park.  Seriously New York, you should try this.  It could totally work.  After all…

7. Mumbai kind of feels like New York in the 80′s, still dirty, still dangerous, still pressing poor to rich, old to new, history to ambition, still pulsing with growth and dynamism.  Every taste is provided for; have the best Masala Dosa of your life at a street vendor for 50 cents, shell out $18 on a ginger coriander martini at one of the three elegant bars in the 5 star waterfront Taj Mahal hotel.  The aspirational fantasy that hangs equally over slum villages and highrises propels the city forward at a breakneck on the verge of greatness / on the verge of destruction pace. You get the feeling that anything could happen in Mumbai.  Every day tragedy, comedy, victory and heartbreak are playing out on its streets in a cacophony of noise, bustle, sweat, smells, lethargy, activity and consumption.  It’s still very much a city on the move and while it’s colonial roots run deep (Mumbai Central’s architecture rivals Grand Central) it’s path of ascension is still being charted (we can only hope *not* towards Disney and gentrification).  One final note though…

8. The nightclubs close at 1.30am.  Yeah… I don’t get it either.

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