22nd November 2002

Touch down at midnight for two visitors to the mysterious sub-continent of India. Full of ancient temples, diverse countryside and over 1 billion people. What would await us in this fabled land?

Well the first hurdle on landing at Mumbai was getting through customs and immigration. This in fact was a breeze and our bags were already waiting when we came out the other side. Next stop, venture outside the terminal into the land of yelling touts and taxi drivers to see if our hotel taxi had turned up as promised. Lo and behold, right in the front of the swarming mass was a small gentleman resolutely holding out a card with my name on it. Found him immediately and was escorted to the waiting bus - much to the disgust of the touts left behind.

So finally settled in a 10-seater mini-bus (only carrying two weary travellers plus bags) we started the ride into central Mumbai. Fantastic! Even at 1am there was raging activity on nearly every road. All the street-side shacks were advertising their wares which included everything from ISDN internet access to an undertakers! Loads of dogs and a lot of children, shanty towns and yellow topped taxis, all competing to make the most noise.
The smells were very similar to Bangkok, but with a sweeter almost sugary overtone. Didn't want to question what this might be!

The driving is every bit as hair-raising as people lead you to believe. It is a complete mystery why there aren't more pile ups and hit & runs. As it is there are no rules, it's everyone for himself and order is amazingly restored to chaos as a result. Experiencing it for the first time certainly wakes you up.

So, into the city centre and round two or three famous landmarks (the Oval Maiden where cricket is a religion; the Prince of Wales Museum etc) en route to the hotel. This is situated at the southern end of Mumbai, overlooking the Gateway to India. The Taj hotel is 'just up road' and the whole area is a bustling, dock-side scene.

The hotel we had booked was perfect. The right spot, the right people and definitely the right view! They managed to save us one of the three rooms that overlook the harbour with it's own small balcony as an added bonus. The hotel has a fabulous roof-top terrace that gets a gentle breeze all day and serves cold Kingfisher beer and amazing food of all kinds - Indian, Western and Chinese.

Having finally conked out at about 4am local time (10.30pm UK time) we awoke to a sunrise to die for. Nigel was up and about first (!?!) and opened the windows onto a low glowing sun which lit up the Gateway to India from behind and set the harbour water sparkling. Pretty good introduction.

After a breakfast of cheesy toast (Kraft processed I think) we ventured out into downtown Mumbai for the first of our missions.

First stop, the Taj hotel - not just to check out the architecture but because Singapore Airlines has an office there. Needed to change most of our flight bookings as the itinerary was updated. No problems, all done in a matter of minutes which left us time to wander about the hotel. Incredible central staircase that must have gone up eight or nine stories. Very ornate, lots of red wallpaper and polished dark wood. However, when we wandered into the swimming pool area it was a bit of a let down. Lovely pool surrounded by lush trees and all, but overlooked from every angle and left with the feeling of severe exposure. Won't be going there then - cue smile from bank manager.

One airline down, one to go. We also needed to locate Air New Zealand to get the final lot of flights changed. The nice Singapore lady told us where the local agent was and we duly set off on foot. This is when we discovered a little more of Mumbai than meets the eye. On our travels we wandered up and down residential streets, furiously busy market areas, up-market boutique zones and some of the commercial district. All the while dodging the cars, cabs, bikes, red double-decker buses and the odd brace of oxen pulling carts. Quite an eye opener and probably the best way to get a feel of a city.

One of the most amazing aspects of this place is how an enormously fancy Victorian monster of a building will suddenly rear it's head among street rubbish, shanty towns and busy intersections. It never fails to astonish. The other overriding impact is of noise. These people don't do ANYTHING quietly. If a taxi cab is stationary - it beeps. If it starts it's engine - it beeps. If it stops at a red light - it ... Incredible on-going cacophony which after a while seems to become vaguely musical (wasn't that in a film?). Then you're jolted out of this musing with a firecracker and a couple of oxen up your whatsit.

Finally there are the scents and smells. An amazing mixture of human life living cheek by jowl with city smog. Although on a hazy day it might seem the opposite, I think the people are winning this one. Everyone cooks or eats something, all the time. Both on the street and in the houses and apartment buildings, there's always something on the fire. I think they must use the same or similar cooking Ghee as in Thailand as this is a familiar smell. Of course the other familiar smells also make an appearance!

Right, back to the Air New Zealand mission... Having gotten hopelessly lost (can't imagine how) we admit defeat and hail a taxi. All the cabs in Mumbai are tiny black Fiat looking things, with bright yellow roofs. They are completely knackered and have more dents and dings than most stock-cars. They charge you using an old fashioned meter that's perched on the passenger side of the bonnet outside the car. They look very similar to ancient London taxi meters with a manual 'For Hire' arm that gets put up or down. We found a likely looking candidate and climbed in. And so began the first of our many bumper-car rides around the city.

Basically it seems that everyone is in an unannounced race. The front bench seating and large steering wheels make the driver sit with his nose resting on the top of the wheel about 14 inches away from the windscreen, with his hands in line with his shoulders. It's like Wacky Races on acid as they career around the busy roads, take absolutely no notice of anything that might be in their way. And amazingly enough it seems to work!

Finally found the NZ airline office and again managed to change flight dates with ease. Then asked about booking train tickets to Goa and were sent (on foot - always dangerous!) to the nearest of the two large stations in Mumbai: Churchgate. This was in fact very easy to find and we negotiated a hair-raising multi junction with a subway and made our way to the booking office across the road.

Now I knew that in order to book a train we had to complete a foreigners form that detailed the train number, name, time plus all our details (including sex and age). However, having found the 'foreign tourist' window we were told we had to go to the other large station in order to book this particular train. Typical!

Go to the Victoria Terminus station building which was a total work of architectural wonder. It's an enormous Victorian building with turrets, domes, towers and amazing stone carvings of peacocks, monkeys and British lions all mixed in together. Inside was complete chaos.

We fought our way up to the first floor and even located and completed the correct form (kept this as evidence). On arrival at the Tourist Quota counter however we discovered we couldn't get a train until Wednesday (5 days away) and had to re-consider our options. OK, we'll fly to Goa.

Next stop - Thomas Cook and an easy flight due to leave on Sunday lunchtime. Perfect. Decided we'd been good bunnies for the first day in this bustling city and needed to retire to our rooftop restaurant for a much needed Kingfisher beer.

On the walk back we came across a full-on Indian wedding parade in progress. The groom was on highly decorated horseback with a lackey holding a sun shade over him. In front of this was a vibrantly colourful collection of singers, dancers, musicians and revellers. There was even a keyboard player with two large speakers strapped behind him being pushed along on a trolley. Everyone was 'doing their thing' at the top of their voice and it was quite a sight. Everyone else on the street was clapping along and of course this was a legitimate excuse for the taxi drivers to go completely crazy on their horns.

We were about 100 yards away from our hotel and after watching for a while started walking back. Up to the rooftop and we discovered that the long jetty that was bang in front of the hotel was obviously the wedding venue. Lots of busy activity as they were still setting the ceremonial stage and getting the catering underway. There were two turbaned gentlemen in elaborate gold coats who were practising their horn salute (blowing ones, not beeping ones). These instruments were very large, silver horns that curved in an elegant sweep from the user's mouth to behind their head.

Now this set up couldn't really have been better. We ordered a couple of beers and some rice and settled back to watch the festivities. The wedding party slowly made their way down the road towards the jetty. And I do mean slowly. It must have taken a good 90 minutes before they finally arrived at the venue. Once outside the entrance it seemed to signal another half an hour of so of vigorous partying. At one point the groom got down and joined in. It obviously proved too much for him as he quickly returned to the horse and started sniffing something on a towel. Smelling salts probably.

As Indian weddings can last for 4 to 5 days much stamina is needed for both the happy couple and all their guests. It looked exhausting from where we were and that was under shade. We didn't spot the bride but I have a sneaking suspicion that she was safely tucked in to an air conditioned Mercedes crawling behind the rowdy party. She probably went to sleep about 3 hours into the parade.

This actually seemed like a damn good idea so we too retired for a siesta in air conditioned comfort. A few hours later we were up and about and ready to get going again. Lots of people had recommended Chowpatty Beach as a good place to go of an evening so this is where we headed.

Our stockcar driver, sorry cabbie, thought all his dreams had come true when he was mistakenly handed a 50 Dollar note instead of 10 Rupees. His eyes glazed over as he lovingly fingered the greenback, only to have it rudely snatched out of his hand a second later. He was actually quite forgiving for this error and agreed it was far too much money for an 8 minute taxi drive. Gave him a nice big tip though and all had a good laugh (?!)

So, on to Chowpatty which is a famous spot for eating the local Mumbai delicacy known as Bhelpuri. As far as I know this a concoction of vermicelli, puffed rice, spiced vegetables, chutney and chillies. It can be an acquired taste and I'm not sure I acquired it but it was nevertheless an experience. Also tried some Masala Milk and this was fabulous.

Nigel got his first head massage, but I think he might have been an apprentice trying to earn his license as all he managed to do was make Nigel look like an extra in the Hair Bear Bunch and give him a sore neck. Hey ho - you live and learn.

Back to the rooftop and the wedding party had obviously been revived with a sit down and a good curry as they were going completely mental over the road.

Having ordered the obligatory Kingfisher (plus a sprite to make a girly shandy) we were all treated to a firework display over the water.

Now forget anything you ever knew about Health & Safety as these nutters had placed small bombs on the jetty wall a foot in front of them and lit each one with a cigarette. (I'm not making this up!). The compact mortars went off with incredible power nearly decapitating the instigators in the process. Great entertainment for all of us up high!

Had our fill of fun and games and so to bed. Just dropping off when the time for firecrackers arrived! Are they mad? These went on for ages, but I have to say looked pretty spectacular. An appropriate end to an amazing first day in Mumbai.



India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa