The smell of spring morning flowers floats fragrantly on the cool morning breeze drifting inland from the bay. Strands of marigolds adorn the children’s hair as they smile brightly in the soft morning light. An exotic bird sounds his melodic song from the softly bristling trees that line the golden beach. The early morning sunlight peaks through the wispy morning clouds and begins to color the day in softly shaded pastel colors.
Early morning visitors come to greet the quiet morning. They gather in small groups of quiet conversation. They move in a slow-motion ballet of animated action. A freshness fills the morning as the slight mist lifts and the day begins. This day offers a serene beginning which will lead to a leisurely day of relaxing warmth in this peaceful land of grace. This is my Indian dream.
Bang! The airplane touches down roughly and I awake from my slumber sharply. Consciousness returns and I find myself startled by reality. My tranquil thoughts fade as I realize the plane has landed in the real Mumbai an hour late. People are already getting out of their seats, even as the plane still shakes from its bumpy landing. They push aggressively forward in the aisles despite the flight attendants warnings. My dreams of my imagined India abruptly fade to realities as I gather my bags to make my way into the actualities of our late night arrival.
It’s three in the morning as we make our way to the immigration area. 5 officers attend to the nearly 1000 people in the winding line towards the “electronic visa” counters. The line moves frustratingly slow as each person seems to have problems entering. Fingerprint machines fail and children fuss, verbally expressing all the new arrivals exhausted thoughts. 3 hours later we finally get past the gates to the baggage claim area.
We need money to pay for a taxi but none of the seven ATM machines seem to be working. We see more machines outside the terminal and try each to no avail. We decide to take a chance on the currency exchange inside the terminal but cannot gain access back inside. Another hour passes as we try to find someone in authority who can help us with our plight. Finally, for a fee, we gain access and are able to get 100 dollars in rupees for a 35 dollar fee.
After a wild ride through the pitch black streets of this city of 22 million, we finally arrive at our Colaba hotel as the sun begins to rise. My pleasant dreams of India have been crushed by the reality of honking horns, pungent smells and the swarming masses already filling the streets of this teeming metropolis that never sleeps. We wearily climb the rickety stairs to the ancient elevator that brings us to our home for the next 5 days. Despite the cacophony of sounds outside, we exhaustedly fall into beds, thankful just to rest on our first day in India.
“Cohesion in Chaos”
So said the advertisement posted across from the hotel the next afternoon when we make our way out to the teeming street of the Colaba Causeway that splits this district of South Mumbai. The neurons in our brains couldn’t move quickly enough to decipher the rapidity of the pandemonium. The covered sidewalks are filled with shoppers aggressively bargaining with the vast array of tiny boutique owners for every sort of product imaginable. Clothing, jewelry, electronics and all types of gaudy goodness fill every inch of available space, none with listed prices and all open for aggressive negotiation. Within seconds we were offered marijuana, massage, tours and tailor services.
The impassable walkways force pedestrians to the street where rickshaws, taxis and cart pushers all fight for space. Expensive sedans and rickety jalopies complete the mix, all fighting for territory in the crowded boulevard. Horns sound endlessly creating a symphony of sound that seems to have no point or purpose. As if the devil had financed an orchestra that plays endlessly and only has a few notes, the sound repulses our tired brains and scares us towards the gutters for space. The smells we find there force us back into the madness, more reminiscent of the running of the bulls than a casual tourist stroll.
Our hunger keeps us motivated and luckily we are in the right spot. The Parsi cafes of Colaba are our destination and we are at ground zero for the best of them. These cafes have been in business since the days of the Raj and are always packed with hungry masses. It is said that Hindus thought the corners of the street to be bad luck so the Iranians moved in and brought rapid service and delicious food. Churchill Cafe, Cafe Mondegar and Olympia Coffee House all have their dedicated loyals, but for our first meal, we choose Cafe Leopold. Perhaps the most touristy of all the cafes, we choose it mostly for convenience as it is literally just downstairs from our tiny hotel.
Along with the Taj Palace Hotel, the Leopold was one of the targets for the Pakistani terrorists who brought terror during their attacks 10 years before. Bullet holes still mark the interior as silent reminders of the tragedy. The atmosphere we find today is much more pleasant. Classic wooden chairs and tables tightly packed on tile floors under cranking fans that keep the conversant and smiling customers refreshingly cool. The food is delivered quickly and is absolutely delicious. The flavors are rich and spicy and any difficulties we found outside are quickly and pleasantly replaced with the charming ambiance that fills the cafe.
We spent our days in Mumbai never far from the area of our hotel. We visited many of the Raj era buildings the British built in the vicinity. As the face of England in the western part of the country, they were constructed with a grandiosity that was designed to create a sense of awe as much as for functionality of purpose. Architecturally flamboyant and elaborately decorated, they are grand in an imposingly powerful way certainly meant to impress anyone who thought to question who actually was in control of the sub-continent.
The Prince of Wales Museum and General Post Office are grand buildings built in a fusion style that combined English, Indian and Muslim styles. Victoria Terminus, the UNESCO heritage train station now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, certainly must be one of the most elaborate railway stations ever constructed. Strolling past Watson’s Hotel, University of Mumbai and Rajabai Clock Tower made for a pleasant afternoon. Now all faded glory, they take a bit of imagination and a slight squint to picture what must have been amazing in their time.
A few short blocks away, we braved the throngs of Indian holidaymakers in town to visit the Gateway to India monument and the Taj Palace Hotel. The worn roughness of the Gate was a sharp contrast to the perfectly maintained hotel, easily one of the grand classics found anywhere in Asia. Security was tight everywhere and the lines were long but the beauty we found inside the hotel was worth any effort we put forth.
On our final day, we attempted to avoid the busyness of the city by boarding the colorful ferries that take passengers on the hour-long journey across the harbor to Gharapuri Island and Elephanta Caves. The pleasant coolness of the breezes were a welcome break from the noise and congestion of the city. Seabirds followed the boat, mostly attracted by the variety of snacks thrown from passengers. The city soon faded behind haze and we were greeted by the green lushness of the island.
We passed from the dock through the gauntlet of trinket stalls that line the path up the steep stairs that wind up the hill to the caves. The vibrant colors of women’s saris led the way past monkeys, cows and goats that mixed with the visitors on our way up the challenging stairs. The caves carved into the cliffs at the top of the mountain were impressive and crowded. Carved by Buddhist devotees in the 5th and 7th centuries, the caves have been partially restored from their dilapidated state. The views were beautiful from the top of the hill and made a nice place to collect our thoughts and reflect on the busy days of our first few days in India.
Mumbai proved to be the perfect entryway to our visit to India. What we first found overwhelming was now just exhilarating. What had been exhausting was now invigorating and what appeared chaos took on a sense of cohesion that we couldn’t wait to further explore.
“To the Frozen North”
We made no plans for our travels in India past the first two nights in Mumbai. As much as we enjoyed Mumbai, we knew we had to move on. With the choice of the beauty of the South or grandness of the North, we opted to move upwards on our map. We cowered from the thought of the long train ride from Mumbai to our determined destination of Udaipur. Jet Airways offered flights that compared in price to the long train ride north. We weren’t sure we wanted to miss the sites along the way, but in the end, the convenience air travel won the day.
Met by our taxi driver at the baggage claim, we made our way through the early evening to our hotel. It was difficult to find hotels during this holiday season. We were lucky to find a small hotel right on Lake Pichola, not too far from the towering City Palace that overlooks the lake. Everyone was bundled in jackets, scarves and gloves. We were surprised by the chill but welcomed it after the scalding summer temperatures we found when we visited India in 2004.
India does not have heaters in rooms. The pleasant chill became a frozen frost as the pleasant evening faded to shockingly cold night. The thin panes of glass that separated us from the cool breezes coming from the lake did nothing to insulate us from the 37-degree temperature. Given just a light blanket for warmth we ended up getting redressed in jackets that we luckily had with us.
We were happy when the sun’s warmth met us in the morning. Cold showers shocked us awake, no need for excessive coffee this morning. We enjoyed the convivial nature of the other guests as we gathered for breakfast on the scenic outdoor rooftop. Guests from Oman, Japan and England joined us for simple a simple breakfast of toast, omelettes, pancakes and chai. The nights chill gave way to wispy clouds and bright sunshine. A perfect day for exploring the old town area of this bustling city of 3 million.
The old town is set on a hill that rises above 3 lakes, the most prominent of which is Lake Pichola. The hill is topped by the splendid City Palace, home to the Mewar dynasty since the Princely State times. The lakes most prominent feature is the white marble Lake Palace, now reconfigured into a Taj Hotel, said to be the most romantic in the world.
The narrow streets of the town, more alley than boulevard, wind aimlessly upwards to the Jagdish Temple and City Palace. Days here are spent wandering through these streets, making frequent stops to peek inside the grand, if time worn, Havelis that line the streets. Meals are best in one of the rooftop restaurants that feature fresh air and gorgeous views of the lake and the hills beyond.
The City Palace was swarmed by holidaymakers to the point of gridlock. Fire codes and mass tramplings filled our thoughts as we shuffled our way through the former grandness of the Rajput rulers home. Multiple generations of Maharanas built their own palaces on top of former palaces until the entire complex took on a uniform appearance that is one of the most beautiful in all of Rajasthan.
Our experience was much better in the less restored, but still amazing, Haveli that is adjacent to Gangaur Ghat. We had the entire place to ourselves and found our imaginations easily transported to past times of royal extravagance. A dance show is featured nightly but we were happy to spend our time slowly winding our way through the narrow passageways and cool courtyards that made up the stately palace. The few employees seemed happy to show us the hidden corners and elevated viewpoints that featured rare quiet solitude to enjoy the scenery.
After another frozen night, we moved hotels into the very center of town. With views of the Jagdish Temple outside our window, we found ourselves in the perfect place to observe the non-stop craziness that is the center of town. We enjoyed long meals and short walks through the crowded streets filled with dogs, cows, rickshaws and preparations for New Years celebrations. Fireworks lit the skies nightly from weddings at the Lake Palace or nearby festivals that we heard but didn’t see.
Our room was still cold at night, but ample blankets and thick walls made sleeping comfortable. Our bodies felt rested and our minds had adjusted to the noise and confusion of India. Hot showers refreshed our muscles and clean laundry made our days more comfortable. With no plans set we pondered our further travels. What adventures lay ahead we did not know, but we were excited to see what the next day’s travels would bring.