It was with a great deal of excitement that we landed in Mumbai. We were looking forward to reuniting with our new friends Delna and Kersey, whom we'd met at Sloth Bear Resort in Hampi.
We were delighted as we walked out of the arrivals hall to see Delna's smiling face as she waved us over and introduced us to her driver, Babloo. During the drive to her apartment, we caught each other up on what we'd been doing since leaving Hampi, and Delna filled us in on Mumbai and the changes they've seen over the years, as well as some of the interesting landmarks we were passing by.
Side note: virtually everyone we've met in India refers to Mumbai as Bombay, and since they live here, they probably know what they're talking about. However due to old habits dying hard, and in the interests of clarity and consistency, I'm going to continue to refer to it as Mumbai. As far as we can tell, it doesn't seem to matter what you call it (ie there's no ill feeling necessarily toward either name), so fingers crossed we're not offending anyone here...
Our trip began with a drive across Bandra-Worli Sealink Bridge, a 5.6km cable-stayed bridge. It was a pretty eye catching entrance to South Mumbai. We carried on along the waterfront, which would have looked perfectly at home in New Zealand, before driving up what is reportedly one of the nicest streets in Mumbai, containing the most expensive private residence in the world. Antilla, a 27-storey, 400,000 square foot skyscraper is valued at upwards of $1 billion USD. Owned by an Indian business tycoon and multibillionaire, the property contains a parking garage for 168 cars, a ballroom, three helipads, gardens, a temple, guest suites, and a home theatre that seats 50. The owner lives there with his wife and three children.
Soon after, we arrived at Delna and Kersey's apartment. We were delighted to find that Delna's hosuekeeper Rekha (who we would meet the following morning) had left us a welcome message at the door. Delna and Kersey showed us to our room, before we sat catching up on the enclosed balcony, having some snacks and drinking coffee.
Delna and Kersey grew up in Mumbai, but no longer live here full time - they split their time between the US and India. During our stay, they both told us stories about growing up in Mumbai, and how beautiful and idyllic it was. These days, it seems to be a hive of construction and 'progress', which is certainly met with mixed feelings by its residents. From their apartment, you used to be able to see all the way to the water. Now, high rises block the view. Soon, after the completion of a new apartment block right next door, they'll be lucky if they can see anything other than their neighbours' kitchens.
As the evening wore on, we headed up to the rooftop to watch the sun go down over the city. The night air was warm, and the orange light from the sunset made the whole city glow. Our fabulous surroundings, combined with the warmth and generosity of Delna and Kersey made us feel like we were in a home away from home.
Once the sun disappeared, we retreated back to the apartment and enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal prepared for us by Rekha. We crawled into bed late, happy but exhausted, and looking forward to what the rest of our time in Mumbai would bring.
Early starts with the locals at the racecourse
The next morning we were up early. Kersey was going to play tennis, so Delna decided that it would be fun for us to go to Mahalaxmi Racecourse to go for a walk before meeting Kersey for breakfast. As we entered the racecourse, we began to get the sense that Delna was something of a local 'celebrity' - it seemed she knew everyone, and we stopped every few feet to greet someone. Given how she 'adopted' us, it's easy to see how Delna has a huge network of friends.
The racecourse is open to the public at specified times for exercise, and it was absolutely heaving. We couldn't believe the number of locals out walking around the track so early in the morning. Delna pointed out that if you want to exercise in Mumbai, you have to do it early, before the sun catches up with you. As we wandered in, there were still plenty of horses around. Trainee jockeys and trainers were working with the horses, and we got to see some people practicing polo and jousting. After completing a lap of the track and going down to the stables to see where the racehorses are housed, we headed to the Willingdon Sports Club to meet Kersey for breakfast.
The Royal Willingdon Sports Club
Delna and Kersey are members of the exclusive Royal Willingdon Sports Club in South Mumbai, and we were lucky enough to be able to join them there for breakfast. The club was founded in 1918 by Lord Willingdon, the Governor of Bombay, as a place where both Indians and Europeans were able to be members.
We began with breakfast by the pool, before Delna took us on a tour of the grounds. It contains the only private golf course in the city (there is one other, but it is military only), and boasts tennis courts, squash and badminton courts, a swimming pool and gym, a library, a plant nursery, a mini grocery store, and a myriad of restaurants and cafes. The beautiful landscapes grounds were a peaceful oasis of calm, and we enjoyed a quick cup of coffee on the verandah before heading home to continue on with our day.
In and around Colaba
After a quick Facetime to wish our niece Emmy a happy 8th birthday, we were back in the car with tour guide Delna, who had planned out a bit of sightseeing for us.
Tarq Art Gallery
Our first stop was Tarq Art Gallery to see an exhibition by Youdhisthir Maharajan. The show was incredible, filled with pages of books that had been completely transformed by paint, pen, and knives.
The Gateway of India
Our next stop was more of a tourist staple - the Gateway of India. This huge arch was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, although it wasn't completed until 1924. 24 years later, once India had regained independence, the last British troops to leave India marched back out through the gateway during a ceremony to signal the end of British rule in India.
The Gateway is a large arch, 26m high built of yellow basalt and concrete, built in the Indo-Saracenic style. The central dome is about 48 feet (14m) in diameter. The Gateway contains 4 turrets with intricate latticework.
The area around the Gateway is bustling, filled with tourists, locals and touts alike. Since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks (more on that in a minute), access has been limited. To enter the area you now pass through a gate with metal detectors and security guards.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
Directly across the road from the Gateway is the stunning Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Opened in 1903, the story goes that a wealthy Indian businessman, Jamesetji Tata, was refused accommodations in the grand Watson's Hotel, as it was 'whites only'. To exact his revenge, he decided to build a hotel even more grand and beautiful than Watson's. He enlisted the help of Indian architects Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya and D N Mirza, and English engineer W A Chambers.
Another legend associated with the hotel is that it was built backwards. Inside is a magnificent floating staircase, which provides access from the pool area to the upstairs rooms. Apparently the architects designed it so that the staircase went from the main entrance to the rooms, but the powers that be decided to build it the other way around so that all the guest rooms had sea views.
In November 2008, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was one of the main sites of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. 10 members of a terrorist organisation carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks across the city over the course of 4 days. 164 people were killed, and at least 308 injured.
Six explosions were reported at the hotel - one in the lobby, two in the elevators and three in the restaurant. Chosen because it was considered a 'symbol of Indian wealth and progress', gunmen took hostages in the hotel before being killed at the end of a 3-day standoff. 31 people were killed in the hotel during the attacks, and extensive damage was done to the heritage section. While undamaged parts of the hotel were reopened in December 2008, repairs weren't complete until August 2010.
Understandably, entrance to the hotel has changed drastically since 2008. There are now metal detectors and x ray scanners for bags, and the underside of cars are checked with mirrors before being allowed to pull up outside the main entrance. None of this however detracts from the absolute charm of the inside of the hotel.
With 500 rooms and 44 suites, the hotel is enormous. The lower floors contains shops and restaurants, and feels a million miles away from the outside world.
We walked through the halls until we reached the swimming pool area, and climbed the floting staircase to check out the higher floors. You're not able to go up onto the floors with the rooms, but there is a cafe serving high tea for a cool $70NZDpp. Mind you when rooms go for upwards of $650/night, I guess that's a bargain!
After soaking in all the luxury we could handle, we headed back to the apartment for some lunch and a quiet afternoon.
Cricket Club of India
That evening, we headed out to meet up with some of Delna and Kersey's friends at CCI, the Cricket Club of India. Similar to the Willingdon, membership at the CCI is an exclusive thing, and highly sought after, so it was pretty cool to get to see the inside. We arrived and met up with a group of people that included Delna and Kersey's son's business partner and their friends. They were a great bunch, who were all incredibly friendly and welcoming, and full of helpful tips for the rest of our time in India. We enjoyed some snacks and drinks on the lawn, and chatted with everyone for a couple of hours. In a nice little twist, it turned out that Ash (the business partner) has a side passion for animal advocacy, and was in the process of working to set up some animal-based charities, including one re-homing exploited elephants. This led to the whole group having discussions about animals and pets, and for the first time ever, when we took out our phone to show people a photo of Millau (our cat), everyone ACTUALLY wanted to see it. It was a really fun night with an amazing group of people - they all said that we should get in touch if we're ever back in Mumbai when Delna and Kersey aren't there, or if we need any help with anything. As much as I'd love to believe that they were saying that because we're awesome, I know that it's all down to that good old fashioned Indian hospitality we can't stop talking about.
We headed home for yet another delicious Rekha-cooked meal, before hitting the hay after a busy first day in Mumbai.
A Mumbai shopping spree
Food, glorious food
Our second day in Mumbai was no less action packed! We started with a quick stop off at a local shop, where Delna introduced us to the incredible world of Indian snacks! It was awesome having Delna to guide us - we'd often walked past these places and wanted to go in, but had no idea where to start! With pre-packed bags and bulk bins, as well as cabinets filled with sweet treats, the shop was filled to the brim with tasty treats. After sampling a few delights, we left with a grocery bag full of goodies, including 2 boxes of our new favourite sweet treats, mithai and peda.
Some rare souvenirs
From there, we headed a few doors down in search of some metal bowls for serving curry. Since we've been in India, we've fallen in love with the awesome bowls we've been served food in, and we wanted some as a souvenir. Although we don't normally buy much in the way of souvenirs, other than prints or art, we made an exception knowing that we'd need to send them home. The kitchen shop was bustling, and again, thank god for Delna. Within minutes of walking in the door, she'd found exactly what we were looking for, found out that the had the number we wanted, bargained them down, and arranged to have them packed for shipping and delivered to the apartment later that day. She even managed to get the shop owner to call to find out the price of shipping. This woman gets shit done! And after all of that, the shop owner even gave us little Ganesha statues for good luck. Amazing!
Architectural and culinary delights
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus
With our bowl mission completed, we jumped back in the car with Babloo and headed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus), the main train station in Mumbai. Completed in 1887, this UNESCO world heritage site is absolutely stunning, built in high Victorian gothic style. It contains 18 platforms, and it is estimated that more than 3 MILLION commuters pass through the station every day.
Again, this was one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks. Here, two attackers opened fire with AK-47s and grenades, killing 58 and injuring 104. This was considered one of the most hard hitting sites of the attacks - while many of the other sites were high end hotels or restaurants targeting foreigners, the station is so much a vital part of the functioning of Mumbai that to attack it really is to attack the heart of Mumbai.
Mumbai General Post Office
From there, it was a short walk around the corner to the Mumbai General Post Office. Designed by British architect John Begg, the Indo-Saracenic structure handles most of Mumbai's inbound and outbound mail and packages.
By this time, the morning had flown by, and it was time to meet Kersey and his sister for lunch at a nearby cafe, Nutcracker. Normally, Nutcracker doesn't take bookings, but of course, Delna had managed to secure us one. What followed was a delicious feast that have put plenty of Auckland cafes to shame.
Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue
After lunch, Kersey joined us as we meandered the area, Kala Ghoda. As it so happened, as we walked to our next stop, we passed Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. Although currently being refurbished, the guard kindly let us in to the striking blue building to have a look. Downstairs, we were shown into a small side room that was being used as a makeshift shule while the main area is being upgraded. We were then shown upstairs so we could see the main area. Even though there was a lot of construction and scaffolding, it was clear that it was a stunning synagogue, and that it would be beautiful when complete.
Across the road, we wandered through Artisan's Art Gallery and Shop, a stunning shop selling fabric, clothing and handicrafts. The shop was really funky and full of all the stunning colours and designs you instinctively associate with India, and left me feeling very sad about the small size of my bag (and bank account).
Delhi Art Gallery (DAG)
From there, we headed to DAG (Delhi Art Gallery), to check out the art of Natvar Bhavsar, an Indian artist based in the US who uses powdered pigment on canvas and the movement of his body to create huge, eye catching pieces that made us think of nebulae.
By this time, we were all pretty pooped, and agreed it was time to head home for a rest. But Delna had one last surprise up her sleeve! She whisked us off to one of her favourite shops to buy kurtis/kurtas - Indian-style tops. My white tee shirt has nearly given up the ghost completely, so I was after a replacement, and even Zev got in on the fun. Soon, we were bothing walking out with our new shirts!
Dinner at the Willingdon
That night, we met another of Delna and Kersey's friends. This time, it was Chandrahas Choudhury, a writer who has just published his second book. We had a very entertaining and enjoyable dinner at the Willingdon, and again, he extended the kind offer of meeting us for dinner if the timing works when we're in Delhi, where he's based. Since dinner, I've done my best to get a copy of his book (which is set in Mumbai), but can't find a digital copy. Once I'm home though, I'm really looking forward to reading it!
On our final day in the company of Delna and Kersey, we were again graciously invited along to meet another of their friends, this time an artist named Viveek Sharma. In addition to being an incredible artist, Viveek was an incredible host, serving us lunch and making us chai, and assuring us that we were to be his guests in Mumbai should we ever find ourselves there when Delna and Kersey were out of town.
After eating and drinking our fill, he took us on a tour of his house and studio, showed us a painting that he is currently working on, and even unwrapped some completed paintings that have been shown in his past exhibitions. The physical size of the paintings was incredible (some canvases were up to 2m tall), but they detail in his hyperrealist style is something else altogether. As we were leaving, he even started up his 1970s Royal Enfield, originally owned by his Dad. He also has a twin brother who is a Bollywood actor, and has appeared in some Bollywood films himself!
Our morning with Viveek ended up lasting longer than a morning, such is his engaging and welcoming persona. After a stop off back to Delna and Kersey's to gather our things, we waved a sad goodbye to our new friends, and Babloo dropped us off at our next accommodation, near the main train station.
Now - I have not consistently mentioned the kindness and generosity of all the people we've met through Delna and Kersey for no reason. I firmly believe that the courtesy extended to us by their friends is a direct reflection of the esteem that their friends hold them in. People are kind to us because anyone who is a friend of Delna and Kersey's is a friend of theirs. And now, feeling like we can truly call ourselves their friends, we feel exactly the same way. So to Delna and Kersey - thank you. Our time in Mumbai, indeed our time in India, would not have been the same had we not met you. Thank you for everything you have done for us - housing us, feeding us, including us in your activities - we can only hope to be able to repay the favour to you, and indeed to any of your friends, should they find themselves in New Zealand! We look forward to seeing you both in the US in the not-too-distant future!
Days without Delna
Our first Delna-free day was a far less social affair. After stopping at DHL to post our new bowls home (for a small fortune, but the peace of mind of knowing that they would actually arrive), we set off on a walking tour of the local area to take in some of the nearby sights.
We started at Horniman Circle, a large 'roundabout' containing a park and botanic garden. On the edge of the circle was the Asiatic Society, which also housed the public library.
From there, we checked out nearby St Thomas Cathedral, before finding Flora Fountain sadly under restoration (something that we've become used to in our travels - we have terrible luck).
A quick detour a couple of blocks over took us past the High Court, University of Mumbai, Rajabai Clock Tower and Oval Maidan.
Next we checked out Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room.
We found ourselves back in Kala Ghoda, so popped in to check out Jehangir Art Gallery, and then continued down the road to spend an hour or so wandering the spectacular Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum).
By this time, it was mid-afternoon and our energy levels were waning. We stopped for some lunch, followed by ice cream sandwiches, then headed back to the hostel for a little rest.
Later in the evening, we headed out to a board game cafe to pass some time, and then walked back up to the train station to see it all lit up. Across the road, Zev tried his first Vada Pav, a local Mumbai street food delicacy of deep fried potato in a bun. I've never seen anyone look so happy.
A day of trains
Our train to Aurangabad the following day left from Dadar, a local station further out of the city centre. To get there, our hostel owner suggested that we just jump on a local train, as it was only 2 stops away.
We walked up to the train station, and felt very pleased with ourselves for figuring out how to buy tickets, and even getting on the right train. We were smiling and taking selfies as the train departed, enjoying the breeze coming through the open doors. The train seating was full, but we were happy to stand for such a short journey.
At the next stop, more people got on, and the train was suddenly rather crowded. We were pretty happy that we were getting off at the following stop, because it was clear this train was going to get busy.
As we slowed down to pull into the nest station,we came to realisation that this was not going to go smoothly. We made our way towards the door, and before the train had even stopped, people were jumping on. One of the men on the train and a couple of guys on the platform were trying to help us get off by appealing to others to give us space, but they were having none of it. It became apparent that this was a situation we were going to have to fight our way out of.
I pushed my way off the train with as much force as I could, using every part of my body and bags as a weapon. At one point, I saw a man go down, but I wasn't able to stop and check if he was okay lest I be swallowed by the crowd and end up back on the train. Besides, I doubt he would have extended me the same courtesy.
When I finally broke through the other side, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Zev was still behind me. We laughed nervously, pleased to have survived what was by far the most harrowing ordeal of our trip so far - getting off the train in Mumbai.
We didn't have long to wait at Dadar before our next train turned up. Luckily, we had booked seats, because the train was packed. Apparently there was a Muslim festival on in Aurangabad that only happens once every 7 years.
After a fairly uneventful train ride, we pulled into Aurangabad, looking forward to exploring Ellora and Ajanta Caves.
Lots of love,
S & Z