And so began the final lap of our India trek for Pete, Greg and me. Our companions were to continue, most to Goa, one all the way back to Kathmandu. At least that was the plan, though it did not work out that way as we shall hear.
Our route from the Ellora caves cut cross-country, through a largely verdant landscape, with some outcroppings of the persistent Vidhayana range. The roads increasingly improved after we hit the busy freeway after Nasik, having earlier missed a turn on a detour through a dusty hamlet, once again getting jammed sideways in an alley.
A good part of the route passed through impressive expanses of vineyard, whose wares we were able to sample later in the evening.
Shortly after a lunch-stop at a roadside fast-food joint, we entered the massive flow of traffic towards Mumbai, a city of some 20 million people. The city soon came into view, and eventually we crossed onto the largest of its islands.
Mumbai has a very long history, beginning as fishing villages of the Koli people scattered over seven islands around a deep harbour, surviving through conquest by a series of minor dynasties, eventually part of the Gujarat Empire in the Mughal period, then granted to the Portuguese Empire in 1534.
Sobering to learn that the seven islands were granted by the Portuguese to Charles II of England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Katherine of Braganza; and six years later leased to the East India Company for 10 pounds a year. (Probably worth more than the 24 beads with which the Dutch purchased Manhattan at about the same time.) It later became the Company’s headquarters. Towards the end of the 18th century, in a massive land reclamation project, the seven islands were amalgamated into the current large mass which the city occupies
Though we were now on the outskirts, it took us two hours of steady driving to near the centre, with its dense stacks of housing.
Finally we reached a landmark, the central train station, near the bottom end of the long island on which most of Mumbai sits…
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus, is the headquarters of the Central Railway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in ‘glorious Indo-Saracenic style’.
…and shortly after that, our hotel, even further south, near the very end of the island, in the historic Colaba district…nominally ‘The Supreme Hotel’, though hardly that.
We were pleased to reunite with James, his recovery largely complete, though not helped by his train trip from Udaipur, prostrate on a ceiling-level bunk, compressed further by an even taller fellow traveler.
Once again, Pete and I shared a prison cell up a floor or two. It encouraged getting out to see the sites. Easy to do as we were just off the Shahid Bhagat Singh Road (Colaba Causeway) a main drag, a great location for visiting the heart of the city. Colaba itself is charming, full of life.
After locating sources of vitals (beer, ice cream, etc.) among the surrounding shops, art galleries, restaurants, we got right to it in the nightlife area near the Gateway of India.
We dined rather well at Leopold Café, near the central Regal Circle, of course full of ex-pats. Clare tried one of the wines from the vineyards we had passed, a white. Passable, not to be sought out.
Later we hit a nearby westernish bar for a beer…literally a beer, because the obnoxious manager told us to get lost if we were not ready to order more. I was surprised that the next table was occupied by a gaggle of girls that looked no more than 15.
I think the Booze Brothers sought out a bar or a friend known by Steve from a previous visit, with usual outcome. Not sure what the rest did. With only one night in the city I opted for a Bollywood movie at the historic Regal Cinema.
As expected, a tear-jerking romance, but surprisingly featuring adultery as a central part of the plot. Not enough singing and dancing. The other surprising thing was after about an hour the film stopped and a bizarre message informed us that during this break we were to go to the lobby but were not allowed to leave the cinema, could be searched etc. Actually the ID check and search did not happen and the story resumed after 20 minutes. Further surprise, the bloody thing went on to after 1am so I had to take a metered taxi back to the hotel at about 10x normal rate…
Fortunately, Pete has the habit of sleeping totally covered in blankets, so I don’t think I woke him. In fact it was usually hard to tell if he was still alive under there.
Again, with only one day to see Mumbai I had to focus my effort. Some others went on the slum tour which apparently was a very impressive view of the way the slum residents have organized their own lives to some degree. Some went on the Bollywood studio trip which I believe was disappointing.
Me, I set off to capture as much as I could, starting with the more famous sites.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, scene of one of the horrid terrorist attacks in July 2006. Back in shape. Some of the group enjoyed a fabulous ‘tea’ there, more like a royal brunch. I dallied in a nearby shop, newly opened, that had a marvelous collection of glassware and other decorations.
The Gate of India on the inner harbour, planned for the arrival of King George V in 1911 but not completed until 23 years later. More significantly, as an exit for the last British regiment at India’s independence in 1947.
On the ocean side of Colaba, a landing point for fishermen. Many of them lived in rambling shacks here in the shadow of luxury high-rises.
Central Station lobby, not too busy at mid-morning. In the August 2017 floods, the commuter tracks out of here were filled with water up to and above the level of the platforms. Commuters blandly waited ankle deep in the muddy torrent.
North of the train station, tangled little streets packed with small shops, restaurants, other businesses, topped with residences. Blazing sun of course, around 30 C.
Closeup on the locals. I discovered these apparently random cows are typically owned by local people, often branded with special marks. This one was bound to the lady squatting in front of it.
By chance, looking for some art galleries, I stumbled into the Persian market. It turns out Mumbai is home to the world’s largest surviving Parsis community, Zoroastrians who escaped persecution by Muslims invading Iran in the 10th century. Really lively, full of wonderful fabrics and rock-bottom prices. I got some stuff there.
I did find a few art galleries later, lodged in some upscale buildings. One happened to be hosting a new show by a young artist. I happened to hit it the day after its opening.
On hand, the artisit, a Gupta no less, probably a scion of a prominent family, maybe a descendant of the ancient Gupta Empire in this area…
Charming work, I thought it mindful of the romantic landscapes of the Canadian Group of Seven, which I recommended to Sonu.
Mumbai is a treasure chest of architectural gems, mixing colonial and art deco styles in a range of residential forms…
For lunch I sought out a place recommended by a guidebook (not Lonely Planet, the other one) for Mumbai’s banner dish, Bombay Duck: not actually duck at all, rather a fish dish.
Pradeep Gomantak Bhojnayala Restaurant
It was really hard to find, a small slot in a commercial building, just a few industrial tables with a few laid-back patrons and staff. As I sat down, a young guy across the aisle offered advice. I took it and the bunch of really interesting dishes he recommended, including of course the ‘duck’. It turned out he claimed to be a floor-worker on the NY stock exchange on holiday back home. I had no grounds to challenge his story…we had a fine conversation and I had a fine meal.
Afterwards, back on the architectural tour: a fascinating range of public buildings, largely from the Victorian era, again a mix of colonial and art deco styles.
Prominently, libraries. Apparently members of the Sassoon Library lounge in the afternoon heat on planters’ chairs on the upper balcony. Did not spot them.
Lots of sculpted architectural detail.
It was a relief in the heat to find a spur from the main drag lined with shade.
This one led to the large central park where by chance a major cricket match was underway. Mumbai apparently is one of the least-green major cities in the world. This was not so noticeable because there was a lot of green on the highway coming in, and Colaba, as one of the oldest and wealthier sections of the city, did have more greenery.
Mumbai marked departure for Pete, Greg and I, but the entry for a new group of 6 or so new people, a real mixed bag, some older ladies, a 30ish Scandinavian of some sort, an older guy who was taking my place with Pete until Pete left the next day. My first impressions were underwhelming- but who knows. For sure no match for the peerless clan on the Nepal leg.
Most of us went out for dinner that night, a short distance northwest by tut-tut to a newly opened fish place, quite modern décor. Once again, a great mob of young men, elegantly dressed, ostensibly providing service, but all over the place and yet nowhere, so meals arrived quite haphazardly. I don’t remember what I had but my meal and the others were quite good.
Around 10:30 Greg and I took a cab arranged by James to take us to the airport for 750 rupees, a very modest sum. Traffic was quite light on a sultry night, we arrived well in time for our flights- Greg around 1am, me around 4am. I paid off the driver with a couple of 500 rupee notes, just about the last cash we had, alarming Greg who thought I was too generous. What we did not know was that Prime Minister Modi had that very night declared that 500 and 1000 rupee notes were no longer legal tender, in an attempt to halt India’s undergound economy. If the taxi driver had known that, Greg and I would still be sitting in the Mumbai airport, as charming as it is.
There were a couple of other things Greg and I did not know as we winged west. One was that the India trek for Doug and Mike was to end too, in the near future. Doug’s patience with Mike’s persistent aggressive behaviour and drunkenness finally ended in a punch that floored Mike in the Supreme lobby. I can imagine it, a tubby body splayed on the floor, horror on the older ladies faces, the lethargic Supreme staff suddenly coming to life.
I don’t know the details of Mike’s banishment, after Goa, apparently due to his aggressions against Ian and Marilyn, two people least likely to provoke any aggro.
And I don’t know if that was the last idiosyncratic event on Ali and James’ inaugural Dragoman trip together. Hard to imagine what else could happen…
The other unknown I discovered in Amsterdam. After an uneventful flight from Mumbai I was groggily looking for my connecting flight through Iceland on WOW Air (yes, I do not kid) when I passed a young lady with a mike and TV cameraman who asked “Are you American?”. “No” I answered and scurried on- then turned back thinking she must be interested in responses to the US election, which played out while I was in the air.
“Do you have some news about the election?” I said.
“What!!”, she exclaimed “ you haven’t heard? It’s Trump.”
Staggered, all I could say was “A triumph of evil over good”. I can only imagine how Greg the active Democratic politico thought when he heard the news in Paris…I later offered him asylum in Canada.
We all know how that shocker is turning out.