One of my reasons for visiting India was that I wanted to experience a totally different culture from the UK. Even so, arriving in Mumbai was more of a culture shock than I was expecting. The scenes from the taxi ride through the city and past the slums at the break of dawn were disturbing. The traffic was chaotic and scary and I clung on for dear life as large trucks cut into the traffic and swerved towards us while buzzing rickshaws swarmed around us taking up every available space. The traffic frequently ground to a halt and left us at the mercy of hawkers and beggars who worked the traffic jams.
Vast sections of Mumbai seemed to be crumbling down or fabricated from corrugated sheet metal and blue tarpaulin. Everywhere you looked were people, rubbish and makeshift houses. It seemed like people were crawling out from under dark bridges and narrow alleyways. Occasionally we would ride high up on a flyover and would glimpse modern high rises in the distance through the haze. The stark contrast to the slums below was unnerving.
Before arriving I had done plenty of research. I was expecting it to be poor, dirty, hot, smelly, dusty and crowded. It was all of these things but with more intensity than I had expected, India is not somewhere you go to ‘see’ it’s an physical, emotional and mental experience that nothing could have prepared me for as India constantly challenges, contradicts and bombards all your senses. Everywhere you look you see something that shocks and surprises. I found seeing so much poverty really difficult to deal with and battled with feelings of guilt, sadness and helplessness.
Surprisingly we made it to central Mumbai in one piece and refreshed ourselves by discovering delicious, creamy mango lassis. We excitedly, but cautiously, headed out to explore the grand, crumbling colonial architecture of Fort and Colaba and to get our first feel for India. These colonial buildings looked impressive and majestic, especially compared to the haphazard quality of the other buildings, and gave an insight into the British Raj’s ambitions for the ‘jewel in its empire.’ Some of the buildings are now crumbling, jungley trees wind their snake like branches round walls and wrap them in their clasp as if nature is taking back the old buildings giving them a wonderful magical quality.
The jewel of the architecture crown is the main train station – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly called Victoria Terminus). This is a UNESCO world heritage site and the busiest train station in Asia. CST is the city’s most extravagant gothic building with influences of British Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles that blend seamlessly together. A few days later this beautiful building would be a fine starting point for our extensive traveling on the Indian railway network.
Crossing the road traffic seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any road lanes or rules. We stared in disbelief as traffic and pedestrians ebbed and flowed in a seemingly constant state of near misses. The majority of the traffic consisted of 1960′s style ‘premier padmini’ distinctive black and yellow cabs and double decker red buses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1940′s London.
Walking through the crumbled streets of Colaba eventually brings you to The Gateway Of India which is a grand colonial arch built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V. It was completed in 1924 and ironically was used just 24 years later to parade off the last British regiment as India gained independence. The impressive structure is complemented by the elaborate and iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. However I thought that the iconic scene is somewhat spoilt by a new, imposing tower block; perhaps there as a sign of the might of the new, modern, independent India over old colonial landmarks similar to the way nature is being allowed to reclaim old colonial buildings?
Just walking down the street was a challenge. Whilst trying to avoid getting run over, we got a lot of attention, people staring at us, taking photos, begging for money, trying to sell all sorts of things and numerous requests of “where are you going”, “what country are you from” and “are you married.” The hassle intensified around the Gateway of India. It was surrounded by families, tourists and hawkers and a great place to do some people watching if you could get any peace. We had constant requests to see a magic show, offered “all india maps” that had marijuana inside, massive pear shaped balloons, toys, postcards, bracelets, ice creams, boat trips and all sorts of other weird useless tat that no one would ever need. We also got chased down the street by a man carrying a snake in a wicker basket with constant crys of “you want to see a snake!”
Later we were sat in the buzzing, bohemian atmosphere of Cafe Universal near our hotel unwinding with a much needed drink. We heard drums pounding and massive commotion outside. People started running outside to look and we were astounded as a colourful, noisy carnival like procession of horse and ox carts lit up with flashing lights of every colour drove past. Music was blaring out and people thronged down the street dancing, shouting, singing, playing instruments and trying to get us to join in the dance and procession. Amazing!
My first day in India was completely overwhelming, crazy and magical! India is a fascinating country so rich in culture and colour that can shock, inspire and infuriate at the same time but never fails to captivate. There’s no doubt that it can be challenging for a western traveler but despite the initial culture shock I grew to love the city of Mumbai because amongst the slums, the grand colonial architecture, the new high rises, along the congested roads and overcrowded railways is a city bursting, not just with people, but with the exciting mixture of energy, drive, ambition and aspiration of modern India.
India has a way of getting under your skin and I can’t wait to return.