Friday, November 14, 2008

Travelogue: Mumbai (f.k.a. Bombay), India

To get to Mumbai (which the locals still call Bombay unless they are talking to tourists) we had to cross the Gulf of Kachchh. Yes, it's really spelled like that. Yes, the thought of responding with "gesundheit" crossed my mind too. I couldn't help but wonder if this was foreshadowing what was to come. India is so poor it can't even afford vowels.

Normally when a cruise ship docks in a new country all the immigration paperwork is handled directly by the ship, which keeps all the passengers' passports. But India, of course, had to make things difficult so we were told we had to reclaim our passports and present ourselves personally for an "immigration inspection" in the ship's auditorium. There we saw the couple who didn't have an entry visa and the ship's captain arguing with the immigration officials. The latest rumor was that the officials were being sticklers for protocol. There was, it turned out, a procedure for handling cases like this which involved the issuing of a temporary "group visa" which only allowed transit from the port to the airport. But this required a government escort and so could only be issued for groups of four or more people. There were originally six people in the same predicament, but four of them had decided not to roll the dice and so they got off the boat back in Abu Dhabi, so now there was only this one couple, not enough to qualify. As we left the ship the situation was still unresolved.

We had been told to expect heat, smells, dirt, and poverty, and to be on guard for pickpockets, which made me more than a little apprehensive. The best I can say about Mumbai was that it was not quite as horrible as I was expecting it to be. There were a few places -- but only a few -- where we were not accosted by beggars and street merchants. Elephanta island -- once you got past the gauntlet of beggars and street merchants on the stairs leading to the ancient Hindu temple -- was very impressive. The island is chock-full of monkeys who are more than willing to pose for the tourists from more wildlife-deprived areas of the world. The temple itself is a man-made cave carved out an enormous outcropping of granite. Inside it feels like a building compete with enormous columns holding up the roof and intricately carved statuary, but the whole thing is actually carved out of this single monolithic hunk of rock. Despite having been used for target practice by Portugese explorers (actually, explorers is too kind a term -- barbarians is probably more appropriate) the carvings are in pretty good shape.

But Mumbai itself is a nightmare. The last time I saw poverty like this I was in Peru, and there I saw it only through the window of the air-conditioned van that whisked us away to our five-star hotel (part of the tour package on our way home from Machu Pichu). This time we were there for two days, so we had the time to get out into the city. The conditions are shocking by western standards. We rode the local train to the Dobhi Ghat, the famous outdoor laundry where hundreds of people hand-wash other people's clothes in conditions that would give an OSHA inspector conniptions. (As Wikipedia puts it, "This area is strangely popular with foreign tourists looking for a piece of quintessential Indianness." Indeed.) Even just riding the train was an adventure. The train stops for only ten seconds (I timed it) and we almost got left behind on our return trip when we tried to board at a leisurely Western pace. The doors on the train remain open between stops, so falling out while the train is moving is a very real possibility.

But the train was a relaxing respite compared to driving on the roads. I didn't actually drive. I've driven all over the world, including many countries where they drive on the left, but I would not attempt driving in Mumbai, or anywhere else in India or Africa for that matter. Traffic in this part of the world is beyond insane. I am amazed that there are not more accidents. In six days of driving (or being driven) around we have yet to see a single traffic accident, a fact that borders on the miraculous.

I did a little bit of walking around some Mumbai side-streets where tourists don't normally go, an excursion which, in retrospect, may have been unwise. I learned later that one of our fellow passengers had been the victim of an attempted robbery in a taxicab. But although I got some strange looks, I never actually felt unsafe. Most of the people were indifferent to my presence, and those that weren't were friendly. I got to see a Mumbai fish market, which was shocking to my Western sensibilities. It was about four in the afternoon, and the wares were displayed at room temperature, which at the time was about 95 degrees (with 90% humidity). The smell was about what you'd expect under those conditions. Indians must have immune systems built like tanks.

As we departed Mumbai we learned that the captain had had a private chat with the immigration officials that ultimately resulted in the couple being allowed to go to the airport to catch their flight home. I can't help but wonder what the Indian government is thinking by making it so difficult for Americans to get into the country. I can understand being a little paranoid about immigration when you share a border with Pakistan, but come on folks, this was a sixty-year-old retired American couple on a cruise ship wanting to go to the airport. Was it really necessary to put them through the wringer like that?

Of all the places I have been in the world, India is so far the one I am least eager to return to. (Well, OK, so it's tied with Qatar.) I'm sure the country has much to offer, but the overhead just isn't worth it. There are a zillion places on this planet that will make me feel more welcome. I'll go spend my money there first.


Piyush said...

Well sorry for your bad experience in India. India is not a place where you can go without preparation. We have been living in a closed sort of economy till 1991 and such weird rules still are there.But I still think it was couples mistake. If 4 people dropped off they should have too. Anyway about Mumbai!
I live here and yes it is dirty and stinky. But then I guess India is not about convenience or luxury but rather a showcase that human form can exist without all the protective environment that exists in the west and still thrive. Believe me Mumbai has much more to it than meets the eye.

Ron said...

I'm sure that's true. My reaction to the place is probably more a reflection of me and the Western society that I've grown up in than on Mumbai. And I actually had similar reactions to New York and Los Angeles when I first encountered them, but I have now come to love both of those cities. So maybe Mumbai could grow on me too. But unless Indian immigration lightens up a little I'll probably never have a chance to find out. (Actually now that I've posted this blog entry they'll probably never let me in the country again.)

rabagley said...

I was robbed in Mumbai by a taxicab. We talked to the driver, negotiated the destination and the amount, he drove us to a "home base" where several very large men stood outside the cab and one got inside until I gave them what cash I had ($40 in my show wallet).

That was my welcome to India.

I'm sure there's plenty to like in Mumbai, but I have a very bad taste in my mouth about that part of my trip to India.

stechert said...

Really glad that you seem to have just missed the recent bombings near the Taj Mahal. Be safe and well.

Ron said...

> Really glad that you seem to have just missed the recent bombings near the Taj Mahal. Be safe and well.

Thanks! We're in a bit of shock here. Nancy and I were both standing literally yards away from where these attack took place not two weeks ago. We also (as we later found out) were very close to the Sirius Star when she was taken by Somali pirates a while back. Happily, we are now in the middle of nowhere in Africa so all we have to worry about out here is being eaten by lions.

Sankt Ingen said...

I live in Bombay. What more can I say after reading ?

Chandu said...
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