A weekend in Mumbai – part one

Some quick Wikipedia facts on Mumbai for you:

– Not only is it the most populous city in India, it is the 2nd most populated city in the entire world (it’s topped by Shanghai)

– Its population is estimated at nearly 14 million people as of this year

– Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, is home to approximately 800,000 people and has the highest literacy rate of any slum in India at nearly 70%

– It’s per-capita income is three times India’s national average at Rs. 128,000 (USD 2,910)

– Over 16 major Indian languages are spoken in Mumbai

– According to Lonely Planet, 2.5 million people pass through its main train station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, per day

With all these impressive figures floating around my head, I was expecting Mumbai to be fast moving, crowded and chaotic. We’d thought a weekend would be enough to get a taste of India’s largest city. We followed Lonely Planet’s lead and decided to concentrate our efforts on the Southern most part of ‘Island City’, booking a hotel in the Churchgate neighborhood.

First impressions

As huge as Mumbai is and as short as our stay was, there is clearly so much that we didn’t see, so I feel I need to caveat my impressions. However, based on the time we did spend… Mumbai is just different! While it’s undeniably Indian, it has an international feeling to it that isn’t present in Delhi. The city has a real vibe to it, and its relative affluence is definitely seen and felt.

One of the first differences we noticed even during the cab ride from the airport to our hotel was that there were advertising billboards everywhere. Like, real ones. Massive, professional, commercially slick, all lit up. This is versus the simple hand-painted advertisements on the sides of buildings and shops that are to be seen everywhere in the north. What struck me especially was the number of billboards selling mutual funds and IPOs. Clearly there is disposable income, for some at least, in this city.

Another big difference in south Mumbai from other Indian cities – it’s pedestrian friendly. I loved our stay in Delhi, but did find it frustrating at times how limited my movement was. We had short walks to the local market for our daily coffee fix, but to get anywhere else, a car or rickshaw was necessary. Even in the quiet residential neighborhood we were staying in, the roads were narrow, dirty, potholed and crowded and we were constantly shooed to move onto the dirt piles on the sides of the road (construction was going on everywhere) by honking bikes, rickshaws and cars. In Mumbai, there were actual sidewalks. Wide, clean, spacious sidewalks. We could and did walk everywhere and it felt great! I wonder how much Mumbai had to do to achieve this – we noticed also that both rickshaws (man and gas propelled both) and cows are banned from the city. Amazing too was that after a day of walking around, I was noticeably cleaner than after even a quarter of an hour being out and about – as evidenced clearly by the state of my face wipes at the end of the day! 😉

For all these signs of a healthy city, it felt like there were a lot more homeless beggars on the streets. Although the amount of ground we covered on foot may have meant that we had more opportunity to witness this than in other cities we’ve been to.

Things to love

After those initial impressions, what I noticed and just loved about the city was its incredible architecture and beautiful flora.

Mumbai is remarkable in India for its modern, urban skyline – it’s home to India’s 43 tallest buildings. But it is also known for its colonial era Victorian and Gothic architecture which was just gorgeous. Because of this, it’s the place in India that for me where I have most felt the influence of the British reign. There were so many beautiful sites but what I loved the most was the High Court building. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me when we went to look at it!

It’s also a city just full of trees. There are lots of palms, but what I couldn’t get enough of was the massive, gnarled, gorgeous banyans that were absolutely everywhere.

Beautiful buildings
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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus) was incredible; it looked more like a church than a transportation hub.
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Inside the station
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One of many animals carved on the outside of the station
My Banyan obsession
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Banyans can grow to be massive! This one was nearly wide as the car parked in front of it
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Banyan and a black Mumbaikar cab
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For reasons unbeknownst to me, the base of many trees in Mumbai are painted in white and brick-colored paint
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I love how the trees in India aren’t just for looking at. Often small shops or roadside businesses are set up under trees
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This banyan is doubling as someone’s tie rack
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Ganesh in a banyan
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