A weekend in Mumbai – part two

We spent most of our time in Mumbai on foot strolling around the neighborhoods of Churchgate, Fort and Colaba.

The Gateway of India was photogenic but not as eye-catching as the gaudy metallic horse-drawn carriages that were picking up tourists on the street leading to it. The carriages were especially impressive (i.e. tacky!) when lit up – imagine flashing fairy lights in five different colors. Quite a sight, but sad as well – the horses all looked so underfed and overworked.

We passed a lovely hour hanging out in the simple but good-sized park in front of the High Court called Oval Maidan, where there were probably about 25 cricket games of varying seriousness and skill being played simultaneously. Great fun to watch, although the game still confuses the heck out of me! Also neat were the bells from the court’s clock tower announcing the quarter hours – a sound we haven’t heard since we’ve left Switzerland.

We’d seen street cricket in Delhi and Varanasi, and I’d witnessed a couple of determined joggers amongst all the picnickers and people strolling in Delhi’s Lodi Park. So it made a change to see so much sport going on in Mumbai. We had a view of Marine Drive from our ‘penthouse’ terrace and I could see folks jogging along the water in the early morning. When we took our own constitutional further up the drive, after visiting Chowpatty Beach, I was happy to see that some of the joggers were even women in form-fitting workout clothes none-the-less! Mumbai definitely is different.

Chowpatty Beach was fun to visit. It was sun-drenched, full of people and colorful. After having read in Lonely Planet that the water of Back Bay is toxic, I was impressed to see some Indian people enjoying the surf – albeit just at the water’s edge; no one was swimming or in deeper than waist level.

It was also funny to see the place for myself after having read the novel Shantaram (which takes place mostly in Mumbai), comparing what the mind has conjured up versus reality. Of course the picture in my head was completely different. We also popped our heads into Leopold’s bar, which was the Shantaram cast’s main hangout. Also completely different from how I had imagined. 🙂 We didn’t stay for a drink though as it was absolutely packed and I was desperate for dinner at that point. 😉

Other Mumbai bits and pieces

-Bat watching from our hotel roof at night. There were a few absolutely massive bats (we think fruit bats) that staked out the long avenue below our hotel every night. The biggest one was around the size of a small cat with a correspondingly impressive wingspan. Incredible to see them gliding above the cars.

-I got a real kick out of the street vendors handling in massive, neon-colored balloons. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera on me when we saw them. The balloons were similar in shape to a butternut squash and probably about four feet tall. As the hawkers said, “Big balloon!”

-I also didn’t have my camera to be able to take shots of the banyan trees at night. I an’t do it justice with words but they were beautifully eerie in the dark with their vines backlit by street lamps.

Mumbai pics

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Neighborhood in the Fort area of Mumbai; black and yellow cabs

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View from inside a black and yellow cab

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Cab detail

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On Marine Drive

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Chowpatty Beach and Mumbai skyline

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Chowpatty colors

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The shore and sky line along Marine Drive

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If you need balloons, you can call this guy

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Spiral staircase behind our hotel

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Mickey welcomes you to the office on our hotel’s first floor

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Accommodation, transport and food notes: Mumbai and Goa

We weren’t sure until the end how long we’d be staying in Delhi, so by the time we were ready to make reservations for hotels for Mumbai and Goa, the places we picked from Lonely Planet were all booked out. After a good deal of internet research (thank you Roman! :-)) we managed to book what turned out to be two gems – although at gemstone prices compared to what we’ve been paying.

Lonely Planet had warned that both locations tend to be pricier than the rest of India, and booking so late in the game during the holiday season also means we were paying top dollar. We’ve also had a tough time with train transport – most of the trains we’ve tried to book have also been completely. Luckily we can afford both plane tickets and to be flexible in our planning, so we were able to sort out a route in the end. However, if you’re ever planning to travel in India in December, I’d recommend booking ahead.

Accommodation

Chateau Windsor in Mumbai (Rs. 5,000 / USD 110 per night)

It’s not nearly as posh as the name might imply, but Chateau Windsor had two things going for it.

Number one: The service was just great. Everyone on the large staff was SO friendly and helpful – without being overwhelmingly so. They were always smiling and there when you needed them, but didn’t hover, which was the case at some of the upscale places I’d stayed at during the group trip. Really excellent service.

Number two: I’m not sure what the standard rooms are like. We ended up at some place different – room 526. It looked nothing like what is shown on the website. It was relatively clean and quirky – funky color scheme and the room was made to feel bigger by the inclusion of two massive mirrors on the walls (one of which I am convinced was a two-way mirror. Needless to say I kept on my best behavior in the room, just in case! ;-)).

But what was great about it was the fact that it was the only room on the roof – our own little penthouse! The hotel’s roof is massive, and there is a beautiful garden of potted plants complete with tables and chairs that was our very own private rooftop terrace.

The rest of the building was quirky-charming too, with the reception on the fifth floor reminiscent of the office at my high school and one of those old-fashioned open-cage elevators complete with elevator operator (also more quirky than posh).

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The room – check out the massive mirror to the left!

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Our private rooftop garden!

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View from the roof

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The crows that joined us for breakfast on our rooftop terrace

Ciaran’s in Palolem, Goa (Rs. 3,600 / USD 79 per night)

We really lucked out with this place. To quote Lonely Planet, ‘Most of Palolem’s accommodation is of the simple beach-hut variety, with little to distinguish where one outfit stops and next door’s begins.’

While the different hotels were literally back-to-back along the entire coast, I do think we were at possibly the nicest one on beach. Ciaran’s grounds were just beautiful and its bar and restaurant with paper star-shaped lamps were lovely. We heard a lot of club music, house and techno, coming from other spots as we went on our after-dinner beach strolls. Happily for me, Ciaran’s sountrack was much more chilled out – perfect to suit my mood – playing artists like Zero-7 and Nora Jones and tracks right out of my own yoga classes.

Our beach hut was perfectly atmospheric. It was a simple structure (thin walls made of natural fibers meant that you could hear everything outside like it was right there, which was less than optimal when someone in the hut next to us was throwing up at 2 in the morning, but mostly great as the crashing surf was just lovely to fall asleep to at night) and clean enough. I’ve come to understand and accept that stained sheets are just par for the course in India. 😉 I know it’s purely psychological, but being out in the middle of nature though, the dirt in the beach hut somehow seemed more fitting than in hotels in the city. 🙂 The room was also very cleverly decorated, with low, warm lighting (a wonderful change from all the unforgiving fluorescent eco-bulbs at most hotels) and black stone floors and bath towels, all of which hid a multitude of cleanliness sins, no doubt. 😉

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Inside the beach hut

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View from the beach hut’s roof terrace

Food

Eating in Mumbai and Goa has been such a treat. For the foodies out there I just have to share. Yes, I realize I am obsessed. 😉

We were so happy at Ciaran’s in Goa that we didn’t bother eating anywhere else. We went seafood crazy. Highlights included the Goan prawn curry and freshly caught barbecued red snapper. Delish!

In Mumbai, we stuck to all Lonely Planet recommendations, and were not disappointed. We did take a bit of break from Indian cookery though and indulged in some of the international fare on offer in the city.

Mocha Bar, right down the street from our hotel, became our regular stop for decent coffee (although Barista’s espresso still cannot be beat as far as Roman, the resident expert, is concerned. :-)). You can smoke hookah pipes indoors, but we stuck to the breezy, open, street-side room which, with it’s cute, mismatched second hand furniture and good taste in music was a lovely place to start to our day. We ate lunch there during one of our visits, and the cottage cheese (think paneer, not health food), veggie and pesto Panini was so good that it honestly made my entire day. 🙂

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The breezy front room

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The Panini of my dreams on the left. The hummus and tsatziki platter was good too

Lonely Planet recommends Trishna as quite possibly the best seafood in Mumbai. We had nothing to compare it to of course, but the king crab I had with butter, pepper and (above all, tons and tons of) garlic sauce was melt-in-your-mouth divine. A totally decadent treat. Roman tried the dish Bombay duck, which actually a deep-fried white fish – good but not as exciting as my king crab in my opinion. 🙂 The restaurant itself felt a bit touristy, but was nice enough.

Honestly it felt like we could have been in Manhattan when we went to dinner at Baslilico. It’s in a cute, quiet neighborhood in Colaba. The restaurant looks and feels understated-chic with cute red fairy lights on the tree outside and a simple but elegant décor inside with chill, low lighting. The salad starters were simple but tasty and the design-your-own pasta we ordered was just great (they had set pasta dishes as well, but it was nice to customize the ingredients. My spaghetti with veggies and pesto was exactly what I was craving). Only my dessert was a disappointment – Oreo cheesecake that tasted neither like Oreos nor cheesecake. But their dessert was worth gambling on  – Roman’s chocolate walnut cake with vanilla ice cream was blow-your-mind amazing.

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Chocolate walnut divinity

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