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India 2017 part 1: Mumbai

June 3, 2017

Many years ago now, I met Sahitya.  Her husband, in the Indian Navy, was building ships here in the local shipyard.  We all spent some good times together before their hitch was up and the Navy called them home.  From that point, See India has been on my FrogHops Travel list.

Only a few years ago, a sanctuary called Wildlife S.O.S. in Agra, India crossed my stream.  I began to follow them, support them, and become enthralled with the rescue and rehabilitation work they do.  So, when the travel stars aligned for us to visit Sahitya and Vasu (and their no-longer-at-all little boy Adi, also the gorgeous canine addition to the family, Luca), I couldn’t miss visiting WSOS as well.  They like volunteers, suggesting a week’s stay.  But what if that wouldn’t be enough?  It’s not a difficult nor expensive trip to Delhi, but still, while I’m already there. . .  I signed on for two weeks.

Then, as India has a reputation for being advanced travel, we decided just to book a tour of the northern highlights, have someone else making arrangements, setting timetables, and acquiring all the necessary bits of paper to see the sights.

A nice posh landing in Mumbai (which locals still often refer to as Bombay, out of habit), being toured and fed with friendly local knowledge, then stepping a bit more into the grit while being schlepped around by a guide, and finally moving out of the air conditioning entirely and on to hard ~but deeply satisfying~ labor would be the evolution of our itinerary.  Well, ours up to the days of 40°C, no air con.  At this point, the man would return home and get back to work.  Not that he wouldn’t have loved to be scrubbing elephants by my side, but someone has to pay for it all.  And he really enjoyed telling people, “I took my wife to India. . . and left her there.”

So, with our English blood still carrying a politically incorrect fascination with pith helmets, gin & tonic, and the Raj, we decided to splash out for our first visit to the Subcontinent by staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai.  Posh landing, indeed.  Our room was in the historical part of the hotel, not the modern tower addition, so we were special, being allowed up the beautiful staircase.  And there was a lounge, just for us, not even for our guests, where there was tea, coffee, and nibbles freely available, and special occasions involving cocktails, high tea, and evening chocolate.  The lounge was decorated . . . straight out of The Bombay Company, the mid-range reproduction furniture store in the mall of my childhood.  It was a curious experience to be there, in Bombay in 2017, admiring the furniture which was styled by the Raj to outfit colonial homes, with obsequious staff standing by ready to serve.

 

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If only my bag had arrived with us.  They had 8 hours in Heathrow to make the connection: fail.  Now, after multiple misconnections last spring under the inept ministrations of British Airways, I am quite cross with them.  Apparently, the knuckle-dragging baggage handlers had managed to lose the giant sticky tag that always requires such effort to remove in the end.  Upon landing in Mumbai, Craig received the cryptic text message “We have your bag” and a string of numbers.  It looked like a ransom note, without any details.  At the last minute while checking in, I had borrowed his spare ID tag for my backpack.  Never again will I let that little detail slide.  We showed that text to a Customer Service agent, who made sense of the numbers, called LHR, connected that lost bag to me, and told them to send it onward.  If it didn’t catch the flight leaving presently, it would make the next one and be here in 24 hours.  3 days later. . . pack arrived by bell-hop to our room.  With hardly an apology, British Airways finally fulfilled their commitment to carry me and one bag through a two-leg itinerary.  It doesn’t bear consideration what a complicated itinerary or onward journey even 2 days later would have meant.

It was hot.  I had one outfit, hiking boots, and my sense of humor was rumpled.  Dear local friend to the rescue!  She loaned me flip flops, a skirt, and a blouse.  And took me shopping.  I had intended to acquire for myself a kurta or two anyway.  These are the long tunics with high side slits that nearly all Indian girls wear with leggings… all the time… when it’s 38°C (100°F).  It was becoming distressingly clear that unless I wanted to look like a hussy, my cool and breezy short-ish skirt was going to sink to the bottom of my pack and stay there.  The two pairs of loose rayon trousers with close ankles, sort of but not exactly harem pants, were put into continuous rotation.  Loose ankles drag the ground, a poor choice for third world travel.  And frankly, having fried my calves in that very skirt last spring in the Bahamas, the trousers weren’t all that impractical.  Especially for the elephant work, but that comes much later.

Sahitya put so much thought into our visit, presenting us with a schedule ~never starting too early in the morning, gold star for that~ including local sites of historical, architectural, and artistic interest and a carefully curated selection of restaurants to sample a variety of Indian cuisines.  To our mutual friends, I say whole-heartedly, “Go visit them.”  She’s got it down.  We even found together some new spots she’d been wanting to try.  We used the Yelp-like app Zomato with great success.

Excellent breakfast as recommended @ColabaSocial

The Gujarati thali lunch we had at Chetana is my favorite.  Even after a month of all Indian food, curry and chapati at nearly every meal, I would have stuffed myself here again and I would do it today.  The tables are set with trays at each place, lined with smaller bowls.  Servers appear each with their own dish to dispense into the little bowls and onto the empty spaces.  If anything is running low, someone will turn up to refill it for you, even if you couldn’t eat another bite but aren’t paying attention.  It’s all vegetarian!  You may notice Vermintino ~my little gray traveling Ikea Gösigmus~ sampling all my food.  He is an adventurous eater and a bit of a glutton.

Vegetarian Gujarati Thali @Chetana

In the neighborhood, since we can’t just eat all day, we visited the former Prince of Wales Museum.  I understand the desire to throw out the colonials, be done with occupation, and reclaim rightful culture, but Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, really?  Even they just call it CSMVS.  Finding it to be very much worth a full day, we broke in the middle for lunch, then let Sahitya have her afternoon while we went back for more.

University of Mumbai

Former Prince of Wales Museum

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya

Perhaps my second favorite meal was at a fun place called Swati Snacks.  “Street food” with table service, we waited for half an hour to get in.  Seemed like a good sign and was definitely worth it.  Clean and bright, we enjoyed a number of different dishes.  Puri are the little puffs, sometimes covered in gravy, sometimes stuffed and  finished with broth inside to be eaten immediately (pani means water). “But it’s all very light,” Vasu repeated with each additional round.  I’m not sure about light, but it was all so delicious that we were happy to humor him. 

Dahi Batata Puri & Pani Puri (front)

I should mention lassi, the ubiquitous yogurt drink.  It is wonderful and delicious, especially during mango season.  But it is also my belief ~and don’t you tell me otherwise; the mind can do miracles if the body will let it~ that the local good bacteria which ferment the yogurt fight against the local bad bacteria that cause Delhi Belly.  Don’t go be stupid having ice in anything, but a continual infusion of lassi, curd/yogurt, and chaach (skimmed buttermilk) is excellent prophylaxis.  So is Pepto Bismol, that coating action the ads tout is actually protective.  Our friend, the son of a diplomat, refers to the tablets as Foreign Service After Dinner Mints.  Taking them before is even better.  While we’re on the subject, for a triple threat against said Traveler’s Malady because “aint’t nobody got time for that,” I also recommend PB8, probiotic capsules.  They’ve carried me through Morocco, one particular island in the Caribbean which shall remain nameless, Vietnam, Rwanda, and now India.

One more practical note:  ATMs can run dry and stay that way for days.  They courteously put a note on the door “No Money” to spare you trying.  We were staying in a lively area with an active weekend night life, so empty ATMs on Saturday and Sunday weren’t all that surprising.  When the armored vans hadn’t made their drops by Monday afternoon,  we went straight to the mothership, HSBC.  While Craig was inside the bank playing those lottery numbers which usually win but had been letting us down recently, I waited outside.  Vermintino has a Napoleon complex, likes to be the big mouse, and sits on anyone he can.

Meanwhile, Sahitya was inside by the security station.  The guard was becoming most agitated that someone was taking pictures of . . . the bank’s lion statue?  She was attempting to have someone, anyone, step out and ask me to stop.  But she couldn’t leave her post.  No one else cared.  Vermintino is terribly pleased with himself for having sat upon the Hong Kong & Singapore Banking Corporation’s guard lion.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2017 12:19

    This is really well written 🙂 I recently visited Mumbai , was hoping to write down my experience as well. 🙂

  2. June 6, 2017 18:01

    What an amazing, beautiful and delcious adventure you guys had! Cool slideshow. Can’t wait for the sequel 🙂

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