Thanksgiving in Mumbai – Touring Mumbai: Before heading to Mumbai I had done a bit of searching online for well-regarded guides. I first found Mumbai Moments, which seemed to receive raves at TripAdvisor. I emailed them and they were available during our stay, but as we discussed what I wanted to do and see it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a good match. I always like to try to understand a place in part through its food, had researched some of the restaurants and things from vendors that I wanted to try, and shared the particulars. Amish, the guide, let me know that he’s a follower of Jainism and won’t take clients to any non-vegetarian restaurant. I respectfully chose to find someone else, since that wasn’t going to match what I wanted to do and explore as part of my time in Mumbai.
So I went about finding alternatives. I contacted Mumbai Magic which I also saw on TripAdvisor, and it was clear from their initial response that they weren’t what I was looking for — I didn’t inherently mind the 10,000 Rps for a full day, though by local standards over $200 is exorbitant even for a separate guide and driver. It’s just that their offerings seemed a bit ‘over-produced’ since they include both illustrated handouts and a ‘take away gift’. Frankly I think I’d felt uncomfortable rolling into the slums of Mumbai on such a tour.
In the end I used Amin Sheikh (his business is Sneha Travels). He charges 3000 Rps per day, including his vehicle and gas, though I paid for meals of course (including inviting him to join us) and to tip folks who helped with parking around crowded sites that we visied.
Amin is a friendly guy who speaks excellent English. He grew up in Mumbai slums and was brought up in a Jesuit orphanage where he now volunteers. His mentor there helped him buy his Toyota van that he uses for tours. He’s certainly someone who can help show the ‘real Mumbai’ as it’s experienced by the majority of people. I’m glad we used his services, though I admit that I was a little bit uncomfortable at times because our life experiences as so different. I wanted to try and taste all sorts of foods, and he took us everywhere we wanted. But I’m not there seeing food as sustenance, but experience. I don’t think that’s an idea he’s really comfortable with. We’d always have leftovers, which he would have packaged and take with him, finding someone on the street to give it to. I was very happy to see our leftovers eaten by people who would value it! Still, I felt like he must be judging us for ordering more than we were going to eat in one sitting and then still wanting to eat something else later in the day. I admit, though, that the fault and discomfort was entirely mine, and not anything done on the part of our guide — who I appreciated enough to recommend to a work colleague who will be in Mumbai later in the month.
During the tour we visited the largest manual laundry in the world, an impressive site where individuals manage to track items of clothing even though they’re specializing rather than washing a single person’s clothes together. I had never seen so many jeans in one place!
Afterwards we visited Gandhi’s home in Mumbai.
We were fortunate, as it was about to be closed for pest control.
One of the really interesting things about visiting parts of the world as opposed to just reading about them is that you get a feel and first-hand experience that you can compare to and understand in a different way what writers say about an area. And it can give you a somewhat different perspective on history. So Gandhi for instance is said to have lived in poverty, or at least that’s how I had understood the common narrative. But visiting his home, I understand that while he may have adorned himself in the clothing of the people he represented, that he was certainly privileged. And he had modern accoutrements at his disposal. The library in his home is, I believe, larger than my home. And pictures on the wall show someone who was prominent in international affairs even in his youth. None of that diminishes his importance or his accomplishments at all! It just provides a richer texture of understanding, better context to understand the experiences and perspectives of a man who was incredibly important in the earlier half of the last century.
We ate at the kitchy, touristy Brittania & Company:
The old British gent who owns the place is a tremendous character, he walks around talking to guests, mostly about himself and how famous he is. He brings out a laminated newspaper article about how he spoke on the phone with the Queen of England. And he told us about writing to the White House to invite President Obama to dine at his restaurant during Obama’s recent visit, and how offended he was that the invitation was declined. He had quite a few things to say about former President Bush, mostly about warmongering, and also had some rather uncomfortable things to say about Obama and race. Still, one forgives a lot of a man of very advanced age.
On the subject of food, Mumbai is about the only place I’ve been especially cautious eating street food. I’ve written many a trip report including food on the street in places like Beijing (I’ve eaten snake, but I avoid beetles).
I did try a few things from street vendors that our guide assured us tended towards cleaner practices, though.
And while I wouldn’t actually eat there I found it fascinating how ubiquitous McDonald’s was, including McDelivery.
Still, having access to a McDonalds during a day walking around and touring is quite convenient, if only to use their restrooms.
Finally, we went into a Falooda shop recommended by our guide, which was a little too sweet for my tastes but the bulk of which was likely much enjoyed by the kid out guide gave my leftovers to.
I did wonder about this billboard I saw all over the city, since I didn’t think you could catch anything from a cell phone…
(I had to look up later that ‘STD’ actually stands for subscriber trunk dialing, but I prefer my first impression over the more sensible explanation I found on Wikipedia!)
We visited Marine Drive and also the Gateway to India where we had a fairly interesting experience, that I first assumed was a scam but turned out wasn’t at all.
An Indian family approached us and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We agreed. No one tried to pick my pocket or anything else, they just seemed incredibly excited to see us. And after we had agreed and taken our photos, another family came up and asked if we’d do the same with them.
The best I could figure, and as explained by our guide, these people were from more rural parts of India and this was their big trip to Mumbai. They had probably never seen a real live white person before. They’d take pictures with us, bring them back to their village, and probably say they had met someone famous.
Nonetheless, it was charming even if I was initially a bit uncomfortable trying to figure out what was going on.
The nearby Taj Hotel is a magnificent structure.
I actually had dinner at the Taj, with a Vice President managing marketing for their InnerCircle program (which won “Program of the Year” honors in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region in the 2010 Frequent Traveler Awards). He and his wife invited us over, and it turned out that we arranged to meet on what was the eve of the two-year anniversary of the bombing. Security was incredibly tight, with several police checkpoints along the way up to the hotel. It turns out that most cars weren’t being let through at all, but that my name had been given to the police by the General Manager of the Taj Palace, and the police were instructed to let us through.
We met our friends from Taj InnerCircle, stopped by an Australian Embassy reception for Australian wine, and toured the property a bit and then had dinner at their Lebanese restaurant Souk which was really outstanding. They simply began bringing out their most recommended dishes, which were all excellent (and I’m not generally a fan of Lebanese).
Normally I would have insisted on picking up the check, but we were in their restaurant in their hotel and so it would probably have offended if I tried. And there wasn’t actually a check for dinner in any case, such is the advantage of dining with a chain executive at their flagship property.
Tyler Cowen had suggested that Mumbai was a place that violates many of the rules of eating, that the best restaurants are often in better hotels. Just as I really enjoyed the Chinese restaurant in our hotel, I also thought the food at the Taj Palace phenomenal.
In the end I’m still mulling over the Mumbai experience. It was unlike any other place that I’ve been, and I tend to think myself fairly well-traveled. There’s tremendous bustling activity and growth, as well as tremendous poverty. And the two seem to co-exist more closely than in other parts of the world, not just in the same countries but within mere feet. (There were slums directly in front of the entrance to our hotel, though they seemed to be a bit better than ones we saw elsewhere.) I’ve thought a great deal about the conditions, and what I know of the institutions surrounding those conditions, but was deeply affected and working to sort through everything I saw even nearly a month later.