It’s the most populous city in India with 21 million people. The home of Indian finance, engineering, Bollywood, the most billionaires and millionaires anywhere in India as well as the country’s biggest slum with the highest population density: an estimated 800,000 people living in one square mile.
There is obviously a lot happening in Mumbai. And yet I only took one photograph.
Rose and I hadn’t planned to spend time here, only treating it as a stopover on our way to Goa. However, as it turned out we had a few more hours than anticipated, which is how I took this shot of the Gateway of India – considered by many to be Mumbai’s top tourist attraction.
Finished in 1924, the Gateway of India was designed as an archway for incoming British dignitaries to pass through upon arriving in India, which also had the unforeseeable purpose 24 years later, in 1948, as an exit for the last British detachment leaving after Indian independence.
For us, a photo of the Gateway had its own symbolic value of our time in Mumbai, in that we were entering and exiting the city too – but rather than having a 24 year gap to do it, we accomplished it in five hours.
Here’s how it went.
We arrived at the train station in the morning and our aim was to get to Goa as soon as we could. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any train tickets there, which meant we had to rely on an overnight bus.
Where’s the bus station?
Initially we spoke with a tuk tuk driver who approached us and promised, as most drivers do, a “good price” to get to the bus station. Of course we had no bearing on what a “good price” was and asked a local guy who explained that it shouldn’t cost more than 50 rupees.
We then made our way into a larger scrum of tuk tuks who were taking fares and ferrying people around. One guy approached me and said: “300 rupees to bus station”.
“What? No, too much. Way too much”, I replied
“How much then?”, he said
“Someone told me no more than 50 rupees”, I said.
“Hah. Too little”, he said.
“Okay. I’ll go with someone else.”, and I walked off.
At this point, the local guy who advised us 50 rupees was the going rate, maybe seeing that we were getting hung up with this tuk tuk driver, took it upon himself to broker a deal with another tuk tuk driver on our behalf, completely unprompted.
“Here. To the bus station 50 rupees”, the local said and ushered us into the tuk tuk with the driver.
But we weren’t going to leave without a fight. The first tuk tuk driver who had suggested 300 rupees, comes up to our friendly broker and starts yelling at him in Hindi, of which I can’t offer a direct translation, but will hedge a guess that it was any or all of the following:
“You ruin our business!”
“Who’s side are you on?”
Seeing the argument brewing, other tuk tuk drivers circled around our friendly broker and also started yelling at him. Now he’s completely swarmed – in the dead center of seven angry tuk tuk drivers yelling at him for offenses at this point, that I’m sure have ratcheted well beyond a simple price difference into questions of his identity and citizenship: i.e. “Are you not Indian?! How dare you take a foreigners side!”.
Meanwhile, Rose and I are watching this from the comfort of the rickshaw that our broker has set up for us. However, more angry drivers are arriving and are blocking our drivers’ path while yelling at him for what I can only imagine is, in their eyes, being a scab for taking us for 50 rupees, and betraying the inflated, colluded price line of the local rickshaw mafia.
Now I’m starting to get nervous, imagining this is all headed for a violent finish. Thankfully, our broker friend breaks free from the gang, finds his own tuk-tuk, which in turn, clears the group from out front of our tuk-tuk and gives us space to drive off.
After being on the road for ten minutes, we stop at a light, and another rickshaw pulls up next to us carrying our broker friend.
“Thank you very much for your help. Are you okay?”, I asked concerned he was rattled by the gang of bullies.
“Oh yes”, he laughs. “That’s okay. No problem there”, grinning from ear to ear, suggesting that was part of how negotiations can go.
“Great, thanks again”, I said, feeling a bit sheepish that this guy stuck his neck out for us – two complete strangers.
“You’re welcome. And welcome to Mumbai”, he smiled with a bit laugh before driving off.
“Are all introductions, like this?” I wondered to myself.
We eventually landed at the bus station where we had to find a bus ticket to Goa, preferably leaving soon.
Obviously in any sales arrangement, the salesperson representing the company should make his or her cut. That’s entirely reasonable. However, when his cut starts looking more like a chunk, I find it offputting, because I feel like I’m essentially being played for an idiot (and I prefer to save that privilege for friends).
Chatting with one bus ticket agent, it soon became clear that he was hop-scotching around the truth with the inspired doublespeak of Donald Rumsfeld explaining intelligence reports: i.e. “There are known knowns. Then there are unknown unknowns”.
“This bus leaves in one hour. And is now this price!”, the bus agent says.
“What’s changed? You gave us a smaller quote one minute ago?”, Rose says pointing at his sheet of scribbles, on which, sure enough, is his earlier, lower price.
“Bus is more full and prices change”, he replies.
I got the impression he was double dealing, and it was frustrating. But, at the same time, I was tired and wanted to get going, and was worn down from all the back and forth. Plus the price difference wasn’t too egregious that we’d bankrupt our budget if we did go ahead with it.
Nevertheless, the bus ticket agent had laid down the gauntlet- and there were three separate ticket agents adjacent to him, which of course could be operating in collusion with his prices, but we gave it a shot with them anyway.
Finally, after changing teams to another agent, we settled on a better price, but for a later bus leaving in four hours time. That meant we had time to see something of Mumbai – but we had a fairly significant problem: we didn’t really know what the city looked like, since we hadn’t planned to be here for that much time.
True, I had downloaded a guidebook on my Ipad, but we had no idea where we were at that moment, in relation to the Mumbai maps the book showcased.
All it would take was WiFi. But where was that?
We asked around and were directed to an area of the city, which lay just off a major highway artery. Rose and I strolled down there looking for any sign of a cafe. Nothing.
After another 15 minutes, we spotted it, which we had been told was an Indian franchise.
“Hi. Do you have Wifi?”, I asked the cafe worker with my phone in hand, ready to type in the password in a split second to secure a spot on the network ahead of the next person.
“No. We don’t have it at this store. But there’s another one a few blocks away that does”, he replied.
Okay. Off we went again. This time wandering through residential streets that reminded me of Montreal, with huge trees over the streets and lower-sized apartment buildings off its sidewalks. The difference was that people were everywhere: in the streets, front yards, we even spotted kids climbing in trees above us. Yet for all the activity and numbers, still no coffee shop.
Rose now said she also had to pee. Our mission became twofold: cafe and bathroom – while I was holding out that both problems could be solved in one place. After another two blocks, there it was: the same purple coloured coffee franchise, and more importantly there was the prize on the door: a big sticker saying: FREE WIFI.
Great. We head in. Rose asks: “Can I use your bathroom?”.
“We don’t have a bathroom”, the cafe worker replies.
” Okay. Do you know where I could find one?”, Rose asks.
“Uhmmm”, the cafe worker is stumped and has a grin on her face that says “I have no idea”, and so asks another worker who also has the same grin, and shrugs.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know”, he replies.
Rose bites her lip and finds a table. I order a coffee.
“Did you ask for the Wifi password”, Rose asks.
“Not yet. I’ll ask her when she brings my coffee”, I reply.
Two seconds later, the cafe worker shows up, coffee in hand.
“Hi. Could you give me the WiFi password?”, I ask
“Oh. Sorry. WiFi doesn’t work today”, she replies.
“Really? Power outage or is it trouble with your modem”, I reply, holding out hope a simple modem reset might do it.
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t work”, she says with the same grin she had when Rose had asked her about bathrooms, and gives me the sense that modem reset isn’t even an option on the table, before walking off.
I drink my coffee, and open up the map we have on my Ipad, trying to make sense of the city’s geography.
After roughly sorting out where we were, it seemed that to see any of the main parts of Mumbai we’d have to get into the city core, which by public transportation could take an hour, and we only had two and half hours left before our bus left for Goa.
But all of that was secondary: job numero un = finding a bathroom. I finished my coffee and we set out again, thinking we might have better luck if we backtrack to an area we’d passed earlier that had businesses, which maybe, just might have a bathroom.
Up we go, and I start canvassing the spots. First one: no bathroom. Second: the same. Third: okay, this wasn’t going to work.
Now one of us suggests we take a cab to McDonald’s or another Western franchise, that in our past experience, has a bathroom or two. We speak to a cabbie who explains there’s no nearby Western franchise: but they can be found closer into the city core, which is of course where we’d also determined all the sites were.
Realizing this, and tired of walking in circles, we decide to strike a deal to take us on a whirlwind tour of the main sites, if our cabbie could have us back to our bus station in 90 minutes for us to catch our bus.
Done. We hop in and head for bladder relief. After we’d done our rounds, seeing Mumbai from the back of a taxi (and I took that prized photograph), we bolted out of a McDonald’s now feeling much less anxious, but renewed it almost immediately when we looked at the clock.
Our bus left in 30 minutes, and it would likely take 45 minutes to get back with all the traffic.
Undeterred, our cabbie sped through every corridor we faced, dodging and weaving his way to get to the head of the pack. Even at one point when it really didn’t look like we’d make it, he called our bus company to tell them we were on the way, and to hold the bus if they could.
On we sped. Zinging down the freeway at speeds much faster than we took the other way heading into the city, I buckled my seatbelt, hoping we’d reach our final stop by choice and not as an accident.
Sure enough, we pulled into the corner where the bus stand sat, jumped out, and handed the cabbie his fare:
“Welcome to Mumbai”, he said smiling.
Five minutes later our bus showed up. Unfortunately, our adventure didn’t end there.
Have you ever taken a piece of cooked spaghetti and dropped it on to a countertop?
What that piece of spaghetti looks like on the countertop, is what the road to Goa felt like. It would seem the bus company knew this, and as a precaution handed out barf bags to everyone for our overnight journey along what became a bobsled track.
Hard left. Hard right. Now a hairpin. Hang on everybody, one more time from the top. Hard left, Hard right. Hairpin.
It was relentless. And, unfortunately for a couple of guys who sat directly behind us, in the very back row of the bus, so were the effects on their stomach: as they threw up, again and again, over the course of the next 12 hours.
I handed one guy my sick bag, after he’d been at it so long, he rested his head, exhausted, on the back of my headrest, while his body continued to protest the tangled spaghetti route we were careening through.
After such a windy, bumpy ride, the consolation was this: Goa – quiet beaches, few people, no smog, and our own moped which meant we didn’t have to negotiate any more transportation for a while.
Our spot for the next nine days.