Travel Report: Mumbai, India.
April 2004. When my travel buddy Allan and I rolled into Mumbai we resolved to pamper ourselves after an extended period roughing it around Rajasthan. With only twenty four hours until we headed off for some beach time in Goa, we knew we had to make as much of our stay as we could . So we went to the cinema, gorged ourselves silly at TGI Fridays and shared an expensive pot of Masala chai at the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, pictured above. Dating back to 1902, this striking building mixes traditional Indian architecture with international flourishes. There are German elevators, Turkish baths and the more expensive suites come with an English butler! The hotel famously hit the news when it found itself embroiled in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It was here that gunmen opened fire on guests, took hostages and showered the police with grenades from the roof. 31 people are believed to have died in the attacks and the day’s grisly events were even turned into a 2018 movie, Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel. Such a tragedy could have marked the end of this Mumbai institution, but The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is made of strong stuff and remains a popular and prestigious place to stay. Have a poke around the official website for more info.
April 2004. Mumbai’s distinctive black and yellow taxis also stick in the mind. They were literally everywhere and streets such as this one, where they lined the curb from end to end, were common. Known locally as Kaali Peeli, these mini cars were based on a design from Fiat and introduced in the 1950s. They proved hugely popular and soon became a symbol of everyday Mumbai life. These days, with the explosion of Uber and technologically superior cars, the black and yellow cabs are starting to disappear, especially with the passing of a recent government law that outlaws the use of taxis over twenty-five years old. Some experts predict the Kaali Peeli could be extinct within ten years.
April 2004. Needless to say we took the time for a late afternoon stroll across Chowpatty Beach. It’s a deceptively small space that easily gets crowded on evenings and virtually unmanageable on weekends. I remember one night the place was packed out for a Bollywood movie screening. There were vendors selling fried bread, a grizzled old snake charmer and a bunch of ear cleaners and massage women. Don’t expect to catch anyone swimming in the sea; it’s horribly polluted to the point of being toxic.
April 2004. Another iconic Mumbai spot is Gateway of India, a giant stone archway down by the waterfront in the city’s Apollo Bunder district. It was built back in 1911 in honor of a state visit by Britain’s King George V. Today coming here is a very touristy experience, one of those spots where vendors flock to sell tat and visitors can be seen taking selfies from dusk to dawn. This little boy attached himself to my leg as I stood posing for my own photo and then refused to let go until I gave him some money. I literally had to drag him around until he finally lost interest and scuttled off towards some cowboy-hat wearing Americans.
April 2004. Beyond The Gateway to India lies Mumbai Harbour where you can catch a boat to the UNESCO-stamped Elephanta Island. The island lies about an hour from the harbour and is home to the so-called City of Caves and a stunning presentation of rock art dating back to the 5th century.
April 2004. Elephanta Island has a rich and ancient history going back to AD450. We only spent an hour or so here as we had to catch the last boat of the day back to Mumbai Harbour. But if you come early you could easily spend the whole day visiting the caves, the island temple (dedicated to Shiva) and a neat museum detailing the island’s history.
April 2004. Elephanta Island is also home to families of mischievous monkeys, many of whom will try and steal things right out of your hands just for kicks. There are signs warning you not to feed them, so be on alert! I was really just passing through Mumbai all those years ago. One day I would love to come back to this fantastic city and give it the proper Leighton Travels treatment.
Check out more travel reports from my long ago trip to India.
For a more detailed account of my wanderings around the country, why not dive into my short story collection Incidents In India.
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