Thursday 31 January 2013

How to Spend 48 Hours in Mumbai

Mumbai is not really what I would describe as a ‘holiday’ destination where people stick around for very long.  48 hours is usually just enough time to get a taste of the city before moving on to the tourist trail of the Golden Triangle, ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala, beachy Goa or the crisp, fresh air of the Himalayas.  If you are stopping off in Mumbai before a 'grand tour', or if indeed you live here as I do and are entertaining guests in the city for a couple of days, the following is a compact guide on what to do and where to go.
I will show you how to see the beautiful and not so beautiful sights of the city, where to go for an introduction to Indian street food and where to go shopping for good souvenirs. My guide assumes that you have access to a car and driver.  If you don't have your own driver, it is possible to hire one quite cheaply and will mean you can pack an awful lot more in than if you got the train or bus.  (I am also not ‘at one’ with the Mumbai public transport system!) It also assumes that you will do a bit of pre-planning with a street map.
(This is all tried and tested by BombayJules by the way!)
Day 1
I will usually try and make an early start before commuter traffic peaks at 10am, aiming to get to Banganga Tank at the bottom of Malabar Hill by 9am.  Banganga tank is the oldest and most sacred Hindu site in the city where Lord Rama is said to have brought forth water from the Ganges by firing an arrow into the ground.  It is a place of rare serenity and there are usually photogenic pilgrims and worshippers to be seen ‘purifying’ themselves in the waters.   You might even see some of the many ducks that reside there floating around.  Surrounding the tank are a few Hindu and Jain temples – take your pick at which one to look at, remembering to take off you shoes before you go in.  Hop back in the car and take the five minute drive to The Hanging Gardens of Malabar Hill from which you can get your friends to line up at the in front of the wonderful view of Marine Drive.  Passing back via the giant boot (if you’ve got kids, let them go up to the top) and crossing the road, you will enter Kamala Nehru Park with its perfectly manicured hedges and topiary animals, green benches and colourful flowerbeds.  This is a rare haven in Mumbai – verdant, well kempt and rubbish free.
By now you are probably feeling a little peckish - so get back in your car and drive past the almost completely hidden Towers of Silence - you can just get a glimpse through the trees on your left.  The Towers of Silence are where the Parsis (Zoroastrians) place their dead. I suggest you look up the reason for this on Wikipedia so you can amaze yourself/your friends with the information! Keep going straight until you are back on Babhulnath Marg.  If you want to, hop out here and take a look at Babhulnath Temple (another one of the city’s holiest Hindu sites) – the steps leading up to it are lined with traditional Gujarati houses for temple workers.  Having done that, get your driver to park up whilst you cross back over the main road for a nice, reasonably priced lunch at Soam.  Soam is my favourite place in Mumbai to experience street food in a safe, clean and quality environment.  If you’re new to Bombay street food yourself, get the friendly restaurant owner to show you and your guests how to eat Pani Puri. You should also try to sample the amazing masala dosas, sev puri, and farsans.  Yum.
After lunch, you are now ready for a quick/optional diversion to nearby Anokhi off Hughes Road – especially if there are women in the group, (well women like me that can’t resist a quick shop!)  At Anokhi, you will find irresistible hand block printed items from Jaipur, all at very agreeable prices.  Cotton tops, long skirts, fabulous table cloths and printed notebooks. 
Now, get your driver to drop you at the start of Marine Drive so that you can take a 20 minute stroll along Girgaum Chowpatty.  Chowpatty means ‘beach’ in Marathi.  If you go right down to the sea, you will unfortunately witness the rubbish that is so prevalent in and around Mumbai.  But don’t worry, you'll soon get used to it!  Oh, and I don’t need to tell you not to go anywhere near the water. 
Next, pick up your car again and come away from the beach by heading east - asking your driver to go towards Crawford Market.  Get out here and go through the front entrance where you will be immediately greeted by the hustle, bustle, sights, sounds and smells of Mumbai’s most famous shopping bazaar.  Try not to veer into the caged animal section where birds, cats and dogs are for sale, Kept in small cages without visible evidence of water, it can be very upsetting to see.  After mooching around for a bit in the market you will find that it’s almost time for a cup of tea.    Get back in the car and head down DN Road so that Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in new money) is on your left hand side.  No need to get out of the car, just enjoy the ‘Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival’ architecture of Mumbai’s main transport hub, built in 1808.  There is plenty of similar Raj-era architecture to admire in the vicinity, such as the Bombay High Court and the University of Mumbai and The Prince of Wales Museum.  Carry on going straight towards the sea, getting off at the next stop – The Gateway of India. 
Get out here and proceed through the (defunct) security gate. Take a few photos with your clan in front of the Gate, have a look out to sea, do your best to avoid the photo-touts and giant balloon sellers (I still haven’t fathomed why on earth one would need a balloon the size of a small car) then turn around, go back and cross the road.  You will now be right in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on Apollo Bunder.   Admire the grandeur of the building, pass through the lobby and go up to the SeaLounge on the first floor.  Here you must sample a very expensive cup of the divine Silver Grove White Tips Darjeeling tea whilst looking out to sea - as smooth as a silk sari.  Whilst chatting, you can think about the 2008 Terrorist Attack centred around the hotel where 200 hostages were rescued but 31 guests were unfortunately killed.
Get collected again and go around the back left hand corner of the Taj Palace Hotel and find the small Good Earth Shop on BEST Marg.  Delight in the Indian themed cushion covers and crockery etc...but beware of the western prices. 
After the thrill of Good Earth, you’ll need to come back down with a cocktail.  Drive back to Marine Drive and find the Intercontinental Hotel about a third of the way up on the right hand side.  Clear security and take the lift up to the magnificent (and trendy) DomeBar on the top floor.  I actually like to ask for a white wine spritzer (you have to explain to the waiter - white wine with soda with ice) which is a perfectly refreshing accompaniment to what I consider to be one of the best views in Mumbai.  You can while away a few hours watching the stunning sunset and chatting before going to a restaurant of your choice to sample some more Indian food – or perhaps just stay at the in-house restaurant Kebab Corner where you’ll find some of the tenderest Chicken Malai to be had in the city.
So that’s the end of Day 1.
Day 2
And now for something a bit different.  Do you think I am going to show you the street markets of Mumbai (Colaba, Fashion Street, Linking Road etc) or an art gallery or museum? Wrong!  Day 2 of my itinerary is an optional alternative to the usual tourist trail.
Today starts in the “Queen of Suburbs” - Bandra - at 10am.  If you are coming from South Mumbai, come via the Sealink – the city’s best and most scenic feat of engineering.  Find your way to Carter Road (starting at Otter’s Club), hop out of the car and walk along the sea promenade. Get some of that sea air into your lungs!  After 20 minutes or so, drive back towards Pali Market, going up and down some of the streets in order to admire the Art Deco bungalows of a bygone era. Some are decrepit, but some have been restored to stunning effect.
Heading back in the direction of Carter Road along Hill Road, find Ben Hur Chemist opposite pretty St Andrew’s Church.  Get out of the car here and walk down Waroda Road which is off at an angle just before the chemist’s.  Waroda Road and its offshoot Chapel Road, are part of Ranwar Village - a charming bohemian enclave, with colonial bungalows, narrow streets and artistically graffitied walls.  Ranwar (now favoured by French hipsters) is one of the original 24 pakhadis (hamlets) that made up Bandra since the earliest documented history in early 1700s, and has managed to retain its village character even as present-day development has hemmed it in on all sides.  The street art is fun to look at – some of it is slightly naïve, some of it highly artistic. 
Get your driver to pick you all up again from Hill Road and then drive 30 minutes (max) to Matunga, south of Mahim (and not via the Sealink). You will probably go past Dadar Flower Market on the way.  Matunga is famous for its South Indian restaurants, very much favoured by the local vegetarian Gujurati community.  Head for the most famous of these restaurants - Café Madras (Bhaudaji Road, Kings Circle) for brunch.  At weekends it can get very busy and you may have to queue.  Café Madras is an excellent place to sample a traditional Indian breakfast – food items such as idlis, dosas, wadas and rassam.  Perhaps stay away from the coconut chutney accompaniments in case of fragile stomachs!  But it should all be perfectly safe.
After your brunch/lunch, you can browse some of the pavement bookstalls or take a look around the local vegetable market to give your guests a true flavour of local life. If you want, take a peek at the King’s Circle nearby, another rare area of greenery.
You then need to get yourselves to Mahim station by 2.30pm where you will meet one of the tour guides of Reality Gives Tours & Travel (  You are going on a tour of Dharavi which you have prearranged. It is hard to ignore the shanty towns of Mumbai so why not educate yourself and your companions about the amazing enterprise that goes on in Asia’s biggest and most profitable slum?  It’s not half as scary as you might think and the tour seeks to break down negative or misinformed attitudes towards less developed communities. You will be led around a pre-organised route where you are encouraged not to gawp and you will come out with a completely different view of the ‘Heart of Mumbai’.  No photos are allowed and you will have to try and be subtle about unfavourable smells.  I have taken several people on this tour and they have all appreciated the experience and been enlightened by it. The cost is only 600 Rs per person or 3,000 Rs for a private tour for up to five persons. 80% of profits made by Reality Gives are ploughed back into the community.
Two and half hours later, the Reality Tours tour guide will speak to your driver and tell him to collect you from their office on the other side of Dharavi - where you can also by some mementos of the tour.  Now you can relax!  Gather yourselves up, get in the car and drive to Phoenix Mills shopping mall in Lower Parel (around 30 minutes depending on traffic).  This is partly to show the immediate contrasts between rich and poor and partly for them to pick up some more souvenirs.  Plus it’s nice and cool in there.
Admire the Gucci, Burberry and Jimmy Choo outlets in Palladium and then go down to the ubiquitous FabIndia and Bombay Stores where you can pick up some more quality souvenirs.  For dinner, there is a multitude of safe bets here – I would particularly recommend Rajdhani for an excellent and never-ending Gujurati thali experience (if you are sticking with Indian food) or Serafina, the Italian Pizzeria if you want a change of scenery.

Your BombayJules tour is now finished!
Left to right, top to bottom
1. Banganga tank 2. Topiary of Kamala Nehru Park 3. Anokhi prints 4. Pani Puri at Soam 5. Bustling Crawford Market 6. Gateway of India 7. Dome Bar 8. Colonial bungalow of Bandra 9. Graffiti of Waroda Road 10. Matunga Vegetable Market 11. Dharavi 12. Phoenix Mills Mall.

Monday 21 January 2013

Mumbai Marathon...tick!

OK not quite tick.  For one it was was my friend The Jolly Runner who ran it and not me.  And secondly, I only did the 6k Dream Run (which I walked!).  But what a great day.  The Jolly Runner ran the Half Marathon in a very impressive 2 hrs 29 secs, raising much needed funds for my NGO.  Along with 30 other marathon runners, we also managed to get a group of about 65 staff and committee members and supporters/donors to walk the 6k Dream Run - and it was a really fun day.  Thousands of pounds were raised to fight the scourge of malnutrition in Mumbai - thank you to my in-laws for sponsoring The Jolly Runner and to anyone else reading this who took part and raised funds for FMCH. A truly memorable day.
The Jolly Runner with her Half Marathon Medal (that's 21 kms to you and me!)
So now I am putting my 'Back Soon' sign up again.  For the Jolly Runner and I are about to go on a week of travels.  Firstly visiting the Taj Mahal (yes, the third time for me!) followed by five days in Kerala - Cochin, Munnar and Kumarakom in the backwaters. Unfortunately Mr Jules gets left behind whilst I am off enjoying myself. Sorry Mr Jules, I will miss you!
I will have so much to report when I get back including some more photos of the marathon and the amazing Indian wedding that The Jolly Runner and I attended a few days ago.  And I am sure there will be one or two photos from our trip.
So bye for now, I will be back at the end of January!
Staff, committee members and our wonderful 6k Dream Run supporters (and a couple of shadows)
Coming up the flyover
Tens of thousands took part in the Dream Run/Walk
The Team - mission accomplished!

Monday 14 January 2013

Kite Flyers on Juhu Beach

After looking downwards so much for yesterday's post about Mumbai pavements, I thought it would be appropriate to look a bit more upwards today. In fact, right up to the sky for the Makar Sankranti kite flying festival.  Well try to at least....I wasn't so successful!
Makar Sankranti is another auspicious day for Hindus (there seem to be so many!) and in the western Indian state of Gujarat, these celebrations are the biggest. People offer thousands of their colorful oblations to the sun in the form of beautiful kites. The kite flying is a metaphor for reaching up to their beloved God - the one who represents the 'best' and it is also to honour, worship and pay respect to Saraswati (the Goddess of Knowledge).

Today, we went to check out Juhu Beach - a good stretch of open space near to a large Gujurati community in Vile Parle (pronounced Villa Parlay!) where we were assured of a magnificent display of kite flying.  However, I am not sure if it was because we went at the wrong time of day (likely) or if it was just not happening - but we didn't see too much of a kite flying spectacle.  Instead, there were just a handful of families and a few groups of youngsters playing with their kites. But it was such a lovely day on Juhu beach, that there were still plenty of colourful sights to see.

Here we go:

All the kites are made from a simple square of upcycled plastic, a couple of bendy rods and a very very long piece of string.

Girl and her father trying to get their kite air-borne

A group of young boys getting their kites together
This lady walked out of the sea in her beautiful red sari like some sort of mermaid
This group of older ladies were sitting in the sea watching the waves - clothed in full saris!
Their husbands....more appropriately dressed for a dip in the sea.

Old rice bags filled with sand to make steps up to a snack stall.
Finally...a kite up in the sky! This is the only picture I could get.
I was hoping that the sky was going to be filled with the sight of many beautiful fluttering kites!
The above kite belonged to this boy and his father.  Dad seems to be enjoying it more....
He now seems disgusted that his father has let this homeless child have a go.....
Deep concentration as this boy tries to thread his kite with string
The guy sitting on the sand - because he has no legs - is the one in control of this kite.
Colourful juice bottles
Food stalls on Juhu Beach

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Sunday 13 January 2013

Taking a Trip on Mumbai Pavements

I mentioned in my post about the Bandra Skywalk that it is almost damned near impossible to take a straightforward walk in this city. This is because the pavements are absolutely appalling!  You literally take two steps backwards for every one going forward in order to get anywhere. There is not much I like to complain about in Mumbai but the state of the sidewalks is definitely one of them.
When going out to the local market (that's about as far as I can manage on foot), not only do I have to dodge rickshaws, cars, humans, dogs (and the odd cow/horse), but I have to constantly be alert for maintenance problems such as the giant gaps over open sewers, cracked manhole covers, torrents of water from leaking pipes and errant paving blocks.  And each and every time that I gingerly step over those wobbly, cracked manhole covers, I wonder if they might cave in (resulting in me appearing in some hilarious You Tube video).
It is highly evident that poor civil engineering has led to the pavements being so wonky in the first place, and that this has been further exacerbated by the use of poor quality materials and cheap labour (a problem that manifests itself in so many areas of Indian life).  There is an absence of asphalt and concrete - materials commonly used to fabricate walkways worldwide. Instead, the pavements in India are assembled using a jigsaw of paving blocks (pavers) which easily dismantle and decay.
Without any kind of planning regulations you will also commonly find these obstructions built right into the middle of the sidewalk: mini electricity substations (!), bollards, lamp posts and advertisement hoardings; trees that grow out of the pavements, or trees that lean over from nearby properties that are not trimmed back; parked bicycles, cars and trucks; street-vendors sitting cross-legged in amongst their wares; piles of rubbish and dog poo, and even people's laundry left out to dry. At every street corner or at the corner of every driveway, you have to step down about a foot onto the road because there is no such thing as a mountable curb.  So you are up and down....down and up....up and down and so on. You can now begin to see that going for walk in Mumbai is more like completing an army assault course with a step class thrown in. And it will make you sweat just as much!
In fact most people (self included) do not even bother to walk on the pavements.  It's better to just walk on the comparatively flat road, even if it means getting your feet run over by the tyres of traffic whizzing past or being cut up by rickshaws. 
Taking a proper stress-free urban walk is one of the things I really miss about the UK.  Popping to the supermarket; strolling through the park; walking to the train station for my daily commute into London. The state of Mumbai pavements also means I can no longer wear nice pretty heels - if you wear anything other than (solidly built) flatties whilst going shopping for your veg, you run the risk of turning an ankle or tripping up - either that or it will take you three times longer to pick your way through the pavement obstacles.
Here is the photographic evidence from in and around Bandra:

Until recently this was a completely open two foot wide open sewer. If you were to walk around the corner in the dark, you would undoubtedly fall down it. Someone has made a rather amateur attempt to cover it up but better than nothing I suppose!

A telephone substation surrounded by rubbish

An electricity wire hanging right across the pavement!
Paving stones starting to self-dismantle

Where the pavement not only suddenly comes to abrupt end at a corner,
but is also obstructed by a lamp post and huge cables

A dodgy looking manhole cover

Typical - huge tree in the middle of the sidewalk

Somebody's laundry and moped on the pavement

A selfishly parked vehicle - taking up the whole width of the pavement!

A foot high curb - not properly joined to the road

Would you want to step on this manhole cover?  Not a chance!

OK little one..I'll try not to step on your paws....
Right outside the butcher's in Bandra - bicycles and cable stations taking up most of the pavement
This has got it all - signboard, telephone and cable stations, exposed electicity cables and rubbish. Errrr. I think I'll just walk on the road
(note the green 'Clean Up Mumbai' sign in the background!)

Oxen about to take a nap on the walkway.

The contents of this person's home spilling out on to the pavement.


Friday 11 January 2013

The Sleeping Beauties of India

I am always very impressed by the ability of Indian working class men to sleep absolutely anywhere. Pavements, park benches and beaches are not just the (unfortunate) domain of the destitute or drunk. If an Indian man wants or needs to go to sleep - then he's gonna go to sleep.  Right there and then. On the sidewalk, on a broken wall, on a dirty beach, on a rare park bench.  I have seen them curled up in tuk-tuks, horse and carts and taxis (hanging their legs out of open doors). I have seen them asleep in the middle of their own market stalls.  At worst, I have seen a man sleeping on a one foot wide wooden plank which had been hung off railings on the side of a busy vehicular underpass.  Boy I wish I could have got a picture of that one...quite unbelievable to see this man fast asleep whilst trucks and buses were bombing past within a hair's breadth of his perfectly balanced body.

Asleep on a very public banana stall in Crawford Market.  No business to be done evidently!

I am not even sure that the desire to sleep in the middle of the day is borne out of a lack of night-time sleep.  Perhaps it is the heat of the city, perhaps it is a lack of work, perhaps TOO much work.  I expect Mumbai life is just too damn exhausting for them. 

Do women ever go to sleep in this way?  I have never seen it happen.  I guess they are too busy managing households and looking after children whilst their husbands are snatching zeds. Or maybe they have too much dignity?  Either way, I always giggle when I see men sleeping in strange places - as it is usually quite comical!
Probably rather inappropriately, BombayJules does like sneaking up on these characters paparazzi style - so enjoy the photos: 

Perched on a foot wide wall - Malabar Hanging Gardens, Mumbai

Taking a snooze on a Pondicherry beach whilst people casually stroll by

Completely out of it - next to a very busy traffic roundabout!
Hand on belly whilst napping at the touristy Jama Masjuid mosque in Delhi
A bunch of (fairly well dressed) Sleeping Beauties. On the steps behind Jama Masjid in Delhi
A close-up - he even brought his own blanket!
Asleep whilst balancing on a low park wall in Pondicherry
This driver's legs are propped up whilst snoozing in his horse-and-cart in Gwalior.
Sweet Dreams....
A beach vendor napping in the mid-morning sun on Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai - why not eh!

Of's not just humans who like to take a midday nap!

Trying to keep the ants off with newspaper in the middle of a park in Pondicherry

Guarding a cash-machine in Bandra...but not very well!

Zen dog at the Buddhist Sarnath Temple in Varanasi
When I say 'on the pavement'...I mean 'on the pavement!'

Out for the count...near the Cochin Chinese fishing nets

Post Script Dated 2nd August 2013
I just so happened upon this picture blog today: It contains some beautifully photographed examples of Sleeping Mumbai.  Check it out!