The first thing that hits you when the plane doors open at Mumbai International Airport is the heat closely followed by all the different smells in the air: welcome to India!
Mumbai (or as lots of people still call it, Bombay) is one of the biggest cities in the world and the financial capital of India, but it is by looking beyond the façade of the skyscrapers and the five stars hotels that the real India can be found and experienced. I was fortunate enough to be a guest of an Indian friend of mine so my first introduction to India meant diving head first into the kaleidoscopic atmosphere that is life in Mumbai as a local (including the experience of watching a Bollywood movie with no subtitles!).
An experience not for the faint-hearted is a ride in an auto rickshaw,a three-wheeled cabin cycle. It seems to be the preferred method of transport to negotiate the traffic in the city that often comes to a standstill due to the high volume of cars, bikes, people and animals on the roads.
A short trip around Colaba,the main tourist neighbourhood in Mumbai offers the opportunity to admire the Gateway of India, a basalt arch by the water’s edge on Mumbai’s harbour. From here a number of small boats leave to Elephanta Caves a complex of caves declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it takes about one hour to reach the caves. Opposite the Gateway of India is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which sadly came to the world’s attention as one of the main targets of the terrorist attacks of November 2008 together with Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (the busiest railway station in India) and Leopold’s Cafe, a popular meeting point busy at all hours.
Another attraction in Mumbai for both tourists and locals are the beaches: Juhu and Chowpatty to name just a few; here stalls sell typical Indian street food like panipuri, fried puff crisp dough balls with a variety of fillings. These family friendly beaches are always busy day and night.
And talking of food the choice of restaurants in Mumbai is endless with good quality food at very reasonable prices and various degrees of spiciness (remember to leave some room for tasty Indian sweets like Gulab Jamun and Jalebi!)
After dinner a stroll along Marine Drive nicknamed the Queen’s Necklace (due to the glittering lights that illuminate this C-shaped road at night) means joining the full spectrum of India society: from the rich and famous, to beggars and hawkers selling all sorts of trinkets at exorbitant prices to tourists not too familiar with the bargaining culture of this part of the world.
The recipe for a successful trip to India it is a combination of a very open mind and a good dose of adaptability to the circumstances and surroundings; some will want to get back home as soon as possible while others will not want to leave and will look forward to go back there time and time again…me included!