Mumbai Maybe: 98.6 and MIFF’d
Mumbai is India’s Big Apple, its Big Mango, its City of Lights, its city to which all roads lead, its London San Fran Rio Capetown Singapore Shanghai Tokyo all rolled into one big chapati (or maybe ciabatta?)—with a dash of hot sauce. This is the one Indian city that can truly claim to be world-class, and not be joking. As such it’s cleaner than the others. It’s also more expensive than the others.
It’s worth it. So what if prices are twice that of Delhi? It’s still cheaper than Bangkok, and that’s a whole lot cheaper than New York. For that you get a relatively clean spiffy place, and maybe even a grocery store or two (I’m investigating those rumors right now). Of course if you really like cows and their various waste products, then you may be disappointed here. I’ve seen but a few, apparently attached to temples for religious purposes—and served proper grass to eat, not human rubbish.
But for the most part, it could be the capital city of any major third-world country—Mexico City or Nairobi or Bucharest, the governmental and cultural and distribution center that holds a country together, maybe even the best that country has to offer. Of course, you take the good with the bad. A country’s best can also be its worst, so yes, you’ll be overcharged here, at least once, and maybe even robbed, but probably not. You’re clever enough by now to know how to avoid these occurrences.
The problem is getting to know such monster cities in the first place. Most are not especially backpacker friendly, i.e. walkable. That’s why careful selection of hotel location is so important to begin with. It took me many reads of the hotel scene to discern exactly where that sweet spot is. I knew my initial selection—the airport area—was wrong, but I had little choice on a weekend.
My second choice, the CST railway area, was good enough. That’s analogous to Grand Central station in NYC, and the contiguous Fort area its midtown. Keep walking and you’ll be in Colaba, its Chelsea. Digs are pricier there, but nicer, too. If there’s a backpacker ‘Freak Street’, then I don’t know where it is. That’s both good and bad, of course. Backpackers open up many areas to budget accommodation, but once established, much of that scene can be all too predictable and inauthentic.
Many times backpackers’ digs even become a regional ‘circuit’ so that a backpacker in Southeast Asia can travel from Bangkok’s Khaosarn Road to Koh Samui to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang in Laos, all on dedicated transportation services, and pretend that they’re seeing SE Asia, when in reality they’re mostly seeing the same bunch of partiers over and over and over and a bunch of locals who wanna be. That’s okay if it’s what you want, but it ain’t backpacking. Backpackers go to extremes. India has its own circuit, so I try to mix it up with my own discoveries.
Of course, Mumbai is famous for its slums, so eloquently described in the novel Shantaram, but I don’t know where those are, or to what extent they still exist. There are organized ‘slum tours’, so check ’em out if you want. I’m holding out for Soweto; joking. In Kolkata you won’t have any problem finding scuzzier ‘hoods than those you’ll likely find on your own here.
As for myself, I’m just glad to have some warmer temps after a month of not seeing 20c/68f so much as once, and a heater only once. But by then it was too late, and I was sick. A week in Mumbai was the perfect cure. If I’d known there was a film festival, the Mumbai International Film Fest, I might have even allocated more time. Indian documentaries are the specialty. One of the best is about the ‘Gulabi Gang’, pink-sari’d women crusaders for truth and justice. Oh well, maybe next time. Next stop is Pune; C U there.