The roads of Mumbai

A bustling road in Mumbai

Noesha and I parted ways as she headed on to Stansted for her flight to Holland and I took the tube to Heathrow to check in for my flight to Mumbai, better known to people such as my Grandfather as the anglicised Bombay (his exact words, which only an eightsomething could speak, were “I don’t like it when they go and change the names of these places”). I’d taken a gamble and gone with an Indian airline I’d never flown with called Jet Airways, but it worked out a treat. The aircraft had been recently refurbished, with the seats having huge touchscreens in the back of each of them from which your choice of flick could be played (never one to skip a cliche when it’s going begging, I plumped for Slumdog Millionaire and thoroughly enjoyed it). The staff even brought round a printed menu from which to choose your in-flight meal, the first time I’d seen such a touch back in cattle class. The grooves above the windows were also pimped out with smoothly oscillating neon lights that gave you the impression you were flying off into another world. Well, in a sense I was; I was off to Planet India.
I had planned to stay awake for the duration of the flight in order to stave off the jetlag, but my brain had other plans, shutting down during Blade Runner to dream of electric sheep.
The following morning we were bearing down on Mumbai, and as we swooped low over the city to land I saw its white apartment blocks and huge expanses of flat tin-roofed slums hugging the landscape. We skimmed just metres above them on the flightpath; they extended right up to the edge of the airport and were just a stone’s throw from our taxiing plane, packed with families so “low” as to not even be part of the Caste system: the Untouchables. Poor buggers; there’d be no Hollywood for them.
I had built India up in my mind to be a formidable place of bustle and hassle, so when I breezed through immigration and out of the airport into the lethargic 35 degree heat I was pleasantly surprised at the underwhelming amount of attention I received. I wandered down the line of patiently waiting drivers, finding the chap from my hotel waving a fair attempt at my name, and moved over to the dropping off point while he fetched the car. During that time I had a couple of people sidle up to me and politely ask if I needed transport, but they vanished as soon as I said I had a car booked; no pestering or lingering.
The short drive gave me my first view of Mumbai. The calmness of the airport had been a deceptive introduction; Mumbai had a pulse and it was racing – much like the vehicles on the roads, in fact. Rickshaws weaved into spaces that simply weren’t there and buses and lorries thundered past poor motorcyclists, a madcap dance which was performed to the symphony of a hundred horns. Indian vehicles do appear to have indicators and stoplights, but the manufacturers could save a lot of cash by leaving them off, seeing as they’re never used. The horn means everything – “I’m here”, “I’m overtaking”, “You’re overtaking me and I see you”, “I’m changing lanes suddenly and erratically”, “I’m annoyed at you changing lanes suddenly and erratically” – and everything else under the sun. Here the Highway Code reads Horn, Horn, Manouevre, Horn.
We reached the hotel without incident, and I checked in. I had played it safe for my first trip to India by booking a reasonably nice hotel in Mumbai for two nights to both recover from the flight and to acclimatise to the country. The room was pretty nice although sloppily finished, and it was – as expected – far from the four star it claimed to be, but it was clean, air-conditioned, mosquito-free, had satellite TV and a huge comfy bed and was essentially cheap for what it was in Mumbai (even fleapit hotels here are ridiculously expensive in comparison to the rest of the country).
I spent the two days either sleeping or wandering around the suburb in which the hotel was situated, and buying up things I had decided to get India-side, such as Doxcycline anti-malarial tablets (shedloads cheaper than back in Blighty, and no expensive private prescription required either). Indian streets were a hubbub of activity; aside from the cacophony of horns from the roads, the stories were true: cows (sacred animals in Hinduism) were indeed roaming free around the streets. Lines of stalls were doing a brisk trade in all manner of things. Women and children were digging trenches for pipes by the side of the road. People were having their hair cut on barbers’ chairs in the open air. As I wandered agape by the vibracy and life I saw, I was assailed also by the not-so-welcome smells of open drains, stomach-turningly sweet rotting piles of rubbish, and, er, cow shit.
There were thousands and thousands of people absolutely everywhere doing absolutely everything under the sun you could imagine.
I bloody loved it.