Mumbai is a city of extremes.. I think the most extreme I have ever seen, on both sides of the spectrum.
I remember getting off the plane, just turned 19 years old and thinking I was a super adventurer. I had my 20 pounds, 30 euros and two bankcards in my pocket, knowing from Lonely Planet that I would have to expect problems getting cash in India, and having foreign currencies to trade in case of emergency would help at some point during my trip.
So I got off the plane, no gate but bus for the first time in my life, and I stood on the middle of a huge asphalt field. It was so massive that I could not make any guess as to how big it was. All I remember is seeing a crappy bus riding towards the plane, some terminal far in sight and some vaguely distinct palm trees far away. “Banana republic” was the first word that came to mind on Indian soil. Hello Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Aiport (double h- what the-?), be prepared for this Dutch explorer.
I was not prepared for Mumbai at all. I got a taxi (a legal one, luckily, because I had read Lonely Planet’s chapter about rip-offs) and drove to the southernmost district where my prospective hostel was located. That was about 30 kilometers and it took me at least two hours. Talking about transport efficiency, that’s the distance I cycle in under two hours.
That first ride though, in hindsight, might have been the most interesting experience in India. Five minutes after me and my lovely taxi driver left the airport, the guy left the taxi to some random booth in the middle of what I can only call a mix between a building site, a dumping place for concrete and brick and an asphalt road in between. Infrastructure in India is a stretchable term. During the taxi driver being gone, I had my first experience with Mumbai’s extreme poverty: a girl aged probably 7-10 years old came to ask me for money. I turned down but she remained standing there pulling her puppy eyes on me. It was awkward. Some random 10 minutes later my taxi driver was back with a ticket (god knows what for) and we drove further into Mumbai.
Since the trip took nearly two hours, we obviously did not move very quickly. It did give me plenty of time to look around though. I saw massive skyscrapers, shiny as the ones you see in those ‘architecture-pornography’ images, amongst slums : seas of corrugated iron and plastic, bags, wood and whatever was there to grab for people to reinforce their shack. There were random building works (that did not seem to be tackled by anybody), road closures for no apparent reason that made traffic even quicker and even more susceptible for kids trying to sell newspapers and random toys. Once we got to the highway we were stuck in traffic again, because Mumbai’s highways don’t function – at all. It is a diverse mixture of rickshaws, taxis, cars, cargo bikes and whatever wanted to move forward just a bit. People were hanging out and sleeping everywhere and random objects such as car tyres could be found everywhere. We drove over a bridge with a river – wait, not a river, a toxic creek with a rich mix of the worst waste you can find. I had to hold my breath for minutes. People lived by the sides of it.
The centre of Mumbai does have beautiful sights but it is just chaotic. I decided to go to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the third day, but that was a dead hole of dry trees with housing blocks visible behind them plus a barricaded (safari) bus tour with middleclass schoolkids, screaming about lions caged with at least 2 layers of fences parting us. I decided to go to the biggest slum in Asia – Dharavi – after that, and that was really interesting to see even though it was as shitty as I imagined in some parts. Oh yeah by the way, everybody just walked over the railway tracks, and some people lived just a few metres off them. Mumbaistyle.
Safe to say, after a few days I was more than fed up with Mumbai. I could not handle the chaos, concrete, 35 degrees Celsius and massive humidity. The parks are barren and dry, and although the city has loads of trees they do not give you a feeling of being chilled – at all. Even though I probably picked the wrong (read: hot and humid) season to go to Mumbai, crazily enough I now long back for Mumbai. Maybe it’s because of the first picture – which is awesome, not mine and had a bit of retouching to be fair – but maybe London is a bit too non-extreme in that sense? Everything is handled perfectly fine, rush hour is a bit crowded but nowhere near as crowded as Mumbai. I don’t travel the Tube anyway. And you do see the sickest megamansions at Regent’s Park with only a railway line parting them from social housing estates at Euston, but those people don’t live in shiny skyscrapers respectively shacks of corrugated iron. Ah well ah well, Mumbai, you fascinate.