The first thing you notice when you first arrive in Mumbai, as many before me have accurately written, is its smell. It’s a new smell, and a smell incredibly specific to the place you’re in. You’re immediately aware: you’ve arrived in a place that you’ve never experienced before.
The moment the plane doors open and you make your way to the airport terminal, you’re grabbed tight and thrust into a whirlwind of colour, sights and more smells still as you explore the city, fading only as your plane eventually departs.
At least, that’s how it used to be. The Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport now boasts a sleek, futuristic look that stands in direct contrast to the city it is in, and perhaps indicative of the city it is aspiring to become. Still, the Mumbai experience won’t wait long to smother you with a sensory overload, fancy airport or otherwise.
COLOURS OF THE RAINBOW
For many of us, heading to work in the morning is made up of the same colours and hues. Professional life favours the monochrome in most of the developed world and in almost all big cities. Not at all the case in Mumbai, where a ride on the train blows the mind with the brightest shades of pink, green, red, blue, and every colour you never saw in a Central Business District.
Coming from a country where everyone lives in various shades of grey, the abundance of bright colours is a welcome shock, and an inspiring one, too. Like many a Hindi movie would overwhelmingly attest to, colours and dancing are half of every story.
RIDING THE RAIL
It’s easy for an inexperienced tourist to scoff at the significance of Women Only carriages in Mumbai’s suburban rail network, which operates similarly to a subway system and is referred to as the ‘local train’, but a first step onto the train will very quickly set you straight. Even if no one means to touch you, everyone is touching you, at all times.
Every part of you that’s available for someone else to be pressed up against. There is no personal space to speak of, and you’re not sure if you should be more fearful for your body or your worldly possessions throughout the journey. Just when you think the train couldn’t be any fuller, another station is reached, and still more people pile on.
“It’s amazing there aren’t any casualties,” I naively mused to a friend after a particularly daunting train ride.
“Oh, there are about eight or nine deaths a day, actually,” came the casual response.
For the female traveller, the women’s carriage is definitely the way to go: A peaceful place where your fears can be put aside and there is a noticeably absent lack of aggression and noise; women here are mostly just helping each other out, and if you’re hesitant about barging your way in or out of a full train, you’ll be helped, too. You might be politely trying to negotiate your way, but the women of Mumbai knowing better and, having no time for such dilly-dallying, will do the shoving for you. A simple subway ride becomes a rediscovered celebration of the sisterhood.
With such a vast number of vegetarians and a true religious devotion to meat-free living for many, Mumbai is full of delights for the travelling vegetarian. Every restaurant (literally, every one) has a dedicated vegetarian menu and a separate vegetarian kitchen. The unimposing vegan who avoids affecting his or her dining companions with personal choices has no need for fear here – nobody needs to compromise on options or accessibility.
If you think you know good tea, India will promptly remind the rest of us that they know better – way better. A meal is incomplete without a cup of chai, which fortunately is never far away as you wander the city, keeping an eye out for the nearest chaat, a popular street food, and a hot cup of masala chai.
Sights, sounds, (too much) touch and smells, check. Taste: A constant and welcome adventure that never ends.
It would be impossible to write about India without mentioning its devastating issues of poverty, although I hesitate to mention it lest I add to the well-worn stereotype of poor kids in India, thieves and touts, famine and crime.
The situation, while not one that we should ignore, is one that we should at least stop ourselves from contributing negatively towards. India has plenty of its own beauty without visits to questionable tiger safaris or irresponsible elephant enclosures, and there are plenty of ways to give without succumbing to orphanage tourism. Responsible tourism comes with finding out what those ways are.
Seeing vast amounts of poverty can be a harsh blow to the mind and soul, and despite our best and often instinctive inclination to give, it’s important to constantly keep in mind that spare change won’t save lives, but our larger actions and decisions can encourage a better society for the communities that we are in.
Visiting local establishments, hiring local guides and educating ourselves on the many issues there are to be addressed is a good start. Before a trip, it’s also worth taking the time to look into the areas that will be visited and considering ways to travel responsibly and to the benefit of the local community.
Leaving the sights and smells of India as you depart for more familiar territory, it’s impossible to ignore how much it has given; it’s then worth thinking about small ways to give back.