I'm arrived in Mumbai from Goa on Tuesday. A little earlier than planned, but it was just as well as Mumbai shut down on Thursday & Friday for the elections and I needed to get my Chinese VISA while I'm here. The elections in Mumbai happen a few days after my election experience in Karnataka, so I've arrived to another booze-ban. Turns out I'll end up in Rajasthan during its election phase. Good job I don't want a beer.
After a day negotiating the Chinese embassy and VISA application process, I headed for Leopold's Cafe in downtown Mumbai for a beef burger, my first non-veggie meal in over a month. I been having a strange fixation on a juicy beef burger and I have to say it was a bit of a let down. But what I was missing from my not-so-juicy burger was made up for by a surprise on the table next to me. I looked over and realised that one of the chaps pens was not working as he scribbled in a book. So I lent him mine.
Turns out I lent my pen to the author of Shantaram, who was passing through Mumbai in a process to sell the filming rights of the book. He returned my pen with a autographed napkin, including a birthday wish for the lovely Sarah. What a nice guy.
Having been here for a few days, I'm beginning to really like Mumbai. The horror stories I've heard from other travelers being continually pestered did not realise in my case, probably as I've wised up over the past month. Its a progressive, happening and wealthy place, demonstrated by the cheekiest Taxi driver I've come across yet, who tried to charge me 300 rupees for a 14 rupee journey. But he did know the way to the Chinese Embassy and I didn't. We settled on 80 rupees. I found out that Rickshaws are banned in Mumbai and all Taxi's have to run on LPG. I think London should do the same.
I also successfully managed to get my Chinese VISA, but word of warning, the 'express service' is anything but express. A three hour queue to submit my application and a two hour queue to pick it up. Turns out that each of the guys in the queue ahead of me was a travel agent with a bag load of passports. I should know by now, after all, I'm in india and there are a billion people trying to earn an extra dollar or few. Next time I'm going to pay someone to submit the application, just like the rest of India does.
The scars of the November 26th attack are present in many places, including some rather sobering bullet holes in the glass and wooden pillars at Leopold's. Facing criticism following the attacks, the Police have put in a bunch of measures to try and prevent another attack, but I have been left feeling that they are less than effective and are giving terrorists one of the things they want ...FEAR ON THE STREET... Quite how producing my passport when visiting a net cafe will prevent terrorism, I'm not sure. Apparently the terrorists used google maps to plan their attack, but then again, I'm not so sure they took a break from their rampage to quickly check the local map online. At Arambol Beach in Goa the Police even built a bunker on the beach, manned by a chap brandishing .... wait for it ... a bamboo stick. Quite why they need to protect a 500m stretch of beach when the coastline is hundreds of miles long, I'm not quite sure.
While in Mumbai, I did a slum tour in Dharavi which was an eye opener to the conditions that people have to live in to earn $2 a day, most of which they take home to their villages. Dharavi is a huge economic powerhouse churning out a multitude of stuff with a GDP of over $650 million. Most impressive to me was the recycling of waste from across India. Here they reuse or recycle everything, in particular plastics which they process into pellets to be sold to the manufacturers. What I found appalling is that the residents are not working for themselves. They are salaried (around $2 a day) by a mogul or don of some variety, who, not surprisingly, does not live in the slum. I concluded that the slum is a massive excuse for setting up industry and not worrying about the living conditions of staff, never mind health and safety. There were guys smelting aluminum indoors without any protective gear or even a simple extractor fan and chimney to get rid of the toxic fumes. I coughed and my eyes watered. There were chaps burning paint off tins, so they can be recycled. Once again, nothing to protect them... and it carries on... The government and NGO's are trying their best to improve the living conditions though better access to doctors, hospitals, water and sanitation, but I really hope that the Indian government takes a long hard look at the way these business are allowed to operate.
I went to visit a colleague and his family for a fantastic home cooked Lunch in new Mumbai. New Mumbai is a meticulously planned part of Mumbai which is a completely different and US shopping mall esque experience across the bay from Mumbai. To get there I got a hang-on-for-your-life-and-avoid-the-pylons experience riding a Mumbai commuter train. You need your wits about you without any doors on the trains, which are packed full of commuters. This is India at its finest.
Tonight I'm off to Ellora and Ajanta.