When you’re in a foreign country – and I mean exotically foreign, rather than Magaluf or Ayia Napa – even the most mundane aspects of travel can be fascinating. Our first stop on our daylong city tour was to get the car filled up with fuel. In the UK this is hardly an eventful experience. You get out, unscrew the cap, stick in the nozzle and pull the trigger. You might have the excitement of pay at pump, or you may choose the more traditional pay in kiosk. That’s about it.
In Mumbai, however, things are different. You all get out of the car. One man fills it with fuel, another cleans it, another ushers you into the kiosk to pay. When you come out, the car has been reparked by yet another, who will provide any other automobolistic services you require. They will check your tyre pressure, your screenwash, your oil – and it’s all free and done with a friendly, eager to please attitude. How very different from the UK Tesco experience. It seems like good value too – diesel was 53.69 rupees per litre – that’s about 64 pence. Of course, it’s relatively expensive in comparison to the average wage.
We were driving out of central Bombay towards the north. One of the first things you see is an extraordinarily shaped tower emerging out of nowhere. It looks like one half of a huge jigsaw puzzle that ought to slot into another jigsaw-tower to make one complete tower block. It’s 26 storeys, if I remember rightly, and it’s worth about $2 billion. Yes, billion. It belongs to the owner of the Reliance Company, and the most extraordinary thing is that only six people live there. So, no need to bump into each other if you don’t want to.
From perhaps Mumbai’s smartest location to one of its most hard-working. It’s a short distance to the Dhobi Ghat, which covers a vast area of the town, and from its best viewpoint you can actually only see a fraction of it. Rows and rows of gleaming washing extend almost to the horizon in this incredible laundry village. Colour-co-ordinated lines of clean clothes join corrugated iron shacks where a vast team of skilled laundrymen and women process tons and tons of washing. It comes from hotels, hospitals, private residences; and also from clothing companies as it gets washed here as part of the manufacturing process. People work hard here; but as a result they earn a good living, and to have your own laundry set-up in this complex is quite some achievement.
It’s an awe-inspiring sight. You could gaze at it for hours as there is always something new to see. Strong men beating wet fabric against the sides of stone walls to get the dirt out; whole families taking turns to wash themselves in large urns of soapy water; guys carrying large laundry bags up and down steps to and from the street as they deliver the goods through all stages of the process. And, amazingly, all those rows of washing lines, crammed full of clothes, and not one clothes peg in sight. The secret is they twist two ropes together to form one line so each item of clothing can be trapped in the grip of the ropes. So much industry and hard work going on all around you, it’s the most unlikely, but extremely popular, tourist sight in Mumbai. Completely mesmerising.
From gritty reality to a haven of peace. Our next stop was the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, better known as the Hanging Gardens, originally opened in 1881. Its welcome sign on the way in prohibits “Playing outdoor games like cricket, football, kite flying, strenuous exercises, running, etc; sleeping, drinking liquor, smoking, misbehaviour etc; feeding to animals and birds; bringing pets; plucking of flowers and trees; bringing and eating outside eatables; and littering”. Apart from that, you can have a good time. It’s positioned close to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, which as non-Parsees you’re not allowed to see – and that was fine by me. Instead you have such delights as landscaped lawns, a bandstand, exotic flowers and a Pillar of Friendship. It makes for a good place to rest for a bit after some heavy duty sightseeing. There are also fabulous views over the bay, which our guide, Amish, had tried to show us the previous evening. Just alongside the park is a children’s play area with a rather superb enormous Doc Marten, where the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe lives. OK, you have to suspend a bit of belief there, she’s not actually real. The place was thronging with groups of schoolchildren, all very neatly dressed in their blue uniforms; most of whom behaved extremely demurely; just a few came out with the usual “Hello! How are you! What’s your name!” to which you reply “Hello! I’m fine thank you! My name’s Chris! What’s yours?” to which they simply giggle hysterically. Must Not Frighten Schoolchildren.
The next port of call on our day trip was the Gandhi House, or to give it its proper name Mani Bhavan. This was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 to 1934. It’s a very absorbing little museum, which includes his bedroom, dozens of display cabinets with models re-enacting significant moments of his life, and also a large library and study area containing thousands of documents pertaining to the great man. The terrace off his bedroom has a charming view over the street and is where he was arrested in 1932. It’s definitely worth half an hour or more of your time, and you do get a good sense of history and privilege to be in the place where he spent such a lot of time.
Then it was definitely time for a long leisurely lunch. Amish took us to the Samrat restaurant, which was a busy and delicious place that did a good range of vegetarian food (always the best bet in India). We sat upstairs and ordered a selection of goodies and did our best to eat them the Indian way, with consequently very messy hands, which in itself was good fun. An excellent choice for locals and tourists alike.
Not very far to retrace our steps from last night to visit the Gateway of India in the daylight. The square was still awash with people, and the Gateway itself looked very imposing and formal. We would return to the area the following day, as it’s the departure point for boats to Elephanta Island. It was nice just to wander around, and it’s a great place for people-watching.
Amish wanted to take us to a little stall where he said you get the best masala tea in town. There you will find the most skilful tea maker in the world, and the queue can be worryingly long, so in order to be able to serve all his customers he has to work really hard and really fast. Masala tea ought, by my taste buds, to be the most disgusting thing in the world. I like my tea with very little or no milk, clean, plain and simple. This masala tea is milky, spiced, complex, and completely delicious. No wonder he has such queues. As befits distinguished overseas guests we were served our tea in posh cups. All tea’d up, we returned to the hotel for a much needed afternoon nap.
What I didn’t tell you, gentle reader, was that it was Valentine’s Day. Traditionally Mrs C and I like to do something to mark the occasion – go to a restaurant, or maybe take a day trip somewhere exotic. Well, there we were in Mumbai, you can’t get much more exotic than that. I had asked the hotel in advance if they were having any particular Valentine’s Day events – and they weren’t. I don’t think it’s very big in India. Nevertheless, they suggested that we have a private dining experience by the pool. Sounded like a good idea to me. Thus it was that later on we turned up at the poolside, all scrubbed up and looking lovely, to enjoy our second vegetarian thali of the day. We had a special menu printed up in our name, and rounded off a superb meal with a fab bottle of Crozes Hermitage. That’s the kind of thing the Oberoi really excels at. It was great!
If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit mumbaimoments.com