We were meant to arrive in Dadar (a suburb of Mumbai) at 5.50am but didn’t get there until about 7am. We didn’t fancy braving the commuter trains we’d previously read about and were now seeing, packed to the brim with people hanging off doors (we’d also read some ghastly statistic about people falling off the trains) with our backpacks and me feeling fragile. So we decided to take a taxi to Hotel Lawrence, which we’d booked and which was recommended by our friend Anna.
A driver approached us as soon as we got off the train, saying he’d charge no luggage fee and that the taxi was on a metre. He drove us south through Mumbai - surprisingly not very busy for rush hour in an Indian city - to the Prince of Wales museum, near the hotel. We asked if he could take us straight to the hotel, and he proceeded to go through the charade of asking passers-by on the street where we were going, which took a while. Eventually he dropped us by the street, which he said was too narrow to drive down. He then demanded a luggage charge, and wouldn’t listen when we protested. It came to Rs.800, and I gave him 2 Rs.500 notes, which he not-so-niftily pocketed and got out 2 Rs.100 notes, saying, “Madam, you only gave me Rs.200”.
For a second I thought maybe he was right and that I was going delusional, perhaps from being ill. But Florence confirmed that I’d given him 2 Rs.500s. He gave in pretty easily to accepting that we knew what we were doing; I guess he thought he may as well try. But the fact remains that he tried to cheat me, and we were angry, though relieved we didn’t fall for it.
Lawrence Hotel - which was more a hostel - was on the third floor of what looked like an extremely run-down office building, on a narrow road and pretty hidden away. There was a groaning lift with a sign saying not to enter with luggage, and we thought we’d stay safe and stick to the stairs. As it was about 7.30am, we couldn’t check in but were able to leave our bags in the office with the smiley owner.
We then walked down past the Prince of Wales museum into Colaba, the area where most tourists stay - Lawrence was just on the edge. We went to the Gateway of India which was pretty impressive in its mixture of Gujarati and Victorian architectural design. Unfortunately however, there was a music concert outside it so there were huge sound systems, a stage and lights obstructing the monument from a far-away, camera-friendly view to see it all in one snapshot. We did get an excellent view, however, of the Taj Mahal Hotel, famous to me mainly due to the terrorist attacks there in 2008. I don’t actually think I’d heard of it before the atrocities, but its history is interesting: an Indian man built it in retaliation to the British colonials’ refusal to allow him into what was at the time the swankiest hotel in Mumbai, claiming it was “whites-only”. Apparently the original hotel has since gone bankrupt and the Taj, glorious in its red and white stately brickwork and majestic towers, is now a chain all over India.
An equally charming fact I read in the guide book was about the Gateway itself: whilst built to welcome the British onto Indian soil, the long-lasting image most people have is of them leaving in 1947.
We walked around the streets of Colaba looking for somewhere to eat breakfast. I didn’t feel like anything but felt so weak that we both thought I should eat something plain. Mumbai seemed, compared to what we’d been told and our experience of other Indian cities, pretty empty. The architecture was interesting: tall, windowed terrace buildings, a far shabbier version of what you might find in Paris or Madrid. The streets of Colaba were wide - and actually had pavements! - it was pretty leafy, and there wasn’t much traffic. The people walking to work were both men and women; women were wearing suits or jeans and t-shirts. Some were wearing saris, but overall the dress code was a lot more westernised.
We found a meals-restaurant and ate some toast. We were both shattered and I was still feeling rough. I was torn between not wanting to miss out on Mumbai, and the overwhelming urge to lie down.
We bought a TimeOut guide to Mumbai and decided to visit Jehangir Art Gallery, attached to the Prince of Wales museum but free (Prince of Wales being out of our price range). One exhibition at Jehangir was by a female Indian artist who’d painted - in the most gorgeously bright colours - depictions of lovers Radha and Krishna. Most of the paintings portrayed a main profile of both or either of them, but always with a separate, smaller motif on the side of other figures or a story - rather reminding me of Klimmt. I absolutely loved this gallery; there was also a collection of works by Vinayak Jagdale entitled “Universal Peace”, showing the Buddha in various forms and colours. I really wanted to buy postcards or a poster, some sort of souvenir, from a shop, as I have done in European art galleries, but they didn’t seem to have established this tradition.
When it was twelve noon and we could check into the hostel, I went back to lie down throughout the afternoon. Whilst the bathrooms were shared, the rooms were spacious and clean, breakfast was included in the price, and the proprietor also filled up water bottles with filtered water which we were free to take as we pleased. For Rs.700, that’s brilliant for Mumbai, and I would definitely recommend it to any other budget travellers.
Florence used the afternoon to get a boat out to the Elephanta Caves, which she said were similar to so many other UNESCO World Heritage sites that we’ve seen and I hadn’t missed much, which made me feel better.
I felt a lot better after a rest and a shower so in the evening we went for a walk, heading north and getting lost amongst commuters and other rushing around on the streets.
The streets - particularly MG Road - were grand and wide, not unlike Haussman’s boulevards in Paris, but with Victorian-style buildings housing banks, designer stores and the infamous Victoria Terminus train station, which looks exactly like St Pancras.
Amongst the colonial architecture and modern European lifestyle, Mumbai’s Indian charm emerged with the hawkers and street stalls set up all the way along MG Road and around Flora Fountain. We ate dinner in an Indian restaurant where I had dhal and rice; I was pretty hungry by that point.
View from Matanga Hill
The next day we decided to venture across the river; there was a boat that went continuously back and forth, taking about three minutes and costing Rs.15. Once on the other side, we walked past a few cafes and guesthouses and came upon some glorious rice paddy fields. The landscape was odd, because I associate paddy fields with a tropical setting like that of Tamil Nadu; however, towering above were huge rocks and a sparseness that was prevalent all over Hampi. I got quite nervous when we saw two huge monkeys - two-thirds the size of a man walking alongside them - darting down the rice paddy. I wouldn’t have wanted to come into close contact with them, but luckily we didn’t see any closer up!
We walked quite a bit but never got round to finding the Hanuman temple we’d been told about; it was so hot that we couldn’t be bothered to walk much further and eventually turned back and ate lunch and had a nice cold beer by the river (unlike the bazaar, establishments on the other side of the river are licensed to sell alcohol).
In the afternoon, when the heat of the day had died down somewhat, we walked up Matanga Hill. Many people go there for sunrise, but we weren’t really sure about this because we were unclear about where it was and how long it would take; IVC Lisa had also warned us of the monkeys there at that time!
I’m so glad we went up there: the views were stunning. We had a 360 degree view all over Hampi, of palm trees, rocks and ruins stretching out for miles. There was even a chai-wallah there, calling himself “Chai Raju”, though we made the mistake of not asking how much it would cost before drinking it, and it cost Rs.80 for two (chai is usually Rs.5 per cup…)! Though he had carted it all the way up the hill…
Poor Florence was badly ill that evening, so I went out for dinner alone.
The next day she wasn’t feeling much better, so I used the opportunity to hire a bicycle and cycled around to the Royal Enclosure, a lot of which we hadn’t yet seen. I really enjoyed cycling again; it felt good to be exercising, but also the old corny phrase of the wind being in my hair really rang true.
Florence was feeling better later, and we took a rickshaw to what people had told us were “the waterfalls” - but which was in fact just a gushing river several kilometres from the bazaar. I enjoyed talking to our rickshaw driver, Shiva (we met several people called Shiva in Hampi…), who was from Pondicherry and was a sponsored child at Volontariat! What a small world.
The next morning we got up at 5am and got a rickshaw at 5.45 to Hospet train station. Annoyingly, though our train was supposed to be at 6.50am it was an hour late, but we managed to get some sleep when it did come.
Our first train was only three hours; we stopped at a station called Hubli for six hours before embarking on the next overnight train to Mumbai. Just before the train came I suddenly started feeling really sick and weak; when we did get the train I was really quite ill - I think I must have caught what Florence had, but I also had a fever and ended up passing out in the toilet, I think from dehydration! The guard ended up phoning ahead to one of the stations and getting a doctor to come and check on me! Being on a train was probably the worst place to be ill, and especially annoying as I wasn’t that violently sick the entire six months in India. But I just hoped I’d be better to enjoy Mumbai as that was the trip I was most looking forward to…