Mumbai – Culture Shock

India was the first trip of its kind for us. We have been to much of Europe, Japan, Canada and of course the USA — all very developed nations. Other than K’s visit to China for her MBA program, this would be our first visit to a developing nation and we had been preparing ourselves that this trip would be a new experience — it didn’t disappoint.

Due to the size of this trip and the vast differences from our other travel destinations, we are going to break it up into a series of blog posts, so check back daily for the future installments. We’ll start with Mumbai — our first stop.

15644Formerly called Bombay, Mumbai is India’s largest city with 15 million people. Home to Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) and the nation’s stock exchange, it is New York and Los Angeles rolled into one. However, unlike New York and LA, it isn’t really a big tourist destination. There are a few things to see, but most guide books suggest making it brief and getting out of town. That was exactly our plan.
16771Arriving by plane, we planned to stay one night and catch a train to Goa the next morning. As our plane landed, we braced for the culture shock. Looking out my window as we approached the runway, there appeared to be thousands of “boxes” spread across the landscape. Pressed up against one another and overlapping at the edges, they appeared in waves clinging to every rise and fall of the ground below. I had never seen anything like it. Could it be this is where people lived?

As we exited the airport, we were hit with a rush of hot and humid air — a refreshing change from the constant cold of London. We found our driver and started the 1 hour journey — though only about 8 miles — to our hotel. It was eye opening. The streets were packed. Workers rode in the back of trucks piled upon its cargo, a dozen or more children crammed into an auto-rickshaw (a three wheeled vehicle that is a cross between a go-cart and a bicycle), and a family of four stacked horizontally on a motor bike. To an American the drivers appeared insane. There were no lanes, non-stop honking, and the constant anxiety that vehicles were about to collide — though they never did.

15749Along the road we saw the “boxes” from the ground. Homes for many of the residents of Mumbai made from scraps of wood and boards. No doubt without running water or electricity. But these people were lucky compared to some — those residing under tarps propped up along side the road and washing in the mud puddle in the street out front.

Yes, Mumbai was definitely the shocker as promised. But as we soon found out, this is not how all of India lives. Just as in other countries around the world, India has its range of rich and poor.

15639We spent our carefully planned half-day in Mumbai seeing some of the highlighted sights — mostly architectural remnants from the British era — the Gateway to India, Flora Fountain, Victoria Terminus, Bombay University and the Prince of Wales museum. Unfortunately, many of the sights were a bit disappointing compared to the primped photos in the guide books. The buildings appeared worn and run-down either due to the harsh hot and humid climate or negligent maintenance.

As we walked around the downtown area, we attracted attention with our white skin against a sea of brown. It was difficult to stop to take a photo or check the map without being approached by a peddler or beggar. K in particular often gathered a trail of young Indian men hoping to be discrete as they altered their route to coincide with ours.

15684Wrapping up the downtown sights, we headed north to the Crawford market area. Being late in the day on a Sunday, many of the market stalls were closed, but we got a taste of a different part of the city. The buildings were old but had character. K spotted one particularly artistic window and started to snap a photo when a small girl appeared. Noticing K, she smiled, waved and posed for the picture before running to get her sister to join her for another photo. Moments later, she appeared on the ground next to us. As her family filed into the taxi she had been watching for, she stole a minute to greet us and introduce herself. As one of the first people to welcome us to their country, we soon learned that Indians are very kind and friendly people.
15774From there we headed to Chowpatty Beach. An almost carnival atmosphere, perhaps similar to Coney Island (though I’ve never been there), this long and wide stretch of beach sported dozens of food stalls, children’s rides, and vendors selling ice cream, roasted chick peas and cotton candy. Arriving at sunset, we enjoyed the chance to take a break from the streets and take in the view. It was refreshing to see Indians sitting on the beach, walking in the water, entertaining children and relaxing as a family or couple. It seemed normal compared to our first impressions — many could just have easily been an American family or couple.

As the sun lowered below the horizon, dinner time approached. So far we had managed well adjusting to our new environment, but had not yet faced the challenge of eating. Prior to our departure we were loaded up with warnings about the water, fruit, and various other types of food. A bit nervous we picked a restaurant out of our Rough Guide hoping for a bit of safety, but unsure of what to expect. Wandering in to the cafe described as “the quintessential Bombay experience” we noticed the wooden wall panels, fancy mirrors and marble tabletops described in the guide, though it didn’t invoke the same luxurious old world feel of the similarly described cafe we enjoyed in Vienna.

Obviously a bit lost, we were warmly greeted and given a table and a menu. With a bit of help we picked a few of the specials from the menu. Looking around at the clientèle, they were all Indians, perhaps stopping for a bite to eat as we might at Panera Bread of Pret A Manger only with the addition of waiters. Unlike out on the street, they didn’t seem too interested in us. Following their lead, we headed to the wash basin in the back to clean our hands. Though we added an extra dose of our antibacterial gel for good measure. The wash basin is an important part of an Indian restaurant as many people eat with their hands — or hand. The right hand is the “clean hand” reserved for food. It needs to be washed before the meal and again after. Sensing we might might not be keen on eating with our hands, they brought us forks and even napkins.

The food was delicious and unlike the Indian food we have had in London. We drank lemonade straight from the newly opened bottle and avoided the freshly washed glasses dripping with tap water. Finishing up with the recommended custard dessert, we were satisfied with our meal. India wasn’t so bad after all. And, in fact, we would find it to be a lot of fun in the days to come.

Next stop, Goa. Check back tomorrow for details of the next leg of our journey.

Check out our Mumbai album for more photos.

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