‘You’re going from Dubai to Mumbai?’ queried the customs officer in the Emirates departure lounge, with a tone that suggested we must have fried our brains in the desert’s midday sun. Flying direct from Dubai to Mumbai, the fifth most populous city in the world, he was well aware of the culture shift we were about to experience: we’d land in a sprawling mess of chaotic traffic, slums and swindlers who’d spot us like a Louis Vuitton knock-off in the Burj Al Arab. And he had a point. Mumbai is not a holiday destination per se, more a heavy dose of cultural reality to put Dubai’s cushy expat existence back into perspective, and a perfectly doable stopover trip or weekend away for gutsier UAE travellers.
Surviving in this frantic mess of slums, industrial landscape, high-rise towers, street life and colonial heritage are residents at both ends of the spectrum. The mega-wealthy dine in swanky restaurants and push India forward economically by day. Yet you’re more likely to rub shoulders with diligent factory workers, who live in slums keeping their family life ticking over on a pittance; street urchins covered in black dust sleeping on the pavement in the hot sun; and traders selling anything they can, from vegetables to toys, laid out on cloth on the pavement. As we made our way through the city by rickshaw to conquer Mumbai’s must-see sights in 24 hours, both the pleasant smell of cumin and the sobering smell of sewage wafted through the air and we knew it would be a trip to remember.
Refuel on local food Our first task was to find somewhere to eat. Food in India seems a contentious topic among travellers and guidebooks alike. But contrary to popular belief, diarrhoea does not come free with your boarding pass. Stick to cooked local foods and there’s no need to scour the city in a panic looking for a Western toilet (holes in the ground are standard, of course, but nothing the Glastonbury veteran would think twice about). A safe introduction to India’s cuisine is Dum Pukht, at the ITC Maratha hotel near the airport (Sahar Airport Road, www.itcwelcomgroup.in, +91 22 2830 3030) – try the gosht biryani and tender lamb with long-grain rice. Or, if you can hold out a little longer and venture into town, we’d recommend Golden Star (330 Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road, opposite Charni Road station, www.goldenstarthali.com, +91 22 2363 1983) – the delicious thalis allowed us to experience a number of curries, dhals and flavours in one hit.
Hindu caves Once the food had gone down (and stayed down), we made our way to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region: Elephanta Island. Leaving from the grand Muslim/Hindu-inspired Gateway of India, which was built to commemorate the visit of King George and Queen Mary in 1911, boats to the island depart every 15 minutes from 9am to 2pm and take just under an hour – you’ll pay Dhs11 for the trip. The sea view offered us an entirely new perspective of Mumbai and the chance to see the dense area in all its glory, with its hazy bubble of gray smog hovering above.
Arriving at the island, we were greeted by corn sellers, cows, dogs and ducks, street vendors and monkeys, though (strangely) no elephants. Climbing to the top of the hill, we reached the cave temples carved out of the island’s rock. Inside we discovered an array of courtyards, shrines, halls and grand architecture dating back to 600 AD, created to honour the Hindu gods – easily enough here to occupy you for a few hours.
Dhobi Ghat Back on the mainland and time for some more sightseeing, we negotiated with a friendly rickshaw driver (who spoke great English) to take us to the architecturally stunning Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a historic railway station and UNESCO site built in 1888. Our smiling taxi driver, however, was adamant his meter was broken (it’s incredible how many broken meters there are in India). We also noticed that he was friendly – so friendly, in fact, that he offered us his ‘best price ever’ for the ride, tried to take us to the shop of a ‘very good friend’, and on a sightseeing tour we’d never expected: the middle of the city’s slums on a detour to Chhatrapati (only a couple of kilometres away from our starting point).
Eventually, after a few heated discussions and a significantly lighter wallet, we arrived at Dhobi Ghat, the open-air laundromat where locals bash their washing around viciously in muddy water and hang it out amid an array of coloured clothing. It’s a great insight into daily life, but don’t expect to be here alone peering at the locals – it’s very much a voyeurs’ spot.
Chowpatty Beach at sunset Squeezing the last hours out of the day, we made our way over to Chowpatty Beach for the epic sunset over the city’s skyscrapers. Couples sit arm in arm, families eat picnics and people promenade at dusk in this area of Mumbai, bringing together all areas of society as they marvel at the hypnotic red sun making its descent. Don’t forget your camera to snap the obligatory scene of silhouetted urban sprawl, beach and rich colour in the sky – you can’t take a bad picture here.
Where to stay For a comfortable sleep that reminds you of home, opt for the impressive Leela Hotel, owned by Kempinski, located near the international and domestic airports. It has an incredible buffet, beautiful spa and pool and a relaxing grand lobby in which to chill out after a hard day of sightseeing. Rooms from Dhs828 a night. www.theleela.com/hotel-mumbai.html (+91 22 6691 1234)
Those on a budget should try Hotel Metro Palace. It’s great for a clean, no-frills stay, and is close to the airports if you’re on a stopover. From Dhs131 per bed per night. www.metropalacehotel.com
Slumming it If you’re looking for a real local perspective, try a slum tour with Reality Tours. A guide will walk you around Dharavi, known as the largest slum in Asia. Here you’ll get a glimpse of real life and everyday jobs such as recycling, pottery making, embroidery, baking, soap making and leather tanning in the giant grey community of shacks made from old bits of wood, concrete and metal. Short tours start from Dhs42 per person and a proportion of the money goes to the residents of the slums. Tours start at 9.15am and 1.45pm daily. www.realitytoursandtravel.com
History and geography • During British rule in the 17th century, Mumbai was officially known as Bombay. The name was changed in 1995. • The area was formed from a group of seven islands, including Old Woman’s Island, Bombay Island, Mahim, Colaba, Parel, Worli, and Mazagaon. • The current population of Mumbai is about 12.5 million. • The city covers a total area of 603 sq km. • Mumbai produces five per cent of India’s total GDP.