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Our milky white-faced group within the walls of Amber Fort of Jaipur

 

It’s easy to lose your head in Mumbai (Bombay until 1995)… not to mention an arm or two.

More on this in a second.

Mumbai is a huge metropolis on the western coast of India.

20.5 million souls surrounded by ubiquitous smoky haze and skies.

Honestly, all of India that we visited in late January was grey with a pall of smoke haze.

I had naively figured that when we decamped congested Delhi, the winds would gently sweep the atmosphere of smoke, and the skies outside of the city would be small-town clear and pristine.

Nope. Blurry haze followed and hung over us from Delhi to Agra, Jaipur to Udaipur, Mumbai to Goa.

Sorry, I lost my train of thought. Must be the smoke clouding my brain.

The metro system of Mumbai is efficient and well-used.

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But the young men of Mumbai, like young men all over the world, like to impress young ladies and friends with acts of derring-do. Apparently, this daring to impress includes hanging head and body limbs outside the wide open doors of rapidly moving metro cars.

Unfortunately, metal poles and other trains pass perilously close by to the metro cars. Despite signs inside the cars cautioning riders in Hindi and English to stay completely within the cars, young men continue to pay more attention to the young ladies than those prescient warning signs.

And, unfortunately, each day 10 accidental deaths occur on the Mumbai rapid transit system.

Every day.

Efficient at transporting. Efficient at killing.

……………

The overnight train from Udaipur to Mumbai is described as a first class, air conditioned, comfortable sleeping car arrangement. Sounds pretty good, right? Can’t wait.

Walking along the late-evening platform to the stationary train, baggage rolling along behind, there is a grimy sense that we’re traipsing alongside a 1918 version of a Russian cattle cart for the poorest of the revolutionary Bolsheviks. Old… worn… dirty… bars over the windows.

FIRST CLASS SLEEPER is written on the side of the train cars.

We clambered aboard and found our assigned seats as many other passengers squeezed by with heavy suitcases and bags, to locate their seats. We jammed our luggage beneath the bench seats as best we could.

Sitting down on two brown vinyl, straight-backed benches facing each other, a few tears in the fabric, 3 passengers per side, we looked around at the milieu that promised pretty high and delivered pretty low.

When were the walls and windows of this train last washed?

As the train quietly pulled away from the station right on time, each of us assessed the apparent sleeping arrangements. The benches we sat on were the lower bunks for 2, the seat backs folded up and made a mid-section set of bunks for 2 more and finally, another bench folded down from the ceiling making a 3rd set of bunks of the remaining two.

Rudimentary bathrooms with rickety metal doors were located at the end of the car, one washroom set up Indian-style (squat toilets) and the other a Western-style seated toilet. Caked in grime. Neither facility looked remotely appealing even before they had been used by 30 or 40 souls for the following 16 hours.

Spoiled westerners that we were, we gasped, shrugged and gamely tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

Maureen and I volunteered for the top bunks since one of our British travelling companions was suffering intestinal discomfort – a middle bunk made more sense for her need to have easier access to a toilet. Two very pleasant young Indian passengers returning to Mumbai took the bottom bunks.

Each passenger was given a sealed plastic bag containing two white sheets and separately, a roughly-folded beige woollen blanket with tattered edges and seams.

After sleepily awaiting a visit from the train’s officious purser to check our tickets and passports, we threw our carry-on bags up to our bunks and climbed the metal rungs at the end of the bench bunks to the upper reaches.

Very little space remained between the bunks and the ceiling so we wiggled and wormed our way forward onto the platforms that would be our resting place for the night.

Sitting up wasn’t an option. Movement of any type was barely an option. Making a comfortable bed to rest was challenging with the limited space and a carry-on bag taking up much of the room available.

But manage we did.

My legs needed to remain bent for the night so that my feet didn’t impede passersby or prevent the door to the train car opening.

After finding a small nest of reasonable comfort, no desired bathroom break could be reasonably contemplated or envisioned for the reminder of the night given the work effort to find a way out of the straightjacket and then to return again.

Morning finally arrived. But we couldn’t escape our pods until the other younger members below decided to awake. Prisoners on a shelf.

16 hours after pulling away from Udaipur, we descended from the sleep car into the humid heat of Mumbai.

Travelling is about accommodation and acceptance of the good and the less than good, and so accommodate we did.

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Mumbai as I said is a sizeable city on the west coast and, as a financial centre, consists of that confusing mixture of great wealth and sublime poverty. Beautiful modern skyscrapers co-exist with destitute families sleeping roughly on the sides of heavily trafficked roads through the city.

Our first morning journey in Mumbai was to the world’s largest outdoor laundry facility… Dhobi Ghat.

The flyover bridge of Mahalaxmi railway station gives us a bird’s eye view of the huge outdoor laundromat stretching far off into the distance.

Rows of open-air concrete wash pens are each fitted with their own flogging stone, filled with men and women handwashing the clothes.

Whole families live within the washing compound that lies next to the Mahalaxmi railway station. Long lines of sheets and men’s white shirts hang languorously in the sunshine between the wash pens.

The washers, locally known as Dhobis, work in the open to wash clothes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals, businesses and private citizens. Like the incredible organization of Mumbai’s lunch box deliveries, no laundry is lost or misdirected.

Descending the bridge stairs, we soon find ourselves ensconced in the labyrinth of washing pens where Dhobis stand in the fibre-stained waters, washing, rinsing, thrashing the clothes and bed linens on the stones like medieval torturers, then hanging them to dry from twists of rope in the open air.

Children and small cats appear in occult doorways, darkened rooms reveal men pressing clothes and sheets with large, red hot coal-filled irons.

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……………..

Travel tells us stories of history, some ancient, some recent.

Not always nice stories.

As we arrive at the massive India Gate, an Arc de Triomphe-like edifice on the Mumbai waterfront, Chandrajeet, our local guide, reminds us of the terrorist attacks that took place here only a few years back.

In November 2008, 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic militant organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008, killing 164 people and wounding at least 308.

We wander across the clogged-with-traffic roadway to the Taj Hotel, where world leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have stayed, and also where, 32 died during the terrorist attacks.

We pass through stringent security to enter the lush hotel. The inside is beyond description, lavishly rich and sumptuous, filled with enormous bouquets of flowers, floors and walls lined with marble and glass.

We glide up a wide, romantic staircase under stunning crystal chandeliers before spilling into the dignified-as-all-hell Sea Lounge for traditional Afternoon Tea.

The Sea Lounge is filled with old colonial charm and a live tuxedo-clad pianist, highlighted by a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea.

Rocky, one of our Australian travel companions and I – sampling far too many sweet treats –  try to quickly outguess each other as the pianist starts into another musical movie theme… My Fair Lady! The Sound of Music! Dr. Zhivago!

The high tea features an elaborate buffet spread of classic English delicacies as well as local Indian favourites smoothed down with a selection of fine teas. The artistry of the display is sumptuous to the eye well before it intoxicates the palate.

The complicated blend of deadly tragic events and sophisticated high-life magic settles over us in a puzzling, somewhat unsettling way.

………….

There is always a time gap in my travels where my mind assimilates and digests the monstrous volume of input. I always feel so overwhelmed and slow to absorb at the time.

Sights and sounds, scents, tastes, images and textures settle and mingle for days, weeks and months after we return.

This trip to India is no different.

Travel allows us to learn about other places, other cultures, other stories. Travel brings us understanding – not always agreement – but understanding of the people and their ways.

Travel teaches us something about ourselves, an exploration of the outerward journey but also the inner journey, sneakily revealing our strengths and weaknesses, the stuff we’re made of… the good, the bad, AND the ugly… who ME?

Namaste !

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