After preferring the history and urban vibes of Panjim over supposedly laid back Vagator, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised how much we liked Mumbai.
Although this place was one of the key drivers of this trip, we entered the city with trepidation on several accounts. Firstly, air quality. We hadn’t had it bad yet, but F was developing a cough and it is reportedly amongst the worst in the world. No matter how interesting, it wasn’t going to be worth permanent health consequences. Secondly, to a person, everyone we talked to said it was an awful city, even Aldo, especially Aldo, who grew up there. Too fast, too crowded, too mean, everything difficult.
With regret, then, we had cut our stay back to just two days and were still worried what we would face. The plane approach did nothing to calm us, with thick brown banks of smog and flaming oil dereks adding to the murk. And peering down at the scale of the city, a tiny peninsula bristling with skyscrapers, it was obvious why it must be so impossibly crowded.
Yet all of that faded away as our taxi navigated the western approach to the city. We took the most orderly highway we had seen yet, with cars using lanes and obeying stop lights, down the waterfront as the sunset beautifully lit the tall city to our left. It got a bit more chaotic as we entered the Fort/Colaba area and found our “B and B” in an old hotel directly across from the main bus station.
Our room was some combination of wonderful and horrible. They were repainting doors, so there were strong likely toxic oil paint fumes hanging over the kinda cool old salvaged divans, wardrobes, dressing tables filling a massive high ceilinged room with sun porch. The non-stop honking of the busy main street below almost blurred into a single background noise. The place was just so sad and so lovely all at once.
We only had energy to find dinner nearby, and couldn’t resist when Google offered us a tiki bar called Garage, Inc just a block away. We try to follow a rule that if a restaurant is empty, we move on, but sometimes we take a risk if we are at off hours, or it feels okay. We were a little early, and the Gothic cathedral ceilings were just too weird to pass up. One of the 5 or 6 idle staff politely and formally took our order for two tiki cocktails, then came back to explain the happy our special – buy 2, get one free, but only if we had the same drink. Something to do with inventory management…The drinks were made of fresh ingredients and were tasty with over-the-top garnishes in a nice mug. As tired as we were, three was probably enough, but we shared one more tasty concoction and we had a satisfying meal, paid the slightly eye watering bill, and made our way to bed.
The next two days were spent happily in our favourite form of tourism. We walked and we ate and drank. We were just two blocks from the famous Taj hotel and the India Gate. There we were amused rather than annoyed by the touts with “flowers for Hindu festival”, “photo just one dollar” and the shoe shine one who rightly pointed out how very, very dirty our sandals were. We walked main streets and back alleys. We passed the Bombay Stock Exchange and lingered in the old Victoria Station.
We couldn’t quite muster the courage to try the street foods recommended by Aldo, but we had success in a parade of irrisistibly named restaurants: Effingut Brewpub, Theobroma Bakery, The Ideal Corner Parsi Restaurant, Vintage Bombay. Of course we did quick Google searches to make sure the food would match the name and exteriors, and some turned out to be in Lonely Planet anyway, but the discovery was part of the fun.
The traffic congestion was not especially worse than other places we’d been, and the air quality was not noticeably terrible. But as we only traveled by foot the whole time, and we spent too many hours in our room completing our bookings, we really didn’t explore much of the city. We were armed with lists of bars, breweries and restaurants in other neighborhoods that we never reached. We meant to at least take a ferry to Elephanta Island to see the ancient caves, but opted for local walking instead.
Our last night, we sought out a nearby cocktail bar, which happened to be offering a two for one when we arrived, and sat at the bar. We struck up conversation with a local businessman who drops in for the special on his way home most nights, and began adding to our long lists of places we wouldn’t reach. We drowned our sorrows in a pair of exceptional martinis, and called an early night.
As our Uber zoomed along the empty 4 am roads on the way to our ungodly early flight to Aurangabad, we stared longingly over the dark city we had yet to explore. Dreaming of our return, we were slow to realise that we were not fully prepared to re-enter the realities of Indian travel. Our driver asked which domestic departure gate, and when neither was marked with Air India, we accepted his confident word that there are just the two, and got out. We did not expect the security officer’s glee in informing us that ALL Air India flights depart from International Terminal, 5 Km away… thud, back to reality and scurry off to find a taxi.