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Bombay (Mumbai), India

Trip in December 1994. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

On the midnight taxi-trip from the airport to the hotel (West End Hotel), our taxi was stopped by a uniformed man with a rifle. He could have been a policeman or a soldier or something else, but it was difficult to say. He got the driver to get out of the car and open the boot, then he poked at my baggage with the end of his gun. He and the driver exchanged a few words of Indian, and we were free to continue. What it was quite about I don't know. It was a weird start to the trip. The hotel itself was interesting, with the white dressed guy outside ready to hail you a taxi any minute, the old fashioned style lifts with it's manually closed inner door, and the ceiling fans in the rooms, which were still almost unbearably hot. The view from the window was equally interesting, looking down from a small balcony onto the street below, at it's best when waking up in the morning and vendors were moving large amounts of food up and down the dusty road. Fantastic.

At first, Bombay appears to be desperately poor. People sleep on the streets and in the central reservation, and at the side of some of the roads are these big piles of rubbish, which upon further examination turn out to be homes. Up to eight people at a time will come up to the taxi begging when it stops at traffic lights, many with a wide variety of diseases or disfigurements. One young boy hung onto the window after the taxi started moving, though he couldn't keep up. Incredible. Many people sleep on the streets at night, which a bizarre sight. The poverty is so "in your face" that it's difficult to see the rest, the middle class of which there are plenty around.

During my short stay in India there were two Girl Guides from Ruth's Sangam Girl Guide meeting (Ruth is my Aunt) with us, (Suzanne from Ireland, and Cathy from England) so we went on the tour with them and we went out to an Indian restaurant. Not being that familiar with all the different types of curry makes choosing a meal difficult, as you are presented with a list of meals which, (if you are unfamiliar with the cuisine) all have the capacity to burn your mouth off to one degree or another (With spices not temperature). I had to guess anyway, and I was lucky. The food is much more spicy than the Indian food in the UK, and much better too.They also supply the cocktails with ice, something the guide books warn you to avoid. I didn't get ill anyway. So we tried many things, and they were all good, and we had lots of cheap alcoholic cocktails too.

When I went to buy some cheap postcards from a street vendor, he was quite willing to accept 1 Pound or 1 Dollar for them. The street vendors are a bit of a pain really, following you around trying to sell their stuff. Many of them sell the same things too, and if you should dare show an interest or buy something, all the ones selling the same item come around, until eventually you run away and get into a taxi to escape. The night was only spoiled slightly by the Taxi driver trying to rip us off on the way back to the hotel, but this seems to be quite common.

One type of food to avoid is the faux-English food in the hotels. The "English Breakfast" was a good attempt but I think had been made by looking at a picture. It had all the right ingredients, but was somehow just not right. But since Chicken Tikka was on the breakfast menu as well, that is a much better local alternative to the English Breakfast. And the cornflakes.. don't even go there. Imagine something like pictures of cornflakes printed onto thin card and then cut up and put into a box, and you're not far off the experience.

During the tour of Bombay, we went to Gandhi's house, and got to stand on his balcony from which he addressed the people. I thought "we're not worthy". Literally, there is so much of a sense of epic history about this place and all of Bombay which we saw, it's quite incredible. You know you're a long way from home when you see people sitting on the roof of a train.

Also on the tour, we saw the Gateway to India, an"Arc de triumph" style building, we saw the Dhobi laundry, where they beat your clothes against concrete to get them clean. And apparently, it works too, though you get a lot of broken buttons!. Oh, the best thing on the tour for me was the Prince of Wales museum, a Taj-Mahal style building, (But smaller), with a load of palm trees in the gardens in front. When I saw it I thought "Oh Wow". It's like these things you see on films. There is a definite British influence in some things, some of the architecture, and the railways. Also the maddening sense of burocracy. Because we were white (and Ruth and Cathy were blonde), people were looking at us all the time, and one woman was staring so intently that she tripped up - even the taxi driver laughed. It's peculiar getting so much attention, and we didn't see many other tourists. They seem to be absent from most places, except for the inevitable group of backpackers getting henna tatoos near to the Gateway to India.

Video hire is 5p in Bombay, and the cinema is 10p. Pepsi is 12p a bottle. Car insurance is about 18 pounds per year. The wages are low though, to compensate. All the flat surfaces have ads on them. Never have I seen so much saturation advertising. (This changed in later years of course, with Tokyo and Hong Kong beating it hands-down) All the adverts are hand painted too, no posters. The quality of the painting ranges from average to superb, the best ones being masterpieces, the artists talent being wasted on a perfect painting of a kettle or a western film poster. Ironic that about 95% of the population could in no way afford what was being advertised. - or that's how it seemed. I later learned that there are many middle class in India, it's just that the poor ones are so much more obvious.

The taxi ride back to the airport was a bit worrying, as at night, lights are optional, there are no indicators and no seatbelts. (All of the taxis are like this, small, unsafe cars with no crash resistance and look like they were manufactured some time the early 50s) Because our side of the dual carriageway (if you could call it one ) was full, the driver decided to cross over to the other side where it was empty. Very empty, luckily. We saw an elephant at the side of the road too, as well as many cows wandering about in the city. All those cows and all those starving people, and they won't eat them becasue they are sacred. Oh yes, there is a smell all the time, though it gets worse over the river. It's a smell of sewage and curry and rubbish all mixed together. It's not nice, but it certainly adds to that feeling you're a long long way from home.

Sadly, I was much too phazed out by Bombay to remember to take many photographs, hence there are only two on this webiste.

India was definitely the most diverse location on the trip, very alive and "In your face". It was quite charming in it's own way, and after my first visit, I thought it was interesting, but that I wouldn't want to go back. Years later, I find myself thinking that maybe it'd be a cool place to go to again, as it's charm is unique. Despire all this writing, the place really defies description, so I advise you to check it out for yourself. You will not be disappointed. [providing they are not engaged in a war with Pakistan that is]

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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 1995

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