Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Colourful Chaos

India. I’m braced for it. The hassle, the beggars and poverty.

I fly into Mumbai, Bombay as it was known until 1996. Immediately you notice one characteristic of India – too many people everywhere. As one steps off the plane, there are over 10 people standing on the moveable gangway waiting for us. What are they all doing?

I use the one ATM which is thankfully working (and supervised by two guards) to get some money, taking 4,000 rupias, about 50 pounds, then buy a fixed-price taxi coupon. Someone grabs it off me without asking and helps me to find my taxi in seconds, then expects a tip. I refuse. My driver looks crazy, unshaven, with deranged eyes.

Arriving at the Hotel City View, I am told that there are no rooms of the type I reserved (single AC, shared bathroom) available. I made the reservation three days ago! They do have a better room available, for about twice the price. I refuse, insisting on the price I was quoted, 1,000 rupees. Eventually the chap at reception backs down and gives me another (“better” though that’s arguable) room for that price. I wander down for dinner at the vegetarian restaurant next door.

I have a thali, which is where you get a metal tray with lots of small dishes, with tea, then retire for lots of sleep.

First meal in India, and it’s very tasty!

First of many ultra-sweet cups of cha

Next morning it’s pouring with rain outside, and I have to move rooms to the cheaper shared bathroom ones which are up on the top floor, with a marvellous view and the incessant din of the staff quarters at the end of the corridor.

View from old room

All fine, except an irritating reception chap follows me up and down to my room twice. Against my principles I eventually give him 20 rupees to get rid of him.

View from new room

Mayhem in the streets below

A couple of Dutch girls are checking out, and I chat to them. They planned to spend 6 weeks in India, but after 3 weeks doing the south, they’re giving up and flying home! They’ve decided it just takes too long getting between places, so if they were to head up north they’d waste half of the 3 weeks just getting there. I suspect it’s more that they’ve had enough and need some comfort.

It’s a shame, and if I had a more flexible schedule (need to go to Calcutta), I’d suggest they come with me – certainly in India one can avoid the hassle, but you need to avoid the bargain basement places to do so. Unfortunately Mumbai is one of the most expensive places in India for hotels, hence us being in this place, Hotel City Palace, directly across the road from the Victoria Terminus, the main train station.

The Victoria Terminus

Anyway, I wish them luck, and head out. It’s raining on and off – in fact from my late start I’ve listened to the rain beating down outside like a drum, and looked out on to the classic Indian bazaar street behind me – with colourful rundown buildings a couple of metres across from me, and residents staring out at the rain like me, grinning when I nod or wave at them.


First stop, the station. Not because I need to buy a ticket, more out of interest – the famous Indian Railways! Everywhere is wet and muddy, and with my completely grip-free Crocs I have to be extra careful not to slip. The station is packed with people heading in all directions at this time (late morning), I wander what rush hour is like! The trains look quite broad, and very old and battered, but these are local trains, I understand that the express trains are more modern these days.

Seen better days

From the outside, the building is beautiful, not altogether different to St. Pancreas in London. Designed by Frederick Stevens, it was completed in 1887, 34 years after the first train in India left this site for nearby Thane. It’s now been renamed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, or CST for short, though VT, or Victoria Terminus seems to be the name the locals still use.

Raining again

Down Dr Dadabhai Naoroji road, I buy an umbrella for 90 rupees, then try to take money out, first at Deutsche Bank, where I get no error but no cash either, then at Citibank (once again, they have their hilarious juxtaposed “24 Hour Banking” slogan across the top of the door then “Opening times – 9am -12, 1pm til 5pm” sign stuck in the glass of the door. Surely someone from their brand team has noticed this farce – it’s the same all over the world, I think I first noticed this in Mendoza!

I have brunch in a busy restaurant, trying their Spring Dosa on recommendation.

Spring Dosa

It’s light and tasty. Naturally washed down with ultra-sweet tea, Indian-style. In general eating here I am going with recommendations or pointing at other diner’s dishes – there’s lots on the menus that I’m not familiar with, particularly of the small-nibbly variety which I spend most of my time devouring (never hungry enough for a main course!).

No joy in Citibank either, and after trying an Indian bank too I start to worry. Perhaps my card is blocked. I call Barclays, and sure enough – they thought that travelling from HK to India was suspicious and so blocked the card. Didn’t bother telling me, of course. At least with my Egg card they send you an sms. So I end up spending 3 pounds on a phone call just to get it unblocked. The first time my card has been blocked in 8 months! Ever vigilant Barclays, eh?

Next I get online, in this place which is just about big enough for 8 people to be using computers without suffocating. Not an inch bigger though. The chap says I’m not allowed to plug my laptop in, which becomes an annoying theme. To use the internet, one has to provide passport details. 20 rupees an hour though, pretty cheap! That’s 25p an hour. Other places I later use tending to charge 2-4x this.

Past the Mint with its high walls and amusing signs:


I end up next to naval docks, and realise I took a wrong turn a while ago so loop back after asking a soldier whether I can take a photo of the impressive line-up of Indian Navy ships. No prizes for the answer to that one! Round the corner and I find my first city cow. It’s well known that they are holy to Hindus – perhaps not everyone realises this means they wander freely around even city centres! I wonder if the military would block it from entering the naval base?

Urban god

Kit car buses

More cows, of the artistic variety

Emerging at the Bay, which is apparently the Arabian Sea. Lots of people line the sea wall enjoying the rather gloomy view.

Waves crash into the sea defences and occasionally spray onlookers with water, something to be avoided if it’s as dirty as the guide book makes out (strong warnings not to try swimming etc). I later decide the guidebook is right when a local train follows the bay round and the sea breeze is not as refreshing as one might imagine!

Do they really mean that?

I pass the Tea Centre, recommended by my book, but as I’m not looking to buy anything now, not so interesting. I’m sure later I’ll be buying some tea souvenirs to take home. Ooh, did I mention? I’m going home in September, just for a couple of weeks. It’s Chris Pepper’s wedding, and his guilt runs finally permeated by steely heart. Anyway, will be flying from Calcutta, then back here before heading to Nepal.

I pop into the Stadium Café, more looking for a loo than wanting anything, but they don’t have one, so I get a Masala Omelette instead! This seems to be the way in India – lots of small snacks and food rather than big meals. Which is fine by me, as everything has been really tasty so far, so no problems trying more!

However, as I’m nibbling on those small greenish seeds that you often get at the end of Indian meals (supposed to aid digestion), the waiter slides my coin change into the bowl of seeds! My stomach turns! How many times have coins been dumped and plucked out of this bowl! Eugh! I feel distinctly queasy thinking about it!


After I head upstairs to the net café in the same place, and book tickets from Calcutta to New Jalpaiguri, the intermediate station on the way to Darjeeling. The system then doesn’t let me book the leg to Darjeeling, keeps coming up with a duplicate transaction error.

Worrying is the availability, especially of 2AC, i.e. second class AC, the preferred class here. Looking at this route from Calcutta to NJP, about a week ahead the trains are almost all full, every day for the five days the planner shows me! As the Dutch girls pointed out, the train system is such a headache compared with flying! There are a small number of reserved seats for foreigners, but it’s difficult to rely on getting these. And Indian Railways allows booking up to 90 days in advance! What chance of flexible travel does one have?!

So, next to the Churchgate station reservations centre, the other side of the road from the station. Inside, it’s fairly quiet. Two boths are open and busy with people, then several chaps are sitting on seats. There’s a foreigner booth, where two Europeans are being served. That done, the woman heads off on a tea break. She doesn’t return.

Twenty minutes later, nothing has changed. Same guys being served, woman still on tea break. Her rest is finally broken by four Spanish tourists coming in, making noise and interrupting her tea. She comes back out, and I get served. I fill out the requisition form for tickets from New Jaipaiguri to Darjeeling, which she eventually issues. She also shows me on her screen that she has the Calcutta – NJP leg there on the computer too.

As she hands over the ticket, she also passes me a prayer, printed on an A5 sheet of paper. Perhaps one needs a prayer to work the system out?! I also noticed that in the CST station they have various uplifting quotes printed on large boards about the place. One, next to the buffers of platform one says something like Death is just an opportunity! Surely you don’t want to read slogans like that before boarding one of these trains?!

Walking back to my hotel area, it’s getting dark, I follow the side of Churchgate station, watching rush-hour suburban trains pull in and out as people battle to get on, running with the train and leaping through the open doors, then cut across the Maidans, large fenced-off grassed areas where sport is played – to my right it looks like a rugby club, but waterlogged is not the word.

The grass has become a lake, and the path is at times in water half way up my shins. A steady stream (no pun intended) of people wade across the water, some lifting trousers or skirts, others not bothering.

A coffee shop just near my hotel looks quite smart, so I pop in, muddying their clean floor, and order a cappuccino. The chap gives me hard sell about their offer, if I pay a bit more I get a large metal tin of cookies. I don’t want a large metal tin of cookies! He doesn’t seem to believe me. I feel less guilty about walking in with muddy shoes (and how can one not have muddy feet given the whole city is wall-to-wall mud?!).

I wander down the street just next to my hotel, past all kinds of shops, and people selling vegetables and fruit. Some of the sellers just put down some lettuce leaves on the muddy ground then put their vegetables on top of those!

I find the Parsi restaurant that I wanted to visit, Ideal Corner, but it’s closed, only opens for lunch, so head back to another place which seemed busy - Modern Family Place. I’m ushered into the air-conditioned side, where I have a beer. Something (?) 2000, supposedly a strong beer, then Kingfisher Strong.

For food I get to try Mangalorean seafood - I have some fried spicy pomfret fish with a thick masala sauce and chapati, then a plate of prawns, battered in a red spicy sauce. Hmmm, I need to expand my thesaurus for variations on “spicy”, don’t I?

It’s been a good first day. Overall there is not as much hassle as I was expecting. It’s also not as hot as the weather forecasts imply. It’s hot, but with the rains rolling in and out all day (when it rains, it pours buckets, but usually for no more than 5 minutes at a time), the air is kept cooler. I wouldn’t like to be here before the monsoon. The food is great and people are friendly.

Victoria Terminus at night

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