We pulled into the Port of Mumbai after five days traveling from Dubai at a very slow pace to allow time for student orientation and a couple of class days for each course. Disembarking through immigration and passport control took several hours, but the welcoming ceremony as we walked off was worth the wait. We were each greeted with application of a bindi, a forehead dot of vermilion powder, then passed dancers in lovely saris as we walked towards immigration.
First impressions of the Colaba district at the tip of the Mumbai were of both smog and crowding. Mumbai is a city of 24 million people, everyone is going somewhere by foot (walking is called Bus 11 for your two legs), bike, scooter, motorbike, tuk-tuk, bus, or train. 8 million residents use the train every day!
On the day of arrival, we joined a field program to Elephanta Island which is about an hour from Mumbai by ferry. To get to the ferry we passed The Gateway of India which was constructed early in the 20th century to commemorate the first visit to India by a British monarch. George V visited with his wife, Mary, in 1911.
The predominant feature of the island is a cave complex carved out of basalt around 600CE that contains an old Hindu temple to Shiva. Shiva is one of the Hindu triad of supreme deities and is known as “The Destroyer.” The island was named by the Portuguese who found a large elephant statue there when they arrived. It was later broken into pieces and removed. The Portuguese and later the British vandalized the temple and demolished many of the carvings, but areas have been restored and some carvings and statues are largely intact despite the marks left by Portuguese bullets. At both the ferry and the cave complex, we became part of the adventure for Indian visitors. Many of us were asked if we would pose for photos, sometimes with extended families and occasionally with a baby.
The temple is located about a kilometer and 120 steps up a hill. Coping with the crowds and not losing the somewhat height challenged tour guide in the process was an experience. Fortunately we had a tall voyager with us, so we could follow along if we could see his hat. It was a good introduction to Mumbai.
We had an easy second day walking around the neighborhood and running errands. There is an Indian naval base adjacent to the port where our ship was docked and they may have been blocking the internet for security reasons. One of our errands was to buy a SIM card to improve our connectivity. This required finding an ATM that would take our card, so we did a bit of wandering around looking for places to accomplish our errands. Walking is not easy as the sidewalks come and go and the traffic comes from the right (usually, but not reliably) and may include vehicles from bicycles to buses. After getting cash, we sought a telephone store and found one on a small side street. Getting the SIM card required producing a passport, our ship landing card which included our visa photocopying all of the same somewhere down the street and a lot of time.
While Scott dealt with the incredible bureaucracy, I watched the world walk by. First, I admired the school children in their neat uniforms. The girls had their hair in braids tied or fastened up with ribbons that coordinated with their skirts. Next, I watched a woman lead a cow in need of milking down the street while people parted to let her by. Seeing cows, goats, dogs, and cats along the streets was common. They appeared largely well fed and content. The Hindu faith encourages taking care of animals as it is believed that part of god resides in all living things.
Finally, I watched a group of people performing in the street as part of their worship of the goddess Mariyamma who is believed to have curative powers and the ability to ward off evil. From the referenced article “The men dance while the women beat the drums or … carry the idol in a small wooden box or on a wooden plank on their head.” The men whip themselves as they dance through the street while the women gather alms. There was also a small boy begging as part of the group. I thought he was alone when he approached me and was glad to see that he had his family around him. You can learn more of these people and their lives here: https://ruralindiaonline.org/en/articles/whipping-and-worship-on-mumbais-streets/
Our last errand involved taking a taxi to the National Center for the Performing Arts to get tickets for a show. The driver didn’t know where we were going (although he seemed to initially) and he had to stop a couple of times to ask if anyone knew. This was when we learned that you can go against traffic if you do it really fast when there’s an apparent break. It was terrifying! After getting the tickets we relaxed for a bit on a beach promenade along a street locally known as The Queen’s Necklace. It’s curves are lit by streetlights which give it the name. The taxi ride back to the ship was much calmer for which we were very grateful! Early dinner with the special “in port only” pasta service. Yum!
Day 3 in Mumbai started early with long bus ride through the city to a forest preserve managed by the Bombay Natural History Association. This gave us a chance to observe the little, open, three wheeled tuktuks that crowd the suburban streets. On the major highways and in town enclosed taxis rule the roads. People flag down taxis from the edge of the highway. Occasionally, someone will stop despite the heavy traffic to take a selfie. There are marked lanes, but if you can get four small cars on a roadway marked for three – go for it! Motorcycles just travel between the cars… they say there are 22 languages spoken on India, but the 23 is honking. Remarkably, we saw only one accident during our 4 highway trips through town during our stay.
The visit the the nature preserve was a delight and our guide was excellent. The preserve is adjacent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The larger park encompasses about 100km2 inside the city of Mumbai and is possibly the only national park to be enclosed with an urban setting; it is known as “the lungs of Mumbai.” We saw two species of primates, a ‘bonnet macaque’ and a lemur, several species of butterflies, lots of birds, and two Indian grey mongoose. The preserve and larger park are also home to approximately 35 leopards, but we only saw their scat and visited one of their favorite viewing ledges. It was wonderful to get out of the urban environment and into a piece of protected land.