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I arrived unexpectedly at Mumbai Central Station which isn't as central as you might wish for, so after the usual cloakroom bag dump "no responsibility for damage done by rats!" (and I saw them, and the mice), then omelette and passable coffee, I jumped on a local commuter train to the end of the line at Churchgate, devoid of the expected crush. I exited to immediately be confronted by nothing but colonial architecture, all spires, statues and a clocktower. More muggy and certainly more people, they hissed at you here in their rush to get by. Shoe shine guys wore a uniform blue shirt and taxis were painted the black with yellow roof you saw in a James Bond movie. I just followed the procession of countless colonial buildings, notably the Sassoon Library, built in 1847, which led me to the Colaba district where I found wonder of wonders, a coffee house and a place which could pass for a pub. Just what a boy needed for brekkie, a bottle of Fosters! Well, it was definitely cold beer weather here by now after all! From there it was only a minutes walk down to the oceanside waterfront and one of Mumbai's most famous landmarks, the Gate of India. This triumphal archway was built to commemorate the visit of the newly crowned George V in 1911, and fittingly this is the spot where the first regular colony was established by the East India Company and from whence the last British troops left in 1948. In a fit of nationalistic rivalry the Indians subsequently built the neighbouring and imposing Taj Hotel. God knows why the hawkers here thought I might want to buy a 6 foot long lightbulb balloon or noisy marbles but they did. The heat, now at 34 degrees I read, had certainly mounted, the sweat was now pouring off me, mad dogs and Englishmen and all that, and so I thought a boat trip out to Elephanta Island in the bay might bring some relief. We puttered nonchalantly out amongst dhows, tankers and container carriers until Mumbai was just a line of high rises on the horizon and the green tropical dome of Elephanta appeared an hour hence. There was a bullshit dinky toy train to take all the gullible daytrippers the length of the pier where they were promptly set upon by a fantastic tourist trap of touts, guides, old women selling their photo in traditional garb with jar balanced on head, and a tourist tax charge of a whole 5 Rupees. The promised inclusive guide was conversely conspicuous by their absence, though one punter did try to chance an impersonation. You then still had to pay the standard apartheid 250 Rupees foreigner entry charge to the Elephanta Caves, it was another UNESCO site after all so they had their licence to print money in the bag.

The caves were a series of rock cut recesses cut out of cliff faces which had once been inhabited by monks, with many elaborate rock hewn columns supporting the finest of them. Some contained shrines embellished with Hindu statuary and friezes. The best was the 3 headed ......, supposedly the finest of its kind anywhere, though try as I might the light was excruciatingly poor for photography. Climbing up past the squabbling monkies and comatosed dogs I also found a very large and long cannon mounted on a turntable near the islands peak, it must have been WWI or WWII vintage I reckoned. The actual summit revealed nothing but a concealed container port, a lizard and the Mumbai skyline hiding in the haze, but another beer had been earned, a good wee sojourn all told. The heat and booze tried to zonk me so I also had to treat myself to an Americano or 2 to keep going, such a shame. That bolstered me for what turned into a marathon traipse across the peninsula that is Mumbai, to a landward facing corniche backed by up-market developments, transforming into quite a nice beach at its far northern end. A hovercraft lumbering on the sand here was a point of interest, I had no idea of any such service. From here it was a bit of a navigational challenge but I eventually managed to track down in the dark a place which had long fascinated me from afar, Mumbai's red light district, more dubiously dubbed "The Cages". I had seen a documentary on the place as a kid and the deal was just like it says, women in cages where for a doubtless trifling sum you made your choice and took your chances. Actually there were no cages as I recalled at street level, perhaps it was Calcutta I had witnessed after all, but some of the 1st floor hovels looked little more, with temptresses loitering amid the squalor in a bizarre melange of East meets West style, sarees and red lipstick, hotpants and hindu body paint. In the dark it was certainly an intimidating place but I was surprised I didnt get more attention, it was obviously a dodgy part of a dodgy town, but all I got was the odd "hello boss" from some seasoned pro and that was just par for the course in hawker infested Hindustan, whatever they were selling. There were clearly at least 2 or 3 ladyboys too so I guess you had to be sure what you were getting for your money, no doubt they catered for all tastes! A local train put me back within striking distance of the overpriced bars of Colaba, and unusually a really nice cheap chicken chow mein from a street stall. And not at all spicy for a change. After a few bottles of rip-off brew I had another hapless trudge until I eventually found Churchgate Station again, hopped off to grab my bag at Mumbai Central then another train and rickshaw ride out to the airport. I was getting a little too old (read proud) for overnighting at airports but with a 0545 take off time it made sense, especially since digs were outrageously expensive in booming Mumbai. Even in the leaving the hawkers of Mumbai bugged me to the end, I finally told a couple to "give me a feckin' break" in exasperation, no I did not need a taxi to take me upstairs to Departures!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in India

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