I recently returned from my first trip to the Asia continent safe and sound in what some of my friends call a “new country tick”.
In India, where I visited two places – Mumbai and Agonda in the state of Goa, I was very prepared for this via many sources. Firstly my wife was a resident in the new Millennium and was able to give me the lowdown on,what and what not to do (ignore salesmen on the street, don’t drink tap water, get air conditioned taxis) while others warned me of the extreme poverty I would witness and how to turn a blind eye to it.
At the time of writing I am preparing for my last night in Agonda before leaving the resort and country tomorrow. What warnings were given to me have not really materialised – yes there is extreme poverty and it is hard to ignore it, but it is one of the factors of this country across its wide geography.
Probably the most extreme case of division was on our last night in Mumbai, where we drank on the roof bar of the 34 story Four Seasons hotel, overlooking two large slum areas. I find it hard to recall somewhere where two distinct differences in lifestyles collide, and I don’t want to say “well that’s the way it is”, but it seems that this is accepted. Whether anything can be done is uncertain also, one would assume that if there was a solution it would have been found and implemented.
On to the positives, we stayed in Mumbai’s colonial centre Colaba, which houses distinctive sights such as the Taj Mahal hotel, the Gateway to India, the museums which have undergone a name change like the city itself, and Colaba Causeway which hosts such treats as Leopold’s cafe and the Woodside Inn bar. If you are visiting this area then I am name-dropping these two places deliberately – Leopold’s is a staple but Woodside has Mumbai’s own craft beer Gateway Brewery on tap which was a real find, and the staff are excellent and played lots of Beatles for us.
Much of Mumbai does seem to be very similar to each other; chaotic street after chaotic junction, stray dogs and urban, sacred cows in the streets, buildings that could both do with a clean, and to be honest, a rebuild. The city’s charm is in its chaos and busy nature, and while I saw a small part of it mostly from taxi windows, I felt that Colaba was home.
This takes me on to my only gripe about Mumbai – the taxi drivers are probably the worst I have seen. They drive as erratically as those in London or New York, but with one key difference, they don’t always know where they are going. The process usually involved getting into a cab and telling him the destination and he accepting it and driving off. Sometimes he switches the meter on, sometimes he tells you the fixed price (which you haggle from while in the car). Then he drives you to the general area and asks locals on the pavement where this is; one journey required asking 3/4 people before the place was located eventually. Coming back to Colaba was not too much of a challenge, but going elsewhere (including the Four Seasons hotel) was a surprising challenge.
Mumbai had a charm within its hustle and bustle, and while some of the set generation may wish for the return of British rule, it does seem to be existing on its own.
The next step on our trip was Goa where I am writing now, and little can be said apart from the paradise beaches, immaculate setting (particularly of the Agonda Cottages resort, stay there if you are going) and fantastic food and people.
What is to be said about this part of the trip is the journey down to Goa airport by air was amusing in so many ways. Firstly the mobile revolution has taken India by storm and while this connectivity has its benefits, getting a 20 strong group of men to turn their phones off is a massive challenge for the staff of one airline. Secondly, there seemed to be little regard for online safety such as wearing seatbelts and stowing tray tables during landing and crucially staying in your seat. If anyone thought India was manic, then try taking an internal flight! Hey at least we got there.
One piece of praise I do want to dish out is to Monisha Rajesh, whose debut book “Around India in 80 trains” was not only insightful but a damn good read too. When she and her travelling partners ventured upon the places we had been, it was rather exciting.
Now on our way back home, the first point of departure was Goa’s new airport. When I say new, literally this was day one of operation meaning that there was a sense of chaos about the place, maybe we’ll come back when this is a bit more organised, the bathrooms are finished and the computers are set up at the gates.
In conclusion, India is an interesting place – as contrasting as had been predicted but not as bad as had been described. As chaotic as I hadn’t expected and as beautiful as I had hoped.