Thursday, April 24, 2014

A month in Mumbai

I caught my first flight, since starting my journey in July 2012, from Dubai to Mumbai. The plan was to cycle through southern India before moving on to Southeast Asia. A self-inflicted injury to my hand would ensure that my plans to cycle India would be stalled be some weeks. My first impression of the traffic in Mumbai suggested it would not be a good idea to attempt cycling with one hand!  So upon arrival in Mumbai I booked into the Anjali Homestay, a quaint travelers hostel, and ended up staying for a month to make a full recovery. My flight landed in Mumbai well before sunrise, so I arrived at the hostel tired and disorientated, and greeted by the calls of House Crows perched on the buildings. Some would fly across the gap between buildings; mere shadows in the dim light. Welcome to India I thought. Though I had arrived early without warning, I was kindly let in by Natasha, who manages the hostel, and offered a couch to crash on until the first bed became available. I soon learnt that Natasha actually does a marvelous job of running the hostel, together with owner Raj, so it was not surprising to hear that the hostel had been rated as one of the best in Mumbai. One of the perks that came with staying at Anjali is that Raj often treated everyone to chai masala, a deliciously spiced variation of the ordinary cup of tea. 

Raj operates one of the best hostels in Mumbai. Probably the best actually!

Staying in one place for such a relatively long time brought about some new life experiences, while also an opportunity to make new friends. It turned out I was not the only one taking a break in Mumbai, so I got to meet a host of like-minded travellers. While much time was spent on the comfortable couch at Anjali, we also spent extended periods feasting on cheap and delicious Indian cuisine in nearby restaurants. Either alone or as a group, most mealtimes were somewhat of an occasion and often included a casual walk through the busy streets. It was sometimes hard to resist the freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and chai masala sold on the streets, despite the potential havoc it may cause to the digestive system by drinking from re-used tumblers.

A night out with fellow travelers in Mumbai.

Catching a ride with a rickshaw in Mumbai; what an experience!

Chai masala being prepared by the road side.

A few times I caught the train into the city centre of South Mumbai with fellow travelers, to take a look at some of the sights, such as The Gateway of India, the Hare Krishna Temple and the beaches at Juhu and Bandra. The Gateway of India is an arched monument that was completed in 1924, and built on the site where dignitaries landed upon their arrival in India. While birding was not high on my agenda during this time, it was impossible to ignore the ever-present House Crows in the city; they left their mark on me twice, so I guess I am very lucky. Black Kites were probably the second most common species in Mumbai and could be seen soaring over the cityscapes. Back at the hostel, one could hear Oriental Magpie Robins calling from the dense fig trees. During several day trips to various corners of Mumbai I also had views of Asian Pied Starling, Indian Pond Heron, Common Myna, Black Drongo and Indian Jungle Crow, but that was the extent of my birding. 

Not the best view of the Gateway of India in Mumbai.

Boats drifting in front of the Gateway of India.

The view from The Gateway of India.

Traffic in South Mumbai. Don't be surprised to see a cow crossing the road!

Practicing cricket in South Mumbai. Cricket is big in India. 

These lads did not waste time posing for a photo when they saw my camera.

Impressive buildings from a bygone era.

Together with Michael, another traveler and volunteer worker, we visited the Global Vipassana Pagoda in northern Mumbai. Getting there was an experience in itself, and involved catching a rickshaw, followed by a train ride, then another rickshaw, and finally a ferry ride across the Gorai Creek. The Global Pagoda is an impressive structure at a total height of 96 m, and always has a Black Kite or two swirling about. The dome is built with self-supporting, interlocking stones and reaches a height of about 29 m, making it the world’s largest stone dome without supporting pillars. It is an expression of gratitude toward the Buddha, who, out of compassion for all beings, taught a non-sectarian technique towards achieving Supreme Enlightenment for the good and benefit of mankind. The Global Pagoda serves as a centre for continuing the art of Vipassana meditation as taught by the Buddha, but also as a monument of peace and harmony. It is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Mumbai. It made me realise again how important gratitude is, a quality all too often lost in our seemingly busy lives.

Ferry ride across the Gorai Creek on our way to the Global Pagoda.

Approaching the Global Pagoda.

A rather impressive structure, and a monument for peace and harmony.

A visit to the Tungareshwar Temple was another memorable experience. I joined French traveler Thibaut and his friend to this secluded temple tucked away in the lush woodland of the Tungareshwar Hill. Raj, owner of the hostel where we were staying, kindly met up with us during one of his regular visits, and gave us a tour of the temple and surrounds. This gave us the opportunity to experience it from another perspective; we had the chance to make offerings of fruit and milk, say of prayer of our own, and witness a prayer ceremony attended by several devotees. Afterwards we had tea with a group of men who attended the ceremony, and I believe I was the only one that did not take a puff from the pipe that made the rounds (a habit I have no intention of starting!).

The Tungareshwar Temple on the outskirts of Mumbai.

Lush woodland surrounding the Tungareshwar Temple.

Thibaut and the pipe.

The greatest fun had in Mumbai was during my attempts at becoming an actor. Well, not a real actor, but rather an extra. Since there was a regular bunch of us staying at the hostel, we were often called upon to make appearances as extras on Bollywood movie sets. Most Bollywood movies are filmed in Mumbai, and almost all of these are searching for foreigners to serve as extras on some of their sets. I figured this would be another great opportunity to experience something different, and ended up spending five days on four different sets. The films included ‘Happy New Year’, featuring Bollywood’s top actor Shahrukh Khan and actress Deepika Padukone, and ‘Kick’ featuring action hero Salman Kahn. There are many Kahn’s in India! From being dressed in over tight black tie suits to a doctor’s white cloak, I got a glimpse of what it takes to make a movie. Most of the time we were just required to walk in front or behind the main actors to give the particular shot some special blurred effects, so there was no need to look smart or learn any lines. It was rather fascinating to see how movies are made, at least Bollywood movies. What appears on the replay screen looks like a work of magic compared to when a scene is actually being shot. Despite the sometime long waits between scene shots, we all had an absolute marvelous time and shared many light moments.  

The name's Bond, James Bond. With Luyang and Natasha at a Bollywood set.

After the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, it was again time for the dust of the road. Getting out of Mumbai by bicycle seemed like it would be a nightmare, but fortunately Raj kindly stepped in and offered to guide me through the traffic to the city’s outskirts. Rather than return home, Raj spent the night at the hostel so we could have an early start. I followed him on his motorcycle and was surprised how easy it was thanks to the route he had chosen; I realised that I probably could have left Mumbai a week earlier! It was a 20 km ride before we reached the last stretch before the bridge over the Thane Creek, where Raj and I enjoyed our last cup of masala tea together. I couldn't help but feel real gratitude towards Raj for his hospitality and willingness to assist in so many ways; I was going to miss Mumbai! After farewells I took to the road, eager to explore India’s countryside and bird life.  

Taking the train in Mumbai is another experience! A passenger making a dash for it.

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