Editor's note: This article is part one of a two-part series on India. Please visit us again on Sept. 23, to see part two on Agra and the Taj Mahal.
It's early evening in Mumbai and I think to myself, if this taxi cab had legs, it would walk faster than we're moving. All around us are other cars, buzzing rickshaws and hordes of people carrying bundles in their arms and on their heads. I am sweating profusely as a child beggar appears at the window, palm open, eyes beseeching. She is nearly run over by a gleaming blue BMW driven by a guy who looks like he's about 19, perhaps one of the country's newly-minted software magnates. Suddenly a song pops into my head:
Sunrise, burning heat
Nothing is as traveled as a Bombay street
Contradictions, city of extremes
Anything is possible in Bombay dreams
City of extremes. How true.
With this cheery refrain from the Broadway hit Bombay Dreams in my mind I think to myself how perfectly Mumbai (or Bombay, as it used to be called) merges its unique extremes, extremes which somehow coexist in a vibrant mélange of culture and history. From the shimmering glamour of Bollywood cinema to the rank sprawl of Asia's largest slum, the city is indeed an experience in contrasts.
Sitting in traffic I realize that anyplace else, I'd probably be in a lousy mood about it all. But to be honest, this is some of the most interesting traffic I've ever been in. The window of our cab is like a TV, broadcasting a fascinating documentary on daily life in one of the world's most interesting and complex cities. I have been here for three days already and have to confess that the city is growing on me.
The complexities of the city
While most travelers who come to Mumbai will continue on to other destinations within the sub-continent, Mumbai is, without a doubt, worth at least a few days of your time. The city can be frustrating and overwhelming, but it is never boring. The crowds and chaos of Mumbai can perplex even the savviest traveler. (In fact, Mumbai is projected to be the world's second most populous city, surpassing Mexico City by 2015). But adjust to the rhythm and thrum of Mumbai, and you'll soon find yourself pleasantly surprised. And while Mumbai is more expensive than other places in India, the budget-minded traveler will find that the city is easy on the pocketbook.
To me, Mumbai seems far larger in reality than it appears on the map. It took us almost two days just to get oriented to the city, which, unlike the mostly grid-like layout of cities like New York or Los Angeles, is organized in a more haphazard fashion, with some of the streets looking on a map like the scribbles of a child.
Part of this is due to the city's geography. Mumbai itself is actually a network of islands with bridges connecting one another and to the mainland. The core of the city can be found downtown, where the city forms a claw around Back Bay on the Arabian Sea. Colaba, as the southern peninsula is called, is the tourist Mecca where most travelers find accommodation and where there is a broad range of hotels, bars, bookstores and restaurants. Like much of Mumbai, the streets here are teeming with eager wallahs (peddlers), eager to hawk their wares, which range from piquant street dishes to books to basic household items.
Despite a reputation for over-priced accommodation, there are actually good deals to be found all over the city. Down in the Colaba area hotels near the water can run from $30 to $250 a night. Further uptown in the Juhu Beach area, where we stayed, we spent about $60 a night for a very spacious and comfortable room just a minute's walk to the beach.
For fans of Indian food, Mumbai is a gustatory delight. It's a piece of cake to find restaurants serving all sorts of regional dishes that will boggle the palate. Dishes from Kashmir, Tamil, Hyderabad and Punjab will astonish those whose notions of Indian food are limited to Tandoori Chicken to Tikka Masala. And while you will find plenty of amazing Indian food almost anywhere in the city, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan town and has a sampling of just about every type of cuisine, from Chinese to American to French. Your best deals, if your stomach can handle it, are probably to be found on the street or at Chowpatty Beach, where an unbelievable array of quick, delicious meals can be found for around a dollar: kanji vada (Indian doughnuts), aloo tikkis (potato snacks) and pao bhaji (fried bread with filling). On the beach, the bhelpuri shops hawking Mumbai's most popular snack (puffed rice, fried noodles, and vegetables in a mint, chili, and tamarind sauce) should not be missed.
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