THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
Travel by Smartphone: Mumbai, India
The boom in smartphone apps has made a lot of things easier—but what about travel? To find out, James Vlahos heads to the beautifully overwhelming, mazelike megalopolis of Mumbai, India, with nothing more than a half-packed carry-on, a phone, and a wide-open schedule.
A night of the Taj's velvet embrace vanquished my jet lag, and by the next morning I was ready to begin exploring Mumbai in earnest. I figured I'd start with the beaten path of justifiably renowned tourist sites and then try to discover places where locals go to eat, relax, and hang out.
Major guidebook publishers like Frommer's and Lonely Planet have released dozens of country- and city-specific apps but they haven't gotten to Mumbai yet, so I set out with the HearPlanet audio guide running. Before leaving the States, I had figured out how to unlock my phone so I could swap in a local SIM card and use location-aware apps like HearPlanet without huge data charges. (Beware: This may affect your warranty.) But what the company bills as "like having a professional tour guide always by your side" was more like "a robot that can read Wikipedia entries."
Instead, I switched to the CITY WALKS Mumbai Map and Walking Tours and chose a tour that included the Big Ben–like Rajabai Tower, the palatial Prince of Wales Museum, the lawn-fronted Bombay High Court, and the sprawling Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus station. City Walks had less information than HearPlanet and no read-aloud function, but it provided the basics and directions from site to site, and it showed my up-to-the-minute position on a map.
Brandishing a glossy iPhone in a developing nation makes you look like a wealthy rube. On the plus side, it's a real conversation starter. Among the curious who approached me were a coin collector, a Jennifer Lopez–obsessed playboy from the United Arab Emirates, and a young man in the hot-pepper aisle of Chor Bazaar, a.k.a. Thieves' Market. He pointed at the phone and rubbed his thumb and fingers together. Using FREE TRANSLATOR, I typed, "In India, it costs 23,000 rupees," and the app told him that aloud in Hindi. His jaw just about hit the peppers.
On another day, following a suggestion from an open-source electronic guidebook company called FIDESREEF, I took the hourlong boat ride across Mumbai Harbour to Elephanta Island, where caves shelter giant, 7th-century rock sculptures dedicated to Shiva. Winding between carved pillars, I managed to befriend some local women. It was raining as we left the cave, so I pulled up a drawing of an umbrella in an illustrated translator called ICOON, and one of the women shared hers with me.
These were all nice perks, but they hadn't yet convinced me that guidebook apps were ready to put the paper ones out of business. The what-to-do suggestions were helpful, but the information was clearly pulled from free Internet sources. And it was often scanty. In the FidesReef app, the only entertainment listed for South Mumbai was a $300-an-hour yacht tour.
That said, travel apps do give travelers clear advantages over their un-networked predecessors. One is that smartphones know exactly where you are. AroundMe guided me from my deluxe room at the Chateau Windsor Hotel—a $90-a-night deal I'd scored using hotels.com—to the nearest ATM, and then to Mocha Coffees and Conversations, which was buzzing with young people watching a championship cricket match. Smartphones also know when it is, namely right now. Mumbai has a thriving art scene, and one morning I checked my two city-life apps, MUMBAIKAR and MUMBAI BOSS, and discovered a pair of photography exhibitions opening that day. Pictures of the 2010 Zoroastrian Bodybuilding Championship sounded intriguing, but I opted to go to the National Centre for the Performing Arts for "Portrait of Mystic," which featured glowing imagery of a Sufi devotee whirling in the grip of religious ecstasy.
The most powerful aspect of smartphone travel, though, is that you can easily connect to a network of savvy locals while on the go. Before I arrived in Mumbai, the number of people I knew there was...zero. But within days I had joined 10 FACEBOOK groups, including Secret Mumbai, Mumbai Parties, and the Foreign Correspondents' Club. I was also following a dozen in-the-know TWITTER users: people like photographer Nitesh Nitesh and popular singer Sona Mohapatra. I also trolled food and nightlife blogs and e-mailed their authors. That led to in-person socializing, starting with Tim Judge at Harbour Bar, who fixed me one of his signature martinis mixed with masala-spiced vermouth. I subsequently feasted on couscous, pomegranate, and mint with filmmaker and foodie Gaurav Jain at Indigo Delicatessen, in the restaurant- and bar-packed Colaba neighborhood.
Before leaving the U.S., I had asked a friend who grew up in Mumbai to post a message about my trip on Facebook. That led to nearly a dozen friend requests from people in her native city, a few of whom took it as their mission to give insider's advice. Ashish Jagtiani, for instance, wrote: "Janata Bar is a cheap dive but quite famous locally...just heard of a place called Hangla's that serves Bengali food and has a couple of locations, including one that opened in Colaba this week." All told, I was getting a dozen or more ideas for outings every day. Even if I could follow up on only a fraction of them, the social-network-enabled stream of info flooding my iPhone helped me put my finger on the city's pulse. Photo clinic here. Karaoke night there. Festivals everywhere. I knew what was up.