Mesmerizing Mumbai

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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.

What to do?

Of course, every traveler has their own philosophy for how to approach a new city. Some arrive with elaborate itineraries and detailed maps marked up red pen. Some arrive in a new place and just throw themselves into the scrum. While nothing beats having a good map and a guidebook, to me wandering is the best policy. When I hit a new city, especially one as dynamic as Mumbai, the first thing I do is generally throw out any detailed game plan and I wander.

Our first day touring in Mumbai, we hired a cab off the street -- negotiating our driver's services for the entire day for about $15 -- and headed downtown. Traffic was typically abysmal, but our driver knew the roads to take and we were afforded a quick and dirty tour of some of Mumbai's more diverse neighborhoods, ranging from the foul, disheveled train track slums at Dadar, to the swanky abodes of Mumbai's elite on Malabar Hill, where some of the city's wealthiest denizens call home.

Driving along the broad, coast-hugging lanes of Marine Drive, we got a glimpse on the left of the 500-year old Hajji Ali Tomb, a magnificent Muslim shrine surrounded by water. I was perplexed how anyone could reach the building since there didn't seem to be any boats around and the tomb itself appeared to float alone in the sea, but our driver said that it was high tide, when the pathway leading to the Tomb gets submerged under the water.

We got out of the cab and took a stroll along the swooping promenade near Chowpatty Beach, where in front of the sun in the distance, the Mumbai skyline rose from the city in a jagged shadow.

Soon, we found ourselves at the Gateway of India, the Mumbai version of the Arc de Triomphe, which squats on the water in the wonderfully named Apollo Bunder area. Erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, there's not much to the arch itself, but the breeze blowing off the water and the general hullabaloo makes it an excellent place to people watch. That night, we ended up in Colaba where we ambled through the noisy neighborhoods and ended up sipping beers in a busy restaurant near the water that was popular with well-dressed business people.

Hitting the markets

On another day in Mumbai, we set out to explore the famous Mumbai Bazaars. Though not avid shoppers, and in search of nothing in particular, we left Juhu Beach and packed ourselves into a local city train stuffed with commuters and headed down to the famous Crawford Market. Also known as the Phule and Mohatta Market, this is an ideal place to begin exploring Mumbai street commerce because it is covered, cool, and, compared to what we'd soon face in the bazaars of Kalbadevi, one of Mumbai's hectic marketplaces, it is by comparison sedate.

The market was built by the British in 1871, and its setting is a beautiful Victorian style building whose soaring clock tower looks like it belongs on the Thames. We entered the market and were immediately surrounded, marinated almost, with the fragrances of fresh fruit and flowers. The fruit sellers were paragons of mercantile gentility, whose wares were meticulously arranged in brilliant rows, pyramids and geometrically perfect towers that would have made Euclid proud.

We strolled through the market savoring the delicious air and dodging fast-footed coolies carrying reed-baskets on their heads. We bought some mangoes for a quarter then passed through the back to the animal and poultry section, where live domestic and exotic animals are kept in dingy cages, waiting to be bought by locals for food and as pets, and perhaps to infuriate visiting members of the ASPCA.

Adventures in wandering

By now, we felt prepped enough to move on to something more challenging. We decided to head a few blocks north to the sprawling bazaar of Kalbadevi. This labyrinthine warren of stalls and street sellers is not for the faint of heart.  This predominantly Muslim area is a seething mass of people and traffic and is the location of a dozen or so crowded chowks (bazaars) selling jewelry, textiles, metal and leather goods, hand-made ceramics, electronics . . . just about anything, and all of it for the most part quite cheap. The most famous is the Chor Bazaar, Mumbai's "thieves' market," which sells antiques, faux antiques and miscellaneous junk (and I do mean miscellaneous . . . it sometimes hard to tell exactly what an item's purpose is). The noise here is unreal, with merchants yelling over one another to get your attention ("Sir, sir! No buy, just look!"), and goods-laden coolies screaming at you to get out of their way.

But we wandered without purpose and soon were addicted to the throbbing energy of the place. At one point, heading down some dark corridor, we realized we had no idea where we were, or which direction we'd come from. We were lost. Our entreaties for directional succor were largely met with dull stares, if not derisive smirks. At one point, we ended up in a shadowy dead end, where a huge white cow and an ornate temple shrouded in incense smoke caused us to wonder if we'd just stepped through a time portal.

We finally got our bearings and made it out of the market, exhausted but safe. A bottle of cold beer in a nearby pub helped bring us back to our senses and into this century. To aid the process, that evening we caught a Bollywood film whose plot was allegedly James Bond-ish, but left us trying to recall any Bond film featuring 007 in an elaborate dance number. We could think of none.

No matter. We'd be leaving Mumbai the next morning, and I was already starting to miss the place; not the din, or the traffic or the swampy heat, but just the zest of the place, and the realization that no place on earth is quite like it.

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