How can I describe Mumbai? I’d like to call it a living paradox. Extreme poverty surrounded by vast wealth; hungry citizens who slept next to street food vendors; “No honk please” bumper stickers encompassed by cars that would honk anyway; the smell of smoke clashing with the smell of curry and Mumbai’s most popular street food, bhel puri. The city is very much alive.
Mumbai is a great city to acclimate yourself to the Indian culture. You’ll find plenty of Western luxuries, done with an Indian flair, especially if you stay near the Taj Mahal Hotel in the Colaba area. So, if you’re accustomed to Western culture, like me, you’ll freak out over the Starbucks behind the Taj, but you won’t see any native drinking a Starbucks frap though – take a peak in their cups and you’ll smell the sweet scent of chai. Surprises like these exist all over Mumbai and one place to really see it is in Malabar Hills, the area of some of the wealthiest and poorest citizens of India.
Malabar Hills is an absolutely beautiful walk. If you map it out, you can figure out a best possible route and, regardless of what you decide, try to end the day at Chowpatty Beach to watch the sunset. Chowpatty Beach is not for the faint of heart though – you’ll find starving children running around naked and shoeless, screaming for their parents. It’s definitely a huge shock and one that really can’t be described in words; but if you have the opportunity, try not to miss out on this experience. You’ll find beauty amongst all the sorrow.
There’s plenty of more to see in Malabar Hills, including the terraced, Hanging Gardens, which pretty much seems like a work in progress. It’s really fun to bring kids since there a bunch of animal-carved hedges, but the best part about here is the view it offers. If you head to the southeast end of the park, you can get a view of the Arabian Sea with Mumbai’s business district in the background.
You can also find incredible temples in this area. One of the oldest temples in the city called, Babulnath Mandir, resides just hidden off the main road (to get here, follow the entrance from Babalnuth Road and climb a series of steps), and it is one of the most intricate temples ever. It’s majestic. The guards here are pretty strict with pictures, so I couldn’t snap any using my camera and, like all Hindu temples, shoes and socks are not to be worn (you can get away with wearing socks by telling the guards your feet hurt). In addition, you can also check out a Jain Temple (which is further south of Hanging Gardens) and Walkeshwar Temple by the holy Banganga Water Tank.
One of the greatest attractions in Mumbai is the caves at Elephanta Island. Seriously, this is a must. You don’t exactly need a tour guide for this, but if you really want to learn about the history of the caves, one will probably be a good idea! However, you can get a decent gist of the sculptures through guide books, or you can pick up one in the shops leading up to the caves. Beware: there is a LONG row of vendors after getting off the ferry and before going to the caves and they will try to make deals with you to guarantee a sale. For instance, my friend was interested in a carving of the sleeping Buddha, so the vendor gave her a little elephant as a symbolic contract of her future purchase and nearly chased her down because she decided against it last minute. So, just beware of really insistent sellers, but keep in mind everything they are selling on the island, you can easily pick up in Mumbai.
So, aside from the 16 foot sculptures, the coolest (and my favorite!) part about Elephanta Island? THE MONKEYS! Seriously, it’s like Planet of the Apes. They were EVERYWHERE! One robbed me of my lunch! And another robbed a man of his orange soda! (Actually, this was the same monkey, other monkeys just followed him and cheered him on). So, if you want to be entertained and NOT endangered, do not eat in front of them or taunt them with food. Just a warning.
Finally, a trip to Mumbai will not be complete unless you shop! I shopped mostly on the street located a couple blocks away from the Taj Mahal Hotel (it’s called Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg), although I heard Fashion Street and Chor Bazaar were excellent as well. I wish time wasn’t so restricted, because the collections of scarves and jewelry available to purchase are endless!
There’s plenty of more to explore in Mumbai. I love visiting countries twice, so whatever I missed, I’m sure I’ll see again – but if you have any leisure time, stop to watch a pickup Cricket game occurring by the University grounds, or enjoy a stroll through the University’s campus. There is so much to discover and experience in Mumbai and it really was the perfect city to become accustomed to Indian culture. Being said, it really helped me when I arrived at my next destination, Jaipur, which you can read about here!