Hello again! This is yet another instalment coming to you from an Indian Railways sleeper carriage. As I write this, it’s Thursday night and I’m on the Golden Temple Mail train, taking me the 2000 km from Mumbai on the central west coast of India to Amritsar in the north-west, not far from the Pakistan border, and home to the Golden Temple – the most holy of Sikh temples. It turns out that Indian ‘mail’ trains do actually carry the post, with one of the carriages decorated in “Railway Mail Service” livery and piled haphazardly with letters and parcels. There’s just one carriage between me and the locomotive, and the entire journey has featured the constant background of the diesel engine and very frequent sounding of the horn. By “very frequent” I mean that on some occasions it feels like it’s on more often than it’s off, and going more than a few minutes without hearing it would be quite unusual. Fortunately, it’s actually quite a nice sound, at least compared to the vehicle horns that provide the usual background soundtrack to Indian cities. The train has are a couple of different horns with clear, distinct notes. Sometimes the driver sounds one of them, sometimes the other, sometimes alternates between them to make a kind of a tune, and sometimes both at the same time as a chord. It feels – especially at night – like we’re hurtling head-first towards an unknown frontier. Our expected arrival time is a bit before dawn, which should just enhance this slightly surreal feeling.
The last few days in Mumbai have been a lot of fun, although I’m honestly quite glad to be leaving the place behind. It’s been less dauntingly crowded than I was expecting, but it smelled even more Indian than the rest of India, and everything was even more horrendously expensive than Goa, although still cheaper than most Western cities. My arrival in Mumbai could hardly have been better, at least. Stepped off my train at Mumbai CST (formerly the Victoria Terminus) late on Sunday night, out through the grandiose gothic architecture (which I barely noticed in my tiredness), and caught a cab to my hotel. Met up with Gabriela who was inexplicably full of energy when I mostly just felt like sleeping and went to Leopold’s Cafe for beer and food and conversation.
The next few days were spent doing pretty cliched touristy things, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable. On Monday we had a dosa for breakfast in a small local restaurant near our hotel, then went for a wander around Colaba, the central Mumbai area where we were staying. Caught a local metro train a couple of stops and walked along the coast from Chowpatty Beach to Malabar Hill. The Mumbai beach is absolutely filthy, smells terrible and is covered in litter. The surrounding areas had some very impressive buildings, old and new, although many were in quite bad condition or even looked abandoned. The end of the walk took us to a sacred Hindu site called Banganga Tank, a small reservoir with a wooden pole in it which – according to Hindu mythology – was thrown by Lord Ram and pierces into the centre of the Earth. My favourite part of the visit was seeing local kids playing cricket on the edge of the thank, thus combining two of the religions of India (cricket and Hinduism) with both the extreme wealth and extreme poverty of Mumbai evident very close by. Then we went to see a Bollywood film called London Paris New York, which was in a mix of Hindi and English, but fortunately the plot was obvious enough that this wasn’t a problem. Definite “so bad it’s good” material; without the Bollywood songs it would just have been dreadful. In the evening we had dinner and watched the sunset in a pizza restaurant overlooking the bay, and found a swanky bar where we paid about $10 each for a gin and tonic, more than I think I’ve ever paid for one before. But I can now say I’ve drunk Bombay Sapphire in Bombay.
On Tuesday, we went to Elephanta Island and saw monkeys and Hindu rock carvings. It was quite impressive in a way my photos don’t really do any justice to. We got back quite late and hadn’t had lunch, and ended up in a super expensive restaurant where I had the best pasta I’ve had in a long time – not just since arriving in India. We had a three-course meal which set us back about $20 each, which sounds cheap compared to home but is staggeringly expensive compared to local Indian places where, even in Mumbai, you can have a decent meal for less than $2.
Afterwards we caught up with Richard, who I’d met previously in Varkala and now happened to be in Mumbai. He and Gabriela got along splendidly, and after having dinner together we ended up talking and walking along the bay for several hours. Well, to clarify: Richard had dinner, but after the massive late lunch, I only took a few bites of mine, and Gabriela stuck to drinking gin. In the end, we all said our goodbyes and there was much sadness as we got ready to go off in different directions the next day.
Wednesday was my last day in Mumbai, in which I slept in and spent a while reading Shantaram in various cafes around the city. My copy of Shantaram came cheap from a roadside vendor, complete with the author’s name misspelled on the title page and occasional pages missing or out of order. Then I went to Mumbai CST again to catch the train I’m now on. But when I got there and double-checked my ticket, it turns out my train was due to depart from Mumbai Central Station. I’d become just aware enough of Mumbai’s train network to know that CST actually stands for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and double-checking the train network map at the station, Mumbai Central was somewhere completely different. Luckily I’d arrived a couple of hours before my train was due to depart, so I managed to get to the correct station on time.
And now this post ends pretty much as it began, with me on a train hurtling northwards through the gloomy night, accompanied by the sounds of the diesel engine and horns and a carriage full of people doing their thing.