We arrived in Mumbai during India’s so called ‘bank note crisis’, during which people were queuing all day to get cash out and some even reportedly paid others to wait in line for them. As we were warned about this beforehand, we got rupees out straight upon arrival at the airport. With nobody waiting in line for the cash machine there, nor for immigration, everything ran perfectly smoothly. I even remember asking the immigration officer if ‘that was all’ and him saying yes – but nodding no… This Indian head wobble thing was something I would soon get used to.
My friend Aneree was waiting outside for us, in her car with chauffeur. It was lovely seeing her again; her enthusiasm about showing us the city in which she was born and raised made us feel really welcomed. She had a day full of activities in store for us, but first brought us to our hotel for some refreshments and a meal, which was great after all those long hours of travelling. During the car ride, I started to have the feeling of being part of a movie scene. Everything was so different, so full of colours – from the exotic fruit stands next to the road, to the beautiful traditional dresses the women were wearing. I was hit by a fragrance of local spices from the street shops and vendors who were all around. The roads were filled with cars, busses, motorcycles, cows and people trying to manoeuvre around each other. My ears were beeping from the noise of the many, many honking vehicles trying to find a space in the madness. There are about 22 million people living in Mumbai alone, which is more than all people of the Netherlands put together!
After getting our energy levels recharged at the hotel and eating a chestnut and bamboo soup, we felt as good as new and ready to go. Aneree brought us to a beautiful temple from the Hare Krishna movement with a large open courtyard inside. We arrived in the middle of a preaching ceremony, where people were chanting to the beating of drums and the ringing of bells. Everyone walked bare foot on the cool marble floor. On the walls, images of gods and goddesses were decorated with dried flowers in the brightest of colours. Being in such a peaceful and serene place felt very soothing. At the front of the temple, a monk put something in our hands that looked like porridge. We were meant to eat it straight away. Again, I was very happy that Aneree was there because we were warned in advance to be careful with eating random foods in this country, but we trusted that she knew what was and wasn’t safe. In fact, beforehand people told us that it is a guarantee for anyone going to India to get sick at least once. This had made us worried since we had only 10 days to travel around, certainly not enough time to spend on food poisoning! Luckily we didn’t experience any of these problems throughout our trip and I actually discovered that Indian cuisine is my favourite of all time. It wasn’t too spicy for me either, or at least there were a lot of non-spicy options. And the tea, that terrific Indian tea! Don’t get me started…
After the Hare Krishna temple we walked to another temple with a large statue of an elephant and a bull, and a sacred tree outside. Animals are worshipped and treated with respect because they have traditionally been considered to be the vehicles of Gods. We were asked to look through the horns of the bull, to look at the Gods and show them our respect.
After experiencing our first two temples of the trip, we went for a walk to the beach. Mumbai is a city built on the coast line. The walk took us through a neighbourhood with very narrow streets and lots of livelihood, again just as we had seen in the movies. Everything was beautifully decorated with lights and dried flowers, and there were people and little shops everywhere. They make use of space impressively well; each single square meter is used for another improvised market stall with piles and piles of fabric. This also reflected the widespread poverty and deprivation that India deals with. Sometimes you would see a whole family trying to live of the earnings of one shelf of small items, and those are not even the poorest people, they at least have some things to sell. Mothers with babies sat on cardboard boxes torn open on the side of the road, leaving you wondering how many children get killed in car accidents, or how and where these children are born and receive their first nursery care. Later we would see some of the slums that these children call their home. Right next to the large estates of the many billionaires that live in Mumbai, making you painfully aware of why this city is known as a city of extremes.
When the sun began to sat and the streets turned darker, more and more stray dogs appeared from corners all around. I would have been a little scared of them because of my fear of catching rabies if it wasn’t for Aneree, but she walked confidently in front of us not giving them any attention, so we copied her every move.
Arriving at the beach, we noticed that no one was swimming, even though the temperature still permitted it. Aneree explained that the sea at the coast of Mumbai is very dirty, but more importantly people don’t swim there for cultural reasons. We did witness a ceremony where people walked into the sea with an elephant completely created out of flowers. They dipped it into the water and let go of the craftwork for the sea to carry it away. Aneree told us it was quite rare to see it happening this time of the year, so we felt very lucky. We walked the coastline for a while until we arrived at our next destination, a small theatre with an outside terrace lit with thousands of lights. In the theatre’s courtyard, there was a tiny, tiny, bookstore; one of Aneree’s favourite places to buy books. Anyone who knows me, knows that bookshops make me so excited and this was definitely the cutest one I had ever seen. For a place so small, they managed to sell many books, especially about India’s history and culture. Aneree pointed out a few of her most beloved books, which we bought so we could learn more about the country that we were rapidly falling in love with. We were surprised to hear that Aneree hadn’t read Life of Pi yet, so we got her a copy as a ‘thank you for having us over’ gift. We finished our first day with a lovely home cooked meal at her parents’ place and received many good tips for the rest of our stay in India. We would be taking two domestic flights to Goa and Varanasi before returning to Mumbai again, to spend our last days with my dear friend again.