They always say third time's a charm, right? After exploring Northern India on two separate occasions over the past 8 years, I was finally excited to get to experience 'The Gateway of India' over on the West coast. Frankly, I did not know much about Bombay other than the fact that it is the Bollywood Capital of India, they have been known to have great nightlife, and like many other cities in India, Mumbai is very populated (around 20 million people).
Day 0: Getting There
After not getting on my flight to Mumbai, I sprinted across the Frankfurt airport hoping there were still a couple of seats left on the flight to Delhi. Without knowing how I would manage to get to Mumbai (especially when landing at 1:00am), the kind lady at the gate granted me a ticket. With not even a breath of air to spare, I lugged my carry-on bag and waltzed onto a 747 en route to Delhi. Back to the North I go.
8 hours and a few glasses of wine later, I landed at Delhi International Airport, one of the most beautifully designed airports if I may add. For once in my life the airport gods were on my side because I strolled through customs with no wait at all (life is good with an e-visa which allows for 1 entry & 1 entry only). I proceeded to use the free wifi at the airport to confirm a 3:30 am flight with Air India's new Dreamliner to Mumbai. After sharing a chai tea with a lovely family from Delhi, it was time to board. I sat next to a man who decided he wanted to use my shoulder as a neck pillow - safe to say this was the best flight ever?
2 more hours and a delicious airplane meal that I definitely should not have eaten later, I was finally in Mumabi. I used Marriott rewards points to book a night at the JW Marriott Sahar (literally 350 meters from the airport) while I waited for my mom to land later that evening.
Room Service: JW Marriott Sahar
The recently opened JW Marriott Sahar makes one feel as if they are on an oasis right on the beach. The sound of airplanes are non-existent, the pool and gym are to die for & don't even get me started on the bathtubs (#RobeLife).
Day 1: En route to a palace overlooking the sea
After a late checkout at the JW Marriott, we started what was supposed to be a 30 min. journey to South Mumbai, which in classic Indian fashion took triple the amount of time due to some road work. With cars honking from all directions, we sat with windows wide open (in a non-air-conditioned taxi at 100 degrees) patiently snapchatting while our driver proceeded to steer the wheel towards incoming traffic. The only thing we could do was laugh as this would be unheard of anywhere else in the world. It was quite apparent once we entered the old city due to the change in architecture. Buildings designed during the Indo-Saracenic Revival (early 1900's) wrap around each and every corner, along with the world renowned Taj Mahal Palace which overlooks the Gateway of India along the sea. Both my mom and I have wanted to stay at this hotel for quite sometime, but after a horrific terrorist attack in 2008, we decided to wait a few years until moral grew strong again.
Room Service: Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai
I won't get into too many details, as you can read the full review of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel within its own post (coming soon), but the palace was built in 1902 and has been visited by many famous individuals in the world including Prince William, Kate Middleton and President Barack Obama (to name a few). The service at this hotel is absolutely out of this world, along with the interior decor, food selection and room service. I mean just look at those ceilings.
The afternoon was spent at the Sea Lounge on the first floor overlooking the Gateway of India. A phenomenal waiter who has been working at the Taj Mahal Palace for 35 years poured us a pot of Darjeeling tea & served street food snacks as he welcomed us into his second home. High tea is also a must (even if you are not staying at the hotel) as the view and selection of foods is out of this world - if you plan ahead make sure to reserve a seat at the window.
Day 2 (morning): Rise & Shine
It was an early start to day 2 - we woke up at 6am to explore the Gateway of India before the city woke up. Weekends are big travel days for Indians, and thousands of people will come to visit the gateway of india - so what better way to beat the heat and the crowds than to get there first?
Day 2 (mid-day): A taxi tour of mumabi avec amaan shaikh
Meet our driver: Amaan Shaikh, an absolute legend in the taxi world of Mumbai. Once a bus driver, and now a 'cool cab' driver for the past 30 years. As we tend to not plan too far ahead, we decided to have a taxi driver show us around the city -- after all they are the locals.
When asked, "What happened to your leg...?" He quickly stated "Don't even worry about it, just get in the car" - noted.
We traveled throughout the many busy streets of Mumabi, explored both Hindi and Muslim neighborhoods while making pit stops at Mani Bhavan (Ghandi's house), Banganga, Adeshwar Jair Temple & the hanging gardens. The people of Mumbai seem much more modern and easy going than in the north, which was quite refreshing to see. Not to mention, the city itself is full of foliage, white sand beaches and beautiful architecture as mentioned above.
After a long day in the heat, I went back to the hotel for some coconut water, poolside & spent a couple of hours in the most beautiful white marble bubble bath :)
Day 3: Slum Searching
Before heading to India, we had two requests while in Mumbai - one of them being a visit to Dhavari, Asia's largest slum - you may recognize it from the film, Slumdog Millionaire. We did not want to casually pass through, but rather have an in-depth tour with a local on how life functions in the 'Heart of Mumbai.' 1.5 million people call this 5 acre area their home which is absolutely mind blowing in my opinion. We booked a 3.5 hour tour with Reality Tours, a sustainable and local-friendly tour operator who gives back 80% of their profits to help fund schools for both children and adults in this slum.
Our guide, and former resident of the Dhavari Slum was an overall incredible human who had so much passion for what he was doing. He took us through two parts of the slum, the industry & the residence. I only took a handful of photos while inside the slum to help respect the privacy of those who live there.
On the industry side of things, this slum recycles 85% of Mumbai's plastic and resells it to large companies around the world, along with having fare trade leather factories that sell their products online. I ended up buying a water buffalo leather backpack after touring the factory, not to mention they are branding and scaling their products throughout the world.
We then wandered through the slum's residences, where a family of 6 can live in 10 square feet for $150 a month. Talk about cozy. We were then brought through very narrow, dark alleyways over yonder to open spaces where hundreds of children were playing cricket - they even let me have a swing at it (let's just say I'll stick to skiing). We visited one of the schools that is sponsored by an NGO that teaches adults and children personal, computer and literary skills. Lastly, we made a quick stop at a market that makes and sells some of the best looking pottery I have ever seen.
Day 4: They tried to tell us no: Dhobi Ghat
The second thing my mom and I wanted to do was walk through the Dhobi Ghat, which is the largest open air laundromat in Asia. While many tours take visitors to an overpass to have a birds eye view (see photo below), we wanted to go inside and explore how hundreds of men clean thousands of pieces of clothes on a daily basis.
Tour companies kept telling us they would not take us through the Dhobi Ghat because not only did the workers not like it, but it was becoming too crowded - they all suggested a smaller ghat in South Mumbai. We were not convinced, and wanted to tour the Dhobi Ghat. Period. A local who will not be mentioned told us to take a taxi to the ghat very early in the morning, cross the street to an overpass, head down a narrow staircase along the highway, walk under a dark bridge, wander down the busy street full of working men until you see an opening to the laundry area. Once there, we were told to ask for (and I quote) "Shamir*, he is not only the guy who will show you around but he will be expecting you around 8:00, sharp and have 200 rps ($3) cash." I said okay, shook my head as my mom and I glanced at each other like we were doing something that was not the best idea in the world... oh well, we were going for it.
On the morning of Day 4, we called Amaan, the taxi driver from day 2, to drive us 30 min. outside of the city to the Ghat since the launderers have an early start to the day to beat the heat.
"What are you doing?" Amaan yelled as we started walking down the staircase "...oh we will just be a few minutes!" I said with a smile "Oh jeez, just be careful" he said as we proceeded to go down the stairs and under a bridge in search of this hidden entrance. Hundreds of men stare as we pass by, they are loading and unloading laundry from local hotels and hospitals, and we are the only westerners for what seems like forever. Feeling slightly out of place we finally found the 'entrance' - locals keep staring at us as if we were aliens. After awkwardly standing in the middle of a busy laundry mat with a massive DSLR camera in my hands, I approached a man enjoying a bowl of curry. "Excuse me... is Shamir around?" he rolled his eyes and walked away. This time my mom approached another young man, "Do you know Shamir?" "Ah! Yes, Shamir, welcome - I will get him, feel free to make yourself at home." Sigh. We immediately felt welcome. A few minutes later a short, dark man in a red ripped t-shirt showed up with a smile brighter than the sun. "Hi, I am Shamir, come with me!"
He took us through very narrow alleyways and could not help but notice hundreds of men slamming wet fabrics against stones, hanging laundry in perfectly executed lines while their 5 kilo coal iron warmed up in the distance. Hospital sheets are burned here to avoid water contamination, and there is no direct communication with the launderers, everything is taken care of through a middle man somewhere in the city.
The logistics of how this process works is incredible, and is very cool to see something like this still exists. After 15 minutes (more than plenty of time), we walked back to the entrance, gave Shamir a 500, shook hands, exchanged a smile and was on our way. Success - next stop, Udaipur.