Arriving at India’s Mumbai international airport at 4 o’clock in the morning with barely reading anything about what to expect is not something I’d recommend anyone. I arrived at the airport and my first impression was that it was – by far – the worst international airport I’ve ever seen.
I distinctly remember finding it extremely strange that while going to the toilets there was a person there directing me to the free booth, opening/closing the water stream and handing me a clean tissue to wipe my hands when I was done with my private business. Naturally, he asked for a small Baksheesh.
Heading out, leaving the terminal, I saw the dozens of drivers attacking all the other tourists, so I headed back inside and figured it was a good time to actually read the horrible “Getting there and away” “Getting around” Lonely Planet sections full of warning about Indian frauds. Government pre-paid taxis it was, then, and with my voucher passed the racket over some of the wealthier looking tourists, I woke up my taxi driver who was sleeping in my stinking taxi and headed out in the unknown of Mumbai.
4 o’clock in the morning’s Mumbai isn’t a pretty sight, at least not where my taxi driver decided to go through. The aroma of smells around me with the slums I was driving through, introducing me to the Indian beggars and cow phenomenas, I soon realized this might not be the relaxing vacation I was – naively enough – looking for. Arriving at Colaba, and getting hit by all the commission hungry hotel agents, I just wanted somewhere to sit down, have a coffee and breakfast and digest all that. Nothing was open, even the hotel cafes, but since I was a traveling very light, I just wondered around for a while, gazing at the glorious Taj Mahal Hotel, and the port around the famous Gateway of India.
Sun came up, things livened up. It was quite a sunrise.
Hours later, places started to open and I eventually found my breakfast place, which came with realizations about India. Oddly enough, most Indians don’t speak a word of English and the Indian menus are as undecipherable as the Taiwanese ones, only that the Indian ones are more frustrating as they’re with English letters which makes you expect to know what it’s about. A kind old man with a heavy accent came to my rescue and after failing to explain to me what various dishes were I resulted to my Taiwanese “I trust you – just order something for me”. It wasn’t a very good introduction to Indian cuisine, I must say.
The other realization was that hygiene was going to be an issue, even with the cleaner more up-market places. I’ve done my share of backpacking in some relatively less fortunate countries, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the Indian street food experience. Although I enjoyed Laotian and Vietnamese street food, some of the Indian street food I wouldn’t touch with a stick. Perhaps I became spoiled, don’t know.
After resting for a while in a more posh coffee place with an Indian English newspaper I felt confident enough to continue venturing into the unknown, heading up Mumbai’s Fort area.
In one of the streets I noticed a sign mentioning a big Sassoon synagogue nearby, which is now the main meeting place of the vanishing Indian Jewish community in Mumbai.
Going there to take a photo, the guard quickly came up to me and asked me to stop shooting as it was Saturday – the holy day for the Jewish people, which I completely forgot about. After confirming I can say a few sentences in Hebrew he allowed me inside to see the weekly religious ceremony taking place with around 20 Jewish folks living in Mumbai, none of who I believe were authentic Indians (and there are some of those, who I met later, you’d be surprised). I couldn’t remember the last time I was in a synagogue, maybe it was with my Korean/Chinese friends in Jerusalem, trying to show them a Friday night service at the Big Synagogue.
Anyways, it was by then that I did the mistake of deciding that I’m not going to stay in Mumbai that night, wanting to go for one of hill-mountain famous British get away stations. So, I made my way up the Fort Area to the lovely colonial style Victoria Terminus.
(Damn, this is longer than I expected. O’right, end of part 1, a shorter part 2 of day 1 later on)