Grant Road, Mumbai
Swapan's hospitality for my first few days in Mumbai was great, he is a really friendly, caring and interesting guy, always happy to go out of his way to help. However, it was time to move on and as I had an early start to Bangalore on the 14th Dec I thought it would be a good plan to book into a ‘hotel’ closer to Mumbai Central Train Station. Hence it was back into the Mumbai madness as I cycled south fully loaded. The 26km ride took me over 3 hours!! – extremely tedious. The only positive was the closer to South Mumbai I got the state of the roads marginally improved.
A random highlight of the trip was after about 10km in the Vile Parle area I was cycling along Swami Vivekanand Road, or SV Road as the Mumbaikers call it, minding my own business and trying to avoid other road users when I hear a female voice, “Excuse me! Excuse me!”. Looking around I see an Indian woman with her head poking out of her car window gesturing to me, “Excuse me, is it OK to talk to you? Please pull over…”. A trifle baffled and thinking, “What have I done??”, I hesitatingly agree.
Curiously I roll towards her now pulled over car and before I have a chance to say anything she excitedly bursts into, “Wow! I have never seen a cycle tourer in India before. I went cycle touring in France earlier this year and I really loved it, now I want to do it in India but I have never seen anyone doing it here before. This is great! Oh sorry, by the way my name is Tina!” (The irony of this first random encounter I have being with someone called Tina will not be lost on those who know me. A lifelong Indian friend from back in the UK is called Tina, as is my extremely close Cambodian friend and business partner). I try to get a few words in but now we are being honked from behind as we are holding up the traffic. “Here, take my card and lets meet up for dinner sometime to talk more” she gushes. I hand over my card and explain that I am off to Bangalore for the Tour of Nilgiris for just over a week but I would be happy to meet up on my return. “OK! OK! That’s great, I’ll follow you on Twitter. By the way, if you need any help or advice please don’t hesitate to call me, I mean it”, Tina assures me. “That’s really kind of you” I reply and with that we bid our farewells and Tina drives off, leaving me wondering whether that encounter really took place or not…
I continue pedalling south reflecting on the random, but pleasant nature of the meeting with Tina, in between slamming the brakes on to avoid erratic auto-rickshaws, when after about a further 5km I hear, “Mark! Mark!”. Looking over, sure enough it is Tina standing by the roadside looking very excited once again. As I pull over, “Mark, so sorry to bother you again, this is Pritik, he’s the friend I went cycle touring in France with. I called him after leaving you saying he just had to come and meet you!”. We chatted for 5 minutes or so and then I mentioned that I should get going, “Of course Mark, but before you go is it OK to take a photo with you?”, “Sure, of course it is!” – I could get used to the ‘fame’ that cycle touring brings
Alas, my sense of feeling important did not last long as I rolled up outside the hotel I had booked into close to Mumbai Central Station. What is it they say about first impressions – well Grant Road is a bustling little street lined with restaurants, market stalls, street vendors and budget hotels. “This is keeping it real” I think to myself just as I see the faded, peeling sign for the Hotel Gemini with diggers ripping up the road outside, “Ummmm, doesn’t bode well” I sigh… I lock Dhanya up outside and walk up the stairs above the Al Salman Perfumery. “Hello, you must be Mr Mark” a smiling young lad at reception mumbles as he has a mouth full of betel leaf. As we are going through the checking-in formalities I mention about my bike, “No problem sir, we have a safe place for you to keep”. With Dhanya safely locked up on the roof top ‘patio’ I am shown to my room. Now I know I have booked a room with shared bathroom but as the bellboy opens the door I do my best to stifle a sarcastic chuckle. It has to be the smallest ‘hotel’ room I have ever seen, it is 2m wide and 3m long with barely enough room to open the door without it hitting the bed. But heh, let’s be positive, it is clean, has a TV and the fan works, and let’s face it, could I really expect much more for 400R ($7.75) a night in central Mumbai??
After taking a shower (hot water included!) I go to explore my local neighbourhood primarily for food and an internet connection (it’s my Mum’s birthday so need to Skype her!). By now night has fallen and Grant Road, named after Sir Robert Grant the Governor of Bombay in the late 1830s, is a hive of activity. After Independence the road was renamed Maulana Shaukatali Road, but fortunately for the linguistically challenged such as myself it is still best known as Grant Road. Wandering around I am struck by how my surroundings are a microcosm of the stereotypical India that I expected and a real mish-mash of cultures and religions. Initially it appears to be a predominantly Muslim area as there is a mosque nearby and a large number of bearded men wearing embroidered topis and pristine knee length white thobes milling around. Gliding by are also women in full length black burqas as well as those wearing the less austere looking and patterned khimar headscarves. However I begin to notice more women dressed in the delightfully colourful and shimmering saris and shalwar kameez along with the younger generation attired mainly in jeans and t-shirts, as well as businessmen in the universally obligatory shirt and trousers. After taking a small side lane I find myself in a small market specialising in spare vehicle parts, yet what really strikes me is that virtually every vendor is a turbaned Sikh.
Back on the main drag I am mesmerised by what I see on the road, there is a mangled mess of activity and a cacophony of noise – black and yellow Ambassador taxis, ancient looking buses chucking out plumes of black smoke, modern private cars, decrepit trucks of all sizes, Hero motorbikes, black and yellow auto-rickshaws, fragile looking Hercules bicycles carrying all manner of goods and a mass of humanity all vying for space, it is certainly ‘every man for himself’! And if all that wasn’t enough just for added entertainment chuck in the spear like horned oxen trudging along pulling laden down medieval-esque carts and the sweating bare-chested wallahs pushing long narrow hand carts loaded with anything from bulging, teetering jute bags, to large lumps of raw metal who would not look out of place in Victorian England.
On either side on the road there is an endless line of stores and taking up valuable pavement space a long line of semi-permanent tiny blue-painted ramshackle wooden stores interspersed with temporary ‘market stalls’. It appears you can just about fulfil all your needs – local restaurants galore specialising in cuisine from differing regions of the country, at least 4 cinemas in the space of 500 meters showing the latest Bollywood blockbusters, mobile phone and pirated DVD vendors, barbers snipping and shaving, tailors hunched over whirring sewing machines, cobblers tapping and gluing, key cutters filing, betel leaf purveyors preparing, watch repairers squinting, clothing retailers heckling, snack cookers frying, milk parlours blending, pharmacists prescribing, juice sellers squeezing, a flour miller sieving, a fresh vegetable vendor calling and much more, not forgetting the wretched looking beggars… Whilst I am taking in this kaleidoscope of activity I also need to be wary of where I am walking, bundles of rags on the litter strewn uneven pavement suddenly become a sleeping body, dogs sprawled out unfazed, chewing goats tied to trees, small kids running about oblivious, and of course the occasional ‘Holy Cow’. All of this to a backdrop of once elegant but now faded and decrepit 100 year old and more colonial architecture, plus a mixed backing track of honking horns and Hindi music accentuated with the perfumed smoky aroma of burning incense and the less than perfumed occasional stench of shit and piss all makes for an exciting and intoxicating experience…
Back in the relative calm of the Gemini I enquire as to where the best place to change money is, “Ah sir, we can arrange that for you, very good rate, better than the bank, we can do in 15 minutes”. The rate of 52 rupees to the dollar certainly was better than the banks, so with a tinge of scepticism I agree to change some money. Sure enough within 15 minutes there is a knock on my door and the money man has arrived. Now I’m no expert in Indian cash but it all looks real and I guess there can’t be that big a market in counterfeit rupees (can there??), so the transaction goes ahead. By now I am getting a liking for the Gemini, cheap and basic it certainly is, but the small army of brown uniformed bellboys keep the public areas and shared bathrooms spotlessly clean, as it is ‘winter’ the fan in the room is sufficient to keep it cool, all the staff are very friendly and helpful, plus they agreed to let me leave my excess baggage with them for the 12 days I will be away down south at no charge. OK, so the shared bathrooms can be a bit stinky at times, but heh over the years I have shared very nice hotels rooms with mates and much the same can be said Hence I decide to book in for the first couple of nights when I return from Bangalore. I pay with some of the rupees I have just been given by the moneychanger and the receptionist accepts them no problem, “I guess they are genuine after all” I ponder with a sly smile on my face.