Posts Tagged ‘mumbai’

Day 1: Mumbai to Kihim (2-1-12) 118km

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

A 6am start as a fully loaded Dhanya and I leave the, by now after a 7 day stay, homely Hotel Gemini and head out into the pre-dawn Mumbai chill and spin along the empty streets towards the adventure starting point, the Gateway of India. Arriving at the Gateway of India, with the sun yet to rise, its mass silhouetted against the grey dawn sky I am surprised to see a few other early risers, a couple of joggers, a handful of photo clicking tourists(!) and a small group of Asians doing some form of oriental exercises.

I first decided to do this cycle around India challenge more than a year and a half ago, so I have visualised this Gateway of India moment on many occasions, as such I stand for 20 minutes or so just soaking up the atmosphere and reflecting on the magnitude of what I am just about to embark upon. Just before the sun rises behind the Gateway I shake myself out of this trance like state and decide I better get going if I want to miss the worst of the Mumbai rush-hour.

Gateway to India - Where it all begins!!

To escape Mumbai I have to go north to go south, to avoid central Mumbai I skirt the eastern flank of the Mumbai peninsula which is initially lined with naval installations. These soon give way to grimy goods yards, colourful yet dusty trucks and litter strewn sidings. I follow rail tracks which appear to be disused, well by loco’s that is, they are certainly well frequented by men squatting with all their bits and pieces hanging out having their morning ‘muck-out’ – I am not going to be able to get used to this sight and I keep my eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead… For much of the initial 20km I am accompanied by the large under-construction concrete overhead metro supports, as well as passing oil storage depots, tracts of wasteland, rows of power lines heading off into the hazy rising sun, the Bharat Petroleum refinery, occasional shanty villages, and putrid waterways – the usual detritus of large city outskirts – and some! But looking on the bright side the roads are virtually traffic free, just the occasional oil tanker and lumbering TATA bus ferrying people to work, plus those workers making their way on bicycle and by foot. In the midst of all this ‘industrialness’ I pass the green oasis of the Vengsarkar Cricket Academy where the white uniformed groundsmen are out busy rolling the pitch. Dilip Vengsarkar was renown for being a stylish batsman during the 1980s, and one of the few who could put up a good show against the formidable West Indies pace men of the era. Arguably his biggest achievement was scoring three consecutive Test Match centuries at Lord’s against England, and he went on the captain Indian in 1987.

After crossing the almost 3km long Vashi Bridge over a large estuary I feel that I have finally escaped Mumbai’s ever expanding clutches. Soon I turn right and finally head south into Navi Mumbai onto the lovely smooth empty 6 lane highway of Palm Road. In the 3 weeks I have been in Mumbai it has been reported in the local papers that at least 6 youths have been killed in traffic accidents along this stretch of road! Navi Mumbai is home to many of the city’s nouveau riche and it is suspected these deaths are due to youngsters in high performance cars returning in the early hours from central Mumbai’s club scene, tanked up on booze and who knows what else, and trying to impress… I have to admit to being disappointed by Navi Mumbai, I was expecting the area to be lined with plush apartment blocks overlooking the sea with a palm fringed seafront promenade. Not at all! OK, so there are apartment blocks with fanciful names such as, Viceroy Park, Sea Homes, Sun Coast Towers, Beverly Park, but from the outside these new constructions appear aged, run down and dirty. As for the delightful sea front promenade, I could not see the sea! So much for my sophisticated breakfast plans of a coffee and croissant looking out over the ocean… One thing I have noticed of my time in Mumbai is how the modern, new buildings all look jaded and 20 years older than they really are, I’m sure the interiors of these apartments are very swish and personal little havens from the surrounding madness, yet from the outside they really do not look anything at all special.

Not before long the ‘luxury’ apartments gave way to a dust bowl of construction sites, quarries, cement works, container yards and an endless stream of container trucks, luckily the vast majority of them parked up. After about 65km, just as I was getting a bit tired of container yard after container yard and pot holed roads I crossed a decaying concrete bridge which shook rather alarmingly when a truck rumbled over it, I took a right and suddenly I was pedalling through small villages with Mumbai seeming a long way off… Just as I was enjoying the scenery suddenly the decent road surface disappeared and I was cycling along a very bumpy and potholed dirt road. By the looks of astonishment on the villagers faces I doubt they get many ‘whites’ in this neck of the woods, let alone on a bicycle!

Back on tarmac of sorts I approach a junction where there is a dusty makeshift police checkpoint on the side of the road, constructed of hessian sacks and bamboo. A slouched back policeman beckons me over, ‘Where you go?’ he questions in a relatively stern voice, ‘Raigad Fort’ I reply. ‘That way’, shaking his finger off to my left. ‘This way’ I question pointing in the same direction, ‘Yes, yes’, with a head wobble. I was sure it was to the right, but heh bow to local knowledge, especially that from a policeman. I never did find the fort, however I arrive rather timely in Kalwar village as I was running low on water. I pull up outside a drinks store and request, ‘Paneer’, Hindi for water, the vendor automatically thinks I can speak the lingo and babbles away to me with his wife giggling shyly in the doorway to the back room. Once he realises I haven’t got a clue what he is on about word is sent out via the village grapevine and in no time the village English speaker, Jaipesh, arrives along with about 20 curious assistants! With his one missing front tooth he reels out the standard questions, ‘What is your name?’, ‘What country you from?’, ‘Where you go?’, ‘How old are you?’, ‘Are you married?’ etc. Once the friendly interrogation is over and I am mounting my bike Jaipesh informs me, ‘Kihim, follow this road 5km, the big road turn right…’. I get the same info from about 5 others as I cycle through the village, ‘At least they all agree’ I think to myself. About 5km from Kihim I take a narrow bumpy road which takes me off the main drag and through a couple of delightful little villages, very rustic, where once again and I greeted with looks of astonishment from the local kids and bewilderment from the village elders.

Kalwar Level Crossing - First one and I had to stop!!

I finally check-in to a guesthouse after a couple of previous enquires, guess that will be a regular occurrence, looking for suitable digs each night, and take the short stroll down to the almost deserted wide sandy beach where I relax with a fresh coconut juice straight from its shell, whilst taking in a game of beach cricket and watching the beautiful sunset – the first of many!

In terms of road surfaces I think today was a real wake-up call of what to expect. I was subjected to a wide range from smooth tarmac (very limited), to concrete, to potholes, to bumpy, to rocky, to gravelly, to desperate dirt, to constant patchworks of shoddy repairs, to decaying concrete, to corrugated iron effect tarmac, and my personal nemesis block paving! This range of surfaces means that for the majority of the time you cannot get any sort of rhythm and momentum, and if you are really ‘lucky’ you can experience all of the above within a few kilometres! Some long days ahead I feel…

Kihim Beach - not a bad place to end Day 1

Grant Road, Mumbai

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

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.


Bombay Bound…

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

After a looong goodbye having drinks and farewell meals with friends and relatives over the course of a couple of weeks I was finally boarding my flight to Mumbai with the words of my sister replaying in my ears. ''I really admire and envy you for what you are doing, not the cycling part mind you! but for the whole experience you will have!”

More than a year and a half had passed since I seriously decided I was going to undertake this cycle around India challenge and here I was sat on a plane with my bicycle and all the accompanying cycle tour paraphernalia safely, (I hoped) stowed in the hold, heading for one of the most densely populated and frenetic cities in the world, in a country with over 1 billion inhabitants.

As we were taxi-ing to the runway for take-off I felt surprising calm. The nerves, apprehensions and frantic last minute organising had given way to a feeling of serenity – the calm before the storm I guessed… This was in marked contrast to Rajesh who I was sitting next to, a 53 year old bespectacled Malaysian / Indian government worker from Kuching who was re-visiting India for the first time in 17 years. He was so excited he could not stop talking, ‘’Oh Bombay will have changed so much since I was last there… I will be meeting nieces and nephews I have only seen in photographs before… everyone will have changed so much… I can’t wait to see my Auntie, she is meeting me at the airport… So what will you be doing in Bombay?”. I gave him a rather condensed reply, “Oh, I am just doing some cycling around”. “Oh, how interesting, look here”, as he searched through his bag and pulled out a rather dog-eared 1980s guide book and map of Mumbai. He unfolded the map and insisted on giving me a running commentary of all the sights in Mumbai that I ‘must’visit. Rajesh even taught me a few Hindi words which I promptly forgot…

As the plane began its descent and I looked out over the orange, white and red twinkling lights sprawling out below surrounded by inky blackness, reminiscent of an elegant bejewelled silk sari, the butterflies in my stomach woke up and with ‘Jai Ho’ the theme tune of Slum Dog Millionaire on continuous play in my mind and a big smile on my face I thought, “Well this is it Mark, here I am at the start of what is going to be the greatest adventure of my life!”

With that sense of relief I always feel when my baggage finally appears on the airport carousel I loaded up my trolley with my oversized canvas bike bag and other large shrink wrapped bag bulging at the seams with the 4 panniers and the handlebar bag it contained and trundled towards the exit. “What is this sir?” an official in a well pressed white linen uniform sternly asks, “It’s a bicycle” I reply with a smile. “How much did it cost?”, “About 500 dollars”, a little white lie. “How many gears does it have?”, “14”. Another official joins the questioning, “How old is it?”, “Ahh, I bought it in September”, “So very new then, you will have to pay customs duty”, “Pardon!” I reply incredulously, “It’s not new and I have come here for cycle tourism, to cycle around”, I explain. “How long you in India for?”, “I have a 6 month visa”. “You take the bike with you when you leave?”, “Of course”… After a few seconds of contemplation, “OK you can go”. Continuing pushing my trolley I had not walked more than 10 paces when another two officials approached me and began the same interrogation. The female uniformed official looked quite stern, yet the rather rotund black suited official was smiling and seemed impressed with my plans, “Umm cycling in India, that is very good, an expedition… by the way do you have any cigarettes or alcohol?”, “No, I have to stay healthy fit for the cycling”, I reply with a big smile. He gently laughs, does the iconic Indian head wobble and stretches out his arm in the direction of the exit, “You may leave sir, and good luck!”.

I arranged a taxi and was a little concerned how the bike would fit in, especially when I initially saw the vehicle, a small Hyundai Santro! Just as I was thinking, “This is gonna be interesting”, I noticed the roof rack, how enterprising ;-)

So many people had warned me about the Indian traffic, however after living in Cambodia for over 7 years I didn’t think it could be that bad in comparison… Before we had left the airport my taxi driver had almost knocked 3 people over and had a couple of near misses with another taxi and an auto-rickshaw. This style of driving continued as we bumped and swerved along the dimly lit pot-holed Mumbai roads towards Andheri (East), accompanied by my drivers horn honking soundtrack…

Swapan opened the door to his apartment with a big smile, “Welcome Mark, you have arrived. Come in, come in”. This was my first CouchSurfing experience, a great concept which I was now putting into practice. Swapan is a CouchSurfing old-timer and he quickly made me feel at home, even though my luggage had more or less taken over his front room. It had been a long day, my eye-lids were soon heavy and I dropped off to sleep. But not before having seen the headlines of a local paper, “90 die in Kolkata hospital inferno”… This story shared its front page space with the lighter news that Virender Shewag had scored 219 runs against the West Indies in Indore, the largest ever score by a single batsman in a one day international cricket match – he is now a national hero and is being bombarded with sponsorship deals.