Mumbai adventures

Mumbai adventures

I had amazing adventures in my first few hours in Mumbai at the turn of the century, where I’d gone to work a trade exhibition for business magazine advertising contracts.

The second leg of my flight was from Dubai. I arrived at 3am. The airport was quiet. I remember low lighting and a hot, humid atmosphere. A guard told me the small amount of blood on the airport concourse was after a stampede among returning Hajj pilgrims had injured some a few hours earlier.

My luggage had not left Dubai. I found a dimly lit corner office and I got a report sent off. What luck! Emirates Airlines generously allowed me to buy all the smart business clothes I needed for the first day of the exhibition. I was recommended to “Paul”, one of the famous mens outfitters in town. The clothes I bought far excelled in quality what I had thought of as good standards in London. I lashed out on leather shoes, trousers, belt, shirt, tie and a lightweight jacket.

I still had my hand luggage, my trusty briefcase, with my hotel name, my commercial contact lists and personal hygiene essentials.

By this time, all the other passengers on my flight had long since claimed their luggage and were on their onward journeys.

It was after 4 o’clock in the morning local time. I was thirsty. A jolly, middle-aged man with two big shiny chrome cylinders strapped on a backpack frame was dispensing hot, strong Chai sweetened with concentrated milk.

There and then and for the duration of my India saga, I switched off all thoughts about hygiene risks. This was a Good Thing, because later in downtown Mumbai, I would walk the crowded, noisy, colourful streets drinking Lassi* and eating Paan** from random street sellers.

Lassi* is a sweet or savoury Indian drink made from a yogurt or buttermilk base with water.

Paan** is a mildly stimulating mix of gulkand, sugar, cardamon, fenel and other ingredients skillfully wrapped in a betel leaf and sold for a few rupees. At nightfall, the street sellers’ welcoming smiles are lit up by a hanging paraffin lantern.

I noticed two categories of taxi at the airport. The air conditioned ones had windows that opened!

A taxi driver shouted me into his taxi. On the way out of the airport complex, he had an altercation with an armed security guard. The driver won. We left the airport behind.

My driver was an earnest, slim, unsmiling youngish man. He spoke no English. I sat in the dark on the back seat behind the driver.

A mile outside the airport, the motor on the taxi slowly faltered and then died

The car silently slowed off the road towards a convenient ditch. The young man got out, crossed over the unlit dual carriageway, and disappeared into the corresponding ditch. 

A bit later, he urged me in incomprehensible fluent Hindi to follow with my briefcase. Very alarmed, or at least as alarmed as I could be on little sleep and in a state of confusion, I was sure I was about to be parted first from my briefcase and then from my sweet life. Alas and alackaday! 

But no. He’d stepped across the empty dual carriageway to wake his pal, who’d been snoring in his own taxi in his own quiet stretch of ditch, and to call in a favour to lend him his working motor. 

He and his shell-shocked fare resumed the journey to the hotel. In London, I had implicitly trusted our company travel agency to book my modest 3-star hotel.

My place of work for the week was in the Trade and Exhibition Complex in the north area of Mumbai. Our travel agent had booked me into the India Gateway area which is at least one hour’s drive to the south.

So I rode the 30 kilometres from the airport on almost deserted urban roads for what seemed like an age, trying not to imagine being dropped off into the arms of some den of thieves and cut-throats. I had not checked before leaving London to see that my hotel was so far from the airport.

It was one hour each way from my hotel to the Exhibition centre. These trips morning and evening resembled epic National Geographic travelogues.

The streets were clogged with traffic, two, three and four wheeled, and with animals, both four-legged (oxen, donkeys, goats too I think) and human traffic, mendicants, the handicapped, the slow frail elderly and also business pedestrian traffic.

The taxis to and from the Exhibition centre never stopped weaving between these soft targets and we and they miraculously never collided.

The unimaginable noisy chaos of big city life in India as a first-time British visitor can never be forgotten. It is diametrically different in comparison to, say, the peaceful high glaciers of the Swiss Alps.

I found myself in the India which had not yet endured the major terrorist incidents which were quite soon to scar the psyche of the citizenry of India and the wider world.

These journeys had to be with all windows wide open, so we breathed a mix of thick and sickly-smelling exhaust fumes and the smoke from improvised small roadside bonfires.

The roadside fires were kept alight in the late afternoons by women cooking meals over smokey piles of yellow burning chunks of road tar. This seemed far and far removed from my limited notions of PC lifestyles.

With peak rush hour finished, motorised traffic, cars, motorbikes, buses, goods vehicles and all, nips across the carriageway divider and uses the relatively deserted oncoming lanes unchallenged. Back home, we could do well to learn this trick of filling up available empty roadspace! What excellent common sense, I thought! Road cops, please look the other way.

The rest of my week in Mumbai was similarly highly eventful, though free from potentially life-threatening dramas. I enjoyed the truly exquisite taste of genuine Indian vegetarian cooking for the first time. It is quite unlike any UK Indian restaurant food.

I clicked my 35mm camera till it became hot, but I kept buying new film, and never ran out. Every day, only warm, open-hearted friendly, smiling people.

It was on my last full day in Mumbai that Lady Luck let me dodge a near-disaster.

My work was done. I had had sales successes. On my last day, I felt elated. I was elevated into a curious state of abandon. Perhaps it was my light fever. I have no idea why, but I went along with the Sunday morning crowds and was drawn to board a smallish pleasure craft at Gateway Of India Mumbai ferry terminal. 

I paid a few Rupees and walked up a short gang-plank onto a ferry craft the size of large fishing boat. It was unsurprisingly yet another hot sunny morning. I chatted with a well-to-do Indian couple with two young boys.

Gateway Of India Mumbai with ferry boats in the background

As Mumbai grew smaller on the horizon, I decided to lie down on deck to sun myself. After a long while, I started to wonder if this vessel was going to leave Indian territorial waters.

In my oddly detached mood on that last morning, I had not thought to ask where the boat was bound.

It was OK, because we disembarked at the magical Elephanta Island,16 km north east of the ferry terminal. This turned out to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an amazing tourist destination, popular with families. Carved into the mountain are seven ancient caves. One has sculptures and carvings dedicated to Lord Shiva, daylight only dimly reaching these and other huge divine figures. There were monkeys roaming free on the island, though they never bothered me.

Years later, I was thrilled to discover photos my Father had taken there in the mid 1950s, about half a hundred years before I stumbled there.

It was on the night after my Elephanta Caves adventure before my flight home that I contracted a frightening, serious and debilitating mystery virus. I had a rapidly intensifying dry high fever. I spoke to hotel reception who sent a young doctor to my room from the bustling hospital on the other side of the street. He was dressed in whites, with stethoscope and a bag containing injection needles and phials of colourless liquid. Clearly, he could not understand why I politely and repeatedly declined an injection.

I cannot imagine today being allowed to undertake intercontinental air travel in my medically challenging state. Home again, a motorcycle rushed a blood sample from my doctor’s surgery for urgent analysis in case I had a Notifiable Disease. They never discovered what the virus was.

Although I kept working at my desk, I was too physically weak for a couple of months to walk more than a few hundred yards without needing to lie down (it was not enough to only sit down!).

Hey ho! We intrepid expeditionary commercial explorer-travellers must march on into the complete unknown again and again!

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