When we arrived at the airport in Dubai, we were told that Emirates had recently tightened their baggage restrictions and were now extremely strict, charging for each additional kg. It is frustrating that most airlines allow people to carry golf clubs free of charge, whereas there are no allowances made for bicycles. With a weight allowance of 30kg and our boxed bikes already weighing 21kg each, it was clear we would be over our weight allowance. We had 10kg too much, and were advised by the friendly check-in staff to buy an additional hand bag at a duty free shop to cram more weight into our hand luggage, which was unlikely to be checked. In the end, we got away with paying excess baggage charges for only 4kg, and we were glad that our bikes were accepted with no further fuss.||
Arriving in Mumbai a few hours later, we anxiously waited for our bikes to show up on the carousel, as there was no counter for oversized luggage. Eventually the luggage handlers proudly brought the bike boxes out, holding them upside down, despite the fact that we had marked the boxes with arrows and “this side up” signs. Clearly we were expected to pay a tip for their “help”.
We did, however, get special treatment at customs: whilst waiting in a long queue with everyone else for our bags to be x-rayed, a customs official questioned the contents of our bike boxes. “Are you on an expedition or something?”, he asked. “Kind of”, we said, upon which he waved us through, past everyone else, directly to the exit. There, we met a young guy from Pune who was a cyclist himself and very interested in our trip. A lovely welcome to India.
We had arranged an airport pickup through our hotel, as we were a little concerned about how to get the bikes into the city. This proved to be unnecessary, as many of the local taxis have roof racks that we could have put the bike boxes on.
Driving through Mumbai, a city with a population density of 29,000 per square km, there were too many impressions to take in at once: scores of 1950’s black and yellow taxis sharing the road with modern cars, the occasional cow, and cyclists carrying large tin containers that dangled from their racks. Groups of men drinking milky tea from road side stalls, with half naked children playing in the dusty street. A little stand selling fresh juice made from sugar canes, the smell of burning sandalwood keeping flies away. Shacks made of corrugated iron stacked three levels high, leaning precariously against a railway bridge. Behind the railway line, the edge of Asia’s largest slum, the Dharavi slum, housing over 1 million people. A shoeless boy panning the muddy drain water to anything of value. Mobile phone advertisements and cinemas showing Bollywood’s latest blockbusters. Finally, the relative calm of our hotel.
We spent most of the day catching up on sleep and enjoying the food at the nearby restaurants, as well as exploring the local market area. The food was amazing and although we had indulged in many Indian dishes back in London, it took our taste buds to places we had never imagined. At a Thali place, we were served 7 different types of vegetarian curries, dhals and pickles, with rice, different types of bread and sauces. There was an art to combining the various foods that were on offer, as the staff explained to us: the firmer curries were eaten with bread, the watery dhal with rice, the thick dhal with a yoghurt based sauce, the crispy bread with a mango dip, etc. Their eyes widened in horror when Guy ended up experimenting by wildly combining the various dishes, following no rules whatsoever.
The food is very cheap, and for around $4 we can get a huge meal for the two of us. We had been worried about the food in India being too spicy for us, but so far we have been fine. As some Indians told us, there are only certain regions where the food is very spicy (even too spicy for them!).
Despite being very busy, the area we were staying in was not that touristy, and therefore there were no touts to deal with. We must admit, we had been a little apprehensive about coming to India. Guy had travelled in northern India 8 years ago and had been entertaining Freddie with horror stories of pushy touts and grumpy people. Much to our delight, we have found the people quite friendly and helpful so far. When some curious men making flower garlands for a local temple presented Freddie with a flower, and a man selling pressure gauges invited us into his shop for a chat about philosophy, Freddie shot Guy an incredulous look. “I swear it wasn’t like this,” he said, “this never happened to me last time!” We conclude that either India has changed, Guy has changed, or the people in Mumbai are simply a friendlier lot than their cousins up north.
The colonial heritage is still very present in Mumbai, and many buildings look as if they could be located in London or Oxford, except for the palm and banana trees lining them. The climate at the moment is near perfect – dry and sunny, but not too hot. We enjoyed wandering around the city, visiting the Gateway of India and its surrounding area, which teemed with tourists and accompanying touts, as well as plenty of police men due to a recent terror warning. We payed our respects to the place Mahatma Gandhi had lived and worked in, an airy house in a quiet leafy street hosting an impressive collection of photographs, exhibits and letters.
As expected, Indians are mad about cricket, and we have seen many impromptu cricket games, be it in the back streets of the slums, an alley behind our hotel, or the lovely cricket ground near the university. The players are as diverse as the locations and range from street kids to bank managers.
After being unceremoniously kicked out of a garden which was apparently reserved for senior citizens only, we enjoyed strolling around Chowpatty beach in the center of Mumbai with other families who were eating ice cream and watching the sunset. One family was holding a wedding and had hired a whole sports stadium for the occasion – apparently it is not uncommon for weddings to cost upwards of $150,000. Entertaining hundreds of guests over several days does not come cheap!
India at the moment is a place of great promise: the world is coming to India to begin the fight over its huge market of over 1 billion people. With a strong economy and good education, there is now a burgeoning middle class who shops, dines and travels like their counterparts in the West. We got a glimpse of this world when we met up with Abhishek and his wife Priya. Freddie had been friends with Abhishek at university 10 years ago, and Abhishek then moved to the US to do his MBA before getting married and working in Dubai. He has now moved back to Mumbai to work in his father’s textile business. They picked us up for dinner one night, and whisked us away to a shopping mall. We felt like we had been transported back to Dubai; all the designer brands were there, along with the usual coffee shops and trendy restaurants. We even spotted our first Bollywood star! (Don’t ask us what his name was!).
A few days later, we also met up with Amol, a colleague of Freddie’s dad who lives in Pune and had made the 4 hour journey to Mumbai to see us, as he is very interested in travelling and enjoys trekking and cycling. He and his extremely cute four year old son were decked out in matching red T-shirts and baseball caps and took us out for a lovely long lunch. Amol works as an IT project manager and travels a lot for work. He shared some great insights about the Indian culture with us and gave us some useful tips regarding places to visit in the south of India. We really enjoyed their company.
We have found Mumbai to be a place of extremes, and have needed a strong stomach at times. While the middle and upper classes enjoy affluence and a modern lifestyle, 55% of the Mumbai population live in slums or other improvised accommodation. At night, many people sleep on the footpath in front of our hotel. During the day, they sell things on the streets or transport goods with their rickety wooden two-wheelers. Sometimes we see women with small children sleeping on pieces of cardboard on the street, and once we could not help staring when we spotted a young woman washing a newborn baby (umbilical cord still present) in the gutter outside a train station. Quite often, we see people missing limbs or being handicapped in some other way, living on the street.
On our last day, we joined an eye opening walking tour of the Dharavi slum. We think the experience deserves its own blog post, so more on this later!
Our plan was to take a train down to Goa, from where we will start cycling again. We went down to the historical railway station, another relic of colonial times, which was teeming with travellers, beggars, and chihuahua sized rats. To organise our train ticket, we joined an orderly queue at a special counter for foreigners. We are lucky that the Indian railway system usually holds a quota of tickets for foreigners; Indians have to plan ahead as the trains are often booked out for months in advance. Ticket in hand, we enquired about the process of getting the bikes on the train. We received several different answers from different employees, ranging from “just get there an hour before the train leaves, and you can take them for free”, to “you need to hand them over a day in advance and pay a fee”.
As our train left early in the morning, we decided to take the bikes to the luggage office the previous afternoon. We had strapped them on the roof rack of a taxi, and as soon as we arrived at the station, some guys approached us offering help. Apparently the luggage office was closed on Sundays, so they were calling someone to take the bikes for us. This seemed very iffy to us, and when Freddie started walking in the direction of the luggage office to investigate, the story suddenly changed to “your luggage will sit there for hours, better give them to us”. Of course the luggage office was open, and the touts left disappointed.
Our boxes were weighed and we were told they were inappropriately packed for railway travel, and we had to get them professionally packed. However, the packaging wallah disagreed and said they were fine. We added to the confusion by asking the luggage clerk if it was possible to get insurance for the bikes, and were eventually told we should wait for his boss to arrive.
When we came back half an hour later, we were told we had to pay 700 rupees each. “Is that for the insurance?”, Freddie enquired, and the luggage clerk proceeded to perform the legendary Indian head waggle. It means neither yes nor no, is entirely non-committal and utterly frustrating for the traveller. After waggling his head for a minute or so he disappeared. For a while, the boss ignored us, but then our forms were filled in and we were asked for a fee of 400 rupees. We were still in the dark about the insurance but finally read their behaviour as “well, there is maybe some kind of insurance, but we don’t really know how to deal with it.”
The following morning, when the train arrived at the station, there was no sign of our boxes. Guy went back to the luggage office and found them there, still untouched. It was promising we had located our bikes, but unfortunately the luggage handlers were refusing to put them on the train. A bribe was obviously expected, and after we paid our 150 rupees, the bikes were finally loaded. We were on our way!