ROSSING the street in Mumbai requires a mixture of raw chutzpah and telepathy. You will need a dose of courage just to step into the path of oncoming traffic – walking signals are operational, but routinely ignored – and a certain intuition will also come in handy in divining whether the car will, in fact, stop short of your beseeching, outstretched hand.
“If you did this in Australia, the driver would get out of the car and punch you,” my friend says, as a handful of cars slow for us to cross.
Indeed. But then Mumbai is a city full of endless surprises and contradictions. Unbelievably patient with tourists crossing the road, Mumbaikers will nevertheless all but throw you against the wall to get off a crowded train during rush hour.
Mumbai is home to one of Asia’s best five-star hotels – The Taj Mahal Palace – but it is also one of the few cities where you will routinely receive receipts written on carbon copy paper.
Even its name isn’t set in stone. Many locals write Mumbai but say Bombay; airline tickets will reference the new name, while the accompanying baggage tags still point to its colonial moniker.
The city’s Bollywood film industry is the height of sophistication and glamour, but a large swathe of residential areas are slums.
Mumbai is doubtless a special place. And to savour all of the city’s diversity, to be jostled (literally and figuratively) by its immense energy and life, you will want to spend at least three days here.
The streets are clogged with honking cars, street vendors and a potpourri of overwhelming scents. Street dogs sniff at detritus on the sidewalk in search of food, while hawkers attempt to sell you objects that you will never have any use for (giant balloons, anyone?)
There may be a temptation to jump in one of the city’s many metered cabs (make sure you insist on the meter being used), but it is worth walking at least some of Mumbai on foot if only to appreciate the sensory overload.
Mumbai, on India’s west coast, is a huge city of some 20 million people, but a large concentration of the most interesting tourist attractions are in south Mumbai, in particular the Nariman Point, Churchgate, Fort and Apollo Bandar areas.
The south is also the best place to take in the turn-of-the-century colonial apartment blocks – some faded and decrepit, others immaculate and clearly expensive.
Much of south Mumbai seems caught up in a war between civilisation and its wildness. Giant, breathtaking old banyan trees wrap themselves around gates and buildings so that they appear to be choking the manmade interlopers, while hawks and kites hover above the rooflines of hotels and government buildings.
Fans of architecture should not miss The Bombay High Court and Victoria Station – since renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus – which offer excellent examples of Edwardian and Victorian-era styles.
At the end of the day, pop your head into the terminus and watch Mumbaikers rushing to catch their evening service. While people are no longer allowed to climb on to the tops of trains, it doesn’t stop them from riding half outside a cramped carriage, hanging on to the door for dear life. Local tourist guides estimate that