It seemed a strange choice to start my second round the world trip, as Mumbai was actually out of everywhere, the place I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the most. This was based on my previous experience, in chaotic, bureaucracy limited India. And to an extent I was not disappointed, albeit while being somewhat more prepared mentally on this occasion, with more of an ability to take everything with a pinch of salt.
The journey to my hotel from Mumbai’s brand spanking new airport was lined with people sleeping by the road, an immediate example of the poverty that dominates this sweating metropolis of a city.Two of my early encounters led to attempts to detach me from my hard earned cash, involving dubious claims such as, “Your guesthouse is closed,” and “I am a registered ear cleaner, you’ll need to give me 1500 rupees for that.” I didn’t.
Mumbai is an insanely busy city with far too many people for the number of tourists to support. Many of the workers that come from the surrounding areas, such as one map seller I met, simply end up in slums, trying to etch out a living.
The best things to do in the city are take in a game of cricket, the standard is high despite the poorly kept pitches and ramshackle equipment. Similarly a stroll to the beach on the west side of the city while the sun sets is delightful if aromatically challenged. The trip out to Elephanta Island is more worthwhile for the number of new friends you’ll make who will want their picture taken with you, than the ruins themselves. Similar events will occur if you loiter and take it all in at the Gateway to India, just sit on the steps for a couple of hours and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells.
I felt it was important to get out of here as soon as possible, it was March after all, and temperatures were in the early 30s which was not ideal.
Tiny Hampi, is an overnight bus journey to the South and is a gorgeous and stunning city home to ancient Indiana Jonesesque temples. The thing to do is to hire a bicycle and cruise around at your leisure, there is so much to see and it is truly enchanting, the real spirit of India. It is also a “dry” city, meaning there is no alcohol save on the other side of the river where anything goes. This makes for tranquility and a day spent lounging at the numerous chill out bars is a must. The most relaxing place I have ever been.
Moving swiftly onto Bangalore, just because it seems to be where everything is “outsourced” to these days was an interesting journey, involving changing buses as the air conditioning had broken, to a bus without air conditioning even though the fans were still working on the first one. Work that one out.
For an Indian city it is actually relatively well organised, and there is even a one way system for the multitudes of traffic. One does get the sense of confidence among the city’s population that is missing from much of India, and there are indeed signs advertising call centre jobs. The highlights being the outstanding botanical gardens and the Imperial Palace.
Kerala is the most organised and traveller friendly part of India. The trains run on time, the towns are more laid back and the beaches are wonderful. Serene Fort Cochin’s vibe is almost horizontal, and includes untouched gem Cherai beach, an almost deserted white sand beach on Vyreen Island.
Next stop is Alleppey for the mesmerising backwaters. Essentially one lies back in a canoe for the day while cruising backwaters, including canals covered with floating water plants, while taking in multi coloured scenery, and flora and fauna, all in complete peace. Breathtaking. If you are lucky, mangoes will be in season and you will be treated to sumptuous mango chilly on a bed of banana leaves.
Varkala is a good place if you are a victim of your own efficiency and have to spend a day here longer than planned. One can get a guesthouse with a sea view for £7. The restaurants are top class and there is actually a nightlife here involving bars and clubs, that Goa aside, is missing from most of India. Only here it is less busy and much cheaper. The beach at the north end of the cliff is also among India’s best.
So, having to fly out of Delhi, I was essentially forced to spend a day or so here. Kerala and Hampi it is not, but that is not to say that it is not without its charms. Things started badly as a rickshaw tried to charge me $50 to go to the Red Fort (gargantuan but definitely worth a long visit) from Pahar Ganj. The National Museum and Art Gallery are also excellent. The surrounding park areas are good for some respite from the crazy noise and chaos that otherwise dominates.
However, I latterly witnessed a baby being abandoned in a public park as his parents simply left him there (according a couple of people I spoke to), and police cordoned off the area while keeping the crowd back with sticks. This was another example of the occasional brutality of life in India.
On a broadly similar note, my assigned taxi driver for the trip to Delhi airport scared the life out of me, and I was convinced I was going to die in his taxi. He drove like a maniac, lanes seemingly an irrelevance, and he narrowly missing collision after collision, while occasionally pausing to sniff something to keep him awake. And he was actually surprised when his tip wasn’t too substantial.
All this said, India continues to make me want to come back. The power, personality and variety of this magnificent nation simply have to be experienced to be understood. It is dirty, disorganised and the constant battle not to get ripped off can grate. However I would chose to accentuate the spirituality, the temples of Hampi, the backwaters of Kerala, the love of cricket, and the constant photo taking as examples of its charm and huge attraction as a destination.