Sights of rich history and color, sounds of never-ending horns at any hour, seas upon seas of people, with each new surrounding whirling in unique scents, together with tastes that are out of this world is an unjust summary of the magic of Mumbai.
The story begins late one Saturday night in a time which now feels so long ago (yet was just a week). Fourteen excited travellers gathered at the international airport in Auckland ready to begin their journey… Alas, fate had other plans and we were sent home with a 12-hour delay. Take two and we made it off the ground and flew the first leg to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The flight delays presented a fortunate opportunity to spend a full 24 hours in KL with accommodation provided in a luxurious Marriot hotel. During this time we crammed in some local cuisine, strained our necks looking up to the Petronas towers, walked marathons in shopping malls larger than some New Zealand towns, dipped our toes in the cool pool and managed a touch of sleep. Next stop Mumbai, India.
Whoever thought the first mission in Mumbai would be catching a lift? Clearing customs, our team located the lead driver and followed him to the lifts, where testing of true lift capacity numbers seemed to be a regular practice by fellow travellers and locals. We quickly learned that if there was space to breathe, there was space to squeeze. Surviving the lift, we jumped into cars and began our “drive” into central Mumbai. Drive in quotation marks, you wonder… What comes to mind is bumper cars meets need for speed meets fight club. Elaborating, I find driving here to be a mind-blowing art form, in which motorists possessing distinct abilities manoeuvre through any available space at any point in time whilst regularly beeping one’s horn and utilising road lines and signs suggestively as opposed to the rule. Alive and tired, we made it to South Bombay, our home for the next six weeks.
Namaste, I hope you’re hungry because breakfast here means business. Day one was a multi-course feast of toast, cornflakes with warm milk, saba, medu vada, coconut chutney, a banana, and two eggs (currently an NZ luxury). Following the feast, we were welcomed by our fabulous coordinators, Naveen and Mala, who continued to orient and prepare us for life in Mumbai. Then it was time to catch Kaali Peelis to lunch; these are the local black and yellow taxis that know the ins and outs of Mumbai like no one else. The restaurant treated us to the experience of Thali which is a large round silver platter that gets filled with many small bowls and servings of curries, daals, chutneys, yoghurts, and breads. WOW… The flavors of each individual dish, let alone the combinations of adding different things together, were a frenzy of every tastebud I possess. Naveen had warned us prior to lunch that there would be no post-meal nap, and in hindsight, I see why; it was like Christmas dinner on steroids. The servers would refill your plate even when you declined and were so hospitable, coming up with combinations for you to try that they insisted were the best, and to be fair, they were never wrong. To date, this was the best meal of my life. Post-feast, we engaged in a walking tour of our neighborhood, which had sounded like a nice leisurely task; however, in Mumbai, this was anything but. I learned that to cross a road, one must be confident, aware, agile, and somewhat have blind luck as traffic stops for no man. Thus, I had to learn to become one with traffic and manoeuvre between moving cars and available space to transition from one side of the road to another.
Who needs an alarm clock when one can wake to the sound of banging drums and uniformed kids marching in two steps around the field outside one’s balcony? Today’s key lesson is navigation across Mumbai; this included more road crossings, Kaali peeli catching, and then the main events… train and auto-rickshaw catching. My train journey began at CST, short for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which is Mumbai’s largest train station that subsequently makes it one of India’s busiest train stations. Trains in Mumbai maintain first and general-class compartments, both of which have women’s only travel sections. Interestingly when you are buying a first-class ticket, you are allowed and are somewhat expected to go to the front of the line no matter how long it took to get your ticket ahead of general passengers. As we had been advised to travel first-class, I found ticket buying difficult as it felt rude and against Kiwi nature to push to the front of a line, yet here it is considered part of the reason you are paying more for your ticket. Once on the train, I noticed that even at full speed, the train doors never close and looking at busy, crowded trains, I found it fascinating to see the confidence that people have to just hold a rail by the door and trust that they are not going to fall out. The train travelled through to Kurla station, where I popped out to learn the next mode of transport… the auto-rickshaw. Auto rickshaws are three-legged enclosed bikes with seating behind the driver for up to three people, and this is where I saw high-speed manoeuvre driving at its finest. The driver zipped through the tightest spaces, travelled between trucks, turned 180° corners, and tooted his horn like nobody’s business on the 45-minute journey to Bangalore. To my dismay and contrary to New Zealand driving, a vehicle’s horn in Mumbai is a form of relatively friendly communication to other drivers and pedestrians that you are there or would like to pop through a particular space; no one seemed upset or angry about the horns, it just seems to be a way of life here. WOW to Bangalore… an energetic shopping district full of shopaholic dreams and a party vibe that was just beginning to wake up as we arrived at 6 pm. Here I shopped and bought three beautiful shalwar kameez for my approaching work week, then tried sugar cane juice for the first time, which is spruced up with fresh ginger and lime, and oh boy, was that a treat. Then finished off the night by indulging in pani puri, a popular street food that consists of hollow fried dough balls in which you make a hole with your thumb and proceed to fill with vegetable and chickpea filling and a sweet and spicy sauces and then pop in your mouth as a delightful tasty morsel. I paired the delicious dinner with the drink of the night…a fresh pineapple lassi (10/10 would recommend, mango who???).
The first day of work… nerves, excitement and a touch of fear. My daily commute consists of a Kaali peeli from home to CSMT station, a train to Govandi station and then an auto-rickshaw to one of my internship’s work sites. On day one, the first two modes went well, but the auto-rick on the final leg wouldn’t turn the meter on, resulting in me paying a higher-than-valued fare; this was frustrating, but I made it in one piece and safely. To bring you all up to speed, I am interning at Doctors For You, a non-profit medical facility that provides general health, dental care, physiotherapy, x-ray, pathology, TB management, maternal and women’s healthcare, and education to communities throughout Mumbai. I spent the morning with the general practitioners seeing patients, and quickly realised that the majority of presentations were for preventable conditions. However, after chatting with my colleagues, it became apparent that until a condition becomes severe enough to impede work or cause excessive pain, patients are unlikely to seek treatment which commonly means they have a longer treatment plan or worse health outcomes due to the extent of the disease progression. The morning was emotionally tough and upsetting, yet somehow, I also felt encouraged by the spirit of the two doctors’ passion for helping this community. Later in the day, I travelled to a second clinic in the organisation, where it was the site manager’s birthday. A fun fact about birthdays in India is that once the song-singing process is done, each person goes up and picks up a piece of cake with their hands and feeds the birthday person directly, and the birthday person does the same to you. Thus, 20 minutes after meeting the site manager, I was busy shoving cake in her mouth whilst she shoved it into mine.
Workday number two: I started off in the second site spending the morning in the dental clinic, watching a root canal and some general dental consultations. Fun fact: a root canal is only one thousand rupees here, which equates to about twenty NZD. Then it was time to ride in the ambulance, which consisted of a small van with a stretcher in the back, where I sat on said stretcher and held on for dear life as we zipped through the narrow alleys of the slums, pit-stopped for a cane juice refresher, and then raced auto-rickshaws down a main street whose drivers were cousins of our ambulance driver. The experience reminded me once again that the skill of driving here is something that has to be seen to be believed. The work day’s final destination was the Lullabhah compound (clinic #1), where I spent time in the TB clinic observing consultations from numerous patients, many of whom were under the age of twenty, which genuinely shocked me. The consulting doctor was great and had many questions for me about New Zealand’s healthcare system, and we exchanged and compared the pros and cons of each country’s healthcare. Following work, I joined the rest of the PMSA-Mumbai team, and we headed to a magical rooftop dinner where the views could see the Taj and all around Mumbai. We shared our rose and thorn of the day and truly had a wonderful time getting to know each other more. The drink of the night was, of course, a lassi, which was lusciously flavored with the world’s most expensive spice, saffron (10/10 light and refreshing, not too sweet, + makes a girl feel priceless)
Cheers to the weekend! Casual strolls through the local art galleries and investigation of the local street vendors consumed the morning’s agenda. Somehow crossing roads through organised chaos with the constant sound of horns is becoming my new normal, and I think I like it. The afternoon enabled me to source out the local supermarkets, one fancy whilst the other one more general, and subsequently, I acquired some of the essential local snacks. FYI popped lotus seeds are a delight to the tastebuds. For the evening, the whole PMSA-Mumbai team made it down to Marine drive to watch the sunset. I found this sunset both a beautiful and sad sight. Beauty in the gorgeous colours through the sky from the sun and beauty in the marina being packed with families, friends, and loved ones all enjoying a simple moment together. Sadness in the prevalence of what air pollution looks like in our skies; I was astonished to watch the sun disappear into a thick smog and see the sea an unhealthy-looking murky brownish green. Despite this, the evening took a fun turn with a random restaurant pick for dinner, which led me to the best biriyani of my life and, of course, a lassi to drink. The flavor of the night was sweet lassi (7/10 tasty, fresh, and good consistency but needed some hype). Overall, a glorious Mumbai night which decided to top itself with a random-appearing street carnival on the walk home. I mean literally a carnival that appeared in front of my eyes by men pushing rides on the busy traffic-filled roads to set up on a street by our restaurant. Fun fact: Ferris wheels in Mumbai street carnivals are run on manpower… like men physically running around on the arms of the wheel to make it turn! Who would have known?
Sundays are for adventures… Elephanta island requires a journey to the Gateway of India to catch a boat that takes an hour journey to the island. Then a casual 120 steps upwards, and there you are, at a UNESCO World Heritage site of the Elephanta caves. These are mesmerizing caves that should really be called palaces as they are enormous in size; ooo, and spoiler, there are no elephants in the caves nor on the island. However, there are many free-range cows, public dogs, and troublesome monkeys. Elephanta Caves consist primarily of temples dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god. My favorite caves included a temple with Ganesha (a Hindu god with an elephant head) and the meditation temple (a somewhat unremarkable cave that oozes peace and tranquillity). In the midst of my exploring, I tried a local vendor’s pistachio ice cream for only ten rupees (20 cents); it was both delicious and refreshing on such a hot day. Then, following the adventures, I enjoyed some tasty light noodles and, you guessed it, lassi. In full honesty, I did consume two lassis here as it was a hot day, and the lassi powers were needed (8/10 due to no mango availability, but otherwise well-balanced yoghurt to sweetness and tasty enough to want more). On the boat journey back to Mumbai, I was fortunate enough to meet a lovely lady from South India who chatted with me the whole journey home. We discussed the UPSC exams, which she is currently undergoing to get a government job, South India, and I answered her many questions about New Zealand. Fun fact: getting off a ferry in Mumbai can be an obstacle course. Only one boat gets to actually dock against the land whilst the rest of the boats dock to the land-docked boat. This meant we got to climb through two boats to get back to land safely (chaotic but fun).
“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it” (Roald Dhal). Hope to see you all again soon xx