On Monday, Dec. 6, the Seabourn Spirit docked in Mumbai, India…formerly known as Bombay…a city of 20 million plus people.
This is our first call in India (there will be two more) and for this we all had to obtain Indian visas in advance. No one could sail this itinerary if they did not have an Indian visa. We obtained our visas about six weeks in advance through a visa service and the fees were about $265 for the two of us. So do consider such fees when planning a trip to thi
f the world.
Personally, I was excited…I have always wanted to visit India and this was to be my first experience with this exotic country. However, I was realistic…I knew there would be poverty, extreme poverty…but I also know that India is one of the richest cultures in the world and I was determined to appreciate as much of it as I could.
I realize that cruising to India is not the best way to experience it…obviously, it calls for a couple of weeks of in-depth exploration and probably several visits. But I had this opportunity and was not about to miss it.
Our ship, the Seabourn Spirit, was only there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and our tour…and I am glad that we did an organized ship tour…was from 8:30 to 2 p.m. But we really did cover a lot in that time. But because this was, at best, a superficial visit, here are some impressions:
1. The city is dingy. No way around it. Everything is gray, dirty, time-worn, splotched, weedy and mostly unpainted. That which is painted is dirty grey or beige. This hits you right from the start and if you don’t get past this, you aren’t going to enjoy much else about the city.
2. There are people everywhere. This I had also expected. We were there at the time that people we coming to work from the train stations and the sidewalks were full of people. Plus, people from the rural areas had flocked in to celebrate the birth of a local hero. The word “teeming” comes to mind. I think the only city I have seen as busy is Hanoi, Vietnam. The traffic was unbelievable and no one followed the traffic lights. Our guide informed us there are 52,000 of the little Fiat taxis in the city.
3. Despite the chaos of traffic and the number of bodies, people are orderly. They are clean and well-dressed. Most men wear simple slacks and long-sleeved dress shirts, with tails out, and sandals. (Few suits/ties were spotted). The women are the peacocks here…either wearing colorful saris or punjabis (tunic, scarf and pants).
4. The Victorian buildings are unbelievably fabulous…sometimes they are hard to fully see behind the trees (the city is actually quite green; in fact you seem little shrubs growing out of the cracks in buildings everywhere.) These buildings, built by the British between 1857 and 1948, are really quite grand and well-preserved. Most are still in use today and they give a very distinctive look to Bombay, particularly around the harbor.
5. The lack of skyscrapers. Land in Mumbai is precious and expensive, therefore, as derelict buildings are torn down, residential skyscrapers are replacing them…but ever so slowly. At least for now, Mumbai is a low-rise city which makes it more authentic.
6. There are many special places to visit here. Our favorite today was the Mani Bhavan house, which is now a museum celebrating the life and accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi. This three-story building contains many pictures of Ghandhi, a library of books about him and a diorama of his life. It is quite moving and you take away the desire learn more about Gandhi. Hence, we bought a book of his reflections on life. It is open all days of the week from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located at 19, Laburnum Road, Gamdevi, Mumbai. www.gandhi-manibhavan.org.
7. Shopping. I rather eschewed shopping in Dubai and in Oman because almost everything we saw there was made in India. But today I was a bit stymied because I could not quite figure out where to buy the things I wanted. They did take us to a major shopping street — Colaba Causeway, near the Taj Hotel — and there the CIE stores seemed to be the best bet. These stores sell high quality handcrafts from around the country at set prices. If you are not eager to haggle for a rug or a sari to bring home, this might be your best choice. There are a few stalls in the cruise terminal if you are interested in some small souvenirs. I have decided to wait for Mangalore and Cochin.
8. If this is your first visit to the city, then a ship’s tour may be indeed your best choice. We talked to several people who hired local taxis for their touring (generally a good practice) and they were disappointed. They found their drivers surly, disinterested and mostly intent on getting extra money. Our 4-1/2 hour tour cost $59 and hit all of the city highlights. If you do want to tour on your own, I suggest you research online in advance to find a reliable guide who is recommended by others. There are many online forums with this information.
9. We visited the Taj Majal Hotel which is near the Gateway to India monument, the city’s most famous landmark. This huge stone gate was they entry point for passengers arriving on P&O steamers from England and many stayed at the luxurious Taj, which has old and new wings. When visiting the garden of this hotel, you can just picture what it was like when the British Raj was in control.
10. We also walked through the Crawford Market. Built in 1871, the architecture blends Flemish and Norman styles and is reminiscent of Victorian England. (I am sure the smells were as bad then, too.) The market was jammed with stalls and strewn with garbage in many aisles. So, while I usually love visiting markets, this one was not so pleasant.
These are just some highlights. There are many more fascinating facts, like:
• You’ve heard of Bollywood? It’s here, the world’s largest movie industry, producing over 1,000 films a year, most of them in Hindu.
• More than half of India’s trade is conducted from the Port of Mumbai and it pays 40 percent of the country’s income taxes.
• They have McDonald’s here, of course, by they do not serve beef. They sell veggie burgers and chickens. Hindus still worship the cow and 80 percent of Indians are Hindu.
• It is the country’s financial and commercial center, while New Delhi is the political capital.
• Its name was changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, because Bombay was the name that the British gave the country. The locals still call it Bombay.
It is considered the trendiest and most “Western” of India’s major cities.
To learn more, go to www.incredibleindia.org.
Next: Let’s talk about the Seabourn Spirit