I’m sitting at Mocha, a hip little coffee-joint-slash-restaurant-slash-bar at 8:30p on a Friday night. I’m a block from the Arabian Sea and the amazingly beautiful bay in south Mumbai that forms a crescent with a view on the other side of high rises and the sprawling city. The club music that’s on (I think they just played some classic BSB) is nearly drowned out by the cacophony of horns, street chatter and some far off loud speaker on the street rushing by just in front of me. I’m two days from heading home and I’m honestly still not sure how I even got here. Mumbai, for Pete’s sake. Incred.
I didn’t have any plans for my time here beyond “See the city,” and I’m in the perfect area to do it. This is the first time in three weeks I feel like I’m in a City, with a capital C. Yes, it’s also the city with probably the largest slums in the world. But I’m discovering its also a city with a heartbeat, the way New York or London pulse with culture and life.
After a simple breakfast on my hotel’s rooftop (masala omelettes might be my new favorite thing), I hopped in a cab to the Gateway of India, a monument kind of along the lines of the Statue of Liberty. Hey, welcome to India. A few pictures and several attempts to sell me tours of the city later, I found my way to Leopold’s Cafe, a Mumbai institution long before it became world famous for being one of the sites under siege on November 26, 2008. Small yet bustling even at midday, it easily reminded me of any cafe or dive in a city in the states. I journaled over a coke and chips, and Dixit, my waiter, insisted on standing just to the side of my table while I did.
I looked up, seeing him there, and said, maybe too sharply, “Hello, yes? Did you have a question or something?” What do you say to the guy watching you write?
“You have great letters,” he said, smiling broadly.
Sigh. He just liked my handwriting, liked watching the letters and words come IU of my pen.
After Leopold’s, I walked over to the museum formerly known as the Prince of Wales museum. I cannot remember, say nor type out it’s full name now, so you’ll have to google it. It’s a lovely little place, and the staff clearly takes pride in their collection. It’s a bit of a catch-all museum, all presented in India’s signature open-air, plan-without-a-plan kind of way that I’ve come to love. I walked through centuries-old stone sculptures of Hindu gods, gilded statues of Tibetan deities, miniature paintings of Hindu lore forever preserved on palm leaf, a quite impressive collection of Chinese snuff bottles and the collection of European art bequeathed to the museum by one of the Tata boys.
In a partnership with the British Museum, one wing featured an entire exhibit on Mummies – I’ve probably seen the same thing at the Field Museum or perhaps in London directly. But something about walking through the three-room exhibit this time, audio guide at the ready, was different. I stepped aside as at least half a dozen different school groups filed passed me, the kids chattering away and studiously jotting notes as their teachers spoke. I imagined one saying to the others, as I can remember my classmates saying to me (or maybe it was my big brother?), “Did you know they take the brain out through the nose?!”
Families and groups of friends and foreigners alike all wandered the exhibits. In the European gallery there were even a few teenagers at the sketching seats penciling in their versions of the portraits on the walls, all to the hum of the industrial fans that kept the place as cool as their little motors would let them.
Though I took my time wandering the place, it was still only mid-afternoon when I left. I’d planned to walk to one of the tour offices both a new friend in Goa and a fellow hotel guest I’d met just this morning had recommended, to see what parts of the city they could help me discover. It was while I was on my way that I saw that same hotel guest standing with other foreigners and a guide from the tour company. Instead of continuing to the office, I simply invited myself to join the small group already gathered and ready to go!
With my late addition, there were six of us – Sara (from Sweden, the fellow hotel guest), Dave (an ex-Marine from Boston who picked up and left to travel for 6 months), Becky (the wife of a World Bank staffer based in Istanbul and in Mumbai on business), Heidi (who’d gotten sick of the same old, same old in the states and moved to China then Singapore just because she could) and our friendly guide Chem (who didn’t seem offended when a few of us did not want to see the pet and meat markets).
We wandered through Crawford Market, Mangaldas Market, a jewelry market, a textile market, a flower market. We passed at least five temples, including one to Ganesha with plump, well-fed cows out front who clearly enjoyed the faithful’s offerings of grass and hay. We even fed a few of the sacred animals ourself, at a sanctuary for them off behind the flower market. Sadly, there were no pictures allowed during that entertaining part of our adventure.
I found myself back in my hotel as the sun set over the bay, in time to shower and head to dinner at a decent hour. Now, as I sit at Mocha and enjoy the second pint that came with my pasta & 2 pints combo (only Rs 500!), it’s clearly date night in Mumbai. I’m the only singleton on the patio among four other couples enjoying a beer and a bite while they discreetly hold hands or lean into each other.
And I don’t even mind. There’s something alluring about Mumbai. It makes sense these couples are as into each other as they are, here in this place as the weekend kicks off. I’ve been here only a day, but even I can feel the love.