Hear about travel to Mumbai India as the Amateur Traveler talks to Stephanie Hays of RealityToursAndTravel.com about travel to this crowded, noisy, vibrant city.
With the background sounds of the horns of auto-rickshaws, we find out why a girl from Chattanooga, Tennessee ended up in India’s largest city.
When Stephanie and her husband missed the experience of learning something new every day they got jobs in India. “People should come to India period. I think Mumbai gets overlooked a little. I think Dehli has more of the history. It’s the capital. There’s tons of sites. Mumbai as a whole is just an exciting vibrant city, but it’s a little bit trickier to discover. It’s hands down my favorite city in India.”
We go on a virtual early morning bike ride with Stephanie through the streets and markets of South Mumbai at 6 am to avoid the traffic and the heat of the day. She takes us to the Gateway to India, past the Taj Hotel and through Fort. We pass Mumba Devi Temple which Mumbai is named after. We pass people opening their shops, showering in the streets, sweeping up bits of gold of the streets of the jewelry area. “Some of these places if you went back to it at noon, you wouldn’t recognize it, you wouldn’t be able to walk down the street.”
Stephanie directs us to the cow shelter in the middle of the city which houses over 300 cows. “You can feed all these cows because of course that is an important part of Indian Hindu culture and not something you expect to find in the middle of a city with 20 million people.” Marine Drive is the next stop which is an “iconic 3 kilometer stretch of road along the sea. Mumbai is on the sea and very long and narrow. This is a sea promenade, so it’s where you’ll see couples hanging out and old people walking, people selling food.” It has “a lot of Art Deco buildings. Sometimes they call it the Maimi of Dubai.”
Sassoon Docks is Stephanie’s favorite place in the city which is a large wholesale fish market. “There’s hundreds of people selling fish and peeling shrimp. They go out on these wooden boats into the sea for 7-10 days at a time. It’s a colorful place, full of activity and full of lots of terrible smells and slimy fish and things so it’s not for everyone. I am fascinated by it every single time.”
Stephanie tells us what type of fruit to buy at the Crawford Market as well as what street food to try and what to avoid. We talk about the Dabbawallas system which delivers lunchboxes across the city. We look down at the world’s largest open-air laundry at Dhobi Ghat. We end our trip with sunset at Chaupati.
Reality Tours & Travel
Gateway of India
Mumba Devi Temple
Prince of Wales Museum
Raj Mandir Cinema, Jaipur
Sanjay Gandhi National Park
Bandra-Worli Sea Link
My boyfriend and I have just finished an amazing two week vacation in Namibia. I wanted to drop you a quick note of thanks for the great podcast you did about this country. Before embarking on the trip we listened to your interview with Jason, Carla and Janie, which not only cemented our decision to include Namibia in our southern Africa itinerary, but guided our planning. There were several instances over the course of our travels when their experiences came up in our discussions… we felt like we knew them by the end of the trip as we had had so many shared experiences!
Your podcast is a perfect 2 mile walk for me. It was also the first podcast that i subscribed. Love it. Thx.
Chris: Amateur Travel Episode 454. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about cricket and caves, cinemas and slums, as we go to Mumbai, India. Welcome to The Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christensen.
No sponsor today, but one word that I did want to get out there is, it is the time of year for the Podcast Awards again. So, if you’re listening to this show when it comes out in 2015 if you could go over to podcastawards.com and nominate this show if it’s still open for nominations or vote for the show. You can vote for the show daily. You can only nominate one set of podcasts. So nominate for your favorite podcast.
Chris: I’d like to welcome to the show Stephanie Hayes, who’s coming to us from Reality Tours and Travel and from Mumbai, India. Stephanie, welcome to the show.
Stephanie: Hi, thank you!
Chris: And if you don’t believe that she’s coming from India, I am sure that I can already start to hear the motor rickshaws, or what do you call them?
Stephanie: Yeah, rickshaws.
Chris: The rickshaws.
Stephanie: I think a lot of people call them tuk-tuks from Southeast Asia.
Chris: Right, Right.
Stephanie: But here they’re rickshaws.
Chris: You can hear the horns in the background if you listen carefully. And I don’t think you have to listen all that carefully. So you are not originally from Mumbai but you live there now?
Stephanie: Yes. I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Chris: Which is just very similar to Mumbai, as I understand it.
Stephanie: Absolutely. Totally.
Chris: The Mumbai of the United States, I believe is what they call it.
Chris: What led you to go to Mumbai and why should we follow you?
Stephanie: My first kind of experience living abroad was in China after college. I was living in Shanghai for two years and I realized I really liked that way of getting to know a place, by spending a little bit of time there, living there. So after Shanghai, I moved to London with my boyfriend, now husband. And we both had been to India a couple times and were just really curious and fascinated. And one day we decided we were sick of London and wanted another adventure. We decided we wanted to move to India and start looking for work. And then I found the company I’m at now, which was a perfect fit, and we came out here to get to know it better.
Chris: So you were tired of things moving in a orderly fashion and people queuing carefully?
Stephanie: Yeah, yeah. I love London. I like London a lot. But we kind of missed that China experience, that kind of every day learning something new, never having a routine. But in the same regard, when I was in China, I was teaching English. And I’m not a teacher, and that’s not what I wanted to do, and my background’s in tourism and travel, so one condition is that wherever we went we wanted to do something in our fields. So to be able to come to India and work in tourism was an amazing opportunity. So we packed up and moved out.
Chris: Excellent. So why should someone come to Mumbai?
Stephanie: People should come to India, period, I think.
Stephanie: It’s an incredible place. And I think Mumbai gets overlooked a little. I think Delhi kind of has more of the history. It’s the capital. It’s easier to know what to do. There’s tons of sights.
Chris: Yeah, I want to say when people talk about India, they talk about going to the Red Fort and they talk about going to the Taj Mahal and those are all places there. Mumbai I think of as more of a modern city, for one thing.
Stephanie: Yeah. Modern relative to India, for sure.
Chris: Modern, relative, to be sure.
Stephanie: There’s less a tourist kind of itinerary that’s easier, and so I think people either skip Mumbai or they spend very little time here in transit. And I think that’s a shame because I think Mumbai as a whole is just a really exciting, vibrant city. But it’s a little bit trickier to discover, so I think sometimes people get overwhelmed and head on to the next destination. But it’s, hands down, my favorite city in India.
Chris: So, if we came to visit, what would we do? What would you have us do to approach Mumbai?
Stephanie: A lot of Mumbai, I think, there’s some similarities with New York in the kind of energy.
Stephanie: Like, there’s a definite pace. There’s a pace you feel. The people are friendly. So the best way to experience Mumbai, for me, is out on the streets and in the markets. And there’s museums here and famous landmarks and things. But I think really the best way is to just get lost and wander around, annd get out into the local markets and just the area. And get lost because, I mean, the way you approach an Indian city is much different than you would, say, a European city or something, because there’s so much happening on the street, and it’s so far, and you could easily just spend a day walking around and still learn lots and see cool things.
Chris: Okay. But, let’s give people a little more direction.
Chris: We’re going to tell them that they can get lost, but where are they going to get lost? Where are you going to head them off to? Which market, for instance, first?
Stephanie: My favorite way to get to know Mumbai and to have an orientation into South Mumbai, which is one of the most popular tourist areas and the real heart of the city. It’s where the British architecture is. It’s denser down there. And my favorite way to do that is by bicycle, which the company I work for offers a bicycle tour, right, but a lot of people would come to Mumbai and that’s not going to be on your list. No one’s going to walk out of their hotel and say, “I should explore this city on a bicycle.” They’d have to be a crazy person. But you can actually do it! If you do it at 6:00 in the morning. And that’s really the only time you can do it because there’s less traffic.
And so I would start by bicycle at 6:00 in the morning, which is tough for some tourists. And explore South Mumbai, which includes the Gateway of India, which is a big, famous monument that the British actually left through. There’s the Taj Hotel, which is very famous. Then I would head up through Fort, which is an old neighborhood. A lot of activity in the morning going on. We would see Mumba Devi Temple, which is the temple that Mumbai is named after.
Chris: And you mentioned activity going on in the morning. What sort of things? We’ve got people opening up their shops?
Stephanie: Yeah, exactly. Showering in the street.
Chris: Okay, well I wasn’t expecting that. Okay.
Stephanie: Yeah. Opening up shops. There’s people that we go past, there’s jewelry areas, people sweeping bits of gold off the street, there’s breakfast for sale. I mean, anything. There’s always something happening. But that’s a time of the day that a lot of people don’t see in Mumbai and it’s great because some of these places I mentioned, if you went back to at noon, you wouldn’t recognize it. You wouldn’t be able to walk down the street. So it’s kind of got that calmness of morning but still a lot of activity, and then people starting their days.
Chris: Okay. And then you were heading us off.
Stephanie: Yeah. So, then we would head from there to, there’s actually a really cool place that’s just starting to kind of pop up in the guidebooks and people know about, but it’s a cow shelter in the middle of the city and there’s over 300 cows there. So you kind of wind your way back into this shelter and go visit and you can feed all these cows because obviously that’s an important part of Indian, Hindu culture, and not something you expect to find in the middle of a city with 20 million people. So a stop there is always a bit hit. And that’s one of my favorite places and all my friends here, and everyone always mentions that as a favorite.
Chris: And you say a cow shelter. I’m not sure whether to expect a petting zoo or a temple. It could be anywhere in between there.
Stephanie: Yeah! Kind of a cross between the two. There’s no temple per se, but it’s a sanctuary in that they’re taking the cows off the street and taking care of them. And then, because they exist in there, and because they’re so important in Hindu culture, people will come to visit them, to feed them for good luck, and things like that.
Stephanie: So, it’s just like a little, tiny farm in the middle of the city.
Stephanie: Yeah, it’s really hidden. And if you ask locals, often they have no idea it’s even there so it feels really special when you get to visit, and it’s a good thing to pull out for when you’re wandering around with friends that might be totally overwhelmed and exhausted from the activity of Mumbai. It’s a nice little escape.
So after that, I would head to Marine Drive, which is the iconic three-kilometer stretch of road along the sea. So Mumbai’s on the sea and very long and narrow and this is a kind of sea promenade. So space is incredibly limited here. So you’ll see couples hanging out and old people walking and people selling food and just lots of activity. But it’s where everyone goes to relax and enjoy the sea. And it’s great to, again, bike down that. It’s some of the most expensive real estate in the world, I think, even. And a lot of art deco buildings. Sometimes they call it the Miami of Mumbai.
So, a lot to see there. And then, actually, my favorite place in the city is Sassoon Dock, which is a very large wholesale fish market. I love it. There’s just hundreds of people selling fish and peeling shrimp. And they go out on these wooden boats into the sea for seven to ten days at a time and then they come back. And it’s just such a colorful place, and full of activity. Full of lots of terrible smells and slimy fish and things, so it’s not for everyone, but I’m fascinated by it every single time. So I always include that on the list of things to see.
Chris: And we got up at 6:00. What time is it now, roughly?
Stephanie: It’s probably close to 10!
Stephanie: So, we take our time. Like, we’d stop and see a lot of things. What I like about exploring South Mumbai is that none of these places I mentioned are tourist highlights. Like if you didn’t visit them and you left Mumbai, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. You would have still gotten the sense.
Chris: You’re not going to go home and somebody’s going to say, “Oh, you didn’t get to the cow farm in the middle of the city, or something.”
Stephanie: Yeah, precisely. But, like, when you visit them all together in one morning, I don’t know, together they form a really nice picture and understanding of Mumbai, and I like that as an orientation. But yeah, it’s hard to describe to somebody that maybe has only visited cities like Paris and London where there’s a very clear-cut kind of itinerary of must-see highlights. But what I like about exploring by bike and exploring kind of slowly and stopping and seeing places like this is that, I don’t know, I think you get a fuller understanding of the actual city.
Chris: And one of the reasons I asked what time it is, is I don’t know what time of year we should come. And I’m wondering if we are now starting to get into the heat of the day, which I’m thinking in Mumbai might be rather warm. When would you recommend we come, first of all?
Stephanie: Any time between October and February is the best.
Stephanie: December and January is perfect. The days are nice and warm and sunny but not too hot, and the evenings are really lovely. But, again, that’s when everybody comes. So there’s pros and cons to each side. But Mumbai’s not overrun with tourists, so it’s not a big deal. I definitely wouldn’t come in April and May. It’s unbearable and insanely hot. And then from June to September it starts pouring down rain, which, I don’t know, I don’t mind. I think the monsoon’s a unique time to visit and not so bad, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And not conducive to a lot of sight seeing or bicycle riding.
Chris: And when we say pouring down rain, I think of some places that get the morning rain or the afternoon rain, and it’s fine the rest of the day. Is it that, or is it raining all day?
Stephanie: It kind of depends. Some days it rains all day, but it’s more dumping it down a few times a day.
Stephanie: But always kind of wet and humid.
Stephanie: And still very hot.
Chris: Yeah. Steamy.
Stephanie: Definitely, December-January is ideal. It’s perfect weather.
Chris: Okay. And what do we do after that? You mentioned markets.
Stephanie: Yeah, so that area, a lot of those areas I just mentioned are markets. Actually one of the things we would have seen on my bicycle orientation kind of thing is Crawford Market, which used to be the largest wholesale market for fruits and vegetables in Mumbai. It’s the first building in India that had electricity. There’s a fountain by Rudyard Kipling’s son. There’s lot of interesting facts. But basically, it’s a fruit and vegetable market. So, that’s cool to explore and see kinds of fruits that maybe you haven’t seen before in your life.
Chris: What are we going to make sure that we try?
Stephanie: Custard apple is a Mumbai favorite. It’s called sitaphal. Sita is the Hindu goddess and phal means fruit. So it’s Sita’s fruit. And it’s like, I don’t know. It looks like an artichoke. It has like bits of fleshy fruit around these black, like a big watermelon seed.
Stephanie: And you eat around that. It’s very, very sweet. That’s always a fun one to try. Chikoo is another kind of one I had never seen before India. It looks like a cross between a kiwi and a potato. But you bite into it, so you eat what would be the skin. Again, just really, really sweet.
Chris: We usually think of, in some place tropical or in some place that’s developing, that the usual rule is peel it, boil it, cook it, or forget it. You’ve got us eating the peel.
Stephanie: Oh, that! See, I’m not the best person to ask for food advice.
Stephanie: Because the reason I travel is to eat. And I’m largely motivated by food.
Chris: I was just wondering why we didn’t peel it, why we were eating the peel. That usually sounds like a way to get, I assume the “Delhi belly” is still a thing that you can get in Mumbai.
Stephanie: Yeah, definitely. But, again, I’m not the best person to ask because I’m a big risk-taker when it comes to food.
Stephanie: Yeah, I kind of weigh the outcomes and usually decide it’s worth it because I’m so curious. So yeah. As a general rule, probably peeling it.
Chris: When you’ve taken big risks like that, when was the time that you really wish you hadn’t, and when was the time you were really glad you did?
Stephanie: Well, actually, I’ve lived here for two years now and, touch wood, I haven’t had a big stomach issue.
Chris: Okay, good.
Stephanie: You have your bouts of unpleasant toilet breaks, but nothing, like, couldn’t get out of bed. I’ve gotten every other kind of sick. I’ve gotten throat infections and eye infections, and this and that. But I’ve been lucky. I think I’ve trained my stomach along the way. But the first time I came to India, in Delhi, I got food poisoning, and it was very, very bad. But I can’t point to what it was.
Stephanie: Everyone kind of comes here with their own list of things they’re not going to eat, whether it’s raw fruit and vegetables, some people say don’t eat dairy, some people don’t eat meat. So it’s hard to say definitively what not to eat. But certainly if food’s not a big part of your travels, yeah, I would stick to deep fried, really cooked things, and this and that. But then, for me, it’s worth it to try to suss it out and decide if it’s going to be safe or not.
Chris: Okay. So we tried the two fruits, whose names we will find in the show notes, for those of us who have forgotten already.
Stephanie: Yeah, so then going back to what time of year you should travel, the downside to the best time of year is that the mango season is kind of closely associated with the monsoon season.
Chris: Oh, interesting.
Stephanie: So a lot of people think India, and they think mangoes, and they think they’re going to come here and just eat mangoes all the time. And that’s not the case. There’s ten months of the year where we’re looking forward to mangoes and then they’re here for about two months, and then they’re gone. So living here, it kind of forces you to eat seasonally, which is really exciting. And you really appreciate those mangoes when they’re around. But they’re not around the whole year.
Stephanie: So that, yeah. And at Crawford Market, then I would head back, there’s a meat market which I think is a fascinating cultural experience because it maybe doesn’t look like your local butcher down the road. So I usually take people, visitors, there, kind of for shock value. And then some people definitely decide that they’re going to be vegetarian for the rest of the trip. Two more things I would do in South Mumbai. One is, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the dabawallas.
Chris: I don’t think I have.
Stephanie: Okay, so it’s unique to Mumbai, and it’s left over from when the British were here and the British soldiers didn’t want to eat curry for lunch, so they would have either their wives or their servants cook food and deliver it to them in their offices in what’s called a dabba or a tiffin, like a lunch box. And so that still exists now, but it’s Indian wives cooking at home, and then there’s this elaborate system of dabbawallas, which are like lunch box deliverers, who travel to the homes in the early morning and take these metal kind of lunch boxes, tiffin, dabbas, on the train. And then get off the train and then deliver them by bicycle all around to offices and workers.
And I don’t know the numbers, how many they do a day, but I do know that they are known for not making many mistakes at all, something like one in several million. And I think now maybe they have mobile phones and things, but they use this elaborate coding system. It looks just like total chaos, but they get it right. And I think there’s a movie that came out last year called “The Lunchbox” about these people. And it’s actually about a mistake they made and a relationship that forms over one of the receivers of the lunch box sending notes back to the woman who cooked it, who was not his wife. It was somebody else. So, really, really great movie. But not that accurate for the poor dabbawallas since they actually don’t often make mistakes.
So that’s one thing I would see. If you go to a certain train station called Church Gate around 11:00 or 12:00, you’ll see them getting off the train and arranging the lunch boxes with the cyclists ready to deliver them. And that’s really, really cool and totally unique to Mumbai.
Chris: And you mentioned the train. When I hear of Mumbai, I think of some of the things that I’ve heard about the rather extensive, and a little bit scary, train system.
Stephanie: Absolutely. So, ten to 15 people die per day on the Mumbai local trains. I think seven million people ride a day. Anyway, that’s not a stat that makes you comfortable with riding them. That said, it’s, hands down, the best way to get across the city. Mumbai is long and narrow and very small and dense and that means that traffic is horrendous. It’s like trying to go from Harlem to Wall Street in New York, but without lines on the road and this and that. I can’t even describe it. It doesn’t make sense. So, if you’re brave enough to take the trains, which are not necessarily as scary as their reputation lets on, that’s definitely the best way to get around.
Chris: And are there tricks that we should know in terms of confidently and safely transiting the train system?
Stephanie: It’s not a very intuitive system in the way that it’s label. You’re always going to look at a sign and you actually can’t just go north or south. It actually will have a letter for the last station. So you have to know the stations.
Stephanie: First of all, there’s tons of people here. Second of all, lots of them speak English, so Mumbai is a friendly city. Easy to ask people. I guess the one tip of advice: there’s two classes. There’s first class and second class. And there’s also ladies’ compartment. So I, for example, travel second class, but I go in a compartment that’s only women, which is less crowded. If you’re a man that’s traveling, yeah, maybe splurging for the first class. We’re talking less than $1 for a 20-kilometer ride, would definitely be recommended because they can get really crowded. They’re not that scary.
Once you kind of understand the system and know which platform to go to and who to ask, and it still happens to me two years down the road, if a train is too busy, I let it pass and I take the next one. I mean, patience is definitely something you have to have in Mumbai and time in not necessarily the most important thing here. So, if it’s too busy, let it pass and get on the next one.
Chris: Okay. And how are we spending our afternoon here?
Stephanie: One thing that’s kind of still considered South Mumbai but not as far south as the other sites as much is called Dhobi Ghat. And that, dobi, means “washerman,” and ghat is like “steps down into water.”
Stephanie: So that’s where they do laundry. So it’s a massive space of land. You can view it from a bridge, so it’s kind of down in like a pit. And it’s all these individual little, I don’t know how to describe it. It’s the world’s largest open-air laundry. So the hotels will send sheets there. Hospitals will send sheets and uniforms and they come and collect them and then they take them to this place and kind of thrash them against the stone and wash them in this really old school kind of way. And so people really enjoy seeing that because there’s not a lot of places in the world where something like that exists. So that’s always worth a stop. It doesn’t take that long. It’s brief. You kind of see it and you’re done. But worth checking out, kind of between places.
Eventually we would head to Chowpatty Beach, which is actually a misnomer. Chowpatty means “beach.” In the tourist guidebooks, it’s called Chowpatty Beach. But basically we would head to Chowpatty at around sunset. And again, because in Mumbai there’s no space. there’s nowhere to hang out. There’s not a lot of parks. This is another place where all sorts of people come to just enjoy time with their families, hang out by the sea, and it’s also a fantastic area for street food. Which, again, I would eat most of it.
Chris: And you say, “Eat most of it,” but what are your favorites? What’s the one thing that we really ought to try, in your opinion?
Stephanie: For my company when I came here, we didn’t have any tours to do with street food, and I worked with a colleague to actually develop a street food tour because of a lot of the reasons you mentioned. It’s very hard to know what to eat and what not to eat here. So, we developed this tour kind of as a way to share places we knew were safe, but also give people the confidence to later on in their travels, know how to make some safer decisions about street food.
One of my favorite things that we eat, and all of the guides that work with me, and a big favorite in Mumbai is called pani puri. Pani means “water” and puri is like a fried ball. It’s just like a crispy, hollow kind of sphere made from flour and fried. They fill it with some chickpeas or potatoes, and, this is where it sounds very unsafe, they dunk it in flavored water. So water flavored with like tamarind and mint.
Stephanie: And then you eat it in one bite. Sort of like a shot, but you’re eating it. But you can’t bite into it or else water will spill all over you. So that’s a really famous snack, but also one that, don’t eat it just anywhere. I don’t even eat it at the guy downstairs from my apartment because I’m not sure where his water is coming from, but we do have a vendor on Chowpatty that uses bottled water and has been really safe. And I’ve eaten it hundreds of times. So, that’s nice, to be able to try something that you see, that’s one people see everywhere. So when I’m with new people and they finally get to try it, it’s really exciting because they’ve kind of wondered what it is walking around the city, and then, yeah.
Chris: When you say, “They dunk it in flavored water,” the flavored water is tepid. It’s not boiling water?
Stephanie: No. It’s cold.
Stephanie: Room temperature or cold. Yeah, yeah.
Chris: So that’s why it’d better be bottled water?
Stephanie: It’d better be bottled water. And that’s one that even I won’t eat just anywhere.
Stephanie: So, that’s a popular one. The other really, really famous Chowpatty snack is called pav bhaji. Pav is like a bread that got here, I think, from the Portuguese. Because it looks just like a bread roll, like a typical dinner roll.
Stephanie: It doesn’t look particularly Indian. And bhaji is vegetables. And it is mashed up. It originated, there’s a lot of old mills in Mumbai, and so a long time ago when the mill workers needed a fast, quick, cheap lunch, and so restaurant owners would take leftover vegetables from the night before and mash them up into this kind of, I don’t know, it turns into like a red mushy kind of mashed potato texture. I’m not really selling it.
Chris: Okay, Kind of a paste.
Stephanie: Yeah, a little bit chunkier than a paste.
Stephanie: So they would mash it up, I guess so you couldn’t recognize that they were leftover vegetables, and eat it. But now that’s become one of Mumbai’s famous snacks, and it’s a meal on its own now. And that’s really famous to get on Chowpatty. And so you kind of take the bread roll and scoop up this potato mixture and there’s tons of butter. It’s really delicious but quite hearty. So that I would definitely try there.
And then the last thing that Chowpatty is really, really famous for is called Kulfi, which is like Indian ice cream. Which people are maybe a little bit more familiar with. You can get it at Indian restaurants back home. But it’s Indian ice cream, but it’s not churned so it’s much more condensed and hard, but really creamy and delicious and a lot of great flavors, like there’s rose and pistachio and mango, and yeah. So that’s really good, and that’s so famous from this particular beach area that apparently there’s a saying in Mumbai. They’ll say “Go get Chowpatty kulfi,” even if you’re nowhere near this particular Chowpatty, it’s so famous that if you said that, it means, like, go get me the best kulfi. And everyone likes ice cream, so that’s always easy.
Chris: Excellent. What do the guidebooks recommend? You’ve been taking us on more of a real-world Mumbai.
Chris: If I were to pick up a guidebook, where would they tell me to go and what’s your opinion of the places that they would direct me?
Stephanie: I mean, the thing about Mumbai is that it’s not. . .
Chris: It’s not a tourist town.
Stephanie: Yeah. So the guidebooks, they get it fairly right for the most part, I’d say. But they would tell you the easy places. So they would tell you to go to the gateway of India, which is great. But you could wander out, see it yourself, done. Checked off your list. They would tell you to go to Dhoby Ghat, which I mentioned, the laundry area.
Stephanie: And then they would tell you to go to a lot of museums, which are great, but not necessarily going to give you the full impression of Mumbai. They would tell you to go to Marine Drive, the area along the sea.
Chris: Right. If I did want to go to museums, where are are they going to tell me, or where would you tell me, better yet?
Stephanie: Price of Wales is the big famous one in the south.
Stephanie: There’s a modern art museum that’s, I mean this isn’t a huge modern art hub, I would stick to actually the galleries. There’s a lot of cool galleries in the south. There’s a small Gandhi museum, but I would say if you’re going to Delhi, save it for there.
Stephanie: Yeah. And then they would tell you stuff like Marine Drive and Dhobi Ghat and these things that kind of are all spread out around the city and don’t necessarily take a long time to see. So, I think for a tourist, it’s hard, because it’s like “Go here, go there,” but then you don’t necessarily know what you’re looking at or how to get between the two, or maybe it’s a site that takes five, ten minutes to see.
Stephanie: So that’s why I kind of encourage just spending time out and about and walking around and using the trains and all these things that allow you to get kind of a better picture.
Chris: What are some of the best ways to interact with the Indian culture? Music, sports, day-to-day life. How would you meet more Indians?
Stephanie: What my company’s know for is our Dharavi slum tours. So we do a responsible, educational slum tour. A two and a half hour walk in the slums, where we use 80% of our profits to fund our NGO which runs a number of educational projects. And what I see from that is just having the tourists that come, they just appreciate even having two and a half hours with a local, young guide who they can kind of bounce other questions off of and get kind of an insight to what it’s like to live here. Because honestly, I think just walking around and stuff, it’s sometimes hard to find that local interaction.
Chris: Well, let’s see. Let’s break it down. Let’s say I wanted to connect with Indian cinema. What should I do? Where should I go?
Stephanie: Well, Bollywood you can see anywhere. And I recommend seeing Bollywood.
Chris: But my impression is, for instance, if I go to a movie theater here, I go in, I buy a ticket, I watch the movie, I walk out. I mean, it’s a very simple experience. The same in India, or different?
Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely the same. You could walk into a cinema here and feel at home. The thing is there’s not going to be subtitles.
Stephanie: So the other side of that is Bollywood is very dramatic and you can usually kind of get the gist of what’s going on. So going to a Bollywood movie is definitely a great way and I’d highly recommend it. I would recommend it in Jaipur, there’s a very, very famous old cinema. But if you’re not in Jaipur at the Raj Mandir Cinema, in Mumbai there are a handful of cool, old cinemas that used to be theaters, so a lot of like art deco theaters.
Stephanie: And you can go in and see movies. I think one of the famous ones is Regal Cinema. In the south, there’s also Liberty Cinema. Yeah. And then a handful of others. That is something worth doing, is going to buy a ticket to whatever Bollywood film is showing, not worrying too much about understanding it, and going to see it. And if you need to leave halfway because you have no idea what’s going on, fine. Otherwise, it’s a cool experience.
Chris: How about sport?
Stephanie: Sport? I am not a massive sports fan. There’s a famous cricket stadium, Wankhede Stadium, so at the right time of year you could get tickets to a cricket match. Which, that is the sport here. And if you don’t get tickets and go see it at a stadium, you will see cricket a dozen times a day on the street.
Better yet, actually, thinking of it, I would, there’s a place in south Mumbai called Oval Maidan, and it’s a big field. And there, at any given time, are a dozen cricket games going on. And that’s a great place. And it’s really beautiful. It’s near Mumbai University. Beautiful old buildings and Rajabai Clock Tower and a great place to hang out and watch cricket if you’re interested in cricket.
Chris: So you’ve been living here for a while now. When have you woke up and said, “This is just like home?” and when have you woke up and thought, “What planet am I on? This is so different from home?”
Stephanie: I don’t necessarily make direct comparisons, but I have been surprised at how at ease I feel here and how comfortable I am and how some things that felt crazy maybe two, three weeks in when I lived here, feel completely normal, because it is.
Chris: So, two or three weeks in, what was the thing that felt crazy?
Stephanie: I mean it’s still crazy. It depends on your day, right. I mean, living somewhere like this, you have “good India days” and you have “bad India days.” And I have probably 95% “I love India, it’s the best place in the world days.” And then the other 5% I just lose my grip on life from things that wouldn’t necessarily make me upset later.
So, traffic is one of those. I would say 99% of the time, the traffic doesn’t bother me. I don’t hear the horns. I just go on about my day. And then occasionally, I don’t know why it is or what happens, but you have a day where you’re stuck in a rickshaw on the way home from work, and I just want to scream at everybody and I can’t get over that they’re not using lanes and that this guy has just cut into this guy, but then living here you learn to tune it out. But I think traffic is what I notice.
I love having visitors here. We’ve had about a dozen friends and old colleagues come visit while we’ve lived here over the two years. And it’s great because I think one of the shames about living somewhere like this is you do get used to it and the stuff that was crazy becomes normal. So having a friend come and watching their reactions to certain things is really, really nice, to kind of remind you of how unique it is. So traffic’s always the first one that people freak out about. And you kind of have to remind yourself that this isn’t how people drive all over the world.
The hardest to get used to is you need a lot of patience here and things don’t necessarily happen that quickly. For example, if somebody says they’re going to come meet you in an hour, it’s going to be two or three. Or, if you have a meeting scheduled at 9:00, it might be 9:30, 10:00. But I think that’s a good lesson too because it’s made me chill out a bit and become less high strung.
Chris: While I’m in Mumbai, what kind of day trips would I want to do to the surrounding area?
Stephanie: Day trips in Mumbai is something I haven’t done a lot of. There are a lot of great hill stations, they’re called.
Chris: Field hill forts.
Stephanie: Yeah, and I myself am not a big nature person. I love cities. That’s why I’m in Mumbai. So I’ve been to one hill station near Lonavla. Got there, went camping for a friend’s birthday. That was really fun. But as far as, there’s a national park a little bit outside of the city that I haven’t actually been to, but I haven’t also heard great things. The thing about people traveling here is I think most people are doing Mumbai as part of a larger trip to India.
Stephanie: So, there’s usually better places. For example, one of the things the guidebooks talk about a lot is Elephanta Caves, and that’s like an hour ferry ride from the tip of Mumbai. And it’s these old, intricately carved caves. I went in 2010 when I was a tourist and I haven’t been back. I think if you have a larger trip to India, there’s better places to see old carvings, like Hampi or even going out to Ellora and Ajanta which is a little bit further from here. So, day trips, I don’t know. It’s not the best location, other than hill stations, which I, to be honest, haven’t explored.
One of the things that’s great for Mumbai as an expat living here is you can get to Goa in an overnight train. So you can leave at 10:00 at night and be in be in Goa at 7:00, 8:00 the next morning. And be on a fabulous beach somewhere. So in the regard, Mumbai is a great location. But I haven’t actually explored a lot of the hill stations, day trips, anything I’ve done is going to be an overnight train or longer.
Chris: Okay. Well, is there anything else we should tell people who are planning a trip to India and thinking about going to Mumbai, before we get to my last, say, four questions?
Stephanie: One of the things I think you shouldn’t miss when you come to Mumbai is there’s a place called Dharavi, which you’ll hear it in guidebooks as Asia’s largest slum, which is actually an outdated fact, but it is one of the largest slums in Asia. It’s about a square mile. And there’s a million people living within it. So it’s really a city within a city.
It’s obviously a controversial thing, slum tourism, but the reason my company does what it does is to change. Our mission is kind of two-fold. So it’s to change perceptions about what it means to be from a slum or an underprivileged community and show people that maybe what they’re picturing is not that accurate. And the other is the cost of the tour, we use 80% of the profits to fund an NGO. So when you come on the tour, you get to see where your tourism dollars are going and how it’s making a difference. So, we’re educating visitors but then also using the money to improve the community.
But one of the reasons I think that’s important to do when you come to Mumbai is, firstly, I mean, the stats are all different, but somewhere around 55-60% of people in this city live in a slum. So if you come to Mumbai and you don’t at least attempt to understand that a little bit, you’re missing a major, major kind of aspect of urban life in India. And that’s what we try to show.
The other thing about Dharavi is there’s incredible industry. So there’s a huge, huge area of recycling and leather industry. They make poppadom, which is Indian food. Just all sorts of industry. And the area actually has a turnover of 650 million US dollars a year. So it’s an incredibly productive place, which is not something people expect from a slum in the middle of the city. So I think definitely dedicating some time to come and check that out and see what we’re doing and see how that side of Mumbai life is. And most of our visitors are really surprised and they say “I come and I expected nobody was working and this and that” and I don’t know, their opinions really change. And I think that’s an important kind of lesson in India, is to keep an open mind.
And everything is complex here. I think the one thing about India, and you hear it all the time, is there’s tons of complexities and it’s a really vibrant place and you see both aspects. You see incredible wealth and extreme poverty and this and that. And nowhere better do you see that than somewhere like Dharavi. So I wouldn’t miss that in Mumbai. And I think, to be honest, I mean, it’s in all the guidebooks now. People come here with a curiosity, and this is the best place to try to understand that. And our tour does a fantastic job. It’s two and a half hours and it’s a huge amount of information and history and definitely worth seeing.
Chris: Okay. We’ve talked about traffic. We’ve talked about the crowds. And one thing that, even knowing all that, is going to surprise me, when I come to Mumbai?
Stephanie: I think, for me the biggest, not surprise, but the biggest thing that Mumbai has going for it is the people are so friendly. And I think especially, Indian people on the whole I think are really friendly. India has a bad reputation, but on the whole, Indian people are friendly. And in Mumbai, super friendly compared to somewhere like the north. I just love how kind of accessible it is. People are willing to talk to you and the culture’s very open and if you stumble across a wedding, they’re going to invite you in.
It’s just a really nice community and I think it’s an easy place to get to know, because the people are so warm and friendly. On that note, one thing that surprised me, is I feel safe anytime here. I take rickshaws 1:00, 2:00 in the morning alone, which is something you can’t say about a lot of cities. And I’ve heard that Mumbai’s really the only city you would feel safe doing that. So I think that’s a big thing Mumbai has going for it.
Chris: Excellent. As we go to wrap this up, you’re standing in the prettiest spot in Mumbai. Where are you standing and what are you looking at?
Stephanie: Banganga Tank, which is this very spiritual, like a Roman bath.
Stephanie: Like a big bath, but it’s again, everywhere in Mumbai’s really chaotic. And then you walk down to this Banganga Tank and it’s totally peaceful and there’s temples all around it and it’s just this big, big pool. It has significance in the Hindu stories. They think it’s the Ganges that flows from the Ganges which is on the other side of the country, but a really nice story. But a very, very cool, peaceful, picturesque place to hang out. The second place, which I don’t even want to say because it’s such a secret and even my guides who have lived here their whole life, I took a lot of them for the first time.
Chris: It’s just you and me here.
Stephanie: We cycled overnight and we finished at Worli Fort. So, the first people that inhabited Mumbai were the kolis, and koli means fisherman, so there’s quite a few koliwadas, that means “fisherman community,” throughout the city, but one of the oldest is in this neighborhood called Worli. And so you wander in. It takes ten to 15 minutes walking through this old fishing village which has a really village feel, not as urban as the rest of the city.
And then you end up at this old British fort. And when you climb up to the fort, you have a view of Worli which is kind of a business area, nothing to really see as a tourist, but has a nice skyline. And then on the other side, you have the Sea Link, which is a famous bridge they built to link the neighborhood I live in, called Bandra, with this neighborhood, Worli. And at sunrise, it’s a really, really, really special view.
Chris: So was that, getting back to my question of you’re standing in the prettiest spot?
Stephanie: The prettiest place? Yeah!
Chris: Okay, okay.
Stephanie: Well, it would be one of those two places. And they’re not that far from each other, so you should do both.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Mumbai.”
Stephanie: The head bobble. It merits discussion.
Stephanie: The kind of the yes, but shaking their head no.
Chris: The yes, but I don’t really mean yes?
Stephanie: Yeah, it can mean everything. What else do I love? There’s all sorts of head things. There’s this head thing the rickshaw drivers do which looks like a no, but really is them jutting their head, meaning, “Get in the back, let’s go.” But yeah, the head bobble, I think. It’s cliché, but it’s funny every time.
Stephanie: It’s funnier that when you live here, you start doing it. I do the head bobble all the time and I do it on the phone, which is the craziest part. My husband will catch me wobbling my head while talking to somebody on the phone and remind me that they can’t see me and it doesn’t mean anything. So, yeah.
Chris: One thing you should know, and one thing you should pack before you go to Mumbai.
Stephanie: You need patience and a sense of adventure and you kind of just need to be up for things. Like, I would just say, “Yes,” to anything. And just having an open-minded attitude here is great, but also I think you need to know that you have to be very alert. Mumbai’s not the kind of place where there’s sidewalks and you can wander around and it’s very easy going. I think it’s a really stimulating place, and to acknowledge that you have to be alert and you probably will be exhausted at the end of a day of sightseeing is probably good to know.
To pack. Bug spray, if you’re coming a time during mosquitoes. But also, I think for women, especially if you haven’t traveled somewhere like this, I think people hear Mumbai and it’s a very cosmopolitan city and you’ll see people wearing every kind of thing and you could go out at night and see people wearing miniskirts and high heels. But, generally, you will feel much more comfortable and it’s respectful to cover your ankles, cover your arms, cover your chest, in most parts. A) You’ll feel more comfortable, and B) People will respect you a lot. And I think that’s something you tell people and they’re kind of like, “Really?” and it’s 100 degrees outside. People want to pack shorts and tank tops. But I haven’t worn shorts in two years.
Stephanie: That’s something worth noting.
Chris: Last two questions. Finish this thought. You really know you’re in Mumbai when what?
Stephanie: I think you’d know you were in Mumbai when everyone’s telling you how great Mumbai is. And that’s what I love about it. It’s the same like with New Yorkers, I guess, is that people are really proud of their city and Mumbai being the best city in India, which is factual. It is.
Chris: The best at what? Everything, so it is like New York? Okay.
Stephanie: Just everything! The best food. Nice people. Nicest city. Yeah, it’s just the New York of India.
Chris: Got it.
Stephanie: For sure. I that’s what I love. I love people’s passion about Mumbai. I love the sense of pace. Everyone’s going somewhere, doing something. I just, I don’t know, I love. It’s a really hard thing to describe to somebody, but there’s this intangible kind of energy and pace of the city that I haven’t seen in lots of others. Not even just India. In the world! I think I love London, but there’s not the same energy and the pace and, it’s a vibrant, exciting city.
Chris: Excellent. And, last question. If you had to summarize Mumbai in just to three words, what three words would you use?
Stephanie: I’m going to go friendly! I think it’s a friendly place.
Chris: Okay, excellent.
Chris: Our guest, again, has been Stephanie Hayes. We’ll put a link in the show notes to Reality Tours and Travel in case anybody wants to join Stephanie on a bike ride through the city or at least friends of Stephanie’s on the bike ride. Is there anyplace else that you write about travel that we should let people know?
Stephanie: No. The website’s great. We’re going to have a blog soon that will have much more advice in the vein of this. Less, kind of “go on this tour, go on that tour,” and more general Mumbai advice because at the end of the day, we’re just trying to help people like Mumbai and it’s not an easy place to appreciate on your own, so yeah. Thanks for having me.
Chris: Excellent. And thanks for coming.
In news of the community, I heard from Christy from St. Louis, who responded to a newsletter article that I’d put out. I’ve actually published 1,000 episodes of various podcasts, which I didn’t realize until it was already passed. It happened sometime at the end of last year. But, Christy wrote these encouraging words, “You’re podcast is a perfect two mile walk for me. It was also the first podcast that I subscribed to. Love it. Thanks.” Thanks, Christy!
And then I also heard from Nicole, who said, “My boyfriend and I have just finished an amazing two week vacation in Namibia. I wanted to drop you a quick note of thanks for the great podcast you did about this country. Before embarking on the trip, we listened to your interview with Jason, Carla, and Janie, which not only cemented our decision to include Namibia in our southern Africa itinerary, but guided our planning. There were several instances over the courses of our travel where their experiences came up in our discussions. We felt like we knew them by the end of the trip, as we had so many shared experiences. Best wishes for a great 2015. Nicole.”
Thanks so much! It’s always great when I hear that people are using the show and that’s something that I can use when I’m reaching out to sponsors or to destinations to let them know that people use the information that we have in the podcast.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. Remember to go vote at podcastawards.com. If you have any questions, send an e-mail to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on twitter @Chris2x. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.