Impressions of Bombay and India

Opposite extremes!

Here is the first really extended report on my last three days in India.

Due to the concept of “National Identity”, Bombay is no longer called Bombay. Instead, it was re-named Mumbai some time ago. Other famous places or institutions in Mumbai, too, such as Victoria Station or the Fruit Market, now have Indian names. Except that even the young Indian persons mostly do not take this too seriously, still calling the nice railway station built in the times of Queen Victoria: Victoria Station.

To some extent, I can understand the sentiment of re-nationalization in India. After all, the huge and certainly today also quite powerful India gained its independence as late as 1947. And it constituted itself as an independent nation rather late. Also, India already suffered its first secession (Bangla Dash), which, in a certain sense, means a rather complex history. On the whole, the nation is far from comfortable. Regardless, I think these newly established names are a little silly. After all, the official language is English and the Indian people are actually quite proud of the fact that the majority of persons speak English rather well.

Additionally, my Indian friends will never accept any criticism of their beer, wine and whisky. In Mumbai, as probably in most Indian districts, something like alcohol can only be bought in special liquor selling shops. Only a small number of restaurants actually have spirits on their drinks menu.

I also notice that alcohol is treated differently in India when I visit the swimming pool at the western housing complex where my son lives with his wife. After my first long day (Monday), when – due to the travels – my night was rather short, I go to the swimming pool in the afternoon in said housing complex. Shopping was rather strenuous – consequently, I would like to make good use of the last rays of the sun in the late afternoon. Because in Mumbai, too, darkness comes early.

Consequently, what I do is swim a few rounds in the tepid water, lie down on my recliner, enjoy the remaining sun shortly before it disappears and do a little reading. To accompany it, I take a small bottle of beer – which I had helped myself to from the my son’s refrigerator – out of my bag in order to enjoy my reading so much more through indulging in its content. Well, it turns out this was a cultural misunderstanding. Because in no time, a uniformed person comes my way and informs me in excellent English that no alcohol may be consumed near the pool, which, of course, also goes for beer.

Mind you, it said nothing about this on the public list of prohibitions (no using the swimming pool without a bathing cap, no jumping, no entry without prior showering and the usual). Of course, I accept this ban and subsequently only empty the bottle rather discretely by wrapping it into my t-shirt and bringing it to my mouth.

As everywhere in India where service is offered, you will see more people neatly dressed and working, cleaning, brushing and sweeping in the “B-Club” of the housing complex than others. Some of them also have to keep a watchful eye on the guests in order to prevent their misbehaving. Later, we went to a real Indian restaurant for dinner. It was a truly nice evening.

On the second day (Tuesday), “Reality Tours” takes us to the best-known slums of Mumbai: Dharavi. Naturally, the slum is sandwiched between railroads and motorways.

We are a very small group of four. Besides us, Françoise is part of the group. Françoise is an 81-year-old French lady from Paris. She travelled the whole world already and is still active in an NGO. Our small group is in the hands of a competent tour guide. Françoise, too, knows a lot and asks many good questions. For us, it is also quite exciting.

In the slum, people work hard. Here, self-organisation and “building society” are the strengths of the people. They are proud of their combined turnover. The slum is a city within the city. It has a million inhabitants and is totally different from what I had expected. Sanitation is problematic, the supply of water and electricity are only functional in parts.

Regardless, the slum looks clean and seems orderly. I can imagine that there is enormous social pressure on the individual person. You will never accumulate riches here, but you can actually live. Provided you like living together on a small area and “community”. And they say living in the slum is a lot better than living on the street – which is what many people do.
Inside the “Slum City”, there is again a city within the city. It is significantly darker, probably also poorer, seeming a lot less well-tended. There is even less space than in the other slum area. And, allegedly, there is only one communal toilet building for the entire population – which means endless waiting times. This is the Islamic part of the slum. Our guide describes the difference with the explanation that the important commodity “education” is not something the population finds desirable.
While I am in the slum, I think of home. Just imagine 3.5 million (or perhaps more) unemployed persons in Germany starting to organize themselves. … If they and their families alone were to vote and agree on one party … before this background, the debate about minimum wages in Germany looks a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? To be sure, we all want fairness, also when it comes to wages. Except that, to me, it seems that the problems in Germany lie totally elsewhere. You might call it “pompousness” or stupidity, because we do not want to (or cannot) understand what happens in the world. But the world has become global – and will consequently catch up with us, too. It is really about time we understood that and we should also be prepared to give up some of our prosperity in favour of behaving ethically.

Touring the slum was quite strenuous. Consequently, we take some leisure time in the afternoon before visiting the race course in the evening with daughter and daughter-in-law. This is where you meet the rich and beautiful. Things are like this: the poor work in the slums and the rich enjoy themselves at the races.

Also, the rich leave Bombay over the weekend. For instance, they take a short recreational trip to Goa (600 kilometres away, which is about as far as Berlin is from Munich). Since everybody tells us what a beautiful place Goa is, we, too, will do this. However, before we leave, there is another day in Bombay for us. We plan to take part in a guided bike tour very early and then drive to Elephant Island from the “Gate” on board a ship.

The bike tour through Bombay on Wednesday was absolutely great. I can only recommend it. Because of the traffic and the heat, you meet at 6.15 a.m. and it is over by 10 o’clock. We are only three, because, apparently, two more guests cancelled due to the early starting time.

Riding a bike through Bombay gives you a truly intense experience of the city. We see a mosque and a temple – and numerous markets. On the fruit market, the many exotic fruit types are impressive, the flower market is just a beauty. When we arrive at the meat market, I start feeling strange and the fish market too, is only just tolerable. I start understanding why they recommend that you should eat vegetarian in India if you want to avoid getting sick.

All markets are diverse and colourful. But the fish market in particular is extremely noisy and smelly. You really must have seen it, but perhaps this is also one of the experiences that make you look upon the world a little differently afterwards.
The bike tour is organized by the same Reality-Tours as the slum tour. It is one of many NGO-s working here. The profit is used to finance all kinds of projects.

As a finishing touch to the bike tour, there is a vegetarian Indian breakfast. It tastes truly delicious. Incidentally, I rode on one of those typical Indian bikes – and I have to say that, regardless of some limitations, it was not a bad experience. However, the total length of the way was only about 10 kilometres. The rest was pure “sight-seeing”.

After the tour, our driver picks us up and takes us to the next destiny of our travels. Starting from the “Gate”, we want to cruise the ocean and visit Elephant Island. On the way, we can again see those packed trains with persons suspended from the doors on the outside. Every day, about 10 persons die in this way in Mumbai, because, naturally, you sometimes fall down. But this is something that is ignored in this country.

Incidentally, the railways I see in this country use the same broad track width as you will find in Russia and China. This means that the individual compartments, too, are a lot wider than in Germany. Regardless, the space in the trains is not enough.
There is not much to say about Elephant Island. The cruise on the ship out and back in (almost 90 minutes each) basically makes it worth to do the trip. For the traveller coming from Bombay, the island itself is an oasis of peacefulness – although totally touristy. Its caves are a World Cultural Heritage and nice to look at. Since, however, they were apparently destroyed by an army in the Middle Ages, they have now been encased with concrete – which is something I personally did not find all that fascinating.

So what else is there to tell? At this time of year, it is nice and warm in Bombay / Mumbai. The air conditioning in the not at all insulated buildings, however, is always on maximum. Suffering from the cold in restaurants every day is only one of the prices you pay for this habit.

On the third day of our journey, we go to Goa, which is probably the dream come true for all Hippies. The trip there is exciting. We were a little late, setting our alarm clocks to 4 a.m. in order to depart at 4.15 hours. Then we find out that, as an exception to the rule, today the flight is not at 5.50 a.m., but as early as 5.25 a.m. And the lift in the huge apartment building (the brand is Mitsubishi, but I do not think this is the reason) are out of order. This seems rather unusual, considering that the building has 48 floors. Also, it is quite remarkable how much time you need in order to walk down  30 (high) flights of stairs with little luggage only…

Eventually, however, we manage to be just fine. After intense discussions at the check-in to Goa, we actually catch the plane we had already given up on …

From whence I will write later. Pictures so follow.

(Translated by Evelyn)

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