Thanksgiving in Mumbai: Touring Mumbai

Thanksgiving in Mumbai – Touring Mumbai: Before heading to Mumbai I had done a bit of searching online for well-regarded guides. I first found Mumbai Moments, which seemed to receive raves at TripAdvisor. I emailed them and they were available during our stay, but as we discussed what I wanted to do and see it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a good match. I always like to try to understand a place in part through its food, had researched some of the restaurants and things from vendors that I wanted to try, and shared the particulars. Amish, the guide, let me know that he’s a follower of Jainism and won’t take clients to any non-vegetarian restaurant. I respectfully chose to find someone else, since that wasn’t going to match what I wanted to do and explore as part of my time in Mumbai.

So I went about finding alternatives. I contacted Mumbai Magic which I also saw on TripAdvisor, and it was clear from their initial response that they weren’t what I was looking for — I didn’t inherently mind the 10,000 Rps for a full day, though by local standards over $200 is exorbitant even for a separate guide and driver. It’s just that their offerings seemed a bit ‘over-produced’ since they include both illustrated handouts and a ‘take away gift’. Frankly I think I’d felt uncomfortable rolling into the slums of Mumbai on such a tour.

In the end I used Amin Sheikh (his business is Sneha Travels). He charges 3000 Rps per day, including his vehicle and gas, though I paid for meals of course (including inviting him to join us) and to tip folks who helped with parking around crowded sites that we visied.

Amin is a friendly guy who speaks excellent English. He grew up in Mumbai slums and was brought up in a Jesuit orphanage where he now volunteers. His mentor there helped him buy his Toyota van that he uses for tours. He’s certainly someone who can help show the ‘real Mumbai’ as it’s experienced by the majority of people. I’m glad we used his services, though I admit that I was a little bit uncomfortable at times because our life experiences as so different. I wanted to try and taste all sorts of foods, and he took us everywhere we wanted. But I’m not there seeing food as sustenance, but experience. I don’t think that’s an idea he’s really comfortable with. We’d always have leftovers, which he would have packaged and take with him, finding someone on the street to give it to. I was very happy to see our leftovers eaten by people who would value it! Still, I felt like he must be judging us for ordering more than we were going to eat in one sitting and then still wanting to eat something else later in the day. I admit, though, that the fault and discomfort was entirely mine, and not anything done on the part of our guide — who I appreciated enough to recommend to a work colleague who will be in Mumbai later in the month.

During the tour we visited the largest manual laundry in the world, an impressive site where individuals manage to track items of clothing even though they’re specializing rather than washing a single person’s clothes together. I had never seen so many jeans in one place!

Afterwards we visited Gandhi’s home in Mumbai.

We were fortunate, as it was about to be closed for pest control.

One of the really interesting things about visiting parts of the world as opposed to just reading about them is that you get a feel and first-hand experience that you can compare to and understand in a different way what writers say about an area. And it can give you a somewhat different perspective on history. So Gandhi for instance is said to have lived in poverty, or at least that’s how I had understood the common narrative. But visiting his home, I understand that while he may have adorned himself in the clothing of the people he represented, that he was certainly privileged. And he had modern accoutrements at his disposal. The library in his home is, I believe, larger than my home. And pictures on the wall show someone who was prominent in international affairs even in his youth. None of that diminishes his importance or his accomplishments at all! It just provides a richer texture of understanding, better context to understand the experiences and perspectives of a man who was incredibly important in the earlier half of the last century.

We ate at the kitchy, touristy Brittania & Company:

The old British gent who owns the place is a tremendous character, he walks around talking to guests, mostly about himself and how famous he is. He brings out a laminated newspaper article about how he spoke on the phone with the Queen of England. And he told us about writing to the White House to invite President Obama to dine at his restaurant during Obama’s recent visit, and how offended he was that the invitation was declined. He had quite a few things to say about former President Bush, mostly about warmongering, and also had some rather uncomfortable things to say about Obama and race. Still, one forgives a lot of a man of very advanced age.

On the subject of food, Mumbai is about the only place I’ve been especially cautious eating street food. I’ve written many a trip report including food on the street in places like Beijing (I’ve eaten snake, but I avoid beetles).

I did try a few things from street vendors that our guide assured us tended towards cleaner practices, though.

And while I wouldn’t actually eat there I found it fascinating how ubiquitous McDonald’s was, including McDelivery.

Still, having access to a McDonalds during a day walking around and touring is quite convenient, if only to use their restrooms.

Finally, we went into a Falooda shop recommended by our guide, which was a little too sweet for my tastes but the bulk of which was likely much enjoyed by the kid out guide gave my leftovers to.

I did wonder about this billboard I saw all over the city, since I didn’t think you could catch anything from a cell phone…

(I had to look up later that ‘STD’ actually stands for subscriber trunk dialing, but I prefer my first impression over the more sensible explanation I found on Wikipedia!)

We visited Marine Drive and also the Gateway to India where we had a fairly interesting experience, that I first assumed was a scam but turned out wasn’t at all.

An Indian family approached us and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We agreed. No one tried to pick my pocket or anything else, they just seemed incredibly excited to see us. And after we had agreed and taken our photos, another family came up and asked if we’d do the same with them.

The best I could figure, and as explained by our guide, these people were from more rural parts of India and this was their big trip to Mumbai. They had probably never seen a real live white person before. They’d take pictures with us, bring them back to their village, and probably say they had met someone famous.

Nonetheless, it was charming even if I was initially a bit uncomfortable trying to figure out what was going on.

The nearby Taj Hotel is a magnificent structure.

I actually had dinner at the Taj, with a Vice President managing marketing for their InnerCircle program (which won “Program of the Year” honors in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region in the 2010 Frequent Traveler Awards). He and his wife invited us over, and it turned out that we arranged to meet on what was the eve of the two-year anniversary of the bombing. Security was incredibly tight, with several police checkpoints along the way up to the hotel. It turns out that most cars weren’t being let through at all, but that my name had been given to the police by the General Manager of the Taj Palace, and the police were instructed to let us through.

We met our friends from Taj InnerCircle, stopped by an Australian Embassy reception for Australian wine, and toured the property a bit and then had dinner at their Lebanese restaurant Souk which was really outstanding. They simply began bringing out their most recommended dishes, which were all excellent (and I’m not generally a fan of Lebanese).

Normally I would have insisted on picking up the check, but we were in their restaurant in their hotel and so it would probably have offended if I tried. And there wasn’t actually a check for dinner in any case, such is the advantage of dining with a chain executive at their flagship property.

Tyler Cowen had suggested that Mumbai was a place that violates many of the rules of eating, that the best restaurants are often in better hotels. Just as I really enjoyed the Chinese restaurant in our hotel, I also thought the food at the Taj Palace phenomenal.

In the end I’m still mulling over the Mumbai experience. It was unlike any other place that I’ve been, and I tend to think myself fairly well-traveled. There’s tremendous bustling activity and growth, as well as tremendous poverty. And the two seem to co-exist more closely than in other parts of the world, not just in the same countries but within mere feet. (There were slums directly in front of the entrance to our hotel, though they seemed to be a bit better than ones we saw elsewhere.) I’ve thought a great deal about the conditions, and what I know of the institutions surrounding those conditions, but was deeply affected and working to sort through everything I saw even nearly a month later.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m with you on the uncomfortable feeling. It’s hard not to feel extremely wealthy and wasteful when there is so much poverty surrounding you. Don’t know how you are situation with your charitable giving, but part of our annual donations are given to an orphanage in Cambodia. We feel it is important to help these people in 3rd world countries gain skills and a life that encourages them to stay and build a good life in their own country.

    BTW thanks for the fantastic blog, it’s one of the first things I check every day.

  2. It seems to have been a great trip, although no thanks to LH obviously. Feeling happy or unhappy about various things you encounter in a new place is just part of leaving home. I have relatives in BOM and therefore never been able to feel like a true visitor there: so much time is spent in happy chatting, but then Mumbai remains in the background. 🙂 Your blog reminded me I need to make an anonymous secret trip one of these days!

  3. Great post Gary. Did you or your wife get sick from eating outside of your hotel? I travel to Bangladesh quite often and am very cautious about what I consume outside the hotel.

  4. Gary, thanks for the great trip report. It certainly makes me want to visit Mumbai, which has been on my list. I will look up your guide when I go.

  5. Gary,

    Thanks for a great post! I had a similar experience went I went to China. When in Xi’an, I had several requests to have my picture taken. Our Chinese friend told me it was because they probably hadn’t ever seen a white person before nevertheless someone with blonde hair. It was quite an eye opening experience for me.

  6. India is an experience. And Mumbai is a living city. It is almost like a breathing fairy. She is beautiful. She is lively. I am glad you got to see a slice of Mumbai. see the movie Salaam Bombay if you get time. Mumbai is the city where the country’s wealthiest and poorest co-exist. And they exists in harmony.

    Next time you are in India, try Kolkata. You will see another breathing city. The ITC Sheraton is a good place to stay and it houses one of the best restaurants in Kolkata.

  7. Nice to see your trip report on Mumbai. I spent 4 months there last year and really enjoyed it despite the obvious contrast between rich and poor. The Chinese restaurant in the Hyatt is certainly the best one in town, but very pricey as you mentioned. The Indigo restaurant behind the Taj is also well known for foodies and for “safe” street food there is also a kebab place not far from the Taj. Bandra and Juhu also offer good upscale Indian and western dining options for those staying at the Grand Hyatt or near the airport.

  8. On a recent trip to India we had 2 experiences with the photo requests. The first in Kerala was confusing to us but we gladly complied. The second was for my husband alone. He was wearing his “Crocodile Dundee” hat at the Taj Mahal and was asked repeatedly to pose with different groups of people. They kept saying Movie Star. It really made my husband’s day.

  9. Great trip report. Glad that you sampled another culture.

    Just a couple of lines about Gandhi, he was from a fairly well off family and was sent to London for his Law degree. He decided to look and live like the masses, the very people he was to lead, only later on in his life when he joined the freedom movement. BTW, There were no muskets fired at the Red Coats to make them leave the country. 🙂

  10. “He’s certainly someone who can help show the ‘real Mumbai’ as it’s experienced by the majority of people”

    What do you mean by “real mumbai”? I seem to see this “real mumbai” thing come from westerners, so I am quite curious to know what this mythical “real mumbai” is?

  11. @dhaval, I was contrasting it to the sort of overproduced tour with handouts and parting gift being offered @ Rps 10,000 … or that would avoid showing the lives of most residents of the city, concentrating on tourist areas and standard guidebook locations.

  12. @ Gary, Mumbai is a feeling. With all due respect to you and your guide, you just got the contrasts of Mumbai. You did not really see Mumbai as seen by a majority of people.

    I do not know about your guide, but I know a lot of guides who magnify the poverty in India to gain sympathy from Westerners. But that could probably be done for any major city in US (southern Chicago suburbs for example).

    Anyway, I am glad you enjoyed Mumbai. Next time, you travel to India, shoot me an email. I might have tips to improve your experience.

  13. @Angik it was NOT my intention to suggest that I gained a ‘full understanding’ of Mumbai in under a week. And of course my blog post highlighted only a few things from my travels. I got to see some of the things that the more produced tours wouldn’t have shown, I saw some extremes but also saw other things not in the post. I learned a lot, and appreciated what I saw.

  14. @gary,

    Like Angik said, mumbai is a feeling. Ever since slumdog millionaire, people keep asking me if India is like that. I have seen people saying, “We want to see real India” which basically means “We want to see slums”.

    Mumbai is not that. You want a glimpse of Mumbai, the contrasts. The cheapest and the best way is to take a second class ticket and go from Churchgate to Borivili and back. You will see your contrast. Of course, you won’t be able to do it as well, simply because it is something only someone from Mumbai can do.

    Now, what is this that you got to see that the produced tours wouldn’t have shown you?

    I had a chance to go to Nairobi, which I felt was like a small Indian town, both in terms of size and in terms of feel. It had slums, it had poor people. I did not see anyone wanting to go to see those slums, like they want to in Mumbai. I wonder why?

  15. @dhaval Mumbai and India generally is a fascinating place in part because of its incredibly fast economic growth, the way that the contrasts co-exist, that there’s such opulence and such a bright future while at the same time it’s so unevenly distributed currently. It’s not about “seeing slums” as much as getting a first-hand sense for the institutional arrangements and consequences of growth, that’s one of the fundamental questions we face, how to lift the poorest from poverty, how to produce growth, how to improve the human condition. And Mumbai is the epicenter of one of the great transitions of our time. That’s not about popping around between tourist sites, but seeing first hand the way different people are living and the way that different ways of life co-exist next to each other.

  16. I went to Mumbai in August, it was bit humid but I loved the places. You could have added Elephanta caves to your travel, it is the 1-hour distance from Gateway of India. That is really nice caves. I found to be very crowded even more than Delhi and much dirtier but still sitting on the marine drive was an amazing experience.

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