This was my first visit to Mumbai and I was elated! But how to spend the day?
Do as the Germans Do
I decided that the markets were where I would end up if left to my own devices, so why not just take a dedicated ship’s tour. Die Märkte von Mumbai started at 3:00 p.m., well into the most sweltering heat of the day. Our guide was an Indian woman who spoke excellent German but with a cadence that was difficult to follow (but who am I to talk?).
We would be visiting three substantial markets in Mumbai, each of them, ostensibly with its own specialty. I was giddy over seeing this city for the first time and I was not disappointed. I was also not surprised by the juxtaposition of grandeur amidst squalor: families with small children sat in the street along the port exit; desolate mothers cradled small babies while the older children waved and followed us a few blocks.
The Crawford Market (Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai)
I had always envisioned the Indian markets as a rough-hewn Pier One Imports, minus the stemware and potpourri. My utopian notions were dashed when we arrived at the Crawford Market, a warehouse style indoor/outdoor bizarre. It was the epicenter for spices, produce – especially papayas…and animals. I believe the animals were to be sold as pets, not groceries. Nonetheless, they were crammed into cages and stacked on top of one another, an mélange of breeds and species. I had been forewarned by friends about the atrocious living conditions of the animals at market, but the rabbit slums and parakeet shantytowns were no worse than the conditions in which many of these people must be forced to live.
No one in my group bought a pet or took a chance on the produce, but many of us did stock up on dried spices: curry and saffron for a fraction of what you would pay in the west! Our guide ushered us through the market, her lollipop sign with the number 13, a comforting touchstone amidst the mayhem. She had made it clear from the outset that she would not help us haggle with venders; her only directive was that haggling on our part would be expected. She was kind enough to step in at the spice market to ensure we got the best quality for a fair price. We shuffled single file through the market – our procession such a bland array of pasty-faces and doughy physiques – we attracted a throng of small children. An enterprising few were begging or peddling trinkets, but most of them were transfixed and probably amused by our cargo pants and neon visors.
The Thieves’ Market
The second market we visited is a bit of a blur…for a number of reasons. The Chor Bazaar has a history spanning more than 150 years. Its name means “Thieves’ Market,” because evidently stolen goods find their way to this place at one time or another. It is set up “Souk style,” packed with trinkets, a few gadget accessories, and low-end Saris. It might have behooved our guide at the onset of this visit to explain that it is only recommended to shop and the first and last market, and that stop 2 was intended solely for its local flavor. And flavorful it was, a cacophony of sounds, crammed bodies, vehicles, and beasts – all vying for the limited turf within the crowded streets and crumbling buildings.
My fellow travelers became increasingly annoyed that we were whipping through this market without being given sufficient time to browse at any of the stalls. In the nick of time and right before an uprising, our guide explained to us her master plan: “Es gibt viel besserre Sachen bei den nächsten Markt.” (There is much better stuff at the next market). She then tried to uplift our group’s dour mood by walking us to a nearby cow stall, located in the outskirts of the market. The cows, being sacred and all, were fed sugar by families with small children, hoping to gain favor and good luck. And crows, being indiscriminate scavengers, came to graze on the prolific cow patties produced by the sacred beasts.
Hitchcock Goes To Bollywood
These behemoth black birds overran the trees. I should have seen it coming…I felt the sensation of an egg breaking on my head, and then it ran onto my cheek…Standing in the filthiest most rancid smelling place I have ever been – an avian scavenger, a winged rat – crapped on my head! I know this is not typical travel fodder, but sometimes the things that transpire when you are not planning become the funniest and most memorable!
No one in my group even noticed. A local man stared at me as if frozen in time, his next movement contingent on my reaction. Well, my reaction was to pretend it didn’t happen. I’m not sure what dignity I thought I was preserving with excreta dripping down my neck. I ducked around the corner, scoured myself with Purell and Wet Ones, and rejoined the group.
All is not lost…
We schlepped back to the bus, retracing our tracks through the Souk; by this time, it was rush hour, augmenting the pandemonium. We re-boarded our vehicle and set out for the third and final stop, the Colaba Causeway Market. Our guide was right – this was the best market by far! I would have gladly forgone the other two in exchange for more time at this place! It was more geared for tourists, the vendors all spoke excellent English, and the quality and selection of merchandise was far better than the other two markets. Unfortunately, by this point, I was dehydrated and pretty traumatized by my recent avian assault. So, when they turned us loose at this market I bought…a bunch of random junk!
I was flummoxed and temporarily robbed of my ability to discern: I’ll take this groovy Indian shirt/dress, a bronze Ganesh, 3 Buddhas, this lovely Hindu Saraswati, 4 Wooden Elephants, a pair of Balloon Pants, and an ESPIRIT shirt with the tag cut out!
“Henna tattoo, Ma’am?”
“ Umm, no thanks, I have a show tomorrow.”
Some of the women on our tour bought authentic Saris here and they were quite stunning. The act of emptying their wallets soothed the savage guests. Everyone stepped off of the tour bus with a smile and a shopping bag!
I wanted to see more. The blessing and curse of travelling by cruise ship – to be able to visit otherwise remote destinations in a safe and relatively affordable fashion is better than not seeing it at all. But whatever attractions lie within a 20-mile radius of the port become your overall impression of a place, when in fact, you have barely scratched the surface. This is especially true in a place like India, where the tapestry of history, culture, religion, and politics are so densely interwoven. It has been said that India needs to be viewed by the heart and not the eyes. How very true! I returned to the ship, elated by what I was able to take in a few short hours, grateful for hot running water, and eager to plan my next visit!