Look out.. bats all around

I awoke this morning to the chronic blaring of horns which are slowly becoming a steady out-of-focus backdrop to this weird city.

I rose from my slumber and went in search of the manager to find out why we have no hot water coming out of our taps. It was explained to me that to generate hot water I must first switch on one of many unlabelled switches on the wall in the bedroom quite outside of the bathroom. This would in turn begin a slow heat of the water. We wanted to get out as soon as possible to explore Mumbai centre so decided on two cold showers then headed out for the sights.

Before we left we planned out our journey. We would walk a couple of hundred yards to the local Metro station Chembur East. From there we would purchase two first class tickets and head South into the city. We would alight at the famous Victoria Station now renamed Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in honour of a celebrated Emperor. Finally we would walk to the Gateway of India – a huge archway right on the harbour front. On paper this journey looks quite easy. The distances seem manageable and the trains offered a first class ticket which we assumed would offer an element of comfort.

Arriving at Chembur East we stood on the platform for a while waiting for the first train to come in and studying the make-up of the crowd. One end of the platform was full of typical locals, dressed smartly enough but often without shoes. The other end had more business men stood with polished shoes and pressed trousers. As we approached the end of the platform we found ourselves surrounded by ladies and realised we must be where the ladies only carriage draws to a halt. ‘Too late’ we realised. We were too far up the platform as the train arrived and the crowds surged towards the inbound carriages. As the train drew to a halt men threw themselves at the small entrances, pushing themselves ahead of others. The train lingered at the platform for a short breath before pulling away with many men hanging to the edges of the doors wobbling back and forth as they tried to keep balance. Those who were not forceful enough fell back to the platform looking defeated.

This show left Nicole and myself standing there aghast. How were we orderly folk supposed to compete with this barbarity? As luck would have it I spotted that the carriages we had seen this disorder at were all marked as second class. As the train built up speed the first class carriage passed and much to my relief I saw that the doors had only a smattering of people present and looking out. Filled with a renewed confidence we progressed back down the platform to where we estimated that the first class carriage must stop and awaited the next train. A few minutes later we were aboard without incident and seated on cushioned benches as we pulled out of the station.

Our journey South took us past towering gas containers and large tower blocks in what seemed like a commercial district, then without any transition we were passing the slums and a sickly smell came flooding into our carriages. Children and women in various states of undress sat at the train tracks washing clothing in small muddy streamlets which came down from the elevated highways up above the tracks. Vast amounts of rubbish had built up banks with multicoloured striations above and beyond what must have been at the edge of the rail tracks before. Beyond this barrier stood the shanty building piled high atop each other looking like a matchstick creation. One small gust and you could see it all toppling down. None the less the people there had forged an obvious community with a row of small shops present and in front of these stood braziers manned and serving up food, the faint smell of spices mixed in with the overpowering corrupt scent. Soon we had passed out of the slums and the rail track mixed in with the tracks serving the outbound railway. Suddenly vast trains with sleeper carriages swept into sight running in tandem alongside us for a short while. Within minutes we pulled into the terminus and our rail journey was at an end.

Victoria Terminus was built in 1887 to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and is a stunning piece of architecture. Partially Gothic in design with Indian trappings thrown into the mix it dominates the local area. We spent a good while just stood about taking it all in and finally made our way outside of the grand ticket hall into the bright daylight.

Our walk south took us past several buildings of note. The Reserve bank of India and the Royal Mint were both heavily guarded by humourless men in military uniform. Their suspicious eyes viewed us from behind the fortification that their mounted machine gun posts afforded them and any attempt to raise a camera to any of these buildings was met with a sharp shout and a frantic waving of arms. Clearly these were not people to be trifled with so we moved swiftly on. We then passed the Police Headquarters and then the Port Authority. The same rules seemed to apply to these buildings too, although we were met with less threatening body language.

As an aside; roads in Mumbai are hugely challenging to cross. They have designated crossing points much like a zebra crossing, but with a lit up countdown spelling out the seconds to the next green man. You would think that this indicates a safe point to cross the road but in reality it just reduces the flow of traffic by about a third! Consider it safe to say that you end up viewing any crossing with mortal suspicion and haste not seen in Britain’s towns and cities. Pavements on the other hand, whilst offering some respite from the traffic, continually surprise you with loose stones, missing drain covers and puddles of unidentifiable gunk which are best avoided at all costs. Therefore movement through the most affluent of Mumbai’s streets is rather comical to the fly on the wall with many a hop, skip and a jump required to traverse safely.

We arrived at the Gateway of India which is arguably Mumbai’s most famous structure. Built during the British Raj to commemorate the landing of King George at the jetty it is situated on, it was thereafter used as a welcoming point for any other governors or dignitaries to be accepted onto Indian soil. This large archway stood with a beautiful backdrop of blue water and small sail boats. We stood and appreciated the view till our attention was bought back to the horde of Indian tourists who all wanted their photos taken with us. Once we realised that they were not after our money as usual, we relented and let them form up next to us as their companions snapped photo after photo. Perhaps they mistook us for the famous, perhaps the conspicuous lack of other white folk inspired this odd behaviour but whatever the reason we soon grew bored and retreated to some stone steps where we could take a seat and set-up the tripod for some long exposures. I have on my person an Infra-Red filter for my lens and was keen to try it out on some of the more rare sights we would be seeing. Despite my keen attention on the task at hand we were still continually bothered by Indians who kept crossing in front of the current shot. One Indian lad was insistent that I had dirt in my left ear and made it his personal mission in life to try to remove it for me. A I fought him away Nicole pointed out that he was trying to remove my ball-earring which is placed on my scapha. Bemused and tired we packed up and began the haphazard walk back to the terminus.

Dusk had settled in  and the many birds which hunted for scraps on the streets were gone, replaced by large web-winged bats that circled high above. These creatures looked huge as they flew from high rooftop to rooftop so I feared their appearance at a more personal distance. The image was stunning though and one I will never forget. As we approached the terminus the sight of them circling the high spires was almost clichéd and deserving of prominent place in a horror movie.

Hoping for a swift and painless journey back; as tiredness had really set in with vengeance, I was sorely disappointed to find that our first class carriage was almost full with standing room only. To my shock and horror my definition of full was rapidly contested as we reached station after station and yet more people crammed themselves on to the small carriage with none seemingly alighting. After a while, the look on our faces became a topic of conversation amongst the homeward bound Indians and a few with better English skills began to ask us questions as to where we were from and which station we were headed to. Falling into guarded conversation I heard the information I was telling them (for example that we were headed to Chembur station) bandied around the carriage with shouts of “Chembur, Cembur” from one Indian to the next.
Eventually a kindly looking man took pity on us and offered up his and his friend’s seat so that we could gain some respite from all the pushing and shoving. Accepting his offer gladly we took seat next to him as he engaged me in conversation, he gave up sound tactics for escaping this hellish environment which involved standing up at the station before our destination and pushing forward shouting “Chembur”, as we approached the exit we were to push ahead at full speed between anyone in the way as the train slowed down so that we would pop out like a cork before it took off once again. Following his advice we surged forward at the required time and staggered out onto the platform gasping in the sudden and very welcome fresh air. We both immediately vowed that that was an experience best done just the once.