Arriving in Mumbai at 6am, we disembarked our first overnight train, an experience made all the more unpleasant by the extra passenger hitching a ride in my lower intestine. Even at this hour there are hoards of commuters encroaching on what little is left of our personal space as we try to navigate our way through a maze of platforms, stairs and hawkers. If it wasn’t for the sizeable backpacks and my 6ft, pasty white Scottish best friend Patrick, we might just have got away without being accosted by several dozen taxi drivers hungry for our Rupees, as by this stage I was more than beginning to look like a Punjab national and Lisa’s South African complexion would have left us in a more inconspicuous position. Too tired to haggle and the urgency with which I would need a place to relieve the havoc my gastrointestinal hitchhiker was causing becoming ever more present, we jumped into the first rickshaw off the rank and headed straight for our hotel situated just off Mumbai’s famous Juhu beach.
It became apparent very quickly that we were most definitely in a very different India than we had just experienced in the South. Driving past a menagerie of skyscrapers, British Raj architecture and shanty towns, Pat points out that in the near distance is Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in India and suggests we try to make a trip out there. Part of me is interested in the hope of understanding some of what daily life is like in the slums but I know that the time we would have to dedicate to such an excursion would leave it little more than a tourist experience to tick off the to do list. The wealth divide here is so visible that it becomes a natural part of the landscape, blending in with such pervasiveness that it soon renders itself invisible. The most confronting thing is not so much the poverty but how deftly it dissolves into the tapestry of Indian normalcy. Perhaps even more confronting was the relative speed and ease at which I was ready to defend the privileges afforded to me by being born in a different country and turn a blind eye to the glaringly obvious injustices. I hoped I would come to India and seize the opportunity to do something that would at least help me understand the poverty situation or maybe invoke some sort of visceral emotional response that would turn me into a regular Mother Theresa. Today would not be that day. Maybe this trip would not be that trip. We had first world problems to deal with.
The 2 star Seaside Hotel is nestled in between several 4 and 5 star hotels and offers views of the Ocean View, a hotel with ocean views. So far we had stayed in worse accommodation but the sting of being so tantalisingly close to the 4 star luxury of the Novotel where the rest of the wedding guests were staying was proving to be a little too much for Lisa whose fantasies of a glamorous seaside Indian wedding were promptly quashed by a surly hotel manager and a swarm of porters eager to carry our bags past the broken lift and up 4 flights of stairs for a meagre 50 Rs. It was a bed and at least it had air-conditioning. I was just happy to have somewhere to put my bags and a place to deal with the TD that felt like it was taking a samurai blade to my insides. Besides, I knew we would eventually find a way to scam the use of our friends’ hotel facilities.
Too early for anyone else to be up and about, we decided to take a wander along the beach while waiting for the wedding cohort to wake so we could join in on their free hotel breakfast. Littered with morning walkers and rubbish I pondered upon several things. Why in a country completely surrounded by water does no one know how to swim? And why in a country which has such deep philosophical roots and national pride do people have such a disregard for their environment?
It was then that I discovered possibly the most stylish man in all of India…