I am scared of big cities. I grew up in a small town, nearly a hundred miles away from the nearest city. My town does not have thousands of streets. It had few dozens. As a kid, I had covered each one of them on my bicycle. I live in a city now, but have never explored it. My place of work is only a couple of miles away that I can reach in ten minutes on my motorcycle.
Urbanphobia as this blogger puts it, is a strange phenomenon. I think it’s more about the fear of unknown than the fear of a big city; just like acrophobia is more about is more about fear of dying than the fear of heights. I am the naive guy whose dad calls up and instructs for fifteen whole minutes on what the directions are, where I should get down, what are the buses to take and how much I should pay for the taxi, whenever I am about to travel to a new city/town. What terrifies me is the idea of getting from place A to place B, through buses, trains and taxis and by asking people for directions, who speak a language that I don’t know. And that’s exactly what I did for my first solo travel! I also wanted to meet one of my (few) friends who lives there.
As I packed my bags for Mumbai, I was terribly anxious. What if I lose my wallet? Or my phone? What if I get into trouble or something happened to me? How would I get help from my family and friends who are hundreds of miles away? I quickly scribbled four copies of phone numbers of my dad and friends. I put one sheet and some backup money each in my shoulder bag, my travel bag and my pant pocket.
My entire itinerary was to visit few places that I liked, beaches and some restaurants on the three days I was going to roam around Mumbai.
Day 1 – A roller coaster
The first day was an overwhelming array of sights, sounds and travel of all sorts – flight, ferries, bus, taxi and train.
As I woke up at 2 AM in the morning to catch my flight to Mumbai, I double checked my luggage once more and my itinerary. I got to the airport and boarded the plane half asleep. I woke up with the jerk as the plane landed in Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. As I checked in to my tiny hotel room at Andheri, it was 7 AM.
I quickly got ready for the day ahead and called up a taxi to Gateway of India. I was not going to risk taking a train on the morning of a working day. I had heard of the horror. Even on a Friday morning, there were hundreds of people at the place, frantically posing for selfies and look-whats-under-my-finger trick shots. I had read about the significance of the place and the famous Taj Mahal Palace that lies facing across it. I stood there people watching and boat watching, while taking a few snaps. Had my breakfast at the famous Baghdadi restaurant behind the Taj.
I stood in line to take the ferry ticket to Elephanta Island, where the Elephanta caves lay. The ferry ride was pleasant, with the sea breeze hitting your face and dozens of seagulls that gave company throughout the one hour ride to the island. With the city slowly fading and vanishing behind the horizon, we finally arrived at the island’s dock.
I have studied about this UNESCO world heritage site in school. But visiting it in person is a delight. The set of Hindu and Buddhist rock cut temples hosting several sculptures, was constructed between 5th to 8th century AD. The whole place is a lush green island and there are four dozen shops selling bead necklaces, small Shiva and Buddha statues and other memorabilia that scream India.
The ride back to the Gateway was peaceful, with the sun setting over the city. I was quick to exit the ferry and go on (window) shopping in the famous Colaba causeway.
After half hour of roaming around, and eating at Bademiya, it was time to get back to the hotel. But I wanted to try the famous Mumbai local train. I took a shared taxi to Churchgate station and boarded the Virar fast train. Not so surprisingly, there were no empty seats. But surprising to me, it was nothing like how the popular media had portrayed Mumbai’s local trains – pictures of hundreds of people crammed in to each compartment, struggling even to stand in peace. Little did I know I was going to get into the same situation. At each stop of the train, dozens of people rushed into my compartment. None seemed to get out. Actually, people were jumping into the train even when the train hadn’t completely stopped! Needless to say, I was crushed before I got out of the train. Took a bus from Andheri station and walked back to the hotel. Read this later at the hotel and watched this. Laughed at it and slept like a baby.
Day 2 – Lost items, beaches, long walks and street food
I woke up with the stark realization that I had lost my fitbit flex fitness tracker. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out where I had lost it, was it in Elephanta or was it during the tussle in the train? I got ready and had really well made chole bature for brunch at a local restaurant, standing the whole time I was there. Checked Google maps for directions to Juhu beach. The beauty of Google maps is that it shows you where the nearest bus stop is, what bus to catch and which stop to get down. But this time, the app said that I needed to travel 6.5 kilometers and should take about an hour. On further looking, saw that it showed that I have to walk for 20 minutes. Ah… no time for that. Took an auto to reach there.
Spent couple of hours at the Juhu beach, walking in the shallow part of the beach with my sandals in my hands. Had masala chai, bhel puri and vada pav. Hired a cab to go to Chowpatty beach to enjoy the sunset. After spending about an hour at Chowpatty beach, realized that I had lost my cap! Again, not a single clue as to how it happened.
The street lights were turned on and it was time for a walk on Marine drive. After about half an hour of walking, I sat down to listen to my favorite songs while watching the final moments of the day.
Day 3 – A real jungle inside the concrete jungle
Believe it or not there is a 104 square kilometer wide national park inside Mumbai! The Sanjay Gandhi National Park was my final destination. It hosts lakes, monkeys, spotted deer, a lion and tiger safari, Buddhist caves (whose age is over two thousand!) and much more.
I had heard that we can get a bicycle for rent to ride inside the park. So I decided to pass on the bus and took a bicycle for rent. Big mistake. The Kanheri caves, which was the main location I wanted to visit, was more than four kilometers away. The road that leads to the location of the caves was like a sine wave, lots of ups and downs. The last 500 meters was a complete slope. I had to start walking and push my cycle up the hill. I also spotted lots of monkeys (langurs) and a few spotted deer while cycling. There were many roadside vendors who sell refreshments along the way.
There was lots to cover at the Kanheri caves. And when you finally reach the top of the place, you get a view of the entire park. For a great evening, pack some food and have a small picnic here at sundown. Remember not to litter, of course.
As day three came to an end, I was wiped out from all the cycling and walking. Had a quick dinner and prepared for the next day’s travel back home.
What I learnt a.k.a tips for solo travelers to Mumbai:
- Know what’s your aim for the travel. If you want to meet new people, stay at a traveler’s hostel. If you just want some alone time, take a hotel.
- Don’t try to board a train with a camera. Never stand near the entrance of the train. When entering a Mumbai local train, wear your bag on the front of your body.
- If Google maps says you need one hour to travel 6 kilometers, just take a cab/auto. The money you save from public transport is not worth it.
- In the national park, hire a cycle only if you are moderately fit. Otherwise just take the bus to the caves.
- The names of the bus stops and the bus numbers and route names on the buses are not in English! So when in doubt, ask a bystander.
- Check out Matheran & Lonavala only during the monsoon.
It was really a wonderful change of p(l)ace. Clearly a stark difference from my regular weekend activities. I am sure I’ll be back to this city during the monsoon to explore more!