Tuesday, November 1, 2011

India

Mumbai
Things weren’t looking so great for our India trip when we realized 6 days before we were scheduled to leave to Mumbai from Bali that we needed a visa. After a bit of frantic research we had to leave paradise on Gilli Islands in Lombok and cut our trip short in search of a visa. We came up with two options either:
a) wait 3 weeks for our visa to be approved via courier to the embassy, meaning that we would have to reorganize our flights to India or 
b) risk it and spend $100AUD for return flights to Jakarta (which we booked with Lion Air, which was 2/3rds of the price of Air Asia. And if you are lucky enough to have your flight delayed you get free Dunkin donuts!) In Jakarta we would then go to the Indian Embassy in person and beg for the visa to be approved in 3 days, rather than the normal 5 day turn over. 
And the risk paid off!!
Happy faces: We got our visas! 

After the worlds longest immigration line at the airport we had done it, against all the odds (mostly our own stupidity), we had made it to India and although we were running on about 1 hour sleep we were buzzed. We got a prepaid taxi from the airport and lugged our bags to the taxi rank where we were instantly transported back in time. Most of the taxis are awesome little british sedans that I assume were left here in the 50’s/60’s or whenever it was that the brits left. Ducking through very slow traffic we enjoyed the views and as I was suggested to do we took in everything as we viewed Mumbai from our 1960’s beaut brit.
What we saw were endless slums and highway sidewalks, where locals thread woven baskets as they ate lunch, sitting metres from deadly traffic. I have been to poverty stricken cities before, I have seen locals sitting on the street or shaded under tarps and I’ve seen bustling traffic that will make your eyes water, but never before has it had such an underlying beauty. 
The graffiti that splashes the concrete noise barriers, so bright with colour, creativity and hope. As opposed to the mainly penis drawing graffiti back home, on these walls were messages like “respect women”, “god loves you” and a general theme of art rather than scribble for kilometers. 
There were children playing and running along giant gas and water pipes and local ladies dressed in beautiful clothing sitting and just talking to each other. Now I know I am being all flowers and butterflies and I’m well aware of the sadness and tragedy that can be found in Mumbai and India, but I am just trying too paint a picture of the charm I found here. 
After our hour and a half taxi ride we took the guide books advice and booked ahead at the salvation army red shield house. We were paying about 20AUD a night for a double fan room, but this includes a simple breakfast and an awesome indian lunch with rice, dahl and vegie curry. This place is great although the rooms are falling apart they are kind of charming in a fight club paper street sort of way. The lime green paint peeling off the walls with the high ceiling and arched windows. 
There is a common room here that our meals are served at and computers with internet access adjoining. The staff here are really friendly and are willing to help with anything. After we got ripped off badly which will be mentioned later, “Samson” said that anything we wanted too buy ask him and he will tell us what we should pay. They can also recommend places to go and things to see and don’t mind having a laugh at all.

Be weary and cautious with locals in mumbai, they may appear to be friendly and may seem well but there is usually motives behind their seemingly kind actions. We has just stepped out of our accommodation on the first day when we were approached by seemingly “friendly” guys who told us what we should do whilst in India. They then suggested that we should wear more traditional dress and they would show us to the local’s market that was a lot cheaper than Colaba markets. Instead they took us to a little shop. The shop owner showed us many different stlyes of dress suggesting we buy lots of things. After trying on multiple outfits for an hour it came time for the bill. I had already been asking how much it would come to along the way but the store owner kept telling us he would work it out at the end. 


The bill for a total of three tops, two scarves and two pants came to 5,000 Rupees which is just over $100AUD, and that was after much painful bargaining where we managed to knock off 1,000rupees. The whole time we thought they were scamming us and we should have trusted our instincts as we were later told by our accommodation that you should only pay 100rupees per garment. I paid 1,000 rupees per garment meaning they stung us 10 times what we should be paying! The scammers are tricky and clever even if they just take you into a shop, regardless of whether you buy anything or not they will immediately get 500 rupees commission. It’s like a polite way of getting mugged. 


Whilst in mumbai we checked out the harbour also known as the "gateway of India." It is a huge archway leading onto the water and was built for King George V and Queen Mary's visit to Bombay in 1911. 
The Gateway of India




We just booked all our train and bus tickets until the 9th of November! We first got a quote from a supposed “government ticket office” (which we later found out wasn’t so) for 70,000 rupees (which is $1498 AUD) including accommodation and a driver as well as elephant safari and a camel safari. But we learnt from last time we got scammed and decided we would shop around, and good thing we did. 


We then asked our accommodation for a good trustworthy travel office who managed to sort out a more reasonable price. For the arranged trip shown below (which was identical to the one above without accommodation, driver or safaris) we paid 8,960 ($186.66AUD) rupees for both of us. That is almost a tenth of the price we were quoted from the other place! Although as we figured out more recently, when you organise it for yourself it is much cheaper. The travel agent added on 500 rupees ($10) onto every ticket he booked for us for "under the counter bribes." Clearly no matter how "honest" the travel agent is, unless you organise the trip for yourself you will always get ripped off. It is very easy to get scammed and they are very clever, often putting you in a situation where you have to buy, even though you don’t want to. But you just have to be clear when they show you different things that you aren’t interested in purchasing anything today, you are just looking. 


After our initial incidents we have found that most of the people here are really nice. They are always ready to help you. A security guard even saw us sitting on a kerb eating puri and came up and gave us a spoon to make it easier for us to eat.


On our first day in Mumbai we were offered Bollywood extra positions, getting 500 rupees for the day, but unfortunately it got cancelled last minute. The casting agent said that it was going to be the biggest Bollywood film ever made. Oh well I guess our rise to Bollywood stardome will have to wait till next time. Considering they churn out 900 films a year, or just under 3 films a day, im sure another offer isn’t too far away!


We went to colaba markets and they were awesome! Once you get past the touristy stalls and delve further into a colourful maze of market stalls it is like another world. There’s an awesome array of color, sounds and smells. There are alley ways intertwining making it very easy for one to get lost amongst the stalls selling eggs, saris, Indian sweets, onion barji, jewellery, samosas, spices, tandoor colors, live chickens, dead chickens (sadly being sold ontop of their live friends), instruments, antiques, toys and more.

Food
Indian food always seems to be at either end of two extremes; sweet or spicy. You have the amazing and sickenly sweet gulab jamun and jalebis to the firing hot vindaloos. But once your taste buds adjust to the array of flavor you realize the genious of it all. Everything is there to balance the other. Your hot curries come with raita and a sweet lassi, both yoghurt based which therefore neutralize the burn. No wonder the brits tried to steal the spices, the spice combinations here are like no other where every bite is different and more intriguing. 
Barfi slabs- come in all different flavours and
usually come with edible pure silver leafing (also known as vark) on the top

The sickenly sweet Gulab Jamun- dough balls made from milk solids
(usually buffalo milk or khoya) soaked in a sugary rose water syrup
Dried Indian Snack
Idli- Savoury rice cake with sambar and coconut chutney
Rava Dosa- an indian pancake with spiced potato filling served with coconut chutney and sambar.
And a refreshing mango lassi
Samosa served with coconut chutney

Thali- The greatest value in any restaurant. Comes with curd (yoghurt), 3 vegetable curries, chaipattis, padadum, rice, indian sweets (and sometimes if your lucky) a small spiced salad. Traditionally once you finish part of your thali you are entitled to as many top ups free of charge. Not all restaurants do this though. 
Even when you have stuffed yourself you cant help losening your pants and stretching your stomach just a little further for those few last bites. When you watch people drink their chai, or eat their samosa stuffed in a bread roll, or treat themselves to a sweet burfi, they are all smiling. Its clear that indian cuisine is “happy food.” 


The best restaurant we have been to so far in Mumbai has been “New Laxmi Villa” in Colaba (its in the lonely planet).  Dosas, thalis, idlis, pakoda, bhaji, samosa, curries, sweets, you name it and they probably have it! Very quick service and quick food and once you are finished eating you are kindly shown the door. But when you are at an Indian restaurant remember to tip, otherwise you are considered very rude.

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