Cruise Port Reviews
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Travelersx2 saw things this way:
Complex, contradictory, compelling, May 17, 2013
Pros: Stunning colonial architecture; how a city of 20+ million manages; Kotachiwadi.
Cons: Poverty, dirt, traffic; loss of architectural gems.
Three taxis. Three taxis within ¼ mile. The first one didn’t even get us out of the port before it stopped, the driver flagging down an incoming taxi and, after a brief conversation saying, “get-in, he’ll take you.” So, we climbed into cab #2 and exited through the port security gate, then stopped again within 50 yards. Our driver exited and held a brief, heated discussion with a third driver after which he said, “go with him, he’ll take you, he’s my father.” We were wondering if we were being hijacked, but no, third time was the charm. Our driver stuck with us, and we with him. Whew! Welcome to Bombay.
Whirlwind seems an apt description of our 36 hours in India’s largest city and busiest port. We went ashore ourselves in late morning. In the terminal, we borrowed a phone to confirm arrangements for a private tour that evening, before venturing out to explore on our own and getting involved in a game of musical taxis.
Initially, the streets seemed eerily quiet this Sunday, almost no traffic, or pedestrians, but after a few blocks activity increased. By the time we were deposited at the gates to the museum, buses and taxis jammed the street and throngs of multi-generational families queued-up for tickets. The museum, formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, is now officially the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahallaya. We call it the Prince of Wales Museum. It’s an architecturally striking building in the Indo-Islamic style with landscaped grounds, and a soaring central hall crowned by a dome. Collections of religious art from different eras and places occupy several galleries. Most of one floor is dedicated to collections, including European painting and arms and armor, donated by the Tata family.
Our driver also took us for a look at the Gateway of India, a huge, harbor-side stone arch commemorating the 1911visit by King George V. Completed in 1924, it welcomed ship-borne visitors to Bombay, and a mere 24 years later witnessed the departure of the last British regiment from the subcontinent upon independence. Across the street, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, built in 1903 by J.N. Tata, a successful industrialist, may be an equally iconic image. We later learned that Mr. Tata built the hotel after he had been denied admission to the nearby Watson Hotel, because he was a “native.” Fittingly, perhaps, the Watson is a tumble-down building today, while the Taj is the place to stay in Bombay.
We had arranged our evening tour ahead of time through Ceylon Express International. Aakanksha, our guide, met us in the dockside terminal, along with our driver. We had photo stops at colonial buildings including: the High Court; the Bombay University Library, designed by the architect that designed London’s St. Pancras Station and bearing some resemblance thereto; and, the Victoria Terminus. The latter is a stunning concoction of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. It continues to serve a substantial portion of Bombay’s seven million train travelers on frequent and packed commuter trains each workday.
A tour of Malabar Hill, upscale residential neighborhood with apartments fetching up to $2500 U.S. per square foot, featured the beautiful and popular Hanging Gardens public park. We drove down Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s necklace. It runs along the curving bay-front offering a cooling breeze and lovely views. We concluded our evening with dinner at the Khyber Restaurant, whose north Indian cuisine we found delicious, amid charming décor and gracious service.
Our first day in Bombay provided a glimpse of some of the fabled city’s highlights on a comparatively quiet non-work day with families out enjoying their city. Our second day would add more strands to an intricate tapestry.
We joined an all-day excursion on day two in Bombay and gained a new perspective on the city even with some overlap of sights. First, it was a work day and what seemed like a busy but manageable city on Sunday, was monumentally congested with people and vehicles on Monday. Second, our guide, Silpa, a wise and well-traveled woman, offered some additional insight. She started off by saying that even though the city’s name was officially changed in 1995, she still called her home Bombay and so did most locals. She said the change was just a case of politicians who seemed to have nothing better to do.
She gave us a thumbnail history of this city of 20+ million people, including its Portuguese and British heritage; explained how seven islands eventually became one peninsula; and observed that India’s wealthiest city pays 34% of the country’s income tax (with less than 2% of the country’s population). She pointed out the headquarters of the Maharashtra State Police indicating its proximity to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other targets of a deadly 2008 terrorist attack, and proclaimed, “That says much about our police, they must have been asleep that night.”
During a visit to Babulnath, a Hindu Temple dedicated to the god Shiva, we witnessed throngs of worshipers ring a bell announcing their presence, then jostle for the chance to pour yogurt and water on the lingam in the inner sanctum. As we left we stopped to see a bearded holy man who blessed several in our party. From our bus window we glimpsed Dhobi Ghat, Bombay’s renowned outdoor laundry, where dhobis wash much of Bombay’s clothing and linens, and of shanty-towns built on sidewalks and vacant land. We shopped on Colaba Causeway, a popular retail street, and at Crawford Market, a wholesale and retail fruit and vegetable market supplying much of the city.
Silpa pointed out a couple of Parsi Fire Temples as we drove past and relayed the story of the Parsi community who, she said, totaled about 60,000 people in Bombay, roughly half of the world-wide community. Migrating from Persia to escape forced conversion to Islam, these people practice the ancient Zoroastrian religion of that country. Silpa said they have been very successful in India—Bombay’s first mayor was a Parsi, the Tata family, who own one of India’s largest industrial companies, are Parsi, as is renowned maestro Zhubin Mehta.
We enjoyed our visit to the Albert Museum (also called Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum), as much for the building’s Renaissance revival architecture and its exquisite, UNESCO award-winning renovation completed in 2007, as for its collections. But our favorite part of the excursion was Khotachiwadi. It’s a fascinating enclave of two-story, 19th century bungalows lining narrow alleys. Here we met James Ferreira, a fashion designer who lives in his 150-year-old home and invited our group in for tea. Sometimes referred to as Old Portuguese Bungalows, the houses were built by East Indian migrants whose ancestors were baptized Christian by Portuguese priests and took Portuguese names.
We learned that only 27 of these houses remain (down from 65) and that development and high real estate prices threaten even those. Perhaps 50 yards from Mr. Ferreira’s house, the city has approved construction of a 22-story building on a 25-foot wide lot fronting a 10-foot wide street without vehicular access (except motor bikes). Mr. Ferreira has established the non-profit Khotachiwadi Trust to try and preserve what remains of this unique community. The trust benefited from our visit.
We sailed that evening, but Bombay has left a vivid and indelible impression—a striving, yet traditional and incredibly diverse place.