I have just spent my first night in Mumbai. This is my fourth time visiting ‘the motherland’ but I think arriving in India is always a bit of a shock.
My flight landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule at just after 11pm but any advantage dissipated when I saw the queues after the luggage collection belts. Every piece of luggage had to go through a scanner and flights from London and Dubai had also just landed.
Cue well-dressed London types obviously there for work muttering and stomping plus mustachioed Indians returning from stints in Dubai standing way too close together whilst lugging huge well-labelled bundles wrapped in plastic sacking and metres of rope.
You’ve got to love an Indian process. Indians certainly do.
I told my prepaided taxi man that I was going to the Salvation Army guesthouse in Colaba and typically he said he didn’t know it. Even when I said the road name, there was a distinct lack of comprehension. So off we set for Colaba and I hoped for the best.
The thing I will remember about the journey were the hundreds and hundreds of people I saw sleeping on the streets – at the side of the three-lane motorway, on traffic islands, on pavements and shop fronts. They were even asleep outside entrances to mammoth glass and steel office buildings. Call centres?
There were entwined couples snoozing, groups of ten or 20 people lined up along pavements, and children huddled against their parents. Some slept on newspaper, others on cardboard or matting and some had pillows of clothes.
It was the sheer number of people on the streets that overwhelmed me. I remember seeing people sleeping on a grass verge when my Dad and I were getting an early morning train to Shimla a few years ago but it didn’t compare to this.
My taxi was typically honking his horn every five seconds and lorries were steaming along but they all looked dead to the world. Their clothes were dirty and very shabby and they needed a good meal.
I directed my taxi driver to the guesthouse (slightly ironic) and he dropped me off by big wooden doors. I knocked and a grumpy Indian bloke opened the doors: “We are full.” I explained that I’d emailed and reserved a room and I showed him an email on my iPad.
Turns out there were no double rooms left so he gave me the key for a family room and went back to bed: “You change room tomorrow morning.”
The place was like a nineteenth century asylum. It was 1am by this point and my footsteps echoed up the stone steps. The ceilings were high and the paint was peeling off the walls.
I found the door to my room – tall double doors sealed with an ancient padlock. I turned the key, slid the bolt and the doors creaked open. I had to get my torch out as I was scared to go into the dark abyss.
I was greeted by five metal rusty bed frames, peeling paint, crumbling plaster, old mattresses, a sofa that you’d only see as fly-tipping at home, and biro scrawled over the walls. The bathroom light didn’t work which was probably a blessing as wires stuck out of the stained yellow walls. It was a hovel. A pile of crumpled sheets sat on a mattress. I had no idea if they were clean or dirty. And they had burn holes in them.
I mean, I’d read online that it was hard to find budget accommodation in Mumbai but I was paying £12 for this privilege. Let me put that into perspective – the plush dorm at The Sanctuary on Koh Phang An cost half the price.
I started thinking about bed bugs and had the brainwave to put my yoga mat between the mattress and the sheet. Check-out was at 9am but I think Usain Bolt would have had trouble keeping up with me this morning.*
I found a place nearby and I now have views of the sea, the Gateway of India AND it’s cheaper than the madhouse.
I’m now sitting in an air-conditioned cafe earwigging young Indian women with pearl earrings having business meetings over coffee.
Welcome to India indeed.
* Had to Google who won the 100m at the Olympics. So out of the loop…