Our first impression was certainly of the First World. Mumbai Airport is huge, modern and efficient, and it was easy enough to navigate out to the sea of waiting taxis. We read the guidebooks, and we were not going to over pay for our ride. We paid the equivalent of $12 for the 90-minute journey to our hotel. We were directed to a little blue junk box on wheels, which was probably the driver's home as well. To our horror, our two large Samsonites were strapped to the roof with an old bit of rope. Our driver smiled widely and said "safe - safe!" We decided we would only tip him if our bags were still there when we reached the hotel. They made it.
There are no lanes, often no sidewalks and these streets are heaving 24/7. The blasting and bleeping of horns is never ending. It's always hot. The crush of humanity is constant. Street people are everywhere, tucked into every crevice of concrete. The middle classes hurry to their next appointment, stepping over the most wretched among them. They pay no attention to each other. There are thousands and thousands of little stalls selling trinkets, match boxes, cheap clothing, sugar cane water - anything to eek out a living in this great monster of a city. Mangled dogs lay in the gutters. Chattering house crows are pecking away at the debris. During our long, exhausting walks through Mumbai, we never saw a supermarket. But there was a Rolls Royce dealership.
We stayed at the magnificent and fabled Taj Mahal Palace (nothing to do with, or anywhere near the Taj Mahal temple in Agra). The hotel is the finest in India. It opened in 1903 and was, and is, the pinnacle of Indian luxury and hospitality. The hotel was viciously attacked in 2008 by Pakistani jihadists. 167 people were gunned down in cold blood at The Taj and other sites around the city. It was the worst terror attack in India's history. It took two years for the hotel to be refurbished and reopened. Security is now, understandably, very tight.
Once through security, the heavy brass doors whooshed us from one world to another. Inside it is peaceful and elegant, and the air smells of jasmine. Every employee is decked out in fine livery, smiling warmly and bowing with their hands pressed together. There are mountains of fresh flowers, polished marble and divine works of art. Soft Tantra music soothes the soul. The motto of The Taj: "The Guest is God".
As the sun was setting, we noticed a crowd forming outside the hotel around the iconic arch called The Gateway of India. Thousands of people - entire families with grandparents and children in tow dressed up in their best clothes lined up across from the hotel, just to peer up into the windows. They took selfies with the great edifice behind them. They smiled softly, reverently at this national treasure. The gathering takes place every evening as Indians from every caste come here to be close to greatness. Perhaps their only chance in life to gaze upon the gates of heaven.
It truly felt like a privilege to stay at The Taj with its arches and onion domes, ceiling fans and high-backed rattan chairs. Dotting waiters in white gloves drifting between pink and cream parasols. The 200,000-gallon swimming pool is ten feet deep and a perfect 82 degrees. Around the pool are dozens of red sun loungers and tropical plants heavy with colorful flowers. The guests are sipping cold Kingfisher beers and chilled white wine. A few blue-blooded kids are splashing about in the shallow end. A giant net covers the entire pool area to keep out the ever-circling birds. As I lounged around feeling like a god, one of those cheeky house crows crapped on me. It's good luck, right?
The Taj Mahal Palace is not the real India, so we went out every day on foot to take in all its fetid glory. We walked to the gigantic Gothic railway station that sees 3 million people pass through its gates every single day. Like many places in India the name of the train station has been changed from the original Anglo name to a local Indian name. Formerly called the easy-to-pronounce Victoria Terminus, the grand station is now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This extravaganza of domes, spires and arches was built in 1888, and has been featured in many films including Slum Dog Millionaire.
Just down the road is the famous Crawford Market, now called (I kid you not) Mahatma Jyotiba Jyotirao Phule Market. The sprawling building was the first in India to have electricity. 3,000 tons of produce pass through here every day. Mountains of spices, bushels of mangoes and huge green papayas are displayed next to dozens of cages of colorful birds. There are live chickens as well as carcasses strung up everywhere. There is blood. Lots of blood and flies and stench. I shuddered as a walked past a big plastic bucket of goats eyes.
A little boy pulled at my shirt and asked if I was German. He had a crude tapestry that he wanted me to buy. I didn't want it, but I gave him a dollar for his efforts. His smile was worth it. I always went out with a pocket full of US $1 bills.
Once out of the produce market we faced down a myriad of crappy little stalls selling everything under the sun. The moment we stopped to look at what was on offer, the hawkers would circle the prey. I probably would have bought some of the tat, but the Indian sales process is uncomfortable to say the least. I wished I could simply browse without being jumped on. It never happened. I bought nothing.
A more genteel destination was the fabulous Prince of Wales museum with three floors chock full of Indian gods, Tibetan sculpture and Himalayan paintings. Of course, it is now called Chhatra Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanggrhalaya. Try asking your taxi driver for that!
We spent our days fighting the heat, the traffic and the noise, but every evening we were wrapped up in the silky serenity of The Taj Mahal Palace. Our experience embodies this city. Total contradictions and extremes - phenomenal wealth and heart wrenching poverty. This is The City of Gold. And no matter what else you say about Mumbai; it is a city of chance. Where dreams and nightmares are waiting around every corner.