hanging out with the locals, heavy traffic jam, delicious food at the sidewalk and colorful wedding attire
This trip is slightly different from any other that we have been to. We are going to India for the event of the year – the wedding of Rhea and Karan, two friends who decided to get hitched and invited us to attend. But before we go to the wedding, we have couple of extra days in Mumbai. Here is what happened:
From Berlin to Mumbai we have one connecting flight and we sleep through most of it. During the long flight from Munich to Mumbai, we gain our first impression of India and the organized chaos that is everywhere. We are less than ten non-Indians on the flight. Most of the people are travelling with sandals or barefoot, covered with mile long scarves and sheets and their hair is braided and decorated with thousands shiny hairpins. And all of them carry hundreds of bags: plastic bags, shopping bags, small bags, backpacks and duffle bags.
Everyone is so loud and disoriented, that the boarding takes forever. Noise comes from everywhere – especially from the older ladies trying to have a simultaneous conversation with all their cousins, brothers and sisters, of course, while leaning against our seats. Apparently personal space is not really a thing. Luckily the headphones help all of this to be ignored, and both of us fall asleep in a long, deep sleep.
Mumbai Airport, India
An eternity later we are descending towards Mumbai – the monster city which, I am certain, you can spot from the moon. The Mumbai airport is gigantic, just like the city itself, and chaotic, same as its inhabitants. There is new and old terminal. The new one is the most impressive airport building that I have ever seen, inside and out!
But we land on the old one and you can tell by everything around us. Signs are nowhere to be seen. We just walk like a herd of sheep after the other passengers with hope that we are going in the right direction. It takes us quite long to get to the first security check.
Lufthansa didn’t give us a customs declaration on board, so we get ours on the way to the customs check. We fill them in and continue forward. Still no signs. People working at the airport give us directions gesturing. Suddenly we are in a huge hall with around 60 customs desks. Surprise! There are finally signs, showing all type of passports and visas. Of course, except ours – an e-visa.
E-Visa for India
Important! Its recommended to apply for an e-visa around a month before the trip. The fee depends on your country of origin and most people pay around 75 USD. The procedure of applying is easy but it takes some time, because you need to fill in a lot of information. The confirmation comes around a day after you submit your documents. It’s important to print it out, because often they want to see it at the airport of origin (a friend didn’t have it printed and they didn’t let her board the plane before she showed the printed confirmation).
We look around the customs area and head towards a desk with other foreigners waiting. Almost instantly a uniformed customs agent comes and sends us to desk 55. Off we go.
Luckily, we arrive first at the counter, but it takes forever to check our documents, answer their questions, take our fingerprints and head shots. I have never seen more unkind, apathetic and phlegmatic customs officers in my life! Nearly half an hour later, with brand new stamps in our passports we can continue to the exit.
The duty-free shop at Mumbai airport
On the way there we stop by to buy gin – as requested.
Important! At the Mumbai duty-free shop you can buy two bottles of alcohol per person, which means 4 in total between the two of us. They bag them in tick reusable bags – 2 bottles per bag only. You also need to pay for them separately – 2 by 2. Unfortunately, the gin we want to buy is sold out, but it turns out that you can call upfront and order whatever you want. This way you can be sure you’ll have it when you arrive at the Mumbai airport.
Ok, now we have stamps, we have gin, so we just need to pick up our backpacks and we are ready to leave this labyrinth called airport and finally have a cigarette.
But there is a small war around the luggage belts! Do you remember all those hundreds of people with their plastic bags, shopping bags, small bags, backpacks and duffle bags?? Now they are thousands and on top of their numerous plastic bags, shopping bags, small bags, backpacks and duffle bags, they are pushing carts with 2-3 small suitcases and 3-4 big ones! If the expression “the great migration of the nations” had a shape, it would be a photo of the Mumbai airport!
Somehow, we finally manage to pick up the luggage and head out.
Welcome to Mumbai
The Indians are extremely hospitable people. The clock shows way past midnight, but Rhea and Karan are here to welcome us. It turns out that they are literally waiting for us outside. The arrival waiting area is outside of the main building. I have never seen a bigger group of people waiting. There were probably around 200-300 people, but Rhea and Karan are in front of everyone and they spot us immediately.
Suffocation, heat and this particular sticky feeling you feel on your skin when you arrive in a warm country. Our hosts are dressed properly for the heat – flip-flops, tank tops and shorts. We, on the other hand, look like, well, confused tourists – jeans, shoes, hoodies, undershirts and thermal base layers, with jackets hanging on our backpacks. We must fix this nonsense immediately! We put on our sandals and instantly notice the difference.
We get into the car and off we go to our hotel in the fancier neighborhood – Powai. When you check the map, it looks quite close to the airport. It’s actually close but we’ll realize this couple of days later. After the long flight the last thing we want is to spend 40-50 minutes in a car. But that’s how things are here. Wherever you want to go, you need to spend couple of hours in a car.
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We check into the 4-star Rodas hotel that Rhea and Karan have booked for us. We are first from around 15 international guests arriving for the wedding and this gives us a huge advantage. We’ll spend some time with the couple before the madness starts.
It’s almost 3am and we are starving. It turns out that not many places are open at this time of the day. They decide to take us to the 5-star Marriott hotel. 40 more minutes in the car!
Is Mumbai safe
The security checks at the hotel are heavier than at the airport. After they open the gates for us the car is checked for explosives with a dog and before we go in the hotel, we are checked with metal detector doors.
Everything looks quite absurd and I ask why. The explanation is more than horrific. Two days ago, marks the anniversary of the terrorist attack made by Pakistani terror group which executed 12 coordinated bomb attacks in Mumbai that lasted for 3 days and killed more than 180 people.
Since then all public buildings have high security measures and the memory of 26/11 lives every time you go to a bar, the mall or a museum.
Where to find late night food in Mumbai
After the short history lesson, off we go to the empty restaurant of JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu. The menus are there but Rhea has questions. She starts asking the waiter in English how they make different dishes . He replies in a language that I can’t understand a word of. They exchange couple of sentences in which Rhea talks in English and the waiter in something that I suspect is Hindi.
I ask her why she keeps speaking to him in English when it’s obvious he doesn’t feel comfortable speaking it. A second after, the hall is filled with the typical for Rhea loud lough: “He is replying in English, sweaty!!!” Huston, we have a problem. I do speak English but I have a huge problem understanding different accents. Well, it seems like Tsveti will be the translator during this trip.
Indian dining etiquette
In the end they order Indian food and me and Tsveti – European. Karan’s food comes in typical, Indian copper bowls. Everything so far looks normal.
But for some reason they are not eating. They are waiting with hands in their laps for all small extra dishes to arrive, without even reaching to serve themselves. In the next moment, the waiter takes a spoon and puts some chicken masala and rice in both of their plates.
This procedure repeats every time their food gets less – the waiter comes and serves the food. Tsveti and me are a bit in shock. It turns out that this is the Indian dining etiquette. Or the etiquette according to the richer Indians.
Couple of days later Tsveti was in the same situation and she tried to put more food in her plate. Big mistake! The second the waiter saw whats happening, he panicked and rushed towards our table with horror in his eyes insisting to serve her. After, we shared this story with our hosts and they told us that he could be fired if the manager sees. Needles to say, she never tried it again even that it felt awkward every time.
Most of the times Rhea and Karan use fork and knife but when eating in India it is quite common to use your right hand. The left one is considered dirty because people normally clean themselves with it after visiting the restroom, so they even do not pass things with it.
After this very late dinner, it’s time to go back to the car and head to our hotel. During the night Mumbai leaves you with the illusive impression that it is a completely calm place. The heavy traffic that we have heard of is not there and Karan drives through red lights calmly – apparently, its normal during the night.
The only people you can see on the street at this hour are the ones, dressed in rags, sleeping on the sidewalks and at the same time young guys selling cigarettes in the middle of the road.
Bit before sunrise we are back to the hotel and we’ll finally get some sleep because we have a long day tomorrow.
The traffic jam in Mumbai
The brutal reality hits us the next morning while having coffee and cigarettes in front of the hotel. There is no oxygen and the sky is covered in grey smog. It’s difficult to breath and the feeling of suffocation is constant. Besides, Mumbai is extremely loud. It’s so loud that you literally can’t hear your thoughts. The traffic jam in Mumbai is never ending, one after another cars, motorbikes, buses, trucks and tuk-tuks.
The tuk-tuks are something like covered scooters on three wheels. Except the driver, you can have two more passengers (unless they are locals, in which case you can squeeze in at least four-five people with couple of kids on their laps).
They call them auto rickshaws or auto, for shorter, but I prefer to call them tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuks and the scooters are the most dangerous vehicles in the traffic jam in Mumbai because they can squeeze in everywhere and in the same time they are not really secure because they are made of couple sheets of metal.
All vehicles are honking. ALL THE TIME! They honk when they want to stop! They honk when they want to turn! They honk when they want to give you way! They honk every time when they are overtaking a car. Every single car! And, as you can imagine, there is always someone who wants to stop, turn, give way (not always) or overtake other cars (which is a national sport, by the way).
My head starts spinning in less than five minutes and it becomes clear I won’t survive this constant noise easily. I decide to ignore it as much as possible, because otherwise I’ll go crazy.
The best cab service in Mumbai
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Shopping for an Indian wedding dresses for guests in Mumbai
After breakfast we are greeted by Rhea and Jashank, or for short Jash. Rhea introduces him as her brother. Sometime later, we will realize that in India all similar age relatives, same with close friends, are introduced as brother and sisters. The truth is that Jash and Rhea are cousins. Jash has just arrived from Canada where he lives since many years which is quite clear from his Canadian accent.
Less than an hour after his arrival, he is given a difficult task. He needs to help taking care of all foreign guests. It sounds like interesting and dynamic job, but you need to be quite patient, polite and involved. Also, you need to be a born organizational talent in order to take care of a group of 15 people, in which everyone has his own pace and wishes.
We are his first objective and soon we should go together and buy clothes because we have no idea how to dress for Indian wedding. Jash and Rhea bring us to one of stores of the chain FBB which looks like a colorful market. Traditional clothes are hanging everywhere, embroidered with sparkly sequins, gold and silver lace, with sewed veils and ethereal shawls. I immediately choose something relatively clean and elegant. “You can’t!”, says Jash with a smile, “It’s not colorful enough.”
Oh! If you say so, no problem. 30 minutes later we go out with bags full of Indian wedding guest dresses – two different “costumes” for each of us. We need to have five in total for the wedding. We need an official western dress, something white for the pool party and three traditional Indian attires. The third one will be a gift from Rhea which means that we are done shopping!
Well, we are almost ready with the shopping. These Indian robes are missing matching shoes. But the shopping is so draining that we decide to rest for couple of hours and go for cheap Indian shoes for the wedding later. When Rhea and Jash come back, they tell us that we’ll get a taxi to go to a bar and on the way, we’ll buy shoes.
We order a car and off we go. The traffic in Mumbai is one never ending game of nerves. We drive, stop, move from the first lane to the fifth, after we suddenly stop and wait. In the meantime hundreds other vehicles around us are… doing what, you think? Honking, of course! The distance to the bar is not more than 10 km but it takes us around an hour to get there. I definitely need a drink after this journey!
How to bargain in India like a pro
For our surprise next to the bar are situated countless stands for shoes, which are perfect for wedding shoes for guests. All right, let’s shop! And of course, Jash and Rhea will take care of the talking because they know best how to bargain in India. We decide that we’ll buy one pair cheap Indian shoes for all three Indian dresses we have.
There are countless hooks with slipper, sandals and ballerinas hanging, and there is almost not a single pair. Jash asks me which one I like. “None”, I say to myself. But these are the typical shoes for our dresses so I have to choose something. I point at one but it turns out again that they are not colorful enough. All right, I know this game already. I point at a second one. Approved! Because of my big feet, I highly doubt they might have my size. Jash smiles, “They’ll make them fit you.”
And it starts – pulling, stretching, banging them on the ground. The shoes seem a bit bigger, so I try them, but they don’t fit. One more time – pulling, stretching, banging. I try them again – they are wide enough but at least two – tree sizes smaller. The vendor shrugs his shoulders and says that’s the best he can do, and he can’t stretch them more.
In the meantime Tsveti is handed the most colorful Indian shoes with sparkly stones on them from the whole stand. Jash gives her one. From the look on her face, you can tell she is confused. Jash starts laughing and instantly realizes what is the problem, “There is no left and right shoe – they are the same.” After some pulling and stretching Tsveti has brand new Indian wedding ballerinas.
We move to the opposite stall to check if they’ll have something for me. We decide to ask from which models they have the biggest size. The guy gives us a pair, and luckily they are granted Rhea’s and Jashes approval. The familiar stretching and pulling starts all over again but it turns out that here they have a stretching device. It looks like a wooden shoe mold. You put the shoe on it and you start banging it with force on the ground. After some banging and pulling the shoes finally kind of fit me (my heel sticks out a little bit but it’s OK).
The vendor wraps them in newspaper and reaches to give them to me, Jash immediately hisses to me, “Don’t touch them.” The vendor tries to push them in Jashes hands but he doesn’t move. It’s time to witness the real craft of bargain in India.
Couple of minutes later Jash hands him 500 rupee ( ~ 6 euro) and the vendor gives him the shoes packed in newspaper.
After the bargain, our friends tell us that the initial price was 2500 rupees (~ 30 euro). Jash told him that he is crazy and he wants so much money just because we’re foreigners. The seller agreed and told him that if we were alone, he would have wanted at least twice the price!
Where to find non-stop happy hours bar in Mumbai
It’s time for a drink. But here the bars also have strange character. They take us to one of the many The Bar Stock exchange bars. We go through the mandatory bag check and we end up on a rooftop with nice lights and green terrace.
We immediately notice the many waiters around. The workforce is so cheap that all establishments rely on quantity and employ unnecessary amount of staff. It is important to say that unlike Eastern Europe, in India, the service is at a very high level – the fight for customers is so big that every whim that a client has, is approached with a smile and executed in the shortest term, regardless of how difficult or absurd might be.
The interesting thing in this bar is that the price of the drinks varies according to how often someone orders the specific drink. The more people drink a particular brand of whiskey, the higher the price goes, and vice versa – the fewer people ordering, the cheaper. Basically, it is chain of non-stop happy hours bars in Mumbai. I love it!
There are TV screens all over the place, just like in the New York Stock exchange. But here the never-ending lists are of the drinks and their always changing prices. For the customer’s convenience, they also have an app that you can easily download and keep track of the prices on your phone.
We decide that we’ll have gin tonic and Jash tells us that it’s better to order more drinks at once because if we order just one the price will go higher for the second round. Quite smart, I agree! We bravely order eight gins as a starter and we dip in pleasant conversations.
Before we leave, I have the misfortune to ask if we can pay the bill separately. By credit card! Few minutes later I already question my decision! Four or five people are trying to calculate who owns what and fight with the credit card machine.
It turns out that it’s a very difficult task. But somehow this army of waiters and managers manage to complete it, not because of anything else but because here the customer is king. If we want, we can pay each gin separately and no one will tell us anything. The whole ordeal takes so much time that we all decide – this is the last time we’ll pay separately!
After the whole experience and some more gin the hunger prevails and, Jash and Rhea decide that they want to eat. Since his arrival Jash is constantly saying he wants to eat pav bhaji… and so that’s why we head to Amar Juice Center – where they serve one of the best pav bhaji in Mumbai.
The place is close by so it’s better to get an auto rickshaw. Thats ok, the only problem is that in this constant traffic I don’t want to be in anything moving, let alone a rickshaw.
On top of this the cars drive on the left side, it’s not easy to get used to but the locals reassure me – it will be ok. To be honest, I confess I didn’t go in voluntarily, but ultimately those people have driven in this chaos all their life, so the chance of something happening exactly today with me is quite slim.
Where to eat authentic Indian fast food & where to find one of the best pav bhaji in Mumbai
This is the first time since we are in Mumbai that we go to authentic restaurant and the place looks like its taken out from a fairy tale and we are amazed. Amar juice center is one of those places that you’ll visit only if someone local takes you.
It doesn’t have chairs. Lots of people are sitting on carpets parallel to the street. We look around but there is no free place for us.
I think that Jash and Rhea will decide against staying. In this moment one of the waiters notices us and out of nowhere he takes out a carpet and throws it on the ground. Voilà – we have a “table”!
We take off our shoes and we sit cross-legged (we call it Turkish style, but here they call it Indian style). Rhea and Jash already know what they want even without looking at the menu. We are here especially for pav bhaji (soft, sweet, butter bread with vegetable curry) and idli sambar (savoury rice cake with red lentils stew).
Unfortunately, we are not allowed to eat. Since we arrived in India couple of days ago, our stomachs are still quite gentle. Rhea wants to be sure that we won’t spend the wedding on a toilet or in а hospital. We manage do persuade them at least to try a bit from each dish, but we are absolutely forbidden to try the homemade juice that the place is famous for.
We expect that our first time trying authentic Indian fast food will be impossibly spicy, but it is quite tolerable and simply divine. (for the record – I am not a huge fan of Indian food but this pav bhaji is so damn tasty!) As for the spiciness, it seems that we leveled up our spicy food tolerance in our last Lazy Road Trip in Central America and we are not so easily scared anymore.
Me and Tsveti are the only foreigners and being here is quite interesting for the people working around. Couple of waiters come closer to our carpet and start asking Jash and Rhea about us. Who we are, where we come from, what are we doing in Mumbai? I don’t know what they were saying but they laughed a lot (I guess, on our account) but we are not angry at all because everyone is super nice to us.
On our way out, my curiosity prevails, and I decide to see what’s happening behind the scenes in the kitchen. Jash comes with me and we stand in front the high counter. From there you can see how the cooks are preparing the food and what’s behind the secret of the unique taste.
What I manage to see is a huge piece of butter simmering in a big wok pan, next to it – soft bread, covered in… more butter, of course . Jash tells me that the whole piece of butter is going to be used for preparing the next butter chicken!
So, if you are looking for an excuse to stop dieting and you really want to taste one of the of the best pav bhaji in Mumbai and to dive into a different environment, Amar juice center is the place!
How to read the body language in India
It’s quite interesting to observe the conversation Jash and Rhea are having with the people from the restaurant. You have probably noticed that the body language in India is very particular, specifically how the Indian people are shaking their heads while speaking. However, you probably do not know that the Indian head shaking can mean different things and come and go depending on the language the person uses.
If they smile while they shake their heads, it means that they agree. If they do it fast and smiling, it means that they absolutely agree and are quite excited of what you are saying. Therefor, if their eyes are disapproving, the gesture means that they absolutely don’t agree with you. If the head shaking is super slow with a disapproving look – you better run!
The phenomenon for me are our friends. When they speak Hindi, they always shake their heads, and when they speak English they stop! They don’t even realize it – it just happens – it comes very natural. Honestly, for two weeks here I managed to acquire this gesture and I didn’t stop shaking my head in every language I was talking in. Yep, I’m that weird!
Next time we will share with you how we spent few more days in Mumbai and will tell you about hundreds of people washing clothes outside, the crazy train stations and head spinning markets full of people.