Upon setting foot in India, you’re hit with sensory overload — the heat, the smells, the sounds. Your loose clothes cling to your body, you can’t tell the difference between spices and sweat, and a symphony of honks and hollers engulfs you. Not only do you feel like you’re in a new world, but you look like you’re not of this world — the Indian world, that is. Unable to blend into the scenery, you’re bombarded with summoning waves, offers for the best and cheapest everything (rides, cash exchanges, hotels), and questions about where you’re from and if it’s your first time in India. “Welcome to Bombay!” Though a bit disorienting and overwhelming, you quickly learn that it’s all part of the India experience, and that it’s best to embrace it.
As we pulled away from the airport, we were thrust onto a busy highway. There were no distinct lanes, there didn’t appear to be a speed limit, in fact, it seemed there were no rules at all. Drivers communicated by honking in what sounded like Indian morse code. One short honk politely indicating that you’re getting too close, two to say “speed up or move over”, and one loud and enduring toot for a solid “up yours”. We bounced from one side of the highway to the other, passing scooters loaded up with entire families and women doing their makeup while flying down the road at twice the speed of ours. While tempting to fix your gaze ahead, envisioning one fatal accident after another, it’s easier to turn your head to the side, trust that all will be well, and lose yourself in the city that flanks you.
Mumbai was covered in thick layer fog that was so bright it was practically blinding. But even in the haze, we could see the abandoned, not even halfway complete, high rises that appeared to be the homes of many, the only proof being bright saris and garments flapping in vacant window slots. It wasn’t what I expected, but at the same time, I hadn’t known what to expect.
As we approached Colaba, the heart of Mumbai, landmarks came into sight: V.T. Terminal (the infamous train station), Rajabai Clock Tower, and the Prince of Wales Museum (or so it used to be called). The architecture was distinctly different from the rest of the city, a not-so subtle reminder of when the British ruled and provided the riches to build such lavish, extraordinary buildings. One rowdy roundabout later, a final nervous exhale, and we screeched to a halt.
In the midst of chaos, Abode Bombay was exactly what we were craving: a quiet oasis. I didn’t know what people meant when they cautioned us that India is hard work, but I quickly learned. Abode was the antidote to the high speed chase that was a single day in the city.
Of the many ways Abode went above and beyond, their tour of the morning markets is what stuck with us the most. We began our day at 5 a.m., making our way from a newspaper market (where the daily papers are assembled and sold) to a flower market that jolted us awake despite our jet lag and early start. Entering the market was hallucinogenic, almost, with bright colors popping up in every direction, the shades so vibrant they began to blend into one another. The hundreds of people were moving so quickly it made me dizzy, and at the same time I was getting hit with so many smells and textures that I momentarily forgot how to put one foot in front of the other. Our guide, Vijay, led us through the technicolored madness, shaking hands with every other vendor and proudly announcing that his guests were from England and America. “Where in America? Texas?” I’d laugh and shake their hands.
After departing the flower market, we moved onto a labyrinth of produce. Men meticulously sorted through limes, placing them in three different baskets according to a mere sniff. “That is the expensive pile,” he said, pointing to a pile of limes that looked no different from the others. As we passed the hundreds, possibly thousands, of bundles and piles of produce, Vijay told us that many of the people began their work at midnight, several traveling for hours by train before arriving. Every time I felt a yawn coming on, I remembered his words.
After watching a woman saw a tail off of a small shark — among other equally as interesting and partially alarming things that occured at the fish market — we called it a morning. But before our goodbyes, we went in search of some tea. It was the best chai I’d ever had, and it was made on a street corner. Just the right amount of sweet, perfectly hot, and lightly spiced with the likes of lemongrass, it was the perfect close to our first Mumbai experience.
The next two days were filled with masalas, dals, biryanis, tourist classics, and unexpected twists — which are to be expected in India. One afternoon, we were told not to go outside due to a violent protest. That same evening, we ventured to a restaurant called Khyber and were seated as far from fellow diners as humanly possible — we were basically sitting in a cave. Though slightly offended, we were still served the best paneer we’ll likely ever have. (And to be fair, we were underdressed.) I also developed an odd bond with a stray dog I called Chunk, who was our hotel “security guard” — as in, he liked cooling off on the shaded stairs below the doorway.
We spent an afternoon in the Prince of Wales Museum (a highlight), exploring Kala Ghoda, the indie art district, and meandering in search of Mumbai’s best cup of coffee at Kala Ghoda Café (it was pretty tasty). We also took the hour-long ferry to Elephanta Island, an experience that many say is overrated, but I found quite breathtaking. The ancient caves reminded me of an Indiana Jones film, and as I walked by the various structures, I got lost in visions of otherworldly adventure. And naturally, we indulged in a ridiculously expensive gin and tonic at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, lunch at the infamous Leopold Cafe, and beers at Cafe Mondegar. If you haven’t read "Shantaram", do, because it beautifully captures the energy of these places, and Mumbai in general.
Then came the overnight train.
We arrived an hour early, per TripAdvisor’s instructions, and per my punctuality-induced anxiety. As we passed through security, both machines beeped incessantly, but the security guards didn’t seem bothered. Then we noticed our train wasn’t on the board and fears of endless delays began to crush my spirit. We needlessly paced, excessively sweat, and finally made our way to track 18, where our train would arrive right on time. An Indian couple stood next to us, no doubt sensing our panic when the train doors didn’t open. The man poked his head inside, and waved at his wife, and then at us. “Come in,” he said. In those two words, we knew he’d taken us under his wing.
We ended up sharing bunks and spent the wee hours of the morning talking about travel, the diamond market, and arranged marriage. They were on their way to Goa for a 40th birthday party, the invitation, which he proudly showed us, said, “Let’s Misbehave.” After 10 years of living in Hong Kong, they were back living in Mumbai, and eager for a beach weekend. “You will love Goa,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Amazing parties.” We made our beds, and with a fan viciously blowing air into our faces, we all dozed off.
Being with locals, the initial fear about what foods to eat (and which to avoid) and navigating the busting country was stripped away. They treated us to masala chai tea and fried potato sandwiches that were brought onto the train at one of the first stops. “It’s fine to eat,” he said. “I promise.” Though my worry-wart antennas went up before each sip and bite, he was right. Everything was delicious, and I didn’t get sick. I was sad to say goodbye when we reached our stop at Thivim, but knew they were the first of many to teach us something new and dare us to be bolder.