No more guided tours for now …
Well, that’s it. No more guided tours on this holiday. This morning we completed our last sightseeing tour with our latest guide, Uma. Before I begin with today, let me end with last night. I mentioned yesterday that I had more photographs of the hotel and that I would post them today. Below you will find a gallery from the hotel. It is actually quite difficult to take photos in the hotel for fear of invading someone’s privacy. They have welcomed many guests in the Taj Mahal Palace over the years ranging from royalty to actors, spacemen (Neil Armstrong stayed here) and more. The two things that the hotel prides itself in are service and privacy/discretion. When John Lennon stayed here with Yoko Ono before they were married(!) the hotel got mobbed by fans of the Beatles. The hotel managed to arrange that the couple were not disturbed at all, that all of their needs were met by them ordering via telephone and that even the room cleaners did not know it was them staying in the suite. By the time they left, after 5 days, nobody knew which rooms they had stayed in and, since they left via a back entrance to the hotel, nobody even knew they had left! This means that some dodgy Englishman wandering around taking photos willy nilly would not be welcomed by many guests.
We don’t know who is staying here at the moment (that would, after all, be indiscreet) but according to our butler there is always at least one famous name staying here at any one time. Apparently last week Hilary Clinton was staying here at the same time as Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – none of whom were scheduled to meet and so, they didn’t! Our butler said it was quite a challenge ensuring that security was maintained for all of them and that their paths never crossed but he had really enjoyed it. Hilary Clinton has subsequently moved on to Jodhpur where she slipped over in the bathroom and broke her arm – this information didn’t come from our butler, but from our guide this morning. Yesterday evening we took a tour of the hotel and learned some of its history which was quite interesting. The hotel was built by Jamsetji Tata, the founder of Tata Steel. We were told that he had four aims in life; to setup a successful iron and steel business, to establish a world class learning institution, to build a hydroelectric plant and to build a prestigious hotel. Apparently he actually only achieved the hotel in his lifetime but his successors followed his plans and vision to deliver the other three. We were told that he decided to build the Taj Mahal Palace where it is, and to make it the most prestigious hotel in India, simply because he had been refused entry to the Watson Hotel just around the corner because it was ‘white only’ and that he was Indian.
We have been told about Jamsetji Tata being refused entry to the Watson Hotel on the grounds of his colour by several people now, so I suspect it is true. Apparently, having been refused entry he said that he was going to build the ‘grandest hotel in all of India’ that he would ensure it benefitted from electricity (it became the first hotel in India to have electricity) and that it would be welcoming to all no matter of colour, creed, race or religion and that any profits made by the hotel would be donated to a charitable cause. Apparently, all profits made by the heritage wing – the original part of the hotel – are donated to funding a cancer research and treatment facility still today. Maybe President Trump, Teresa May and a few others could learn a thing or two from Mr Tata. Segregation doesn’t work, racism doesn’t benefit anyone and, in the end, those considered the lowest will win out! To quote our good friend Mahatma Gandhi, “Non-hatred is the greatest virtue, hatred is the greatest vice. Non-hatred springs from love, cowardice from hate. Non-hatred always suffers, hatred always inflicts suffering.” Not bad for the ‘Father of the Nation’ in 1942! Gandhi was known for his non-violence stance and even engaged with Tolstoy to spread this message. His attempt to engage with Hitler (a right wing fascist) failed … and look where that ended up!
Last night we took dinner at the barbecue by the pool in the hotel. Jolly fine it was too. Initially I thought that the prices were pretty high at around £30 for a main course, but I later revised this view. I enjoyed Tandoori Chicken (the first chicken I have had for some time in India as I have rather a liking for ‘mutton’ which, whilst described as lamb in English, is actually goat and, unlike lamb, delicious!) with Kachumba (Indian salad of onion, tomato, coriander, mint, chilli and cumin) which is my favourite Indian salad. Captain Clarke had belly of pork served with a salad and jacket potato. Both dishes were delicious, but what made them good value was that prior to serving the main course we were given snacks and then a starter of asparagus soup which was superb. Better still, dinner was served with a glass of wine included and the wine (Torres Esmeralda 2013) was jolly good indeed! Knowing the price of wine here, particularly imported wine, this made the meal excellent value for money!
So, to this morning. We were met in reception by our latest guide, Uma. Uma is a lady who has seen a lot of change in Mumbai. She told us that in the last 10 years the rate of development has been phenomenal and that, since Mumbai is an island (or actually seven connected islands) there is nowhere else to build so the buildings are being built ever higher on every occasion. She explained that, whilst Delhi is the political capital of India, Mumbai is the commercial capital of India. Being island and nothing being grown here, all food and produce must be brought in from outside making it the most expensive place in India to live. She explained that it is a manufacturing environment and whilst no component parts are made here, assembly is done here for many things including car manufacturing, IT, household products and many other things. Mumbai is also the centre of the Bolllywood film industry and, as a result, there are many very rich people living here as well as many poor. She said that the poor, who live in the slums, are absolutely essential to life here as they do all of the menial jobs that nobody else wants to do. As a result, people from the slums are given a rather perverse respect but that, in turn, the people really do enjoy living there. As slums are replaced by blocks of apartments, people feel cut off and secluded and so find new areas to develop slum villages.
Uma is very nice although she does rather operate in a ‘transmit’ mode rather than a ‘receive’. By way of example, we were supposed to visit the Gateway to India today but rather than ask if we would like to, she said “Oh, you don’t want to go there, it is too busy on a Saturday and anyway you can see it from your hotel bedroom.” She is right, of course, but she didn’t actually know that we had been there last night at that point! We did already have the history about how it was built to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. It is another example of Indo-Islamic architecture (we have seen many!) and, although the foundation stone was laid during the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, the structure was not actually completed until 1926. Perhaps the most poignant thing about it is that the very last troops to leave India following independence in 1948, the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, passed through it in a ceremonial departure on the 28th February 1948 ending British rule of India.
Our first port of call, therefore, was to the Dhobi Ghat – the largest open air laundry in Mumbai. It is truly enormous and most Indian people will send their clothes to this, or a similar smaller one, for laundering rather than do it themselves. A typical cost of having a pair of trousers and a shirt washed, starched, pressed and folded is around 20 rupees (around 22p). The cost of water and electricity to do this at home would be far greater, not even accounting for the time spent too. Laundry is picked up once a week, taken away for laundering and then returned the following week when the next batch is collected. The workers at the laundry all live there too and the cost of water and electricity is subsidised by the government. They pay around 500 rupees per month to live there and all of the income from laundry is kept by them. It was an amazing site. One particular ‘station’ had rows and rows of yellow shirts, then rows and rows of green shirts, then red and so on. It transpires that when shirts are manufactured they need to be washed and ironed before being put in bags to be sold – all the newly manufactured shirts are sent here for washing and ironing and the workers then carefully fold them and put them in bags to be sold!
Our second port of call was a visit to the house where Mahatma Gandhi lived for 17 years. Actually, it turned out he didn’t live there for 17 years but that, whenever he visited Bombay as it as then, during a 17 year period, he stayed at his friend’s house which was where we visited. It was in fact, very interesting and it became clear during our relatively short visit there (we were given 20 minutes to be back at the entrance!) that Mahatma Gandhi was a bit of a Martyr for a number of causes. His first non-violent protest was in South Africa where he was practicing as a lawyer (he trained in London’s Inner Temple) and was asked to leave a train because he was of Indian descent. He didn’t like that and led a peaceful protest against it which he ultimately won. He led and won another protest against a ‘salt tax’ that was imposed by the British, arguing that the sea water that the salt came from was a natural Indian resource and why should the Indians have to pay tax to the British for using their own resource. He had a point! It was only later, when it became apparent that an end to British rule might be possible, that he led a number of campaigns to end British rule and then, when the British announced partition, tried to bring displaced Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians together to live in harmony. He objected to partition (and went on hunger strike to try and change it) but that was one battle he didn’t win!
Onwards from Gandhi’s house we stopped by the Dabba walas who collect and deliver some 200,000 tiffin boxes throughout Mumbai every working day. Today being a Saturday, there were only a few tiffin boxes to deliver. I have included a gallery below. Then we visited VT Station. Its real name is Victoria Terminus but everyone calls it VT Station. We had seen this station on a TV programme hosted by Dan Snow about railways in India which was truly fascinating. We were keen to see the terminus and all the people that use it but we couldn’t cross the road and so we didn’t go inside (at this point). The building itself is a mixture of just about every architecture imaginable, there is Hindu, Islamic, Persian, Victorian and many other styles all somehow thrown together in a beautiful building that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does! We would have liked to have seen more of this building but Uma said that, since we couldn’t see where we could cross the road, this would be difficult, so we didn’t. Across the road, and in the gallery of general buildings in Mumbai is the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai building. It is notable for its strong Victorian architecture in stark contrast to VT Station. Mumbai really is a mix of architectures that we haven’t seen elsewhere in our travels in India!
Our final visit with our guide this morning was to Crawford Market. This is a large food market to the north of VT Station. It was our request that we visited this market since a) we like food, b) it is always an experience visiting these food markets and seeing foods that you have never seen before and c) we had been recommended to visit it by our butler. It was magnificent if you like food markets! The only downside we experienced was that we knew the majority of fruit and vegetables and, those that we didn’t, we weren’t able to find out what were. Uma was very helpful but didn’t know the English names for any that we asked and we were unable to catch the Hindu names so that we could Google them later. One thing that did amuse us though was her hunt for grapes. Grapes have just come into season and every stall seemed to have plenty of them. On each stall she would try a grape, ask the price and them move on. She must have eaten half a pound of grapes on the way around! Finally, she settled on buying from the first stall she had tried. I asked her why she had not bought from the chap on the last stall she tried and she said, “He was the same price as the first, why would I carry the grapes all the way from his stall when I was going to pass this one anyway?”. There is no answer to that!
One point of note, however, before we move on to our next part of the adventure, the mango season is just starting here in India. For those that love mangos (us amongst them) the best mangos in the world are reputed to come from India and are called Alfonso Mangos. You won’t get them in Waitrose or Tescos, but I feel a trip to the Indian Wholesaler in Crawley coming on where I know we bought some last year! On our way back to the hotel we passed the ‘Western Station’. This, apparently, is where Uma gets a train home from so she dropped off here and we continued on our journey back to the hotel with our driver. Having been dropped off at the hotel, we once again passed through security. On this occasion we had made a purchase in the market that, as we had suspected, the hotel would rather we didn’t take inside. One has to remember the horrific attack on the Taj and the Oberoi in 2008 – it is no wonder that security is taken very seriously indeed! We had already anticipated that they would be uncomfortable with our purchases, so we asked them if security would be prepared to keep them until we check out tomorrow. This was met with lots of smiles and “Of course, Sir” when they realised that we weren’t trying to take them into the hotel, just that we do want to take them home!
Once we had settled back at the hotel, we made plans for the afternoon. We decided that we would take a taxi (a whole new experience as we have previously always used Tuk Tuks but we couldn’t face another ‘Government Shop’ and decided a taxi would be less likely to try and take us to one. We negotiated a price of 50 rupees to take us back to VT Station where we would go inside and see what it was really like. Taxis, we discovered, operate under similar rules as the do in England … none. When a taxi gets going it keeps going! Red lights, other vehicles, pedestrians (god forbid) and anything else on the road needs to get out of the way. The taxi driver merely takes aim, puts his had on the horn and off we go! Actually, there is one point I should mention as this juncture – pedestrian crossings. We discovered when we arrived in Delhi that no road users seemed to take any notice of pedestrian crossings. Eventually, having been nearly mown down by a public bus at a pedestrian crossing in Jaipur, I asked our then guide, Rakesh, why nobody took any notice of pedestrian crossings. “Oh sir, did you think this was a pedestrian crossing,” he said, “no sir, not at all, this is just road decoration!”
Having arrived at VT Station in record time, and still with all of our limbs intact, we disembarked our taxi, thanked him and crossed the busy junction towards the station. (When I said we arrived at VT Station, what I really meant was that we were dispatched from the taxi on the road that was close to one of the busiest junctions in Mumbai opposite the station!) We picked our way across the junction and, amazingly, reached the other side (there are four roads converging and one might imagine the chaos there) without harm or incident! We went into the booking hall of VT Station and discovered it was exactly as we had seen on Dan Snow’s programme. The station, even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, is a throbbing hive of activity with people everywhere and noise, smells, colours that typify India! We discovered that in order to go onto the main concourse we needed a platform ticket (10 Rupees each) we went to a machine and tried to purchase the platform tickets but, although it said it took notes, it turns out that it doesn’t! After queuing for a little while for one of the windows we acquired our platform ticket.
It transpired that nobody was the slightest bit interested in whether we had a platform ticket or not. I spotted a shoe polisher who was advertising he would do a pair of shoes for 10 Rupees (about 12p). That seemed like a bargain and mine were very dusty from our travels, so I asked him if he would do mine. He didn’t seem very interested in doing mine, but showed great interest in doing Captain Clarke’s so he started on his shoes. Another shoe polisher called me over and said he would do mine. It wasn’t an in-depth conversation as he didn’t speak English and my Hindu is somewhat lacking! After only a few minutes, he had finished my shoes and a very good job he had done too. It transpired, however, that the cost of doing my shoes was not 10 Rupees (I suspect that is the price for locals, not foreigners!) but 60 Rupees. I didn’t mind paying this and was quite happy to do so. Having paid my dues, I went over to Captain Clarke to pay his bill (he doesn’t actually carry cash!) and discovered that the price for his shoes was not 60 Rupees but 120! Mind you, they were disgusting and look better now than they have ever done! So, with clean shoes and 180 Rupees paid over, we set off in search of trains. It transpires that VT Station is split into two halves with airport type security between them. It also transpired that, whilst some people walked through the scanners and they beeped, nobody took any notice. Others couldn’t be bothered and walked around them. All rather relaxed considering the horrific events there in 2008!
The first train we came across was the Mumbai – Chennai Express. This wonderful old train (it really was old) takes just 26½ hours! I hate to think what the slow train does it in! A quick word about station security in general. For those travelling with luggage there is an airport type luggage scanner at the entrance where every bag is scanned before being allowed onto the station concourse. That is, unless you don’t want your luggage scanned, in which case just enter through the exit – nobody will ask any questions! Local trains in India are a sight to behold. They have no doors and they get so crammed that people just hang outside them. There are regular accidents with people falling from trains – unfortunately, many are fatal – but it is hard to see how the problem will be resolved. The trains are designed to carry up to 500 passengers but in rush hour they carry over 5,000 passengers. There simply isn’t the capacity to put that many more trains on the railway! The authorities are building a metro in Mumbai (there is already one, but it doesn’t cover very much of the city) but it is still early days. Interestingly, the authorities were extending the Metro in Delhi, building a Metro in Jaipur, building a metro in Agra, extending the new metro in Kochi and now we find they are building one in Mumbai! I think metros are the in thing. Having said that, I shall report more on this tomorrow, but the whole of India has really recognised pollution as a problem and are taking steps that are, frankly, world leading to address it!
Finally, having left VT Station we procured another taxi to drop us at the Prince of Wales Museum. We weren’t going to go in the museum (Uma told us this morning that it was full of boring statues and paintings but if we really wanted to go inside she supposed we could … it didn’t really sell it to us!) but it was adjacent to a road that we had been recommended to visit by our butler. It is called Colaba Causeway and is a street full of stalls selling souvenirs, pashminas (Obviously! They are everywhere we go!), copy copy watches, leather goods and clothes. We didn’t really want anything but decided to walk back along it to return to our hotel. It is a writhing mass of people all jostling for somewhere to stand or walk and with street sellers desperately trying to get you to “Buy my pashmina for your wife … very cheap!”, or “Please, some jewellery for you wife”, or “You want some cheap watches … very cheap!” It is fun to walk down for a few minutes although does get a bit claustrophobic after a while. My credit card holder has become a little worn (too much use!) and it is difficult to get cards out, so I did stop at a stall and ask if the stall holder had one. Amazingly, he did! Our butler had told us that whatever he asked, offer at least half less and if he doesn’t accept to walk away (reminiscent of another fabulous scene from the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which doesn’t exactly go to plan!). He asked me for 350 Rupees, I offered 150 Rupees, he said no and I walked away … it worked! We eventually settled on a price of 200 Rupees (just over £2) for a new leather credit card holder. I think we both left that deal happy! My goodness, look at the time! It is 19:00 hours already and I am missing out on our free drinks. I must quickly shower, change and get down for ‘Sun Downers’ immediately. It is, after all, RudyMenTerry!