On Wednesday January 12th I packaged my bike in a box with the assistance of a bike store in Amman and headed to the airport. I always like to arrive early because I hate the last minute rush to catch a plane and allowed an additional hour in case I had trouble checking in my bike box. There was a limit of 20kg per passenger on this flight so I anticipated paying additional fees in excess of the cost of my actual ticket. As is often the case however, when I arrive 3 hours early, the entire check in time took 5 minutes. I went upstairs and to my delight found a Starbucks and a stand selling English newspapers so I had no trouble with the long wait. The attendant at the check in counter looked the other way when I put my bike box on the scale and said "what a co-incidence, you are right on the weight limit" and gave me a wink. The bike itself is double the limit and that doesn't count my 4 pannier bags. The Jordanian people were kind right to the end.
The flight was uneventful, exactly what you want, and I was filled with apprehension and excitement about what was ahead. The flight was just over 4 hours and with the 3 hour time change meant I would be losing a night's sleep. I can't sleep on a plane as any odd noise will put me on full alert (see Debra you are not the only nervous flyer). This was one of the few times I have made a reservation in a hotel as almost all of the hotels here will pick you up at the airport and I wasn't about to wrestle with trying to assemble my bike at 5:00 am and then try to cycle into Mumbai.
Upon arrival you step outside and walk down the steps leading to a shuttle bus. I noticed an unusual smell in the air. I am currently reading a book "Shantaram: A Novel" by Gregory David Roberts recommended by my friends Amit and Zia in Bermuda. The book tells the story of the author's life in Mumbai and he also mentioned the initial smell and called it "the worst good smell in the world." I wouldn't call it a good smell, for me it was more a mixture of smoke and pollution and something I would describe as sickly and not very pleasant. The air was humid and about 24C or 75F at 5:00 am and felt like Bermuda in the early part of summer. So whose great idea was it to bike in India? Oh yeah, that would be mine.
The airport was calm and the entry process straight forward after securing my 3-month visa while in Amman. I piled my bike and bags on a trolley and made my way to the exit. I hoped that someone would be there to pick me up as I had sent an e-mail detailing my flight information but did not receive a response. I walked around for a long time in the pleasant outdoor waiting area looking for someone to be holding a sign with my name and eventually spotted a man. He stood out because he was wearing a wool hat and winter coat. I chuckled because I was in a t-shirt and sweating.
The ride south into Mumbai was a mesmerizing trip. The driver was clearly not paid by the hour as he raced through the City with one hand on the gear shift looking for more speed and the other permanently pressing the horn. We would go down a street with no one in sight and he would still press the horn announcing to non-existent cars and people to not even think about getting in the way. Somehow, the chaos in the intersections full of cars, bikes, buses, rickshaws, cows and people seems to work with the chaotic mass flowing almost effortlessly with what seemed to us as innumerable close calls.
It was still dark but Mumbai was coming to life and we passed street after street filled with broken down buildings, people sleeping on the sidewalks, cows, dogs and of course masses of people. It was never ending and we drove the 30km in continuous city sprawl. I checked into the hotel and managed to get my bike in the room but had to stand it on end for it to fit. I am not sure how big the room is but if I stand up with my arms stretched to the sides, can almost touch from one side to the other. I was tired but it wasn't even 8:00 am so decided to go for a walk and watch the city come to life.
Mumbai used to be known as Bombay but the name was changed in 1996. Here are some interesting facts about the largest city in India and second largest in the world (largest is Shanghai, China). The City has a population density of about 60,000 per square mile more than double that of New York. It is the wealthiest city in India with an average annual income of about $1,000 US dollars per year, which is more than 3 times the national average. There are 17 public toilets for every 1 million people and during rush hour the average number of people on a 1800-capacity train is 7,000.
I managed to get a decent sleep on Thursday night and on Friday was anxious to see Mumbai. There are not a lot of famous landmarks which is fine with me as I am more interested in just seeing how the locals live in their environment. Despite the chaos and congestion I was able to sniff out a coffee shop and spent a little time getting my bearings and planning my walking route. I stepped out of the store and across the street was the Victoria Train station, a UNESCO world heritage site and the busiest train station in Asia.
I took a picture of the inside on Saturday, a slow day for travellers. I couldn't stand in there long, it was like being in a washing machine.