Welcome to the sixth entry in my Remembering India series, where I share recipes, meals and adventures from my 2008 studies abroad. Today I backtrack to my first 24 hours of sightseeing and exploring in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai.
It was Saturday night when we landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Between our flight and a 9 1/2-hour time difference, my classmates and I were propelled almost 8,000 miles and a full day into the future.
We boarded a van, where I glued my eyes to the window—trying my best to get a clear picture of my new environment. I thought about my family back in New Jersey, who were probably eating lunch right now. Where am I and what have I gotten myself into?
The streets were dark, but peppered with glowing yellow light. I could make out a few kiosks, an occasional fire, and long rows of square dwellings standing shoulder to shoulder.
The van dropped us off at Hotel Supreme Heritage in Navi Mumbai. We received our room assignments for the next six weeks, where it was revealed that with an odd number of females on our trip, I would be assigned a single room. Later down the road, my friend Lauren and I would decide to become roommates. But for the first few weeks, my single room would become my sanctuary. I’d do laundry, watch music videos, and even cry in my single room—because adjusting to a new culture, climate and diet—all while working with children who’d never have the same opportunities as me—was guaranteed to overwhelm from time to time. I had a lot to learn, a lot of joys and frustrations to feel, and it would all begin as soon as I could see my new city in daylight.
On Sunday morning we met in the dining room to fuel a full day of sightseeing. There were eggs, Bombay potatoes, muesli, chicken sausages, uttapams, and pancakes served with honey. I tried a bit of everything, comparing the milder flavors of British/American breakfast to the punchy, spicy flavors of Indian breakfast.
We boarded a caravan of auto rickshaws to Vashi train station. We discovered that with the proper arrangement of butt sizes, we could fit as many as 3 passengers in the back seat (meaning we could split the fare three ways, instead of two). From there we hopped on a train to Mumbai’s CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), where about 7 1/2 million passengers ride each day. Butt sizes made no difference here, as I’d learn quickly.
My fellow female classmates and I crammed ourselves among hundreds of other women and children in the car dedicated to female passengers (and boys up to 13 years old). I looked out as we zoomed past neighborhoods and over water. Along the way I saw more of those square dwellings standing shoulder to shoulder. In daylight it was clear that I was seeing some of the poorest neighborhoods on my way to one of the richest cities in the world. I would struggle with this disparity throughout my entire trip.
We broke up into groups of 3 to explore the city. I was relieved to be matched up with Steph, who’d spent a year of college in Hyderabad. She taught me some basic Hindi words, how to interpret Indian head shakes, and how to break and eat naan with only my right hand. We’d practice the latter at Leopold Café for our first dinner in India. We’d sit at checkered tables surrounded by 50’s photos and kitsch as we’d eat paneer tikka and garlic naan—two foods which were entirely new to me.
But to work up an appetite we first had to explore. Mumbai looked European and Indian at the same time. Gothic-style buildings and palm trees were a backdrop to the black and yellow taxis and the brightly dressed folks who navigated their city with purpose and confidence. The men wore short-sleeved button-downs and long pants while the women wore saris and kurtas in shades of red, orange, yellow, blue and fuchsia.
My navy blue button-down and jeans felt clunky in the hot Indian sun. To cool off, my classmates and I took a tour of the air-conditioned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. We climbed the stairs to one of the upper floors and we gazed out at the city. I had no idea, but the Taj would be the site of a horrific terrorist attack just 6 months later. So would Leopold Café. It would haunt me as I’d read the news from my bedroom in North Philly, wondering if my friends were okay.
We walked on Chowpatty Beach where families lounged and vendors sold chaat on paper plates. I lifted the legs of my jeans and dipped my feet in the water. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing—I was on a beach where buildings towered in the background.
We hopped in a taxi and rode along Marine Drive—a beachside road lined with palm trees. From there we joined the crowds and strolled through hundreds of stalls on Colaba Causeway, where vendors sold jewelry and souvenirs to haggling customers. Haggling is an art in India and—with a tight budget for 6 weeks of food, transit, supplies, clothes and souvenirs—I was eager to learn it.
But for my first evening, I’d splurge a little. I’d sip a Kingfisher beer as my sore feet would throb from a full day of walking in the bright sun. I’d sit on my left hand (dedicated in India to less savory tasks) as I’d train my right pointer and thumb to tear a piece of buttery garlic naan while the tips of my middle, ring and pinky fingers held it in place. I’d use the naan to pinch a cube of squeaky, bright-red paneer tikka and pop it into my mouth. I’d delight in its unfamiliar bouncy texture and look forward to six more weeks of new sights, sounds and flavors.
Related Stories & Recipes
Remembering India: Pramila’s Paneer Bhurji
Remembering India: Chicken Biryani
Remembering India: Sights, Sounds & Railway Food
Remembering India: Ghee + Thane
Remembering India: Before We Begin
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