How about some travel writing: Mumbai, India

Some travel writing by me. Re-posted from https://www.casualodyssey.com/.

A Moment in Mumbai

Feb 18-20, 2019

Happy to leave the Udaipur hotel, but burning with a fever that made me both dizzy and bleary, I climbed aboard a comfortable, air-conditioned bus for a 5-hour ride to Ahmedabad. Through some flawed planning by the G Adventures tour designers, we were driving there just to take a train to Mumbai. Surely, there is a train that goes from Udaipur to Mumbai? But I digress. Five minutes into our bus ride, Allison discovered that her credit card number had been stolen. In the airport. In TORONTO. Damn untrustworthy Canadians. The person who had taken it had similar taste to Allison, trying to rack up purchases from Hudson’s Bay and Aritzia, but luckily the Rogers MasterCard algorithms were at work and none of those purchases were approved. Crisis averted!

We stopped at a truck stop three hours into the ride, piecing together a lunch meal out of Pizza Pringles, ice cream, and Snickers. Back on the bus, I had the new experience of noticing the exact moment when my fever broke. Thank goodness. I immediately felt more human than blob. Our auto-rickshaw ride through Ahmedabad was toxic and thrice as long as it was supposed to be as the driver took us to the wrong station or something. Allison and I wrapped our scarves over our mouths and tried not to consume too much diesel and dust until we found our people again.

Our overnight train experience from Ahmedabad to Mumbai was somewhat less enjoyable than our previous train journeys. We were in the third-tier a/c sleeper car, and it has the following downgrades from the second-tier:

  • Beds stacked by three instead of by two
  • No curtains separating the sleeping area from the hallway
  • No personal light or pouch to place items for easy accessibility

Our tour group was scattered across two cars. In my section, our group had all of the middle and upper bunks while locals had the three bottom bunks. I climbed right to the top to get organized while Allison and Ellen – a fellow tour member from Alaska (so basically another Canadian) – tried to figure out the appropriate time to ask the older Indian couple to move so they could turn the seats into beds.

Sleep came fairly easily for me; I was still ill and my body just wanted to shut down. Allison and Ellen’s sleep, however, was constantly interrupted by the man on the bottom bunk — whether it was his shockingly loud gastrointestinal eruptions, his constant scratching at an empty paper bag, or his irrational shutting off of the section’s overhead fan.

Nine hours later we arrived in Mumbai, and as our group shambled groggily off the train and through the station, we heard similar tales of sleepless woe from nearly everyone. Hot, tired, dirty, and (in about half the group) sick, we piled into cabs to get to our hotel, the Hotel Fortune. Unfortunately (see what I did there?) our rooms wouldn’t be ready for several hours, so we ditched our bags, and tour guide Ajay took us to a breakfast spot on Marine Drive. The restaurant was hilariously named “Pizza by the Bay,” and I tried not to be the most pathetic of a miserable group as I watched all 16 other people get their food (and in many cases, finish it) before mine appeared. Eventually, I had a superior hot chocolate and a confusing French Toast which calmed my grumpiness.

There was an optional activity on offer: a four-hour driving tour of Mumbai’s most significant sites. However, after five hours on the bus from Udaipur to Ahmedabad, one polluted hour (kind of lost) in a tuktuk in Ahmedabad, nine hours on the train to Mumbai, 40 minutes in a cab to the hotel (+5 to the restaurant), the absolute last thing I wanted to do was get back in a vehicle for four hours. I couldn’t believe when the whole group (minus us) wanted to participate.

Instead, Allison and I walked Marine Drive and met several of the street dogs (that had tags and names like “Tiger,” “John,” and “Patch”) before going to a fancy spa. We were put in individual rooms that each had its own (beautiful, needed) shower, vanity, and massage table. We each got Balinese massages, which were slightly more intimate than the average (prudish?) Canadian spa massage. Then we got facials that removed the 12 or 15 layers of Indian travel dust on our skin. It was a shame to again put on our dirty clothes we’d been wearing for the last day, but at least we were relaxed.

The spa was steps away from the tourist-clogged harbourfront where we grabbed the obligatory photos of the Gateway to India and the Taj Mahal Palace, and I read aloud the details of each structure from the ripped out Mumbai pages of my Lonely Planet India guidebook (in Udaipur, I’d removed the sections on Mumbai, Goa, and Munnar so I could leave the hulking tome behind). We checked into our hotel and both took a much-needed nap before dinner.

Dinner was a special occasion. We’d made reservations at Ziya, a high-end restaurant whose chef/owner, Vineet Bhatia is the first Michelin-starred chef in India. In December, I’d seen him and Ziya featured on the Netflix cooking show The Final Table (which I recommend), and the idea was born to splurge on a night out in Mumbai. Allison and I had each brought one “nice” dress, and I suppose we looked good since as soon as we stepped out the hotel doors, I was mistaken for a prostitute and solicited for a whopping 35 rupees (about 70 cents). I turned him down.

Ziya is one of the restaurants in The Oberoi Mumbai, and when we walked through security into an unmarked, circular marble atrium, we already felt out of place. Walking into the lobby proper one floor above was entering a world of wealth heretofore unseen on our India travels. But who cares about the lobby? When we found Ziya, we were shown to a table by the window with a view of Back Bay. The restaurant is decorated simply, cream with accents of gold. Actual gold. Our cutlery was made of gold. There’s a glassed-in area between the kitchen and the dining room where you can watch the chefs plate each dish. There were pink orchids(?) on our table, and soon also two bottles of Perrier (for those who want water, but are fancy) and a bottle of a red blend from the Vijay Amritraj Reserve Collection. Vijay Amritraj was apparently the first and only decent tennis player from India, and also the first (and only?) decent winemaker from India. The wine was excellent.

Ziya made waves in India’s culinary landscape by taking traditional Indian dishes (which are served basically the same way all over the country, with maybe an oil or vegetable or other ingredient substitution between different states or regions), and putting a modern, haute cuisine spin on them. This is done constantly in Canada and other nations across the world, where chefs are experimenting with cultural fusions and new techniques and presentations, but it’s an oddity in India.

The menu (like all Indian menus, in my experience) is large and varied. It seems crazy that they can do 50 different dishes well, but they’re a top rated restaurant for a reason. It’s a tapas-style format, so Allison and I took turns ordering, and we let one of our supremely attentive servers suggest a final dish.

Before we received our first chosen dish, we were given an appetizer of four different flavours of poppadoms with three different chutneys. The chutneys were spicy garlic, mint, and beet, and sat starkly cream, green, and pink against our black sideplates.

Next, they brought us an amuse-bouche (also complimentary) of a breaded pea ball (I could’ve eaten my weight in these) and cold pomegranate juice.

The first dish we’d ordered was the chilli garlic cauliflower with cashew cauliflower purée and black quinoa, which was a light and delicious start to the meal. This was followed by the crab kofta with Kerala white crab chutney and Mumbai cheese toast batons. The presentation of this dish was beautiful. Each kofta (small fried dumpling) sat in a depression of an egg carton-like dish, with two of the spots taken up with ceramic cracked eggs filled with chutney. This ended up being my favourite dish of the night, and the cheese toast was a yummy, salty wonder.

They brought out the lamb gucci korma with truffle oil, the chicken bhuna with salli potatoes, and the saffron-sesame naan we had ordered all together, with an extra serving of their warm roti. The lamb was Allison’s pick of the night.

Though we’d eaten a huge meal already, my booking had come with an offer for a free dessert, so we happily perused the menu again and eventually settled on the dessert our server recommended: the chocolate chikki delice with Himalayan salted caramel kulfi (ice cream). This ran a very close second for favourite dish of the evening with both of us.

It was a shame to leave the opulent Oberoi, but we slept well in our budget hotel, happy with our indulgences in Mumbai.

The next morning we took a plane to Goa, which I only mention because the Mumbai airport might be the prettiest airport in the world, and I’d happily be stuck there for a few hours of delay (but the plane was on time).