I was very excited to come back to India and explore the southern region.
Mumbai, formally known as Bombay, “India’s maximum city” was my first stop.
I arrived late after a relatively short flight from Dubai. Having an e-visa made the pass through the immigration booth easy. The service provided by Peirce and Leslie whisked me out the airport and in 10 minutes I was in the car.
I was surprised to learn that Mumbai was an island, for some reason I never knew.
The first image of Mumbai appeared in front me. Hundreds of street lights were lined along the coast glowing in the darkness. I saw the bright lights forming a perfect crescent.
“We call the streets lights the Queen‘s Necklace” said the man. "The street lights at night resemble a string of pearls in a necklace”
We reached the hotel by midnight. The atrium of the Oberoi’s lobby was impressive, with tall windows, a black granite water fountain and a red grand piano.
The next morning I woke up eager to see my view. My room had large windows overlooking the Arabian Sea. The sun was already up and hiding behind a dense misty sea breeze.
The streets of Mumbai are no different than any other city in India. Anyone who has experienced a street in India knows how insane they are with the mass transit, hordes of people walking, not on the sidewalk but on the carriage-way, street vendors and the constant noise; it is a sight to behold.
But at the same time the vibrancy and energy around makes up for the chaos.
The guides were born and raised in the slums, their parents were raised in the slums, their grandparents died in the slums - Three generations of residents. They spoke English very well, and some of them were in the university, while their parents work in the recycling industry in the slum.
Below the bridge, there were dozens of railroads tracks dividing the city from the marshland where the slum is. Mumbai has 8 million people living in slums, and Dharavi is the largest one. We passed the bridge and descended to the streets of Dharavi.
Visually you need to accommodate and get rapidly acquainted with the rhythm of the place. Hundreds of shanty houses built in layers, piles of trash with hives of people disappearing in the tiny labyrinths and black smoke.
The guides were right when they told me this was not an ordinary slum. They said that Dharavi is the place where the trash gets cleaned and transformed, and they were not kidding. Here products like foam, cardboard, computers, cords, toys and plastic bags, just to name a few, are transformed to a new life, creating one of the most dynamic sub-economic industries. Here the recycling is in full swing.
Everyone was busy doing something, inside small tiny rooms I saw men transforming something into a product that will be sold to the US and Europe. Soon you realize that the priority here is making money. There is no doubt this is an industrial slum with row upon row of identical cramped shacks erected by semi-skilled workers, many without toilets or water.
People live and work in layers of buildings used as workshops and homes. Some are occupied with sewing machines, cutting tables, piles of cables, card boards sometimes 10 people cramped under the same roof, made all the less attractive by the smoke, dirt and odors meandering from their open sewers.
This was an experience like no other. Some of these people are just entrepreneurs with great skills, with thousands of small–scale industries thriving.
Dharavi, as a whole, generates revenue of about USD $500 million annually, a significant contribution to Mumbai’s economy. It gave me a great exhilaration coming to see this urban slum and the industrial people who inhabit it.
I saw many smiles, living under a few square feet in the midst of a sea of dirt, many happy people attending to their jobs.
My first day in Mumbai, and I could not wait for more excitement! I was transformed by the last experience and now with eagerness I wanted to keep feeling the pulse of Mumbai.
I woke up early the next day and decided to walk the Marine Drive pavement, a 3.6 Km long C-shaped boulevard lined with palm trees with the beach on one site and dozens of buildings of low-rise Art Deco style.
It was early and the day just barely showed its first light, but the Marina drive was already busy with walkers, joggers, and young couples showing their love. There were homeless picking up their shelter from the night before, dogs sleeping on the walking space, people doing yoga and praying with their hands raised to the sky welcoming the sun rise. I was surprised by seeing the energy of people from all walks of life, coming here to enjoy the footpath. I had the most pleasant brisk walk and a good opportunity to experience Mumbai intimately.
Victoria Terminus (think London’s St. Pancras, but with Indian touches) is Mumbai’s finest building and right next to the station is the High Court and the soaring Rajabai Clock Tower.
Seeing the torrent of people flowing in the direction of Victoria Terminus to be swallowed into the mouth of the railway station was an experience. I stood motionless observing the rush of people aiming the same direction and in equal hurry.
For centuries, Mumbai has profited largely by being the first important port reached by European, Chinese, African, Arab and Persian vessels. During the United States Civil War, Mumbai thrived as a result of the cotton shortage, and during that time its population doubled. Then the opening of the railroads and the Suez Canal, made Mumbai the “gateway of India”.
After the gateway, I went to see the Dabbawalas, the people who ferry lunch boxes with a system of mathematics that became the envy of FedEx. The delivery is carried out by an army of men identified by their white uniforms, topped off with the traditional Gandhi cap. These men all came from the same region and have made a very efficient process of feeding thousands daily for 100 years now.
Next the Mumbai Public Laundry, a place where the native washer men perform their daily chores. Built around 1890, it is the world’s largest outdoor laundry where more than 100,000 garments are scrubbed in deep concrete pens daily. It is a photographer’s delight, and for me it was the city’s oddest attraction, just to see how Mumbai dares to air its dirty laundry.
Here, I loved the way Mumbai smells.
Mumbai, India’s city of dreams is today a mega metropolis of 28 million people. When it was given as a dowry of the Infanta Catherine upon her marriage to Charles II in 1661, it had a population of only 10,000.
Today, the city is constantly evolving. Few places in the world are more intensely urban than Mumbai, a timeless city with an energetic present and aspired future.
Please, when in Mumbai visit the Bombay Canteen - great food local and also from Goa.
Chennai, formally Madras, is the capital of the state of Tamil, also a major metropolitan city and the hottest and most humid place I have ever been. Summers are really hot here.
Just 2 hours drive from Chennai, taking the East Coast Road, is the UNESCO World heritage site and seaport of Mahabalipuram and where the sanctuaries, carved out of living rock are situated. In the time of the explorers, these temples, carved near the shorelines, were used as land stamps for their ships.
The best times to visit Chennai are October and December. Summers are truly hot and it is not an enjoyable time for travel.
The location is a little odd as the back of the hotel faces a very underdeveloped slum and the sea behind this area is polluted - not a pretty view. But this is India - a nation of unparalleled contrasts.
While in Chennai please visit Mylapore, one of the oldest parts of the city and houses the ancient Mylapore Temple, as well as the Santhome Church, built by the Portuguese in 16th century.
The old district is well known for its many beautiful sights, such as the Paradesi Synagogue, Jew Town and Mattancherry Palace.
I was most impressed by the Dutch architecture throughout the charming Heritage Zone mixed with the British plantation style houses. Each architectural style reflects the history of the place. You can see the St. Francis Church, with its cemetery serving as the resting ground of Vasco de Gama. The all-Dutch cemetery is particularly beautiful, very near the shore. Consecrated in 1724, it is the oldest European cemetery in India.
The Paradesi Synagogue displays spectacular hand-painted Chinese porcelain floor titles.
A must-see is the beautiful Mattancherry Palace with its carved ceilings and stunning murals portraying scenes from the Hindu tales.
Another major attraction is the Chinese fishing nets in the Cochin harbor, and the best way to experience it, is by doing a cruise (I recommend during the sunset). You will see row upon row of Chinese fishing nets.
While visiting the hotel, make sure you eat at their History Restaurant. It has the best traditional Kerala cuisine with very unique food. Their meals are really prepared to perfection. I enjoyed the beautiful mutton curry with a great drink selection.
An early walk in the morning through the city is a must. Especially around the Parade Ground and walk through the residential quarter to observe the many examples of charming Portuguese–era houses like the Vasco house. Then you must also experience “breakfast on the lawn”.
When in this city please watch a private performance of Kathakali, the most well-known theater production of Kerala from the 17th century. This production combines drama, dance, music and costumes with some of the most striking and elaborate makeup.
It is easy to explore Fort Cochin. For sight-seeing, the Dutch palace will be a great choice. The fort is built in the traditional Kerala style with four buildings around a central courtyard. The palace is adorned with the best mythological murals in India with an impressive portrait gallery of the Cochin Rajas.
I really like Kochi City and found it to be a very welcoming place - Great for shopping, too!
Another great hotel to stay at is the Malabar House, a boutique hotel that feels very cozy and personal. It’s located just few minutes from St. Francis Church and the parade ground.
Approximately 1.5 hours from Kochi is Alappuzha known as the “Venice of India”. Here I enjoyed a houseboat, originally a rice boat, but refurbished into a comfortable houseboats with bedrooms and showers. The boat took me for a panoramic ride through the backwater for an aqua-tourism experience in the Vembanad Lake.
The resort looks like an old village from the region with beautiful meandering pools and villas. The food and service was excellent. The bathrooms in all the villas are outside, and going at night to the bathroom can be challenging. I found it so because of the mosquitoes and the door was heavy and difficult to close.
The airport in Hyderabad is modern well organized airport and clean. Leaving the airport is when you encounter the humming of traffic, lots of people, street food and roadside stalls selling anything and everything.
Paupers and their shelters, all along with the sweet and spicy combination of the smells, make Hyderabad not much different from the other cities in India.
Hyderabad is part of the great Deccan territory, and has both mountains and level surfaces.
It is a very interesting city culture-wise, different from the rest of India. I’ve learned, during my visits to India, that there is more than one India, and Hyderabad shows me that this statement is true.
It is India but different. Different flavors and smells, it is very Muslim-feeling at first, but then you also distinguish the Hindu.
Here I stayed in India’s latest palace hotel - the Falaknuma Palace.
The Palace was the private property of the Nizam of Hyderabad. It closed in the 1950’s and was restored in 2010 by the Taj group. Originally designed by an English architect with Italian and Tudor influences, the palace sits on a hill with panoramic views across Hyderabad below.
The arrival ceremony was spectacular. From the palace gate I was taken by a horse-drawn carriage to the Grand Staircase where a shower of rose petals followed me to the vestibule of the Palace.
Inside it is home to priceless art and artifacts. Once I stepped inside the vestibule, the Falaknuma Palace transformed into a fairytale; a world that disappeared more than half a century ago.
Its walls and ceilings were adorned with frescoes, Greek urns and alabaster nymphs. You really feel you are in a home, as there is no reception desk and no concierge.
I was welcomed and taken to my suite in the Zenana wing by my butler.
The property has 60 rooms and suites all beautiful appointed with regal canopied beds, rich tapestry, oak floors and the bathrooms are wonderful.
The whole room was perfumed with jasmine.
The evening of my arrival I met with the in-house palace historian, Mr. Mahindrakar, who took me around the palace telling me the fascinating history of the Palace and pointing out its highlights.
The library is inspired by the one at Windsor Castle with the Carrera marble lamps. The beautiful jade room is very special. I admired in particular the dining hall that can seat 101 guests with the longest dining table in the world. The Palace is full of Venetian chandeliers and teak and walnut furniture. Everyone is welcome to use the furniture and nothing is restricted from the guests. It is truly a living and functional museum.
The food was excellent and the best Martinis I’ve ever had. I took a cooking class with executive chef Sajesh Nair who taught me how to cook the legendary dish Hyderabad mutton biryani cooked with the most wonderful spices. The Cuisine of Hyderabad borrowed heavily from the Persians and Mughals - very different from the north of India.
Hyderabad is an enchanting city to explore and Peirce and Leslie had put together a great list for sightseeing.
The Paigah Tombs - a Hyderabad’s hidden heritage. You really need to look for this site carefully, because it is in a maze of alleys and you can miss the entry. It is hidden behind a tree in a quiet neighborhood.
Once you pass the arched gate, you are in this extraordinary piece of history that remains ignored by tourists. The lime and mortar tombs are 200 years old, and they house the final resting place of several members of the Paigah family who were loyal to the Nizams and married some of their daughters. The tombs are exceptionally and intricately carved with geometrical patterns inlaid on the marble. Each tomb was designed differently; some has floral motifs, inscriptions about their lineage and imprinted epitaphs.
For some reason, in the midst of the cacophony of sounds, the incessant traffic, blaring horns and the pandemonium of humanity, this Indo-Islamic majestic building looks solitary, serene and peaceful. But this is India in the midst of chaos - you can find a focal point to rest your eyes and make the world stop around you.
The day I visited was the celebration of the birthday of the Hindu monkey-god Lord Hanuman, and the area was inundated by devotees participating in the procession. Very colorful sight; men dressed as the Hindu monkey on the streets, everything was orange and the procession was spectacular.
The participants were warm and eager to show you how they celebrate their festivities and their joy of living. A great cultural experience this was.
This impressive medieval fort is located in a hilltop named Golla Konda in Telugu or Shepherd’s Hill. My Guide told me the story of a shepherd boy who had come across an idol considered Holy. The King heard of the discovery and decided to build a mud fort around it. After 200 years, another ruler took possession of the place and converted the fort into the massive granite fort it is today.
Absolutely a marvelous and magical place extending 5 Km in circumference, the fort comes with 8 gates and 87 bastions. Within the fort are the royal palaces, the harem, halls for public and private audiences, royal baths and a temple. For a building done in the 12th century, and originally a mud fort, it still looks very majestic.
The fort was designed with a system of acoustics. To prove this, my guide asked one of the guards to clap. The echo quickly traveled. The guide said the sound of the clapping at the entrance can be heard at the highest point of the fort and almost a kilometer away.
For certain, the Fort, one of the most iconic structures of India, is an impressive place.