Culture Shock and My First Impressions of Mumbai

My first day in India and my first impressions of Mumbai

One of my reasons for visiting India was that I wanted to experience a totally different culture from the UK. Even so, arriving in Mumbai was more of a culture shock than I was expecting.

The scenes from the taxi ride through the city and past the slums at the break of dawn were disturbing. The traffic was chaotic and scary and I clung on for dear life as large trucks cut into the traffic and swerved towards us while buzzing rickshaws swarmed around us taking up every available space. The traffic frequently ground to a halt and left us at the mercy of hawkers and beggars who worked the traffic jams.

Perhaps the poverty was the worst part of the culture shock. Vast sections of Mumbai seemed to be crumbling down or fabricated from corrugated sheet metal and blue tarpaulin. Everywhere you looked were people, rubbish and makeshift houses. It seemed like people were crawling out from under dark bridges and narrow alleyways.

Occasionally we would ride high up on a flyover and would glimpse modern high rises in the distance  through the haze. The stark contrast to the slums was unnerving. 

Dharavi slums

Dharavi slums

Before arriving I had done plenty of research. I was expecting a culture shock, for it to be poor, dirty, hot, smelly, dusty and crowded. It was all of these things but with more intensity than I had expected and nothing could have prepared me for the emotional and mental affect of the culture shock as India constantly challenges, contradicts and bombards all your senses.

Everywhere you look you see something that shocks and surprises. I found seeing so much poverty really difficult to deal with and battled with feelings of guilt, sadness and helplessness.

The taxi driver had to stop several times to ask for directions to our hotel. Finally a man who had made himself a shack on a street corner surrounded by lots of stray dogs pointed out the way. Once we finally arrived the area that our hotel was in near CST station it didn’t look too bad.

First day in India + jet lag = overwhelming

By CST Station. First day in India + jet lag = overwhelming!

Despite the initial culture shock I grew to love the city of Mumbai. We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn Hotel in Fort. The hotel owner was wonderfully hospitable, friendly and helpful. We discovered the wonderful Cafe Universal just steps from our hotel where I drank my first, and still best, mango lassi in India and developed a daily lassi habit for the rest of the trip.

Feeling refreshed, we cautiously and excitedly headed out to explore the grand, crumbling colonial architecture of Fort and Colaba and to get our first feel for India.

These colonial buildings looked impressive and majestic, especially compared to the haphazard quality of the other buildings, and gave an insight into the British Raj’s ambitions for the ‘jewel in it’s empire.’ Some of the buildings are now crumbling, jungley trees wind their snake like branches round walls and wrap them in their clasp as if nature is taking back the old buildings. This gave them a magical quality and they were wonderful and interesting to look at.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The main train station in Mumbai

The jewel of the architecture crown is the main train station – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus the busiest train station in Asia (formerly called Victoria Terminus). This is a UNESCO world heritage site and the city’s most extravagant gothic building with influences of British Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles that blend seamlessly together. A few days later this beautiful building would be a fine starting point for our extensive traveling on the Indian railway network.

Crossing the road traffic seemed impossible. There didn’t seem to be any road lanes or rules. We stared in disbelief as the traffic ebbed and flowed in a seemingly constant state of near misses. The majority of the traffic consisted of 1960’s style ‘premier padmini’ distinctive black and yellow cabs and double decker red buses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1940’s London.

The Gateway Of India which is a grand colonial arch built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V. It was completed in 1924 and ironically was used just 24 years later to parade off the last British regiment as India gained independence. The impressive structure is complemented by the elaborate and iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The gateway of India

The Gateway of India

However I thought that the iconic scene is somewhat spoilt by a new, imposing tower block; perhaps there as a sign of the might of the new, modern, independent India over old colonial landmarks?

Just walking down the street was a challenge. We got a lot of attention, people staring at us, taking photos, begging for money, trying to sell all sorts of things and numerous requests of “where are you going”, “what country are you from” and “are you married.”

The hassle intensified around the Gateway of India. It was surrounded by families, tourists and hawkers and a great place to do some people watching if you could get any peace. We had constant requests to see a magic show, offered “all india maps” that had marijuana inside, massive pear shaped balloons, toys, postcards, bracelets, ice creams, boat trips and all sorts of other weird useless tat that no one would ever need.

We even got chased down the street by a man with constant crys of “you want to see a snake!” He had a snake in a wicker basket and kept taking the lid off so the snake’s head popped up.

I survived my first, crazy day in India!

I survived my first, crazy day in India!

Later we were sat in the buzzing, bohemian atmosphere of Cafe Universal near our hotel unwinding with a much needed drink to help with the culture shock.

We heard drums pounding and massive commotion outside. People started running outside to look and we were astounded as a colourful, noisy carnival like procession of horse and ox carts lit up with flashing lights of every colour drove past. Music was blaring out and people thronged down the street dancing, shouting, singing, playing instruments and trying to get us to join in the dance and procession. Amazing!

Celebrations in Mumbai

Celebrations in Mumbai

My first day in India was total culture shock; completely overwhelming, crazy and magical! At first this madness was a little disconcerting but there is a pulsating beat and craziness in Mumbai which now, after overcoming the initial culture shock, is quite funny, endearing and inspiring. I’m looking forward to returning to Mumbai for my onward flight at the end of the trip.

Back at the hotel we arranged to take a tour the next day of Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Asia and where the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was based. I’ll tell you more about it in the next post.

 

Update 2015: I’ve now visited Mumbai 3 times and love it – it’s my favourite big Indian city and my love for buzzing, ambitious, manic Mumbai grows more with every visit. I still find so much to love and explore in this crazily captivating, buzzing, ambitious and endlessly fascinating city of dreams and contrasts. If you are visiting check out my Guide to Mumbai and 21 things to do in Mumbai.

Have you been to India? How did you find your first day?

 

15 Comments

  • I found the contrast rich vs poor also very confronting. I’d seen severe poverty before, when I was in Cambodia, but it seemed different as there everyone is poor and it just seemed ‘the way it is’ – to put it very cruelly. In Mumbai though, you have both (rich vs poor, north vs south) and you get to see how both are trying to live together.

    Being from Europe, you know there is a ‘third world’ out there. You have seen it on tv, read about it in the newspaper, but it’s always somewhere else, outside of your view, far away – as such it’s not tangible, less ‘real’. In Mumbai, both worlds seemed to merge in front of my eyes… And slapped me in the face. I cried when I saw the slums (I’m a cry baby… Or just sensitive maybe ;)) – not out of pity, but that same guilt and helplessness you described. It shouldn’t be like this. I don’t want the world to be like this… I don’t think it has to be like this. But what is my part in it? And what would I need to do to make a difference? Can I make a difference….?

    Very much looking forward to your Dharavi story!

    Either way, I agree with you: it is an amazing city, and even more, and amazingly beautiful and friendly country. Despite what you see in the news lately, I did not feel uneasy there as a woman. Yes, I was stared at (there were times I felt like the only foreigner in the entire country). Yes, I was asked to pose for photos. But all that seemed to come from curiosity, nothing else.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences 🙂 , Suze

  • Anna says:

    Thanks so much for your lovely comment Suze. It’s really nice to hear other people’s experiences on the enigma that is India.

    Yes, Mumbai is an amazing city but difficult to deal with at first. People work incredibly hard to improve their lives despite such tough conditions and are an inspiration to me. However, the vast contrast between rich and poor is so difficult to comprehend.

    I makes me realise how easy we have it in the west and I struggled alot in the first few weeks to deal with how the confronting poverty made me feel; reading all the books in the world can’t prepare you for it emotionally. I like how you put it about feeling like you have been “slapped in the face.” I think that describes it really well!

    I’m glad you liked the post – I was worried it would come across a little negative at first but I wanted to write honestly about how I felt that first day in India dealing with the culture shock, the poverty and the contradictions.

  • Mugen says:

    Great post, very well written… India always an interesting place to explore… Waiting for your next post on slum visit….

  • Lianne says:

    Thanks for this! We will be going to Mumbai last after a month in Kerala & Goa. Even though we will have been in India for a month, I think we will still be culture shocked because this is a huge city. Sounds like you can never be bored in India. A man chasing you with a snake? Wow, you’ll see it all!

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