Mumbai Skyline

Mumbai: The One Day Backpacking Survival Guide

No Place Like India

Indian People

Travelling Asia is an intoxicating experience for most Westerners. Backpacking around spiritual India even more so. In this short guide you'll receive a 'heads up' on how to avoid scams and get through your first day in Mumbai. Being prepared for the dangers and annoyances will allow you to relax and enjoy this interesting city in the Indian subcontinent a little wiser.

'An assault on the senses' is probably the most accurate description for a visit to the Indian subcontinent. The food can be spicy, the odours are unapologetic, business is fast-paced and the Indians themselves can be a little 'in your face' at times. But as much as India can frustrate and intimidate sensitive travellers, it is also often the country which many travellers grow to love with all their heart. There is simply no place like India.

As the most populous city in India, Mumbai is often the first point of arrival for tourists, and in most cases a visa for India must be acquired in your home country prior to travel. With that taken care of, get your legs ready for a long walk through Mumbai International airport. It's a big one, and there are no travelators anywhere to be seen.

Staying in Mumbai

Mumbai Bumblebee Taxis

You'll want to make sure you either have a hostel booked, or at least have a name of a hostel and its general location in mind because immigration are likely to ask where you're going. Tourists are precious commodities in India and are often rigorously accounted for. If like me, you're totally unprepared at immigration, naming a guesthouse referenced in the partly-fictional novel Shantaram may well achieve success, whether it still exists or not.

To get to Colaba, or any other part of the city, you will need to arrange some transport from the airport, if you haven't already done so. The famous black and yellow 'bumblebee' taxis which swarm to the airport are a good first experience in the bare bones nature of the Indian way. Buy a ticket for these taxis at the designated window at around 400 rupees (approx. £5), then make sure you establish you've already paid with the driver before getting in; it is important that you take the correct taxi according to the number on the ticket. Now, buckle up (if you're lucky enough to get in a cab that has a seatbelt) and enjoy the ride; I'm sure the car sliding down the road on its roof was just a one-off in my case.

If you decide to stay in Colaba in Mumbai, you'll see that the Salvation Army has a certain presence there. Their hostel, aptly named 'The Salvation Army' or 'Red Shield House' is well worth a try if you're on a budget. At 135 rupees (approx. £1.80), you'll receive a simple breakfast and a dorm bed. But don't even think of arriving before reception officially opens – you'll be turned away; beds are allocated on a first come first served basis. The cold military way in which the whole affair is handled will leave you ever grateful for the warm Indian hospitality that you're sure to receive just about everywhere else in the country. It is however a very communal place with lots of western guests to complain to about the searing heat – or torrential rain if you've mistakenly arrived in monsoon season.

Problems With Beggars

Mumbai Holy Man

Before you step out of the door for your first wander, consider these five things: you have money, Indians have less money, beggars have no money, beggars are persistent, beggars are very persistent.

Unfortunately, in most cases beggars are answerable to their 'handlers' which means that the man on the kerb with only one leg probably didn't lose it in a cricket accident. Begging with one leg tends to bring in more money; business is business, anyone that has watched Slumdog Millionaire will know what I'm talking about here. Babies are literally 'rented out' to young beggars from street-side orphanages to extract more sympathy and consequently more money from tourists. Now, it is your decision whether or not you give money to people on the streets, but it does help to be informed so as not to be unfairly coerced into a sense of benevolence.

There seems to be a persistent occurrence of the 'Buy me one [sic] food' trick in Mumbai. If you refuse to give money (which you will at some point because the beggars are so plentiful), the above phrase is often used to appease the tourist and assure them that all the person wants is a simple meal. If you concede to this 'Buy me one food' or 'Buy me one rice' plea, you will find yourself being led to a supermarket where the beggar will then point to the biggest bag of rice on the shelf. And remember, this is no Tesco. This is India – rice comes in big bags. The point is that no matter what you buy, the beggar will just return it when you've gone and then pocket the money. So if you don't want to give money on a moral basis, i.e., that the money simply filters up and perpetuates 'the system' then be aware of this one.

The 'holy men' who dress in orange and wander the streets can also be a source of annoyance if you're not willing to part with a little cash. Some may gently try to place a tilaka on your forehead (a coloured dot made from powdered dye) and then stand with an open hand. Another approach is to encourage you to take a photo of them and then graciously demand a price for the privilege. This rule applies to snake charmers too, who will curse you wildly if you refuse to pay after having taken a picture.

Still Worth It!

In closing, it is important to note that MumbaiMumbai, and India as a whole is an absolutely fantastic place to visit, and for a long time too. With endless opportunities to try great foods, explore spiritual pursuits, social connections and stunning scenery it rarely gets boring. The good far outweighs the bad in most cases, so don't have nightmares.

Instead, go with open eyes – India awaits!