‘Are there any festivals coming up?’ I cheerily asked the taxi driver, hoping to spark up a conversation.
He mumbled something inaudible. I looked hopefully at him in the mirror and he shook his head, while smiling.
The elderly man dressed in a long white shirt and lose cream trousers clearly spoke no English and I spoke no Hindi. Ashamed that I hadn’t learnt any Hindi, I sunk back into the seat and gazed out of the window.
The road leading out of the airport was lined by slums. Metal corregated roofs placed precariously on crumbling plastered walls stood side by side.
Men chatted outside their homes brushing their teeth. Women swept the roads. Others wore blue plastic gloves and picked the leaves out of the gutters. No matter how meticulously they cleaned, new dust swept in moments later.
It was 7am, the sun had just risen, it was bright red, shining through the misty grey sky. I knew that glaring glow well. It is the one found in polluted cities. The smog has a way of making things seem hazy. It was the same in Mexico City.
With the population in Mumbai hitting 33 million, it’s hardly surprising that it’s polluted.
We meandered off the main road and made our way down an equally busy road. The driver looked a bit confused and I realised he was asking me where the hostel was.
Unsure, I handed him a map I had printed out. This didn’t seem to help. He decided to pull over and get out the car to ask around. A man appearing to be arguing on a phone call was first up. He didn’t tell the driver to go away. On the contrary, he carried on with his passionate phone call while looking at our map. After some time, the driver came back into the cab shaking his head. He drove on 100m and got out again. After a few more conversations things looked slightly more positive.
This first encounter with a person in Mumbai was touching. Even though I had pre-paid for the taxi at the airport (at one on the stands past customs) there was no way he was giving up. No matter how long it took, he would get me to said destination. Everybody he asked tried as best they could to help.
At last, hostel Basti appeared. We both grinned and the kind taxi driver went on his way.
I was rather early and couldn’t check in just yet. The hostel owner was asleep and not happy to be disturbed. It was 8am and I had to kill time till 2pm (official check-in time).
Moments later as I sat on the hostel sofa thinking about what I would do, an early riser appeared and told me he was going to visit Sanjay Gandhi National Park. He invited me along.
Off we went. We took an Uber from the hostel to the park entrance. Here we jumped out and walked through a shanti-town.
Clothes hung out of windows drying in the scorching heat. Children ran past us shaking our hands. Mud squelched under our feet as we strolled past colourful houses. Small openings in homes displayed drinking bottles and snacks to buy. Walking around the bends in the street we reached the park entrance.
From there we paid an entrance fee (Rs. 50 for foreigners) and walked 10km through the park. There was a long dusty road surrounded by trees and forest.
We spied mummy monkeys feeding their young.
Just over an hour and a half later we reached some fascinating Buddhist caves (Kanheri caves) dating back to the 1st century BC.
The caves are a huge man-made construction. Which has prehistorically been used for studying, living and praying in.
They provided us with the perfect shady spot in which to relax.
We clambered up numerous flights of stone steps and were rewarded with a remarkable view across the National Park and Mumbai.
Of course, many asked for selfies. 😋
We then hopped on a crowded old school bus for 4p and rode back to the main road where we got another Uber back to the hostel.
I checked in and enjoyed a refreshing cold shower. It was such a relief to be clean and cool.
The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling and meeting new folk in the hostel.
I am beyond excited to get a good night’s sleep this evening after missing a night of sleep on the plane.