Last updated on August 17, 2023
Arriving in India after backpacking Southeast Asia shocked my senses. Traveling for those weeks gave me a sense of rhythm to the region and I had just begun to figure it out. I knew the cultural nuances, had figured out the lay of the land, and I enjoyed traveling with my friend Laura. Landing in India has changed the name of the game again. It’s a whirl of new ideas, people, languages, smells, and culture.
I’ve talked about the slow pace of the Laos, and also about the faster pace of Cambodia. Even my week in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, left me underprepared for the experience of navigating Mumbai.
During my first four months traveling the world, other travelers bombarded me with travel stories. They spoke of their rapturous love for the people of India, about the kindness and warmth they encountered. Then they tempered that love with talk of extreme poverty, filth, stomach illnesses, and a new culture bearing resemblance to no other one on earth.
Diving Into Mumbai’s Unique Culture
My mind jumbled with the thoughts and stories about India. It made me cautious and curious about what I would find when I touched down at Mumbai International Airport.
When planning my year around the world, it was this leg of the trip that worried me the most. After my near-death illness in Laos, I’m fearful of getting sick—my immune system is still low and I’m still a good 15 pounds underweight.
I’ve embraced my frugal backpacker lifestyle in so many ways, but as I landed in India, I sent up a prayer for safety to all of the Hindu gods. I’m traveling with my cousin through India and Nepal, and I hope that we both are able to uncover the joy and welcome that other travelers have shared about their own journeys through India.
Quick Lesson: What is Mumbai’s Culture Like?
Often referred to as the “City of Dreams,” Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra. It’s known for its diverse culture and languages, including Marathi, Hindi, English, and Gujarati. Like me, a lot of travelers start their trip through India in Mumbai, and the culture of Mumbai is their first experience of India.
It’s a good introduction too! I enjoyed Mumbai more than Delhi, and there’s a lot to love about the city’s unique vibes and culture. Mumbai has great food culture—you can easily mow down on popular street food like vada pav and pav bhaji (I LOVE pav bhaji).
And Mumbai loves a good festival. Cultural festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, Eid, and Holi are enthusiastically celebrated, providing travelers with opportunities to engage with local traditions.
And you can’t overlook that Mumbai’s cultural scene encompasses Bollywood and the arts, with architecture that showcases a mix of historic and modern influences. The city’s religious diversity is evident through its various places of worship.
Despite its fast-paced lifestyle, Mumbai maintains a strong sense of community. Mumbai’s unique blend of traditions and modernity creates an interesting cultural experience for travelers.
First Cultural Lessons Leaving Mumbai Airport
My cousin had arrived earlier in the day and we agreed to meet at our hotel in the backpacker part of Mumbai: Colaba. The visa that I painstakingly procured in Phnom Penh, Cambodia the previous month worked flawlessly at immigration control, and I was grateful to have no issues getting into India considering that I didn’t yet have my flight booked out of India.
I’ll have a pretty open-ended few months to travel across India and learn all about the culture and people—starting with the culture and people of Mumbai. The only thing on the horizon is a volunteering stint in Nepal, which leaves me time to fully explore the whims of India as I travel around.
I found another western couple in the taxi queue and we shared a cab ride to Colaba. Much to my intrigued and horrified gaze, I watched our driver stash our three backpacks in the trunk, then he used a fraying, thinned rope to hold the trunk closed.
I was betting my every worldly possession on the hope that the rope would hold for our journey across Mumbai. It did, which is a good lesson on India—it may not look like it will work, but have faith! Indians make due with what they have and things that look like they should fall apart are still in good working order!
Funny side story, my pants ripped their seam as I sat down in the front seat of the taxi. These were cheap fisherman pants I had picked up in Laos, so it wasn’t the greatest tragedy, but it was a conundrum.
I sat perfectly still for 30 seconds pondering how in the world I could remedy the situation without offending the modest sensibilities of this culture I had just entered.
Since we hadn’t left yet, the woman sharing my cab offered to dig through my backpack for my long scarf. It worked! But I’ll admit I was now acutely self-conscious of the gaping hole in my pants hidden from the world by a thin brown scarf.
First Glimpses of a Mumbai Slum
Our driver spent a good six minutes bringing to life his sputtering taxi, and after it groaned into life, we exited the Mumbai airport, bound for the dense city center.
The airport shinned in the afternoon light, glinting glass and steel reflecting on the sheer poverty nearby. It seemed completely modern and the initial scene could have dropped me at most any airport in the world.
And then the line of fancy hotels broke, and into the horizon I gazed out at a wall of slums. These rickety buildings stretched far into the distance, a seemingly impenetrable maze of corrugated tin and tape.
Dharavi is the largest slum in India, and in all of the world, actually. Which is sad and fascinating since Mumbai is considered the country’s financial capital.
The walls of each hut were constructed from scraps of plastic, discarded bars of metal, and rusted tin. From each column hung a raft of worldly possessions greying in the harsh Indian sun.
And while it seems trite to relate to the world through movies, they also can provide a different perspective on a situation.
Without a reason to visit the slums, I have no knowledge of the inner workings. And yet, I can imagine a life behind the dappled sunshine that must pass through the cracks.
I watched Slumdog Millionaire a few days after arriving in India.
Apart from being in incredible story—well scripted, beautifully acted, scored, and filmed—it gave me a window into these lives. It’s a Hollywood-ized version, yes, but even the spruced up movie version was disturbing enough to point to darker truths about the lives of India’s slum dwellers.
In the years since my first glimpse at the Mumbai slums, and my first days trying to reconcile the hustling culture of Mumbai with the devastating poverty, I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a haunting nonfiction account of the lives of those living in the Annawadi slum—part of that very slum I passed leaving the airport. It will forever change your outlook on poverty, humanity, and culture. I highly recommend anyone visiting India read that book.
Within seconds, however, we had zipped past the slum. Then we came to an abrupt halt in Mumbai’s gridlocked traffic. It took an hour to reach Colaba from the airport, and as we pulled to the curb, I spotted my cousin and darted from the cab (careful of my scarf), to wrap her up in a huge bear hug. It’d had been a long time since I had last seen family.
After laughing at my ridiculous pants situation, my cousin hauled me off to our hotel and up four flights of narrow, steep stairs. Our room was exceedingly plain, but clean. And claiming near-starvation, I dropped my bags, changed my pants, and pulled her back onto the streets of Colaba in search of food.
First Impressions of Mumbai
With my mood balanced by tasty food, I took stock of my first impressions this country I would call home for the next two months. Utter chaos. The noise, people, crowds, smells—everything rolled into a single assault on my senses. Even my thoughts banged loudly around my head; they seemed to race to keep up with the frenetic energy.
Smells of Mumbai
And let’s talk a moment about the smells. Wow, this is a smelly place—both good and bad. Like Southeast Asia, street food is popular and small restaurants spill into the street. These scents of fresh food waft through the air. I am giddy at the memory of so many amazing vegetarian foods cooking in every stall.
And yet, the spicy scent of Indian food competes with sun-heated cow dung, ripe sweat, the stringent smell of old urine. And overtop all of that, the heady scent of perfume from incense permeating every open space.
Colors of Mumbai
Beyond the scent though, the other sense are assaulted, too. I navigated through curtains of Crayola-colored saris. Each one more elaborate than the last, my only thought was: Holy smokes, Indian women are gorgeous!
My cousin and I dodged cars, cows, kids, beggars, and fruit vendors on our way to the restaurant we had picked out from our Lonely Planet India.
I am jazzed about the vegetarian food in India. I opted for an ice-cold sweet lassi, and my cousin and I split a south-Indian thali and a masala dosa. In the few weeks since I landed in India, the thali has become my go-to dish. It’s a sample platter of the restaurant’s dishes, and many times it’s free refills!
This first one had four different curries and gravy dishes served with a huge piece of chapatti bread. Another favorite part? The huge plate of possible condiments and compliments to the dish: coconut paste, onions and lemon added a bit of pep to each of the meals. It was delicious.
As a vegetarian, there is no other country in the world so suited to my diet. It’s an entire food culture shaped around making vegetarian food flavorful and delicious.
Navigating Mumbai’s Scams & Hustles
With few things we wanted to see in Mumbai (I am not a big city person), my cousin and I began our journey north. From the guidebook’s description, we had decided that a few nights in Ahmedabad would break up our journey north, while also allowing us to visit Gandhi’s ashram.
In booking our tickets, I learned the first of many lessons in India: Don’t take shortcuts!
Instead of journeying across town like our guesthouse recommended, my cousin and I chose a hole-in-the-wall spot that we had passed on our walk.
That decision came back to bite us in the ass. But we didn’t yet know the folly of our choice, and we had just one afternoon left in the city. Plus, it wouldn’t be the first time India got us with its many, many scams.
We didn’t have firm plans, and that would become the second lesson: Don’t look lost or easy prey. Within a few minutes, a pair of charming street hustlers realized that my cousin and I didn’t have our India wits honed. Without that savvy, we followed along and agreed to share a cup of chai and a bit of conversation.
An hour later, we saw the first hints of ulterior motives. It was a soft hustle though, and we sort of went with the flow for a while, gently letting them know that we weren’t interested in buying things. But they led us to a small bazaar and began a hard sell on the saris.
Although we both actually wanted saris so we could better blend, we neither wanted these, nor did we appreciate the pressure. The situation spiked my anxiety and I started caving into their demands just to make the situation stop.
My cousin stayed level-headed, however, and just grabbed my arm and pulled me away. She marched us right out of that situation and wouldn’t acknowledge them calling us back with threats and cajoling.
We discovered our train surprise the next morning when we boarded. After navigating the throngs of locals staring gaped-mouthed at our whiteness, we located our assigned seats on the train.
They were in the commuter section of a local train running to Ahmedabad.
The good news was, we’d get there. The bad news was, we payed more money for the right to be smashed butt-to- face with for nine hours. It was a hilarious introduction to India, and I suppose we could have had much worse lessons than the two we faced.
At the end of it all, we knew that our journey was still heading to Gandhi’s Ashram in Ahmedabad.
Essential Travel Planning Resources
🛏️ Find great accommodation.
Booking.com is essentially the only hotel booking site that I use. It has a wide and affordable selection of traditional hotels, but also hostels and vacation rentals, too. Use these pro tips to find the best travel accommodation.
📍Navigate more effectively.
Rome2Rio is super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more. If you’re booking a rental car, I’ve always found the best deals on RentalCars.com.
Reading: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Listening to: Gorillaz— new to me, I’m thinking I like them!
Thought of the day: There is a dignified poverty amidst the other begging, scamming, and abject poverty. There are families who don’t want your pity or your money, they simply want to offer you a chai and chat. With so many near-misses on scamming so far, I’m reminding myself that not all people have ulterior motives counter to my own well-being.