Planning Your Time

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Planning Your Time

Spending two days in Mumbai is like sprinting a marathon. Even though the city may lack monuments and historic sites, this is a place you have to experience to understand (and enjoy). Try cramming all of Mumbai into two days and you're likely to end up hating it, but give it a little longer and the abstract cacophony will start to make more sense and, ultimately, grow on you. Otherwise, the only impression you're likely to get is: hot, crowded, smelly, filthy. Give it a bit of time, and you'll begin to appreciate the madness, as opposed to being overwhelmed by it. So, we suggest spending a week in Maharashtra, with 4–5 days in Mumbai and a weekend trip to the Ellora and Ajanta caves, 370 km (229 miles) northeast of the city—you can take a round-trip overnight train for about Rs. 1,200 to Aurangabad, the best place to base yourself for trips to the caves; but for the time-crunched, one-way, one-hour flights cost around Rs. 3,000. If you have an extra day or two, head up to Matheran (110 km [66 miles] away) or one of the other quaint hill stations nearby, where Maharashtra's landscape fuses stark, semiarid mountains, and rock formations with lush, green countryside.

In Mumbai it's important to catch the flavor of the colonial city: This means walking around the Gateway of India, the Prince of Wales Museum, and Victoria Terminus. To take in a bazaar, head to Crawford Market or stroll down Colaba Causeway to do some bargain hunting. Lunching at a seafood restaurant in Fort and snacking at Chowpatty Beach off Marine Drive are both great experiences, as is people-watching with a beer at Leopold Café in Colaba. A trip to the western suburbs—Bandra and Juhu, among others—will give you a good perspective on how the city has grown, and where it's going next. A day trip to the ancient Elephanta Caves will show you where it came from.

Discover Dharavi

Slum tours. In recent years so-called "slum tours" of one of Asia's largest slums, Dharavi, have become something of a cottage industry in Mumbai, especially after the popularity of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which was set here. While the idea may seem akin to "poverty voyeurism," many of the companies who conduct the tours do so on a not-for-profit basis, and have explicit no-camera-allowed policies. On such a tour you'll normally meet up with a guide at Churchgate or Mahim Station, and take the train with a group of no more than six other tourists to Dharavi, which is near the Mahim neighborhood. Here you'll see the variety of cottage industries—from jewelry making to recycling to leather working to blacksmithing—that make up an estimated $600 million dollar annual economy. You'll see poverty, but Dharavi is not the kind of place you saw in those early scenes in Slumdog: it's a vibrant, functioning community, with its own post office, schools, temples, mosques, churches, and police force. It is, on balance, an incredibly safe place (and you'll be with a local guide) full of people striving for a better life in Mumbai, willing to live in cramped confines and not knowing where their next meal will come from—or even if there will be a next meal. One of the most popular tour operators, Reality Tours and Travel, explicitly takes no tips, and makes no profit: they use the fees (Rs. 400 per person) to fund a community center and a kindergarten in the area. Mumbai, Maharashtra. 98–2082–2253. wwww.realitytoursandtravel.com.

In South Bombay—"Town" to the locals—colonial mansions, remnants of the British Raj, share space with towering high-rises, and long, rectangular parks, known as maidans. To the east, in the labyrinthine streets of Kala Ghoda, the sky-blue Knesseth Eliyahoo synagogue looms. South, the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel holds court with the massive Gateway of India. On the western coast, the Queen's Necklace—as the lights along Marine Drive are affectionately known—stretches out past the carnival food and games of Chowpatty Beach to tony Malabar Hill, where the Hanging Gardens provide some of the city's best nonskyscraper views. Farther north, the Haji Ali shrine, a popular pilgrimage spot for Muslims the world over, sits in the middle of the Arabian Sea like an ancient island tomb. Beyond that, the brand-new Bandra-Worli Sea Link connects the south to leafy Bandra, the king of the western suburbs, where Bollywood stays and plays. In between, and beyond, lie the very things that make Mumbai so confounding, and alluring, and so quintessentially Indian.

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