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Maximum Mumbai: Experience the exhilaration of life at full throttle

MUMBAI, India

It's the kind of incident that gives tourism officials nightmares: Terrorists hit a city's top tourist spots, leaving more than 170 people dead.

That's what happened in Mumbai in late November. From Chowpatty Beach to a bar popular with Westerners to the main railway terminal to a couple of five-star hotels, terrorists hop-scotched through the prime tourist district armed with AK-47s. The three-day drama, played out before an agonizingly impotent public, left both Indians and foreigners stunned.

But Mumbai is back. And it wants tourists back as well.

Twenty-four hours after the siege ended, Leopold Cafe, the backpacker bar where 10 people died, was mobbed with customers, including a Mumbai resident who drank a Carlsberg while his 6-year-old son sipped a Coke. "People should know we are not afraid,'' the man, identified only as Mr. Sharif, told reporters for the London Times.

I was in Mumbai in September, two months before the attacks. There had already been terrorist bombings in Ahmedabad and New Delhi earlier in the summer. A billboard on Mumbai's main road showed a man wearing a black balaclava, only his steely eyes visible. "They are on the lookout. Are you?" As if to defend themselves from bombers on bicycles, who had shown a proclivity for leaving explosives in trash cans, municipal workers in Mumbai turned trash bins upside down. A dirty street was apparently a safe one.

Such measures look absurd in light of the tragedy that took place, with heavily armed men arriving by sea in inflatable boats, then carrying out their carefully choreographed plan of murder and mayhem with chilling efficiency.

I tracked their movements on the map as if I were reliving my own visit — my hotel was around the corner from the much pricier Taj Mahal, scene of one of the attacks, and I had wandered by its towering but unarmed doormen and cluster of well-placed beggars. Leopold Cafe, a couple of blocks from my hotel on the Colaba Causeway, had been recommended by a friend, but it was standing-room-only the night I passed by. On a visit to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's main railway station, I had noticed a single metal detector at just one of many entrances. Throngs of people poured around the security device — rather than through it — while two police officers sat on a battered school desk, looking like men who recognized long ago the futility of their jobs.

Terrorism is nothing new to Mumbai, with six bombing incidents in the past six years.

But in a city that has the population of Florida jammed into an area the size of Pinellas County, residents can't live under lockdown. And when the vast majority of the city's 18-million residents live on less than $2 a day, fear of terrorism takes a back seat to simple survival. The reward of visiting Mumbai comes from experiencing the sheer energy that comes from seeing millions of people beat the odds and make it through another day.

People watching

In Mumbai, also known as Bombay, life is in your face at all times. The leper with no fingers is tapping on one cab window. A girl with a balloon-bellied baby is at the other. Do you want counterfeit money, wilted flowers, a toy airplane or a magazine ranking India's best business schools? Just wait for the next traffic jam, where you'll be besieged by hawkers. It may come as a surprise to learn that both spitting and honking are against the law, especially when you ride in an auto-rickshaw with a "No spitting" bumper sticker just a breath away from motorcyclists expectorating at stop lights. The horn blowing is deafening.

Delineations of all kinds vanish in Mumbai, as people jostle for a few square inches of space. Kids cluster like crows on a concrete underpass, bathed in bus exhaust. Traffic creeps around a fly-specked cow moseying down the middle of the road. On a highway median, a family huddles under a shelter of black plastic and poles. A man with a bandaged jaw slumps on an overturned planter outside a cancer hospital. Two children sleep curled like puppies on the pavement outside the Nautica store on a Sunday afternoon. Suddenly you understand the newspaper story about delivery trucks killing seven to 10 "pavement sleepers" every month.

Retailing takes on a new meaning in Mumbai. There are high-end shops and glass-enclosed malls for the city's elite. Tourists looking for handicrafts wander down Colaba Causeway, where haggling for souvenirs and silver bangles is mandatory. But most of Mumbai's residents shop at stores that are little more than slots along the sidewalk. Think of Wal-Mart shattered into SKU numbers. A store for twine, one for toilets, one for tunics, others for eggs, chickens, cell phones, photocopies. A storefront where the workers are ghostly white from grinding wheat into flour. A doorway that is nothing more than a barber's chair, a mirror and a man with a razor. A chemist that sells both Western and homeopathic remedies, one advertising a special expertise in "VD and Sex problems." A man with a square foot of sidewalk, a charcoal burner and a teapot.

Optimistic outlook

Despite terrorist threats and a grinding reality, there is an undercurrent of hope here that shames Westerners obsessed with their eroding 401(k)s and real estate values. During the annual Ganesh festival in early September, slum dwellers join movie stars in making offerings to the Hindu elephant-headed deity, believing in good luck to come. After waiting 17 hours to enter the biggest Ganesh shrine in Mumbai, one mother pinned her hopes on her son: "I want him to marry a rich woman or get a job in Dubai."

The climax of the Ganapati festival comes with the immersion of the plaster of paris idols in the sea. At dusk, families gather behind flower-garlanded Ganeshes in traffic-stopping processions with drummers or DJs and nonstop chanting, incense mixing with exhaust. The celebration doesn't end until hours later, when everyone — women in saris, toddlers in T-shirts, young boys with red-painted faces — hauls their gods into the inky water. By morning, the beach is littered with broken pieces of the discarded idols — tiny hands in the sand, elephant tusks and soggy marigolds rolling in the surf.

Mumbai is the financial capital of India's recent economic miracle, the money magnet that draws rich and poor. This is where Mukesh Ambani, No. 5 on Forbes' list of the world's richest people, is building his 27-story mansion with three helipads and six floors to house his 168 cars. It's where Bollywood stars live and work and pimp everything from bags of concrete to cell phones. Where skyscrapers named "Harmony" are rising from slums and abandoned textile mills are being turned into offices. Where Union Bank of India taps the sense of possibility and culture of familial responsibility with billboards showing a young woman with her younger sister and the slogan: "Your dreams are not yours alone."

Life, unbowed

Mumbai has monuments and museums, but they are largely overlooked as the masses go about the business of living. Even Victorian Gothic masterpieces like the city's main railway station, where 10 died in the terrorist attacks, look smudged and neglected while millions of commuters stream daily through its innards. Haji Ali, a mosque and tomb built in 1431, looks like a mirage in the sunset on its finger of land poking into the sea, but up close it's crumbling. And Marine Drive, the city's much-touted promenade along the Arabian Sea, is a dead ringer for Tampa's Bayshore Drive. Except for the beggars.

The thrill of Mumbai comes from the people. Under air the color of dirty muslin, the women are swathed in saris of shocking pink, spotlight yellow, plum purple, looking like exotic birds trapped in drab surroundings. In the midst of Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums, grinning schoolboys in gleaming white shirts practice their English as young men patiently excavate a foundation, one pan full of rocks and dirt at a time. Abandoned street kids play board games in a dank and narrow shelter under a footbridge to Mumbai's main railway station. A rail-thin man strains to pull a wooden cart loaded with a refrigerator-sized crate through rush hour traffic. In the pouring rain. Another man rides a bike with eight red propane tanks strapped to the back, a circus act escaped from the Big Top. In India, where there is a will, there is a way.

When soldiers finally crushed the terrorists in late November, the owner of the Taj hotel, where 31 people died, pledged to rebuild. "We must show that we cannot be disabled or destroyed, but that such heinous acts will only make us stronger," said Ratan Tata, head of the Tata Group, a multinational conglomerate that sells everything from telecommunications to tea.

Less than one month later, the hotel reopened.

Kris Hundley traveled to India on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The fellowship is sponsored by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

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Mumbai travel tips

Any guidebook or cab driver can direct tourists to the official sights of Mumbai: the Hanging Gardens (a park), the Gateway of India (a monument), the ferries to Elephanta Island and caves (ancient carvings). But here are a few suggestions for getting a different feel for Mumbai.

• Take the local train from Church Gate Station north to Santa Cruz, up the spine of Mumbai. For less than $2 for a first-class ticket, you get a close-up view of the city's congestion, with life right up to the rails. Go on a Sunday and have the car to yourself.

• Ask a cabbie to take you to the Dhobhi Ghat, or Laundry Place, in central Mumbai. From the highway flyover, you can see a honeycomb of concrete troughs filled with murky water where men and boys miraculously pound clothes clean. Other men scramble overhead on tin rooftops, hanging dozens of dark pants here, identical white blouses there, a string of chartreuse saris in the back. Built by the British in 1857, the Dhobhi Ghat once laundered only the clothes of viceroys and senior British officials. Today its services are used by Mumbai's residents, as well as hotels and hospitals. Figure out how clothing finds its way back to its owner and you've mastered one of the mysteries of Mumbai.

• Take an auto-rickshaw anywhere and realize that the roads of Mumbai are a lot like life in India: Ignore the rules. Honk even if it won't get you anywhere. If there's an opening, grab it. And, most important of all in a city where streets are poorly marked and addresses virtually nonexistent: Even if you have no idea where you're headed, just move.

More tips:

• If you don't already have a cell phone that works in India, make it your first purchase. A phone can be purchased from a street vendor for about $35. Warning: You'll need your passport, a local address (your hotel) and a couple of passport photos.

• Don't expect cab drivers to speak English or understand directions. Ask someone to write down the name of your destination, in both Hindi and English if possible.

• Haggling over souvenirs is expected, and don't worry about missing out on a one-of-a-kind item. Chances are good the same Ganesh-adorned T-shirt is next door.

Recommended reading

• Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (Vintage, 2005)

• Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2006)

• Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sara MacDonald (Broadway, 2004)

• A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Vintage, 2001)

Kris Hundley

On the Web

To read more of Kris Hundley's reports from India, including stories on drug testing there, and to view a photo gallery by St. Petersburg Times photographer Kathleen Flynn, go to travel.tampabay.com.

Maximum Mumbai: Experience the exhilaration of life at full throttle 01/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 1:28pm]

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