Monday, 1 July 2013

Elephants in Mumbai

We slept in a bit the following morning as the only plans we had were to take the boat over to visit Elephant Island in the afternoon, so after a leisurely breakfast we bought tickets on the ‘luxury’ boat and boarded for our trip to the island. There was nothing luxury about it, but at least we were undercover and that, along with the breeze, made the heat bearable for the journey. It took over an hour to get there and it wasn’t a particular picturesque ride over. Mumbai harbour is comparable to a junk yard of boats and floating factories.

When we disembarked we chose not to take the little toy train available from the jetty to the beginning of the stairs and instead got ahead of the crowds by walking the 500m to the long stairway leading up to the caves. It was a long, hot hike up, but it was like walking through an endless uphill market as both sides of the steps were packed with stalls selling all manner of things, which meant we arrived at the top not only hot and but also thoroughly harassed! 

Entrance into largest of the caves
Our ‘luxury’ ticket had included a free guide through the caves, part of the reason we’d decided to go for luxury, but as we found out when we bought our ticket at the entrance, a free guide comes with the entrance fee for everybody so the clever salespeople back in Mumbai were advertising something that they knew we would receive upon arrival anyway in order to make a sale… this did leave us wondering what the extra cost of the luxury ticket had in fact actually added…

Entrance into one of the smaller caves
Once we’d entered the site we had to ask around before we found our guide to cash in on our doubly gained free tour. We finally found the lady, who was sitting under a tree reading the newspaper and who was thoroughly uninterested in taking us on a tour. After a few other tourists began to gather she reluctantly got up and rounded us up into a group and finally began. The tour would’ve actually been really great had our guide been even half interested in what she was saying as the history and stories of the making of the caves was really fascinating. 

They were carved back into the rock of the mountain top over a time span of four generations. The 1st generation spent their lives doing the hard work of excavating out the rock to shape the caves, leaving massive blocks in place that would later be carved into detailed pillars and altars. Over the next three generations the decorations took place and what remains today would have been most impressive except that the Portuguese shot the majority of it up in frustration when they realised that they couldn’t pick up the gods and altars and take them with them as loot because everything was all part of the massive cave structure.

Some of the carving of a Hindu god inside
Despite the bullet holes of destruction the caves were still amazing to visit and a great place to learn about the Hindu religion and its gods and each god’s role and story. The time flew by and we soon realised we had to hurry back down the long stairway to the boat as the last one would be leaving shortly. The boat was overfilled, being the last to leave, which meant no seats for the hour trip back. A word of advice – don’t stand (or sit!) on the RHS on the return journey, we were soaked in dirty, salty water within minutes but had nowhere to move too. As refreshing as being wet was, the grime the water left on our skin was not pleasant at all.

We were starving by the time we docked so despite our salty appearance we went straight to eat before heading back to our hotel to wash off. It was actually very nice of the hotel staff to let us use the showers as we’d already checked out that morning since we had an overnight train. Once we felt clean again, although it’s a fleeting feeling in India in summer, we decided to buy some supplies as we knew this upcoming train trip was going to be a very long one. We purchased a decent amount of snacks and water to try and make the trip as comfortable as possible. 

Close-up of a god carved into the mountain
We got a bit distracted shopping and had to hurry to arrive at the station at 9pm, worried that we’d be cutting it close to departure time and knowing that if our carriage was at the far end of the station we’d have to be running to board in time. However, upon arrival we were sure that the departure board was wrong as it had our train number leaving at 1am, not the expected 9.15pm! Unsure if the announcement board was right, and with the departure time on our ticket fast approaching, we hurried to try to find out the platform number that we should go to. Of course, everybody that we asked informed us that the person with the needed information was elsewhere… Finally we found someone who knew something and they informed us that due to mechanical problems our train’s departure time was in fact the 1am time shown. 

Not wanting to sit around the station for the next 3 hours we headed out and across the road to Maccas where we stowed our bags under the table, slowly ate McFlurries and watched a few TV shows until we were thrown out at midnight – closing time. So there was no option but to go back to the station, not a nice place to be late at night. Fortunately we discovered that for 1st class ticket holders there was an air-conditioned waiting room. All the comfy couches were already taken up with sprawling Indian families all watching the one big screen TV showing highly censored Indian dramas – sadly entertaining! So we made ourselves comfy on the floor and settled in to watch the comedic show while we waited for the announcement that our train was finally ready to depart.

We ventured out to the crowded platform at 1am to discover there was still no train ready and 15 minutes later there was an announcement that the train would be further delayed. We settled in on our bags for a couple of rounds of UNO while we waited. Nearing 2am an old train shuddered in and everyone stormed it to board. We waited till the rush had died down since we had numbered seats anyway and then boarded and started to make our beds. It was still a further 45 minutes before the train rolled out so which meant that we were already 5 hours behind schedule before even setting out, but we were so tired that all we cared about was that we were lying down in air-conditioning and ready for some sleep. 

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