India and I got off to a bit of a bad start. When my flight arrived (at around 0300 local time), the hotel booking desk told me that all hotels were full or closed and that I would have to sleep in the mosquito-infested airport. I eventually managed to find a bed through a booking desk outside the arrivals hall, but the cost was inflated through commission charge passing-on (I did swing free transport though). On my way into Mumbai later the same day, I was hauled off the commuter train by the ticket inspector and fined (after a huge argument) for travelling in a first-class carriage with a second-class ticket (in my defence, the two are completely indistinguishable when full of people and I don’t read Hindi all that well).
On my way to the train station I came across a 2003 Rough Guide for the bargain price of Rs200, and eventually got myself settled in at the local hostel (a Salvation Army building). Almost immediately, a backpacker on his way to Hong Kong gave me a 2005 Lonely Planet. After African cities, Mumbai seemed huge and modern (a bit like London, in fact). The locals play cricket in the park for hours every day, and the university (like all good universities) has a large and ornate clock tower. I took a short commuter train ride to the northern suburbs and watched the dhobi-wallahs (laundry workers – mainly well-muscled men) at work. Laundry service in India consists of soaking the clothes in soapy water (scrubbing any particularly bad stains with a stiff brush) and then whacking them on a stone tablet for a few minutes. They are then soaked again, wrung out, spun, sun-dried and ironed with huge metal irons full of hot coals.
As predicted, the food here is a world apart (especially after subsisting on beans, greens and rice through most of Africa). People sell cheap meat-free snacks on every street corner and restaurants prominently boast that they’re vegetarian. Best of all are the thalis (set meals with a small servings of several dishes) – huge portions, sometimes all-you-can-eat, for under Rs30. I treated myself to a “special” thali for dinner today (Rs45), which turned out to have even more dishes (they just kept bringing ’em out), vegetable rice and two desserts. No cases of “Delhi belly” yet.