Mumbai - A Stop-Over We Will Never Forget
Travelling home always requires more than one flight. This year we had to take three separate flights, the first of which resulted in a stop-over of about 12 hours. We always try to see as much as possible wherever we go, and so we decided to take a six-hour excursion into the city.
We’d been told that the seafood in Mumbai is delectable, so That-Man-Who-Hadn’t-Eaten-Fish-In-Eighteen-Months went a-Googling and found a place that ticked all our boxes: Authentic, Affordable, Appetising, a.k.a. AAA.
It was also halfway between our planned photo location and the airport, which made things simpler for us.
At the airport we booked and paid for a prepaid taxi. In India this gives visitors an affordable way to reach their destination, and since it’s prepaid, there is no obligation to pay the taxi driver more than the agreed price (a common source of frustration when traveling in India). That didn’t deter the driver from trying to persuade us to pay seventy Rupees extra for the “toll road.”
Please grant me the opportunity to interrupt the story at this junction to remind you to ALWAYS remember NEVER to forget about the ONLY thing you should ALWAYS do whenever you travel ANYWHERE.
You see, we kind of did our research. Where did we plan to take photos? Where would we eat? Where could we leave our hand luggage? How would we travel? What would it cost? All of these things we had under control. But we knew nothing about the “toll road.”
The Bandra Worli Sea Link (Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link) is a gorgeous 5.6 km-long bridge, suspended 126 metres above the waters of Mahim Bay. It connects the Mumbai neighbourhoods of Bandra and Worli, and if we’d done our research properly, we’d have known that it reduces travel time between Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport and Marine Drive by more than fifty percent.
Therefore – as we had not done our research properly – instead of taking the less-crowded, faster route with views of the city from the water, we hacked our way through crowded inner-city Mumbai traffic for two hours. This disrupted our planned six hour city tour severely. You see, we had planned to take photos and video clips around Marine Drive, then have dinner at Fresh Catch, and then head back to the airport, where we’d have to pick up our bags from the Left Luggage counter before our time ran out.
While we were exploring Marine Drive, we realized that it was getting late. Fresh Catch would close by the time we could get there. So That-Man suggested that we find a place in the Marine Drive area. (Next time, we’ll have to make Fresh Catch our first stop.) We walked around for a while, and settled on the only place that looked as if it served Indian food.
The waiter directed us to a table and brought the menus. i opened it and was soon engrossed in the myriad of options available. i was not even on page three when That-Man said, “I think this is a vegetarian restaurant.” Honestly, i hadn’t noticed! But That-Man is a carnivore if he is anything, and a South African man, at that. He’s used to eating some form of animal-based protein when he goes to a restaurant. Add to that the fact that he had given up the seafood meal he had so looked forward to, and That-Man-Who-Is-Usually-Happy-With-Any-Meal was not so extremely happy anymore.
We called the waiter. He confirmed the vegetarian status of the establishment. That-Man said he really wanted to eat meat or chicken or fish, and we made our excuses from the restaurant. Needless to say, the waiters didn’t take it well at all. They told us we wouldn’t find any non-vegetarian restaurants in that neighbourhood. Still, we were optimistic.
We wandered the streets again, but could only find hamburgers, pizzas and non-vegetarian eateries. His hope dwindling, That-Man decided that since we had to return to the airport soon, it might be a good idea to grab a taxi back and find something to eat at the food court. So we found a taxi.
That-Man negotiated with the driver:
TM: “Can you take us to the airport?”
TM: “Airport, yes. Can you take us?”
D: “OK. OK.”
D: “400 Rupees.”
TM: “If I pay you 600 Rupees, can you take us to a restaurant and
wait for us to eat, and then take us to the airport?”
D: “OK. OK.”
We proceeded to get into the taxi. My, oh my! The interior (except for the seats) were covered in what we would consider to be plastic table cloth. Don’t misunderstand me when i describe it this way. It was done neatly. In fact, it was done so professionally that the materials seemed to be unworthy of the craftsmanship. The cherry on the cake, however, was the interior lights. Purple ultraviolet lights. We felt that we had fallen down the rabbit hole, and we might as well have done just that, as the night was about to take an interesting turn.
The taxi driver started asking us questions. We’d have loved to chat with him, only we don’t know much Hindi (if that was even the language he was speaking). So That-Man said, “Excuse me?” only to be replied to in the driver’s native tongue again. This back-and-forth attempt at conversation continued for a while. We were baffled by his sudden inability to speak English, until i replayed their previous conversation in my mind.
It became very clear to me that while That-Man had asked the driver full-sentence questions in English, the driver had responded with a total of four words, and when we realized that he probably didn’t speak much English, we knew we were in a teensy-weensy bit of a quandary.
The taxi turned a corner and double-parked close to no restaurant at all. We asked the driver whether we should get out. He motioned that we should wait. Then he reversed the car towards the intersection behind us. By now our minds were spinning.
He stopped. We waited. He waited. We all waited.
Should we get out and find another cab? Just as we were contemplating that option, two people passed the window and the driver called them over. He spoke to them, and then they addressed us in English.
Stranger: “Sir, do you want to go to the airport?”
TM: “Yes, but first we want to have dinner.”
TM: “Any place with good local food, non-vegetarian, and not too expensive.”
The stranger and the driver spoke to each other for a bit, then the stranger turned to us and told us that he’d given the driver a recommendation. We thanked him and the driver turned the nose of the vehicle south.
South! South was opposite to the direction of the airport, where we were hoping to go. (For those of you who might be thinking that i couldn’t possibly be certain of this fact, since we were in a totally strange city, please bear in mind that we were driving next to Marina Drive, which was on our right-hand side, and it being where it is and we going the direction we were going, i could distinguish the four compass points fairly easily.)
i maintained a peaceful poker face for a while, but as we had no way of knowing how long we would be traveling to the restaurant, i told That-Man that we were traveling away from the airport.
“What do you want me to do about it?” That-Man inquired. i didn’t have an answer to his question. He asked me whether i wanted him to tell the driver to just turn around and take us to the airport, but even if he had, it would’ve been a futile exercise, as the language barrier hadn’t magically disappeared in the past few minutes.
This exchange between us was hardly over when we turned left, then right and then left again, into a neighbourhood that seemed abuzz with late night diners at many eateries. Our taxi came to a halt by the side of the road and the driver struck up a conversation with a man who seemed to be a parking attendant. On the one side of the road there were a number of restaurants that seemed to us to be marvelous, albeit too much to handle for our wallet. To the right, a street that had intersected with ours had been dug up completely, and on both sides people were walking.
The conversation between the taxi driver and the “parking attendant” seemed to heat up, but we reminded ourselves that Indian people are not as soft-spoken as British people or those from a number of European countries, so we were not alarmed. Then our taxi parked among the throng of other vehicles and the driver switched off the engine.
“This must be it,” we thought, and asked him if we should get out of the car. “No! No!” came the answer, and we were perplexed yet again. The thought that came to my mind was that he must have made a private stop (something which we have encountered in the past). Just as my blood pressure was about to rise, an arm poked through That-Man’s window. The “parking attendant” was handing him an A6-sized, glossy, colour-printed menu.
“We need to start praying for the food,” was the only words that my mouth could form at this moment. Where was the food on this menu coming from? Why didn’t they have a place to sit? How would we be able to tell if the food was freshly made in a decent kitchen? The parking-attendant-turned-waiter jostled us to make a decision as to what food we wanted. We started placing our order, then he interjected some suggestions, and eventually we went with his recommendations (mostly). Off he went, and silence filled the car again. What now?
“Can we get out of the car now?” That-Man asked the driver. “OK. OK,” came the answer, and we propelled ourselves out like arrows from a bow. We followed the river of people, among which was our waiter, and less than 50 metres from where we had parked, we encountered Bademiya, the restaurant which would serve our dinner that evening. The staff at the two street front kitchens – one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian – prepared food at a dizzying pace. There was no question as to how fresh our food would be, and as the kitchens opened onto the street, we had no doubt as to the cleanliness.
Nestled between these two “road house” kitchens we saw the entrance to a beautiful restaurant. It turns out that this is not only a popular restaurant, but its variety of mutton kebabs are considered delicacies by discerning patrons. Unfortunately we didn’t know that before we ordered. But wait, i shouldn’t get ahead of myself.
While we were admiring the restaurant and outdoor kitchens, we took the time to take photos and video clips, and while we were still entranced by all the hubbub, we were summoned to the taxi to have our meal. That-Man went ahead of me (rather in an effort to placate the waiter than to satisfy his hunger), and when i arrived i was flabbergasted. While we were away, the driver had patented a new table – by lifting the bonnet of his car until it was fairly level. Then he covered it with some old newspaper pages, the waiter added the food, and voila! Our meal was served.
We had ordered rumali roti (a wafer-thin flatbread baked on an upside-down wok), some seek kebabs (mince kebabs), reshmi tangdi (coriander-marinated chicken), and chicken bhuna, the restaurant’s signature chicken dish. Each dish was a new flavour to us. The blends of spices and herbs were masterful, and we regretted not knowing about this restaurant earlier. We’d have loved to spend a slow evening here, sampling many of its large variety of dishes, and savouring each one.
And so it was that we ate an authentic, non-vegetarian, Mumbai dinner on a pavement off the bonnet of a newspaper-bedecked, plastic tablecloth-upholstered, ultraviolet interior-lighted, Suzuki Maruti taxi on our way to the airport that evening.
When we had devoured every last morsel, a meek bus boy approached us with a pitcher of water and a bowl to wash our hands. The meal finished, we clambered back into the cab and set off towards the airport. That-Man told me that he was more than satisfied. Even though he had not yet had the opportunity to eat the famous Mumbai seafood, he had had “an experience,” in his own words. He had been quite disappointed at not being able to go to Fresh Catch, but had prayed and asked God for “an experience.” And just as it seemed to us that we’d be forced to have airport food, the taxi driver brought us to Bademiya for that experience.
With a full tummy and a content husband, the driver told us – after he had already taken the exit – that we were going to take the “toll road” in order to get to the airport on time. This time we had no objection. Indeed, when we saw the elegant structure of the bridge and the city lights over the dark waters of the bay, we were sorry once more for not having taken this road when we’d come here earlier. It took us a mere 30 minutes to get to the airport. Of course, the airport terminal traffic, the retrieval of our left luggage and our next flight is a different, long story for another day.
At this moment, we were content with our adventure for the day – an ordinary meal found and served in an extraordinary way.
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