We spent a lot of time moving around Mumbai as it was where we flew in/out of and the home base for the wedding, and we spent most of our time in Mumbai in a car. In Mumbai, a city where the distance between two points is measured not by kilometers or miles, but by how much time it takes to go between them, good transportation is essential.
The Importance of a Good Driver
We were lucky to have two excellent drivers through most of the trip. The first was a fellow villager who had his own driving business and took us around personally in Gujarat. He was funny and a little crazy, as I think you have to be to be an agressive driver in India. We always felt safe when he was driving and stop questioning what he was doing when he didn’t stop (or pay) at toll booths or stopped to help another driver out with a flat tire.
Though, I did have to snap this picture quickly – if you notice, we are heading in the direction of oncoming traffic on the highway. Yes, oncoming. Often crossing the highways, which are incredibly crowded, take some innovation and definitely daring. I don’t recommend anyone trying this at home. Directly after I treated myself to an ice cream. Note the little Ganesha statue on his dashboard. It must be working!
After we left Gujarat, we had another driver who took us around Mumbai. I kept seeing our driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror and finally it hit me: he had a striking resemblance to Snoop Dogg. He was the Indian Snoop Dogg! (Don’t know who Snoop Dogg is? Here’s Sensual Seduction, a favorite video of his)When I mentioned this to my fellow passengers, they were all in total agreement. A cool guy that spoke very little and often seemed to be affecting a lean in his driver’s seat, he was an excellent driver and an even better waiter. No matter what we’d do in the meantime or how long we’d take, he’d be available to pick us up after.
A driver can cost upwards of 1600-2000+ rupees/day for an A/C car that carries several people, and of course for multiple days you’ll be able to ask for the famous “discount” that will be given to you anywhere from 10-20% on the first try (usually with a calculator to make it seem more official) and possibly more if that’s your intention. I didn’t think bargaining for a driver was the best way to assure we’d have a stress-free day, and we ended up tipping our driver quite a bit at the end of the day because he really enhanced our experience. A good driver will know the routes to avoid, the streets that are already blocked and where construction is going on. Heck, he even waited when we found a coffee house and dashed inside for our fix. Nescafe isn’t bad but there’s nothing like a real shot of espresso.
Before I get any emails about contacting our drivers, they both spoke only Hindi and Gujarati, no English.
Our driver in Mumbai also gave us the added “Bollywood Star House Tour” since my friend wanted to see where the Bollywood stars’ houses were. Bollywood, a hybrid between Bombay and Hollywood, is the “home” of the Hindi language film industry, though there is no sign on the side of a hill somewhere. In India there are several film industries, divided by language, Bollywood being the biggest.
At first it seemed strange that even a driver would know where they were, but I realized that everyone knows everything about these Bollywood stars and they can’t buy a house without the whole world knowing about it. There are even websites with Bollywood star addresses on them. You come to recognize their houses, too – tall, 20-ft walls often with barbed wire at the top and several guards standing at the bottom, guarding the gates.
We saw both of Amitabh Bachchan’s houses. Not sure who he is? Besides being one of the most popular Bollywood actors (since the 60s), he is the father of Abhishek Bachchan, and therefore Aishwarya Rai’s father-in-law. You know, that stunning blue-eyed Indian woman often called the most beautiful woman on the planet. On a side note, I’m looking forward to seeing Amitabh’s debut in an international film in Mira Nair’s (Bend it Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding) next film – the adaptation of the book “Shantaram” with Johnny Depp as the lead! My friend loved this book but I haven’t read it yet. We also saw Shah Rukh Khan’s apartment and Hrithik Roshan’s house which had several fans standing outside it.
Bollywood movies are typically characterized by a love story (usually with a family element of conflict) interspersed with large musical dance numbers and the couple will never kiss. I loved the old-school musicals from Rogers & Hammerstein (Oklahoma, Sound of Music, etc.) so I fit right in with the Bollywood fans. I started watching them several years ago when my (Indian-American) friends introduced me to them. More recently, Bollywood films are becoming more controversial and modern – including a kiss, the women are not wearing saris all the time, and action, sport and period-pieces are being explored.
If you’re interested at all in Bollywood movies (and music), their popularity is often tied to their soundtracks and vice versa. Songs are not always the traditional “cat singing in a long alley” that I’ve heard said about the female voices singing in Hindi (which I find beautiful, anyway), but incorporating more modern beats like bhangra, techno or R&B rhythms.
Some of the songs we heard over and over are from these movies (song names in parenthesis) – Om Shanti Om (Main Agar Kahoon, Deewangi Deewangi), Bhool Bhulaiyaa (Bhool Bhulaiyaa), Partner (Soni De Nakhre, Do u Wanna Partner), Jab We Met (Mauja Mauja, Yeh Ishq Hai) and Heyy Babyy (Mast Kalandar, Heyy Babyy). And Welcome (Welcome, Insh Allah, Kiya Kiya) is turning into a big hit for 2008. If you enter these movie or song titles into You Tube, there are a lot of videos available, or you can listen to Bollywood Music Radio online or, if you need your music now, I tried out Amazon’s MP3 (DRM-free, can be played anywhere!) Download service over the weekend and I was pretty happy with it – fast and cheap! I was even happier to find some of the songs I heard in India available online. I only brought back one CD with me (and 8 movies) so I’ll be stocking up now that I have instant gratification! I added some Bollywood albums and movies to my Amazon store, and I’ll keep adding as they become available – most of the ones I listed are still in theaters.
The trucks in India seem to have a higher suspension system than I’m used to, making the truck very tall for a short body, and the bumper coming to your windshield level. But what really struck me is how colorful all of the trucks were. The names of the operators were written on the side door of the cab, which was often cracked open to let some extra air in and perhaps to provide some entertainment during the long, boring trips.
Almost every truck or rickshaw / tuctuc car had this phrase painted on it “Horn Ok Please”
And by what I witnessed of the use of the horn, I would say everyone is Ok with the horn. I kept waiting to see one that said “Try the Horn…See What Happens” or “Screw the Horn” or even the simple “Horn NOT ok.” I never saw one.
The road is everywhere and everwhere is a road
Here’s a clip of one of our memorable car moments driving on the highway in Mumbai – Bombay. The music in the background (playing in the car) is from Heyy Babyy – Mast Kalandar. Thanks to Deirdre for the video software tip.