My very first memory of being in India was sitting in the park of a local society in Mumbai, backpack still on, mosquitoes nipping at my ankles (despite wearing hiking boots, thick socks and jeans), watching a group of senior citizens exercising together and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m actually in India!”
I had just been dropped off by an airport taxi and it was barely 6am. Too early to check into the Airbnb accommodation I had booked (but not too early for Mumbaikars to be doing jumping jacks and grocery shopping apparently!). So I sat outside, in somewhat of a trance. I must have sat on that bench for nearly 2 hours just taking everything in.
Fast forward almost 3 years, I’m still here, that initial memory feeling like a lifetime ago. It’s surprising to think that this crazy Indian city could start to feel like home. But it does.
Arriving in Mumbai can give you butterflies of excitement. It could also send you off on the next available bus to Goa. Whatever it does for you, there’s no denying that Mumbai is a thrilling experience. It’s a great city to visit for a few days or live in for a few months. Once you’ve found your footing, you’ll be hooked.
As a foreign national who has spent a year backpacking around India, a year living in Bangalore, half a year living in Goa and now living in Mumbai, I’d like to share with you some tips that have made being in Mumbai that little bit easier for me.
If you want to keep up with India, then you need to be online. I spent the first year in India largely offline, relying on Wi-Fi hotspots and travel agencies to make my bookings. I wish I hadn’t! Being online empowers you in so many ways, from booking trains, buses and flights to ordering food, to finding out which train departs from which platform, to making sure your rickshaw driver is not taking you “for a ride” – being online makes life in India so much less of a hassle and because the country has embraced digitisation in a big way, you’ll really feel left behind if you don’t too.
My Tip: As soon as you arrive in India, get a local sim card (you’ll need copies of your passport, visa and two passport photos) and stock up on data. (FYI, data is really cheap in India so even for those on a super tight budget, this is also for you!)
I’ve been stuck so many times because I haven’t had small denominations in my purse to pay for small items and transactions like auto rickshaw rides, Uber rides, train journeys, chai stops etc. Having plenty of small change with you will make your life a lot easier and will save you from getting into some frustrating situations when you’re told, ‘no change’ without any apology or offer of help.
My Tip: Ask for smaller denominations when you are exchanging your foreign currency and try to break up your larger notes in bigger establishments like sit-down restaurants where they are likely to have change available.
Whilst it is possible to get by with English, knowing a few words and phrases really helps establish a good rapport. In Mumbai especially, speaking a few words of Hindi is really appreciated by the locals and it’ll give the impression that you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t have a clue!) Here are some phrases that help me when I’m out and about – Haan ji means a polite yes (‘haan’ means yes, whilst the ‘ji’ makes it polite). Ji nahi means a polite no. Aacha means good, bahut aacha means very good. Theek hai means okay, or I understand. Mere dost means my friend. And my personal favourite, Khaana milega? which is a very informal way of asking ‘is there food?’
My Tip: For a fun and unique way to pick up some of the local language, get a child to teach you by signing up for a Clap Talk, a 75-minute classroom conversation in a local school.
This handy app has revolutionised my experience of travelling on Mumbai’s local trains. There’s a lot that happens at a train station that can be overwhelming if you’re new to Mumbai. All these things are enough to make you want to avoid travelling by local train altogether and stick with taxis. I felt the same until I started to use m-Indicator. It tells you what time the next train will depart and from which platform as well as giving real-time updates of any delays. My only wish is that I’d found it sooner.
My Tip: Download the app and start using it! Travelling by train will save you time and a lot of money.
Be aware that you are running on “Mumbai time”
Mumbai time exists outside of your regular hours meaning that it’s almost impossible to time your day or your plans efficiently. For the first month I was in Mumbai, I was either terribly late or ridiculously early. Try as I did, I just couldn’t synch in with the timing of the rest of the city. I learnt to be okay with “going with the flow” and letting the city take me at her own pace until I got somewhat used to the cities ad hoc timings.
My Tip: If you have an important time to keep, add an extra 30-45 minutes to your travel time. Traffic has the habit of catching you off guard at any time of the day, especially during festival times.
Do you live in Mumbai or have visited the city before? What advice would you give to foreigners experiencing it for the first time? Leave your comments below!