Through the miracle of flight, one can arrive at ports of call in almost any country on Earth. Statistically, I’ve often found myself touching down on foreign soils very late at night with very little sleep. Never a good mix for first impressions. I’d hoped to wait a day or two before reflecting on my first days in Mumbai, but in this eastern “city that never sleeps,” I’m guessing I’m not the only one wide awake at 3 am.
Mumbai, the seaside port formerly known as Bombay, has a history so old that it required more energy than I had on the first day to wonder through it all at the impressive Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum). Lots of places here have two names (confusing for tourist and locals alike), but quite reflective of this long history.
Mumbai, for example, comes from Marathi (the official language of the state of Maharashtra) word for “mother,” a title given the patron goddess of this area, Mumbadevi. The Portuguese traders who later set up shop here called it Bon Bahia (good bay), and the name evolved to Bombay after the Brits picked up the original seven islands as one hell of a dowry when King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza got hitched. After the Indian Independence Movement, the name stayed Bombay, but went back to the original after a nationalistic political party took power in the 1990’s. Madras became Chennai, Varanasi was Benaras. Every name change has a story, from the movement of the Mughals to the East India Trading Company, that hints at a history the front part of my Lonely Planet guide could never contain, or that one could ever finish reading- even after a 16-hour flight. Yep, 16 hours.
Living in a town so old (inhabited continuously for the last 2,000 years) is intimidating.
Hell, this whole place is intimidating. I’m humbled just trying to cross a few lanes of traffic, but somehow people have been managing it a really long time. Growing pains are pretty obvious. At around 22 million peeps, as of the most recent count, it’s a struggle to get across town. Pollution is thick and tangible, like a coat and scarf you have to take off when you come inside the house. Buildings are everywhere and range from the shockingly modern to ones that look like they’ll crumble into the Arabian Sea at the next high tide. It’s been hard to find a place here. I think it will be hard to find my place here. I look forward to a time when I feel I’ve earned the right to call it home.