A First Class Indian Adventure Part 8: A Food Filled Reunion On The Streets Of Mumbai

Our driver dropped us off at Madurai airport just as check in had opened. The security guard watching over the entrance to the terminal building politely asked us about our travel plans whilst he checked over the documentation for our upcoming journey. We were let through into departures and luckily found that there was nobody in the check in queue for our flight. Check in was painless enough and better still the agent managed to confirm our bags all the way through to our final destination of Mumbai. Checked in we headed up to security where we thought there was quite a queue building up, though strangely enough it turned out everybody stationed by the checkpoint was waiting for an incoming arrival. There were as many onlookers as passengers at Madurai Airport that afternoon. I spotted two small lounges, a CIP and a Reserved Lounge but neither offered Priority Pass access so we decided we’d just stay on the concourse with everyone else.

With nothing else to do we attempted to go through security but were asked to wait as yet again we were too early.

Fifteen minutes later our flight was called and thankfully we were able to pass through nice and quickly to the air side departures hall.
The departure area was small consisting of two clothes shops, one of which had what in my eyes was a rather inappropriate name, no matter how premium the goods were.

There was also a jeweller, souvenir shop and a small food stand which I paid a visit to.

Anne-So picked up a small gift for her family whilst I ate a rather late lunch of an egg puff, Pepsi and a vile tasting Tango Max Crunch bar supposedly containing chocolate, but not tasting like it.

Flight: Jet Konnect 9W2728 IXM to MAA
Depart: Madurai 16:30
Arrive: Chennai 18:00
Seats: Seats 5A and 5B (Economy)
Aircraft: ATR 72-500 (VT-JCM – First Flight 28/05/2008)

Boarding was soon announced and we moved downstairs towards the gate area. A short while later it began and continuing our run of good fortune we were amongst the first group of passengers to board the aircraft. Though on the flip side we found ourselves disappointingly seated towards the front of a turboprop again.

Our boarding passes were scanned and our bag tags were checked before we were allowed to enter the waiting bus.
It was a brief drive to our ATR 72-500 and we climbed aboard its tiny frame anticipating a straightforward domestic hop to Chennai.

Before take off a lucky young boy got a quick visit to the flight deck. I have to confess that I was just a little bit upset that I didn’t get to join him. Thankfully our crew that day clearly seemed more interested in us passengers than on our previous flight with Jet Konnect.

In another exciting development we were also treated to a relaxing jazz number to prepare us for take off rather than the 80’s power ballads of our previous flight. We were soon up in the air and from the window we were lucky enough to witness a wonderful view of Madurai. The truly stunning scale of the Meenakshi Amman Temple with the sun reflected from one of its golden towers was a spectacular way to say goodbye to this leg of our voyage.

The flight was short and in contrast to our expectations we managed to both depart early from IXM and arrive ahead of schedule into MAA. There was not much else to report from this flight other than a brief buy on board service offering.

There was something comforting about the hum of the propellers on this ATR that had me dreaming of a more adventurous age of flying (a childhood of being read a racism redacted version of Biggles by my Dad no doubt helped).

Then I sadly opened my eyes and remembered I was aboard a modern commercial airliner. Still, I was so excited that I even shot a short video of our taxi to the gate at MAA!

On arrival at Chennai we got on to our bus for a short ride to domestic arrivals. Anne-So insisted we checked the baggage belts in case Jet hadn’t set up the transfer of our bags to the connecting flight properly. Thankfully they had and there was no need to worry. Transferring was an easy enough process, we simple went up two floors and back through the baggage scanners followed by another security pat down.

Flight: Jet Airways 9W470 MAA to BOM
Depart: Chennai 19:10
Arrive: Mumbai 21:10
Seats: Seats 16E and 16F (Economy)
Aircraft: 737-800 (Reg Unknown)

We were faced with a short wait at the gate before boarding commenced and for once there was the rare luxury of a jet bridge to take us to our aircraft.

As we walked towards our plane we wondered if the full Jet Airways experience would differ much from the two fairly indifferent Jet Konnect flights we’d experienced so far.

We are warmly welcomed aboard what looked like a brand new Boeing 737-800, complete with mood lighting and the newer style of over head bins. With a twang of jealousy we passed through three rows of big 2-2 recliner seats in Premiere and continued to walk our way to row sixteen, expecting the usual half empty flight we had experienced so far on this trip. In the end we couldn’t have been more wrong, our departure to Mumbai that evening ended up being absolutely rammed!

Sharing our side of row sixteen we had a seat mate who appeared to be a British journalist already occupying the aisle seat; Anne-So squeezed by him into the window seat with poor old me stuck in the middle.

The seats were comfortably cushioned, the pitch was not bad, but the shoulder width was rotten, especially when your seat mate had laid claim to the arm rest! This was a claim I was not going to dispute as it wasn’t like I was about to start an argument with a journalist… Our flight rapidly filled up and from the crew’s welcome to the onboard announcements and their enthusiastic safety demo the experience felt much like one of the better BA flights on any of our numerous hops over to France.

It was not long before we took off in to the Chennai night, the bright lights of the extensive airport trailed behind us as we headed out in to unknown. Once we’d levelled out and the seat belt signs were switched off we were treated to the luxury of a full hot meal service in economy, no wonder Jet Airways went bust! Being India the choice was chicken or veg, rather than the stereotypical beef! I chose the chicken, Anne-So went for the veg and our neighbour the journalist took a hit of curry sauce right across his shirt. Judging from the mess I assumed it had clearly worked up quite an appetite!

For drinks there was a water bottle, followed by a tea and coffee run which paired happily with the sweet and sickly cake slice to finish off the meal. The one difference to a 2014 flight on BA was that no alcohol was served aboard as this is was forbidden on Indian domestic flights. Overall I thought that the meal was quite nice, though I did miss my G & T!

With the tasty meal service now over I spent some time reading through the in-flight magazine with two articles catching my eye, the first was about the rise of the gastropub in India and the second was on the new found popularity of EDM in the country, both of these developments left a slightly sarcastic smile on my face.

It was soon time to land and in keeping with the majority of our flights we touched down ten minutes early, only to wait just as long for the jet bridge to be attached. Disembarking was slightly more courteous than our experience on the low cost carriers of SpiceJet and IndiGo as on the whole passengers let the row in front of them off first. Overall that was our best internal flight in India by quite some distance, it’s a shame we will never get the chance to fly with Jet again.

We got off the plane and made the short walk to baggage reclaim, our bags were even amongst the first ten off.

After diligently following the signs for the exit, there was another stroke of good fortune as I spotted our sign-holding driver almost immediately.
Though we almost missed him after this rather frightening advert captured our attention!

We walked over to the waiting hotel branded Toyota where we made ourselves comfortable whilst our bags were popped in the boot. We soon exited the terminal and drove headlong into that wonderful chaotic spectacle of downtown Mumbai by night.

Hotel: Residency Fort Mumbai
Room: Club Room
Status: N/A

Sadly things went a little down hill from this point onward. The lack of attention to detail shown by the staff during this car journey typified our overall impressions of hotel Residency Fort Mumbai. We noticed that water bottles had thoughtfully been placed in the car, which are always a godsend after leaving the cool confines of an air-conditioned airport. Unfortunately both had been opened already, with the one on my side being near enough finished, yuck! I don’t know if they hadn’t bothered to clean up after the previous passengers or if they just thought it was normal to drink from a strangers half used bottle. On the up side we took a scenic route to the hotel, past the lofty, lit up skyscrapers and through the hustle and bustle of Chor Bazaar that we’d visited at the beginning of our trip. We continued our drive past a beautifully illuminated CST Station and were it not for the cacophony of honking horns we could almost have been on the Euston Road in London, whizzing past the magnificent St Pancras Station. Shortly afterwards we pulled up outside our hotel, Residency Fort Mumbai.

Like with the car service our first impressions on arrival at the hotel were also positive. Our bags were brought out from the car and I was welcomed by name. Then, just as with the car service those first impressions went largely the same way… I then had to wait at the front desk to check in only to be asked for my name again, eventually having to point it out on the list of guests held by the check in clerk. We continued on with formalities and we stupidly decided to leave our passports at the desk to be copied, rather than just insist on waiting so we could take them back straight away. If we’d read our trusty guide book properly before booking this hotel we’d have known that, “there are odd oversights that shouldn’t happen in this price range.” By the end of our stay I could not agree more with that statement. It wasn’t completely my choice to stay here as I really wanted to finish our trip in style at the Taj Palace but sadly our budget didn’t run to the nicer club rooms that would have made the expense worthwhile and instead of cutting my losses and negotiating another night at the Oberoi, I stuck to the numbers and this was what we got!

Our room was a Club Room and that was apparently the better of the two categories offered by the hotel. Also included in our rate was free WIFI and a buffet breakfast. The Club Rooms were located in an annex building a few doors down and the entry corridor to them was secured with a key card entry system. It looked modern, safe and secure and felt like it would somehow keep the city-stench outside at bay. Though of course there was another cloud to break any obvious silver lining and that meant that the Laurel and Hardy sketch continued when we tried to go up to our room using the lift. Due to the vintage nature of the lift it was not working because the previous occupants had left the manually operated door open which then left the lift inoperable for safety reasons. Cue a member of staff scurrying up the stairs to rectify the situation and shortly afterwards the lift came tumbling down to meet us. We all crammed in to it against our better judgement, thinking perhaps it was just the hotel’s famous Mumbai “rush hour crush” simulator. The whole thing had a rather noticeable whiff of New Zealand Town from Flight of the Conchords about it. In the end we rode successfully up to the third floor where our room for the night was located.

As seemed to be the case during our stay at Residency Fort Mumbai, almost every good first impression was dashed by shoddy execution and our room was no different.

At first glance I thought our room looked great: there was a nice TV, surround sound speakers and everything looked near enough brand new.

The bathroom products were two bars of soap, a sachet of conditioner that looked like a free sample that had been gleaned from the local supermarket and a shampoo dispenser. The dispenser looked like it had never been cleaned.

There was also a fridge in the room, but it didn’t seem to work. Inside were two unlabelled bottles supposedly containing water, from where, who knew!

The bed at least seemed comfortable so I caught up with writing this trip report before calling it a night. Though not before being sent down to pick up our yet to materialise passports that I’d almost forgotten about!

After a solid sleep we woke up and it quickly became evident that we were faced with a day of over eating, starting at breakfast. We headed down to the ground floor and walked somewhat inconveniently down the street to the Spice Lounge Cafe in the hotel’s main building where breakfast was served. The Spice Lounge Cafe was bright and clean with a great view of the street which allowed for some decent people watching activities. We soon spotted the buffet and a made to order eggs station. I stocked up on some much missed pastries, juice and coffee. I thought the coffee was drinkable but the juice was awful and probably contained about as much orange as a Churchill Martini contained vermouth. The pastries were a little dry but perfectly edible. In addition to the buffet I ordered a chilli omelette and some toast.

The omelette was nice but for some reason had a heart carved into it and a garnish of three cold chips and whilst latte art and perhaps towel art have their place, I’m left unconvinced by omelette art!

Again, I thought the intention was good but once more there was definitely something odd in the execution!

I felt pretty full so we headed back up to our room to clean our teeth. That morning I received a message from my sister that something bad had happened in the family and to call her when we got back. Checking Facebook, her status mentioned two funerals, one we knew was coming, the other we didn’t. I now had the fun of an emotional parent to deal with on our return to the UK.

We went out for a short walk before it got too hot, continuing down the road from the hotel to the Horniman Circle and looping back just as the masses were arriving for work. It also gave us the chance to have another go at photographing some of the famous Mumbai landmarks that we’d passed on our walking tour at the beginning of our trip.

On our way back to the hotel we bumped into N & G a little earlier than planned and caught up on each others adventures whilst walking past the Oval Maiden. Whilst we travelled on to Mamallapuram and Madurai they had decided to remain in Alleppey before completing the forty hour train journey to meet up with us in Mumbai. Ironically their train pulled into CST at the same time as our flight touched down. They had spent the morning leeching WIFI from the nearby Starbucks, catching up on the world just in case you were wondered what they were doing in such a place. We continued back to the hotel to check out.

For lunch we picked out Pradeep Gomantak Bhojanalaya, a place near our hotel that was famous for serving the local Malvani cuisine from the state of Maharashtra. We all ordered their famous rice plates; I went with the chicken masala plate and everyone else picked the veg plate.

We each got a silver tray with two mounds of rice, bread and solkadhi, a drink from Maharashtra’s coastal region, made from coconut milk and kokum that gives it a pink colour.
My plate came with an on the bone chicken curry and a gravy.

The food was tasty though it didn’t quite meet the hyperbole of of our guide book’s description. I definitely don’t recall it being, “so fresh you can taste the individual flavours dancing with one another.” With the mercury rising outside and inside we were soon full up. Someone suggested coffee and being the coffee snob I wanted something good (though looking back I think I had a very poor idea of what was good back then). With the fun time we’d been having I suddenly remembered about the death in the family. Knowing who it wasn’t but not who it was had been weighing on my mind all morning and I’d rather have known all the details or just been told the following day when we’d returned home.

To protest my death ridden angst, I forced everyone to walk to Khala Ghoda for coffee. Although not far away in distance it was not the most enjoyable walk as we lost both time and sanity to the stifling heat that was amplified by the vast swarms of suited office workers returning to their hives after lunch. If that wasn’t enough we came close to an argument after a wrong turn caused by our lack of familiarity with the city almost got the better of us. For me it all felt absolutely worth the pain when we entered the trendy looking Khala Ghoda Café and enjoyed every hipster coffee shop cliché from the fashionably casual serving staff to the Scandinavian-influenced interior design.

Whilst it was easy to mock, my double espresso was the best coffee I’d had in weeks and really lightened my spirits ahead of the afternoon.

We finished up our drinks and walked back to the hotel to meet our guide from Reality Tours and Travel who would be in charge of our afternoon adventure. Thankfully he was still there and we were only twenty minutes late in the end. At this point in time we had no idea of what awaited us. Sure we’d read the description and the reviews but we didn’t understand how the next few hours would shape our lives in a positive fashion in the years that followed.

We had checked the night before if N & G could join us on the tour and as we met our smiling guide in the lobby he explained that we’d paid for him and the car for the evening so two or four people made no difference. Well, it did to the leg room as he squeezed the four of us and our bags into the waiting car outside. We drove off and our guide ran through the itinerary and whilst some of it felt familiar from our time in the city earlier in the trip, he listened to what we had seen and what N & G had not and did a great job of keeping it fresh, showing us things from different angles to our other guides.

Our tour commenced with a scenic trip down Marine Drive where we started our Indian adventure some two weeks earlier at The Oberoi.

We hopped back in the car and continued our drive to Chowpatty Beach, where we not only enjoyed the view but also had our first try of Mumbai’s famous street food.

When I booked our tour I misunderstood how it worked. Thanks to some rather precise details on their website (now removed – though the link takes you to the current version of the tour) I thought that we’d start our tour with the tourist destinations and that we’d finish it off with the foodie elements later in the evening. Instead everything was mixed together and it turned out that we’d be happily stuffing ourselves to death for the remainder of the day.

Our first dish on the sands was the Chowpatty Beach speciality, pani puris; little crisp balls filled with spicy potato that were then dipped into two sour sauces.
The puri must be downed in one go unless of course you want to soil your clothes!

They were delicious enough that despite being pretty full we ordered two more rounds before our next dish. Pani puris are now a favourite in our household and we love a meal at Roti Chai back in London just for a portion of these little magic balls.

They were very good indeed and have also become another firm favourite.

This dish had all the potential to become another household staple, especially as I later found out that it was very simple to recreate at home. One lonely evening I did just that, but my packet of butter was a little out of date. Sparing you the detail, it took me three long years to eat Pav Bhaji again after that, after all there’s only so long you can deny its buttery goodness.

It was just what we needed to end the meal, even though I was about to burst!

Thankfully our next stop was not food related; the Banganga Tank that supposedly carried water from the Ganges thanks to a fantastic myth: Rama and his brother Lakshmana were searching for Sita during their exile into the forest. On reaching the spot where the tank stands today, Rama shot an arrow into the earth and a fountain of water from the underground Ganges sprouted up. Since the water appeared due to the ground being pierced by an arrow or ban in Hindi it became known as Banganga.

The space itself in the middle of town was as remarkable as the story of its creation.

It was a place often used for funerals serving those without the means to transport their loved ones to the Ganges for their final resting place. Shaving ones head is seen as a sign of mourning the dead here, and seeing the shaven headed young men at the waters edge felt particularly poignant that day.

After the tank we then spent some time at the Babu Amichand Panalal Jain Temple a few minutes up the hill.

The next stop on our tour was Mani Bhavan, a museum dedicated to Gandhi and housed in his beautiful old Bombay headquarters.

Despite spending time with Gandhi the previous morning we couldn’t take our eyes away and spent more time here than we thought possible, wandering round the museum and observing some interesting models recreating key moments in Gandhi’s life.

We’d seen a lot of sights and it was now time for a little afternoon snack! We continued on to Chor Bazaar for what must have been the third time on our trip, but this time it was quite a different visit! Yes, we’d be seeing it from a foodie perspective and although not the least bit hungry I was still excited. We entered Chor Bazaar from the opposite side to our initial trip and finding ourselves stuck in traffic an interesting soul decided to try his best to help everyone out.

We felt that his jockeys hat didn’t do him any favours.

Our first stop was at J. J. Jalebi for some deep fried sweets that were as roof of the mouth melting hot as they were delicious.

To extinguish the molten goodness in our mouths we moved on to Taj Ice Cream, the oldest ice cream shop in Mumbai where we tried some fresh fruit ice cream.

Ironically it took us to our last day in India to finally visit one of the places Rick Stein stopped off at on his TV tour of India!

After all that excellent vegetarian food it was time for some meat!

We arrived at the half stall/half restaurant of Azad Fast Food and immediately received an eyeful of brains, kidneys and livers sitting raw and unappealingly waiting to be cooked on a shiny silver tray.
Our guide set us down at a table whilst we looked on apprehensively.
He ordered us both veg and non-veg plates. We were served an egg and chicken roll, a chicken sandwich and another chicken dish whose name I cannot recall.
After that final round of food we took a walk by the mosque and tried our best to people watch between the crowds, pot holes and honking horns of vehicles great and small.

We passed the giant mosque just as the call for prayer commenced and being able to get a look up close we enjoyed the amazing marble work that was covered up with a large canvas dome to protect it from Mumbai’s horrific air pollution.

We crossed the street towards our waiting car, whilst our guide hailed N & G a taxi. I shot a short clip to help you feel the rhythm of the city, turn up your speakers before pressing play!

As we headed north towards our final destination, we parted ways with N & G. They were in the back of a cab to Colaba and we continued on to Bandra home of the Bollywood stars.

We said our farewells and watched their taxi speed off into the night with no idea when we’d see each other again.

Having them with us had been a superb and unexpected addition to our trip that has given us so many happy memories.

Our driver did his best to help us escape from the Mumbai crowds and out on to the main road.

As we drove north along the Worli Sealink we saw the towers of Mumbai lit up in all their beauty.

Our drive continued up hill into Bandra to learn about the two famous Khan’s of Bollywood, one a rags to riches tale and the other from a film industry family.

As we strolled along the Walk of the Stars we initially felt we could have been somewhere else; Miami Beach or perhaps the Southbank in London. Though Mumbai has so many different faces all of which feel uniquely Indian once you shake off the dust on the surface and without doubt this was definitely a Mumbai face if you bothered to take a proper look. Interestingly this walk was removed less than a year after our visit, despite only having opened in 2012!

Our time in India had now come to an end. We began the slow traffic filled drive to the airport: clutch, brake, horn, repeat. The tall air traffic control tower looked magnificent in the night sky, as did the new terminal building with its Gaudi inspired tree trunk like columns reaching for the heavens. It was a real shame we missed passing through it by a matter of weeks.

We pulled up to Gate D for drop off about an hour earlier than planned where we tidied our things and parted ways with our friendly driver and excellent guide. We got our documents checked and continued on in to the terminal building. The BA desks were still being prepared so we freshened up, re-hydrated and switched our rupees back into pounds at the typically preposterous airport exchange rate. Our Indian adventure was almost over but what I didn’t know was the adventure that life would take us on over the following twelve months and whilst this trip was not the light at the end of the tunnel it was definitely the torch that helped us find our way.

A First Class Indian Adventure

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