Mumbai is not much of an early-morning city. Morning rush hour peaks between 9 and 11am, and we’ve heard that the average work day runs from 10am to 7pm or so. Given my penchant for markets, industrial areas and other infrastructure-related attractions, I scheduled a busy morning visiting a few of the more unusual sights throughout the city. Some of these places are best seen at the crack of dawn.
The first stop, the Sassoon fish docks at 5am, was a little too early and smelly for Eliza’s taste, so I left our hotel in the Colaba neighborhood alone while it was still dark for the short walk to the docks. I quickly joined the throngs of sari-clad women carrying big empty plastic tubs on their heads. I entered the docks through an avenue of ice factories, fishing supply dealers, and tea shops into the early hours of the market.
Along the sides of the pier, hulking wooden trawlers were packed nose-in, 2 or 3 boats deep. Med stood on the boat decks buried ankle deep in their catch, sorting it into piles of shrimp, squid, and scaly fish of all shapes and sizes. On the pier, men and women ferried baskets of fish on their heads and on long wooden carts to stalls where they hawk their wares, organized neatly by type and size on the concrete floor.
Due to its proximity to a Naval pier, photos were prohibited so I didn’t bring a camera, but I managed to snap a few mediocre iPhone shots on the walk there. It’s always cool to see the fishing-village roots of an otherwise huge and metropolitan city. It’s a side of Mumbai that most people either don’t know about, or can’t drag themselves out of bed to see.
After stopping for a quick chai at a dockside canteen and swinging by the hotel to pick up Eliza, we caught the commuter train to the suburb of Dadar to see the tail end of the wholesale flower market. The highway underpass just next to the train station is packed with shops and stalls selling flowers, wreaths, and even full grown banana trees for temple offerings. Wandering among the baskets overflowing with bright saffron colored marigolds and sweet smelling jasmine buds was a welcome change in sight and smell from the day’s first venue.
We hopped back on the train just in time to catch sunrise through the always-open doors of Mumbai’s commuter rail cars. Riding the train in Mumbai is an adventure in and of its self. During peak hours, you literally have to fight your way into the packed cars, through a wall of men (women ride in separate cars and are generally spared the worst of the chaos), and hang out the open doors to avoid the crush. The cars were mercifully empty on a Saturday at 7am, and provided a drive-by tour of the shantytowns and highrises of Mumbai in the orange dawn light.
Our third stop, Mahalaxmi Dobhi ghat, is the most famous of the city’s many clothes washing centers. Spread over a couple of acres, dobhi ghat is lined with small concrete cubicles filled knee deep with water and featuring a smooth stone slab in the center where washer men soap, scrub, and beat the clothes of the entire city. The complex is shaded by endless lines of color sorted uniforms, sheets, jeans, and dress shirts drying in the sun.
On our way out of dhobi ghat, we stumbled upon a street vendor selling pieces of a giant paratha (flaky, chewy and delightfully greasy flat breads), topped with bright orange dhal halwa, a deliciously sweet and sticky confection made of semolina, butter, sugar, and flavored with cardamom. The combination was a totally new treat for us, as was the sheer diameter of the parathas, which were sold by ripped off a handful at a time. Stumbling across unique local snacks, especially sold in the street, is my absolute favorite thing about traveling, so the experience added another awesome note to an already eventful day.
We arrived at our final and favorite destination at 8am, just as life in the city was beginning to pick up. We hoped the odor of the Buleshwar Pandrapole would help us navigate to it, but after a few minutes of fruitless sniffing we came to a grass delivery waiting in the street, and followed a man carrying a bail of hay through alleys. The Pandrapole was opened in the mid 1800’s to shelter pigs and dogs after the British instituted a policy of shooting strays in the street at night. It now houses a variety of creatures, but the majority of space is dedicated to a hundred or so of the fattest and happiest cows, calves, and bulls either Eliza or I had ever met.
We didn’t see any milking operation there, but we assume it is also used as a local dairy. However, the cause for the cows’ excessive girth is the dozens of local Hindu devotees who come each day to feed the cows as an auspicious offering. The facility sells bundles of grass and grain laddus, baseball sized lumps of yeasty smelling oats. We of course couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feed and pet some furry friends, especially the babies, and although photos aren’t allowed, I managed to sneak a quick shot of Eliza in bovine bliss on my phone.
We made it back to the hotel before the streets got too hot and hectic, and avoided the mid day heat by relaxing in our room. Compared to the slog and smog of sightseeing in Mumbai during the day, it was an amazingly pleasant and relaxing experience, and an itinerary I’d highly recommend to anyone with a penchant for offbeat attractions and the fortitude for the early hour and occasional strong odor.