MUMBAI - The best way to learn the lay of the land in a new place is to hire a professional guide on your first full day and have a look around. See the places you like best, find out where they are. You can go back later and spend more time in the places you like best.
In India's largest city, with a population variously reported at 18 million, 20 million and above, this proved to be a sound strategy. I spent $72 U.S. for an air-conditioned car (important - it's hot in Mumbai), with a driver and the services of a professional guide from the India tourism offices. It was money well spent. The guide was good. In a bit of plug-o-la, I want to mention her and how to reach her; she is allowed to take freelance clients:
(Ms.) Ranjana Jain, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. 9833015701.
In a city the size of Mumbai, there are many things to do, and many things that stay in the mind. Two memories I'll take away: my visit to a central-city Jain temple, and hearing my guide clue me in to the city's enterprising, grassroots lunchtime delivery service.
The incense-scented temple, located in a busy, leafy midtown district, is a place of worship for Jains, 4 million strong, adherents of a religion founded in India by a contemporary of Buddha. My guide, whose surname is Jain, didn't identify herself as a believer, but she knows a lot about the religion. Basically, Jains believe in causing no harm and leaving the smallest-possible footprint on the planet.
"They don't eat root vegetables, because pulling out the plant means you kill the plant,'' she explained. "Also, you'll see people wearing surgical masks.'' Indeed, I did. "That way, they believe they will breathe-in fewer microbes. Also, they won't breathe germs on the statues in the temple, which are sacred.''
I thought my family and the school nurse when I was a kid were germ-adverse, but I had no idea.
Moving on around town, my guide pointed out a man pedaling a heavily laden bicycle.
"Are those his belongings?'' I asked.
"No, they are lunchboxes,'' she explained. Most Mumbai workers are men, and they live in the far suburbs and commute to work by train. The trains are so crowded, passengers can't even think of carrying anything. But many commuters like fresh-made lunches from home, not restaurant lunches. So, the wives pack a home lunch, these riders - called dabbawallas - pick them up in the suburbs and pedal back into town. The boxes are color-coded and marked with symbols - helpful in a country where many people are illiterate. The customers are regulars, they pay by the month. The dabbawallas drop off the lunchboxes at the work sites, pick them up again later and take them back to their owners' home. The next day it all starts again.
"This is unique to Mumbai,'' she said. "They are always on time, very punctual, very regular.''
In fact, the service - run by a private, 100-year-old organization with 500 stakeholder-riders, is so well-regarded, "Many management schools in India invite them to lecture on time-management.''
When you are in a place as crowded as Mumbai, necessity really is the mother of invention. Even in the heart of the city's apparent chaos, you must look closely: Sometimes, there is unseen order hidden just under the surface.