Monday, November 2, 2009

Touchdown in Mumbai

MUMBAI - First impressions of the megacity of Mumbai, population 18 million:

The airport needs an upgrade, but that seems to be coming. One big construction project is a forthcoming 5-star hotel. Also needed: a new terminal, to keep pace with growing traffic.

Flying low over the city, I am impressed by its sheer size: stretching in every direction, bordered by the busy harbor jammed with freighters, grey-sided navy ships, sailboats and mid-sized pleasure craft. At first, I think the flecks of blue I see across the city are backyard ponds; in reality, they are blue tarps serving as rooftops on improvised homes of the poor. Some 55 percent of the city's swelling population lives in slums, giving rise to the nickname 'Slumbai.' The driver taking me from airport to hotel points out the city's largest slum, then, shortly after, the jerrybuilt community, smoky trashpiles burning, where "Slumdog Millionaire'' was shot.

Motoring on into town, the traffic - motorscooters, two-wheel bikes, tiny black and yellow cabs, a man riding a white horse, ancient buses, a boy leading a goat down the street - is intense. We cross a new, 6-kilometer long suspension bridge that cuts driving time between airport and South Mumbai, where most foreign travelers go, to an hour from 90 minutes. We pass by a tall, new building. "The most expensive building in Mumbai,'' the driver says. Another massive structure: "Headquarters of Air India.'' A patch of green, men in their whites playing a game of cricket. A larger-than-life statue in a small park: Mahatma Gandhi, in his homespun and rimless eyeglasses. "Just 20 minutes to the hotel now,'' the driver promises. The ornate exterior of the British-built High Court and, finally, the graceful dome atop the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and, maybe a hundred yards further on, at the water's edge, the high ceremonial arches of the Gateway of India, fenced off and fronted by a milling, peaceful, almost festive crowd. "What the Statue of Liberty is to New York,'' the driver smiles, nodding at the seaside arch.

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