How a city of 21 million people shuts down

I longed for the experience of watching a Bollywood movie in one of the old cinemas in downtown Mumbai. But when I walked towards a theatre on saturday afternoon, suddenly all the shutters went down. Shops, markets, bars and restaurants closed and people hurried to get home. Streets were deserted, everyone tried to get in front of a TV. The news spread rapidly: Bal Thackeray, founder of the right wing polical party Shiv Sena and an enormous important leader in the region, had died at the age of 86.

The highways and flyovers that lead out into the suburbs were blocked immediately, but everywhere else Mumbai turned into a ghost city. Taxis and autorickshaws went off the streets, so I had to walk to the hotel. When I finally reached it, I learned that not everybody closed because of mass mouring for Thackeray. Many people fearded the outbreak of violence after the death of the controversial figure, because members of Shiv Sena, called Shiv Sainiks, are not known for their peacefulness. My hotel owner told me that mobs went around on bicycles to enforce the shutdown. He even had to switch off the lights.

People tried to  stock up on essentials, but many failed. I saw only a few shops that kept on selling water and food underneath the shutter. Tourists walked around the streets looking for a someone to get them to the airport. But the first reports of stone throws at taxis and buses came in.

The next morning a curtain of silence lay above the city, just like a government curfew. None of the usual ceaselessly honking, no shouting, no racing along. A couple that landed at the airport in the morning faced an odyssey of buses, local trains and a lot of walking with their heavy luggage before they reached my hotel in the afternoon. Even the police of the city of 21 million people asked the people to stay indoors. Some started to become bored and irritated – because apart from two news channels all the TV programs were stopped.

But quite  soon Mumbai started adopting: I saw barbers with hawker’s trays that shaved men in house entrances, taxi drivers used their private cars (and charged at least the douple for it) and restraunts prepared take aways, given secretely through the crack of the doors. Tourists passed on messages like: “I heard the fancy restaurant in the Taj Mahal Palace is open – you can have a brunch for 21 Euros there.”

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Overbooked and overhappy

It was not later than 5 am in the morning when I arrived at the Hotel Moti International. While walking up the driveway of the gracefully crumbling colonial building, I loudly dragged along my suitcase and woke up the guard. I knocked on the door, arousing the second man who tight-lippedly stored away my suitcase and made me sit down on an ugly plastic chair in a tiled hallway.

When I couln’t stand the artificial light and the hospital atmoshpere any more, I joined the guard outside, looking for the first glimpses of light. Without any notice he went back inside, apparently to have another nap. So I sat on the stairs, waiting for everything to be fine in the end (and, as I know, this always happens).

They rouse early – and get some fresh fish from the nearby fish market.

When the birds sang loudly in the trees and the first cars started honking in the streets, the owner Raj turned up. He managed to find the note with my scribbled reservation and in many over the top nice words and explanations in a roundabout way he promised that he could made some guests leave so that I could have a room at 2 pm. I already sensed this kind of problem coming up when he initially answered my email not with “Your room has been reserved” but with “I will do my best to accomodate you”.

When I came back after lunch, the women in the room that was supposed to leave was – according to him – both pregnant and sick, so he told me he hadn’t had the heart to throw her out.  Because he didn’t want to send me away, he offerd me the room where his father normaly stays when he visits Mumbai. Maybe Raj had a bad conscience or he was looking for the money or he just liked to have foreigners around. Whaterver it was, he told me I could have it for the same price. I just needed to climb four stairs.

grandpa’s room

I agreed and was let upstairs in the very old rambling mansion house by the maid; one of the guards carried my suitcase. What I got offered was actually the most beautiful hotel room I ever stayed in: french doors to two sides, huge balconies, a rainfall shower and stucco even in the bathroom. When I leaned out on the balcony, I could even see the ocean. Wow!

And it got better: After having a tea and a nice chat with the hotel owner’s wife, she made her maid looking after me. So when I woke up the next morning first thing I saw was the maid coming in with a pot of chai and two cookies. An hour later this was followed by an omelett and toast.

enough space for a round of cricket

I even felt more comfortable when I started reading what other travellers thought about the rooms downstairs. “I have stayed at some pretty messed up places but not one disappointed me like this one”, Nina L. wrote in an entry titled “worst stay in India” and adds: “The bed linen and the towels looked like they had been used for generations. We felt so uncomfortable.” And Adam L. wrote: “It did remind me slightly of a prison cell, white washed walls and not particularly big.”

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