Chaos and Community: Embracing Mumbai and Goa, India
Traveling to India is both glorious and, well, a little intimidating. For even the most seasoned adventurer, this vibrant nation teeming with people, flavors and energy can seem more complex than other destinations, especially when it comes to trip planning. But even though cultural, religious and plain old logistical differences abound, a passage to India can be the most exciting journey you'll ever take.
Having traveled to northern India in 2010, I gained a good sense of just how helpful both patience and flexibility can be upon booking a flight to this country of 1.2 billion souls. One learns very quickly that in India everything from transportation and lodging, to dining and attractions sometimes can be not just confusing, but bewildering - especially for a solo traveler, and perhaps more so for a solo lesbian.
Not one to be easily daunted, this year I was called back for a second visit to this exotic land, this time to Mumbai with a side trip to the state of Goa. Both locales have tourist-friendly reputations, and because I have a pair of queer friends in Mumbai I was especially eager to check out this city rapidly emerging as a world capital, complete with a burgeoning gay scene.
Right away I learned that "Mumbai" is really only what tourists and maps call the city. Locals stick with the former British-colonial moniker of Bombay, and South Bombay - at the far tip of the peninsula that comprises the city - is the central location for an easier visit.
The bustling neighborhood of Apollo Bunder is home to the city’s greatest concentration of attractions. There you’ll find artistic and architectural treasures including the Prince of Wales Museum, Victoria Terminus and Crawford Market. (Note: These and other major attractions have been officially renamed in honor of Indian leaders; but for the purpose of this article I’m employing their British names, which remain common in most maps and guidebooks.)
Apollo Bunder, Colaba and adjacent neighborhoods are chock-full of quintessentially Indian sights, many of them walking distance apart, or at least a cheap taxi ride. Speaking of taxis, all of them in Mumbai are equipped with fare meters. However, most cab drivers prefer not to use meters especially in tourist areas - so upon hailing a taxi, be sure to pre-negotiate your fare before climbing into the back seat, whether it’s a long or short distance. If you’re coming from the airport, head to the Meru Cabs counter (or reserve in advance) to book a set-rate, air-conditioned taxi to your destination.
To get my geographic bearings, I headed out from my well-located, hip and affordable Gordon House Hotel to the Gateway of India - a commemorative stone arch and one of Bombay’s most-visited landmarks. The Gateway marks the pier from which ferries carry throngs to the Elephanta Caves, home to 7th-century Hindu rock carvings. It is also across the street from one of the world’s most stunning and elite accommodations, the Taj Mahal Palace. Though famous from the day construction began in 1898, the hotel gained global attention in 2008 when terrorists attacked it and 11 other nearby sites. Today the renowned hotel stands restored to its full glory and starting at about $500 per night, you too can sleep where celebrities and world leaders lay their heads. As an alternative, just stop by for affordable afternoon tea at the elegant Sea Lounge.
Dining and Shopping
There’s no shortage of dining options in Apollo Bunder, but I was sure not to miss Bade Miya, an open-air street stall just behind the Taj Mahal Palace, famous for its tantalizingly fresh chicken tikka and other grilled delectables. On the main drag that is Colaba Causeway, I enjoyed classic Indian fare cooked to perfection at Café Leopold, where I also saw the preserved bullet holes and broken glass from the 2008 terrorist attacks - both creepy and fascinating.
Colaba Causeway is the best place to catch up on your shopping for souvenirs, textiles, shoes, bags, and basically everything you could ever want to buy in India. Just remember to negotiate especially from stall vendors-a good rule of thumb is to start by offering less than half of whatever they’re asking. Or better yet, have an Indian friend negotiate for you.
My two lesbian friends, like most locals, live nowhere near South Bombay. This made for a great way to experience Bandra West, a mainly residential neighborhood further north that’s home to much of Mumbai’s Bollywood community. Where there is filmmaking, there are queers, so my gal pals also invited me to join a Gaysi Family community screening and event in their ’hood, Santacruz West. Several dozen gays and their friends packed a small community-center room to view and discuss a pair of short films about transgender life in Pakistan, with far more folks joining later on for a larger political Q&A about the country’s pivotal May 2014 elections.
Gaysi is one of a handful of invaluable organizations helping to galvanize the local LGBT community. Gay Bombay, Humsafar Trust, Mumbai Queer Film Festival, and Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action are others steadily gaining prominence thanks to their social, cultural, health, and political endeavors. Check out their respective websites, or visit Time Out Mumbai for a look at upcoming gay and lesbian events and queer resources.
With its 20 million citizens and boundless life force, Mumbai is inarguably one of the world’s most exciting cities. But perhaps what’s most intriguing about this buzzing subcontinent capital is how it manages to be both a time capsule of a convoluted past, and a harbinger of India’s sparkly, trendsetting future. My friend Urvashi Joneja, who happens to be one of India’s emerging haute fashion designers, summed it up well: "Bombay is like a city of a thousand villages, only those villages are like each of the world’s great cities thrown into one giant cauldron, and are cooking up something spectacular."
Next page for a Goa getaway
For years I’d heard that Goa was the weekend beach-getaway capital of India. Being a fan of such leisure-filled escapes, I decided to check out this lovely seaside state for myself. The first thing I noticed about the state capital of Panjim ("Panaji" in Hindi) was the abundant tourist attractions - including ubiquitous floating casinos on the Mondovi River. Even more surprising was the European architectural influence, a leftover from the four centuries of Portuguese rule that ended in 1961, and that makes it a longtime stop on the Catholic-pilgrimage circuit.
Head to Panjim’s Latin Quarter to shack up at the historic Hospedaria Abrigo de Botelho, where you’ll be walking distance from the city’s riverfront, night markets, and attractions like the Immaculate Conception Church and Goa State Museum. You can also hop in a taxi, or a rickshaw if you’re daring, to visit Old Goa’s must-see Basilica de Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the final resting place of St. Francis Xavier, whose preserved body is on display.
"Miami Beach of India"
But Goa is famous for its beaches, so many high- and low-end resorts can be found lining the Arabian-Sea coastline. Cruise south to Majorda or Colva for beach day trips, or surf activities from sailing to jet skiing to fishing. Or take the luxury up a few notches by lodging at the Goa Marriott Resort and Spa, on Panjim’s Miramar Beach. More pampering still awaits you at the five-star Grand Hyatt Goa in nearby Bambolim.
While Goa remains a relatively religious state between its heavy Catholic, Muslim and Hindu influences, word has it that both Dona Paula and Baga Beaches are the best places to catch some of the local gay vibe. But if Goa’s reputation as the "Miami Beach of India," paired with an old-school hippie influence, continues to shape this fast-evolving destination, who knows what gay old times lie ahead?