My girlfriend Faye woke me at midnight to say that she couldn't
use the bathroom because there was a "mouse or something" in the toilet.
Please let it be a mouse, I thought. A tiny dead little mouse that
would flush away easily and be forgotten about straight away.
"It wont flush" She said. "It keeps swimming and looking at me"
At this point she refused to have anything else to do with the bathroom.
Clearly action was called for. It was time for a man to take over.
Somewhat tentatively I approached the toilet in the end suite of the
grotty hotel room we were renting in Mumbai's Coloba district and very
slowly lifted the lid, with my boot. I dropped it again straight away
when I saw what was lurking beneath the lid. A big black soggy angry
looking Bombay rat locked eyes with me. Help me out of here and
I might let you live it seemed to say.
I felt weak. It's amazing how helpless one feels seeing a big horrible
foreign rat swimming in ones toilet bowl late at night. I was struck with
a sense of injustice. Surely this was the final straw, it certainly
summed up our holiday so far and certainly the end of our second night
It had become quite eventful as soon as we left London. We had got
stranded in Amsterdam because they'd overbooked our flight and attempted
to palm us off with a nightmare itinerary. I complained about this.
Three hours (and much more complaining) later we were in a shuttle bus
on Amsterdam's rain soaked streets on our way to a nice 4 star hotel on the
outskirts of town, with one of the other Bombay passengers who'd been bumped.
He was called Kumar, a British Indian management consultant who has to work
in India often. Kumar doesn't like India a whole lot, he prefers Leeds.
He was in a doubly bad mood, not only did he have to go to India again,
KLM had also made him miss the thing he had to go for however he still had
to go to explain why he wasn't there.
Then on the flight we were all separated and I had to spend the whole
8 hours sitting next to 2 ex-pat Indians who were telling me how horrible
they thought India was:
"As a white man you're a walking target." Said the man sagely "Don't
carry any money or they'll come up to you and get it." Added the woman sadly.
"And don't use the trains" She said. "Oh yes, never use the trains, and the
taxis, oh MAN those guys are gonna rip you off." said the man again
beginning to warm to his subject.
At the end of the eight hours I had learnt not to trust anyone, not to
stay anywhere, not to eat anything or go anywhere, not to buy anything at
all and under no circumstances to drink any form of water. I was also to
watch out for bandits, murderers and robbers who frequent trains. I also,
they advised me, shouldn't let Faye out of my sight as she wasn't likely
to last more than 5 minutes.
By the time we disembarked my nerves were frazzled. Kumar gave us 1500
rupees because he was worried that we would be stranded. Which was lovely
of him but just made me even more nervous.
The trip to the hotel was like nothing I've ever experienced before.
The driving is insane. No Indian vehicles have wing mirrors, few have
indicators and use of the cabin mirror is apparently optional. Before
maneuvering you're just meant to blow your horn and hopefully everyone
gets out of the way. Taxis I've been in have missed bikes, cars and
pedestrians by inches, usually with both the driver and the other vehicle
completely oblivious to what just happened.
The night taxi through Bombay as well was truly grim. Miles and miles
of slums, and the constant reek of petrochemicals and sewage. It looked
scary out there and we were glad to get to the hotel room.
We'll go for a nice walk we thought the next morning, and get some
breakfast and see the town. According to the map in the guide book it
should only be 20 minutes away and they are always accurate.
Twenty minutes later we were in the middle of a slum street fighting
our way through crowds of homeless children asking for money. One little
girl was attached to my arm. Literally. Whenever I pulled my hand away she
held on. If I raised my arm three feet, she came three feet off the ground.
It was hard to walk due to all the filth on the ground too, and my liberal
guilt meter was on high alert as I thought how much I had complained when
I'd found out save the children had taken 3 pounds a month out of my account
instead of the one I'd been cajoled into giving them. I have literally
never seen poverty like that before. So far the worst place I'd been to was
Wales. I hadn't thought things got much worse than that, but they do.
There are places worse than Wales. A sobering thought indeed for the
We then got a taxi to the Gateway To India. True to form it was nowhere
near where the guide book said it was. Before the car had stopped we were
surrounded by touts selling tours. As soon as one gave up another took his
place. Once we'd escaped them we were besieged by people selling giant blow
up skittles, of all things, then peanuts (sellers that is), holy men and
Asian tourists wanting to have their photo taken with the exotic westerners,
more tour touts and some more beggars. Then of all things what looked
like a holy peanut seller took an interest in us. Bombay is seething,
there are people everywhere and it seemed like about 40pc of them wanted
to wring money out of us.
There was no escape! It was actually (and I never thought Id say this)
worse than last years Notting Hill Carnival.
We found a very nice restaurant (thank God) Gave up on the idea of
shopping for anything and were fleeced again for a taxi back to the
hotel. My nerves at that point were wired with culture shock, heat
and jet lag.
That was why I was uniquely poorly placed to deal with the monstrous
toilet rat. I wanted to close the lid, put something heavy on it and forget
about it. Faye was unimpressed so I had to call reception instead on the
clapped out phone that was partner to the broken fridge in shoving our
semi condemned hotel room into a "mid range" price bracket..
"A rat, a rat R-A-T. In the toilet. Please can you send someone
to remove it?"
" (something in Hindi) (long pause) Errrmm uuuhgh."
The line went dead and for a long time no one came. Then what luck!
A frail old porter (they call them The Boy whatever age they are) came
by on another errand. I forced him into the bathroom and made him look
at my rat. "Flush" He said "flush, flush."
"It - wont - flush - it - swims."
He went away and eventually came back with a newspaper and a stick.
I watched in amazement as he restrained the beast with the stick,
picked it up in the paper and then hurled it squeaking from the window.
I felt like getting on my knees and thanking him. The dreadful toilet rat
that had been so much a part of our lives for an hour was gone. He surely
was the hardest man in the world at that point. I gave him 10 rupees instead.
So everyone was happy. We'd got rid of our rat. He'd got 10 rups and
the rat had got out of the toilet (admittedly to be hurled to certain
death three storeys down but never mind).
That was our first 2 days and things got much better since. We went
straight to Matheran, a beautiful forest village high on a hill with
stunning views of the Maharashtra region. There are no cars there and most
people get around on horses (Fayes scared of them though) and hand
rickshaws (ideological problems with that one). We stayed in a lovely hotel
run by a charming Christian family. Went on lots of walks and generally
recharged. We met some lovely people and had tea in an elderly guide's
house while he regaled us with tales of all the BA Air Crews that he'd
shown around Matheran and showed us the letters they had sent to him since.
We saw monkeys and decided we didnt like them and we stayed out of the
way of the crowds from Bombay who came to celebrate Republic Day,
which far from whipping them up into an anti-British fervour seemed
to make most of the Indians even friendlier and made traversing the
main street slow going with all the offers of meals, tea and friendship.
Our adventure in the sub-continent had begun.
STA Travel London (020 7440 8000) booked us one way tickets to Mumbai
airport from Heathrow for GBP265 a piece with KLM and Northwestern.
Places to Stay:
There is a hotel booking office outside the chaotic Mumbai arrivals,
but due to the sizeable commission you'll pay for your room and transport
booking ahead is a better idea.
Old Hindustan Ambassador taxis are everywhere, drivers are unwilling to
haggle for short journeys which cost between 40 - 50 Rupees. Matheran is a
2 hour local train from Mumbai and then a 2 hour toy train ride up the