By the time we had showered, dressed and sorted our stuff it was almost midday. As we made our way downstairs we could see into rooms being cleaned – and they were much bigger than ours. An offer of an ‘executive’ room behind reception for an extra Rs400 per night was quickly accepted – our ‘standard deluxe’ room being just too small for two people. I do wonder what plain ‘standard’ rooms are like! It turned out that the hotel is actually very near the GPO – our wanderings took us back past the front of Victoria Terminus, so I knew roughly the direction we needed to go if we were to end up at Mocambo. It hadn’t changed much, except that the menu now seemed to list no Indian food at all. Mr Vagabond ordered fish in a bun, I went for a sandwich that included grilled aubergine, potato and cheese – and was surprised to be offered brown bread. No sooner had we given our order than I spotted a stand-up card listing Indian dishes on the adjacent table – oh well, a gentle introduction isn’t a bad thing.
Next thing on the agenda – get a SIM card. Next door to Mocambo’s was a Vodafone office – as soon as we stepped into its air-conditioned chilliness we were hustled to the front of the throng, apparently by-passing a numbered ticket system. It was hard to understand what our allotted salesgirl was talking about, but we were spat out of the bureaucratic system (one that involved passports, photos, and names of forebears) about an hour later, believing ourselves to be the proud owners of a SIM and a dongle that would soon work. We were partly right. The SIM appeared to work after the promised 2 hours, but by the time we went across the road to the Sher-e-Punjab for dinner, we were still without internet. Wednesday 7th November 2013 Breakfast was the first challenge of the day – we thought the restaurant under the hotel would do nicely, until it transpired that they served neither coffee nor tea. What kind of restaurant doesn’t serve coffee or tea? Unable to face a breakfast Fanta, we walked down the road until a place on the other side caught our eye – Anubhav promised “veg delites” and appeared to be doing a brisk trade. There, the coffee arrived weak, milky and sugary, as I suspected it would – but at least it wasn’t Fanta, and the accompanying uppama/dosa were fine. Then back we went to Vodafone – apparently we should have put the dongle SIM into the phone and phoned up the helpline. Obvious really – not. With no particular destination in mind we wandered down to Veer Nariman Road, parallel to P Mehta, and spotted the Airtel shop but didn’t venture in – it looked pretty packed.
Heading west on Veer Nariman Mr Vagabond spied a familiar logo – Starbucks! Not somewhere we especially wanted to frequent, but it looked cool and spacious, and our caffeine meter was in need of a boost. Two tall cappuccinos set us back over Rs300 – but at least we resisted the scrumptious looking cakes and pastries that beckoned from the chiller cabinets, and it seemed likely that the large cup of milky coffee would serve as lunch. Apart from a couple of other tourists the other customers were well-heeled Indians, mostly young. The Starbucks branding was quite low key – perhaps because they are in partnership with Tata, presumably the only way they could get a foothold in India.
En route back to the hotel we stopped at the Cafe Universal for a beer. It’s very unlike an Indian bar – with its wooden furniture, art deco wrought iron grills across open casement windows and scattering of potted plants, you could almost imagine that you were in Paris. Until you notice the copper frieze of Persian(?) kings that runs right around the room (a Parsi place perhaps). It seemed a relaxed kind of joint – somewhere that even a girl on her own could have a beer with her lunch without attracting stares (of disapproval or just sheer astonishment). Back at the hotel, Mr V spent a while getting the internet go work, but it was very slow. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to deliver on the promised Facebook updates. Back out to the Airtel shop, but they had no prepaid SIMs (sold out?). We asked if there was another Airtel office nearby and received vague directions (we thought) to head down MG Road, and it was opposite something that sounded like Dwarka. We went as far as Wellington Circle, asking mobile phone vendors for directions, but none knew of any Airtel office other than the one we had been in – maybe it was down in Colaba, too far to walk. So ‘home’ we went.
Anubhav got our custom again for dinner, but this time it was in the adjoining 2 storey section. It was the usual arrangement – upstairs brightly lit with fish tank and air conditioning, downstairs dark and full of men drinking, probably heavily. The food was pretty good – squid gassi, with a tomato and tamarind gravy, and vegetable handi, a thick curry that included paneer. And it appeared that the other customers, all men, were sufficiently cosmopolitan to be completely uninterested in the sight of a woman drinking beer. Thursday 7th November 2013 Mr V slept quite late, so I decided to go in search of the buffet breakfast mentioned on the hotel leaflet. Or at least some coffee. The buffet had been set up on the 2nd floor landing – no tables, you sat on a sofa and ate off your knee. As well as the toast and jam, which was really all that I was expecting, there was uppma and masala omelette, so I went back to rouse Mr V. Coffee came in the form of Nescafe and dried milk sachets, and the strawberry jam was alarmingly luminous, but it wasn’t bad – although we’d have probably got toast quicker by holding the bread over a light bulb.
We’d planned to give Airtel another opportunity to take our money, but a thorough googling had failed to turn up any other shop in the area or in Colaba, and the Fort branch still had no prepaid SIMs, so we went to the Tata Docomo store further along Veer Nariman. The experience was similar to that in Vodafone – a marked reluctance to reveal any details about the plan or the tariffs before completing the paperwork. But the girl was helpful and took the cash to the desk herself so that we didn’t have to queue. We took our new gadgets over the road to Starbucks to install them, and I noticed a restaurant on the corner called … Dwarka! The Airtel guy hadn’t been directing us to a fictitious branch after all, but to a competitor – albeit by gesturing in completely the wrong direction.
In Starbucks we discovered that the box contained no SIM for the dongle, so we went back – it turned out there wasn’t supposed to be one, it was built in, but the guy helped us with the activation call. Just as well, since the phone was answered by a machine speaking Hindi. It’s good that there was an option to press 3 for English, but we wouldn’t have understood the instruction. By this time it was about 3pm, so we headed back to Cafe Universal for beer and chips. I know that sounds unhealthy, but the normal healthy eating rules are reversed in India. Freshly fried stuff = good, salad = bad, and we only wanted a snack. Back in the hotel Mr V worked more wizardry to try to get the internet working and the tablet synching with the laptop, so that I can write this on the tablet or the laptop, with both files being updated automatically. I found writing on the tablet quite hard at first, but I’m getting the hang of it now, although I don’t rule out predictive text bloopers. A late dinner of rice, dal and veg at Anubhav completed the day, and then we watched TV until after midnight – an episode of Sherlock that we hadn’t seen. I expect there’ll be many hotels with no TV, or nothing on in English, so there was a sense of making the most of it.
I’m quite sorry to be leaving Fort in the morning. People may think it odd that we’ve been here 3 days and not done a single touristy thing, but this is our 3rd stay in Mumbai and we’ve already done the gateway, the hanging gardens, Haji Ali’s tomb etc, and Fort is a nice place to wander around. Many of the buildings are Victorian, and still bear the names of their original owners, like Marshall’s, and Gibson and Son. Around Horniman Circle, with its gardens in the centre, there is a colonnaded walkway, where the likes of Hermes have stores (please could someone explain the appeal of that stuff – it’s quite hideous!). The whole area bristles with security guards bearing a range of weapons (mostly antique) as there are many bank head offices and government buildings here, including the mint. While it doesn’t feel tense, there are reminders of both the 2008 terrorist attacks (I’ve never known any other Starbucks to scan its customers with a metal detector) and longer established frictions – a Muslim owned non-veg restaurant had “no beef” painted on its outside wall, presumably to reassure its Hindu neighbours. It’s sad that it’s necessary.