I’ve often said that my favourite thing about taking heritage walks in Mumbai is the wide range of people I meet – people that are almost always incredibly nice, friendly, interesting and, not least, interested! When asked to elaborate, though, it’s the not-so-friendly and downright strange-though-still-fascinating that first come to mind. During a recent discussion with a group of final year history undergraduates on the practice of leading heritage walks, after I’d waxed on about how you never know exactly, 100% what to expect and how every walk is therefore a unique and exciting experience, I was pressed to give examples. Since then, I’ve remembered more. Here goes:
- The lady from China who thought 3 inch stiletto heels were appropriate foot wear for a 3-hour walk through the heart of busy (clearly!) Mumbai and then proceeded to compare the city, unfavourably of course, to Shanghai every excruciating step of the way.
- The gentleman from Russia who, worried about missing me at the meeting point, sent me both a description and a photograph of himself and of his backpack so I’d know him just in case he stood turned the other way.
- The multiple times I’ve been pulled up – no jokes – for saying ‘Bombay’ instead of ‘Mumbai’. Seriously? I don’t recall a city named Mumbai in the 19th century so, rather than launch into any kind of tirade, I’ll just ask whether I should be politically or factually correct?
- A young, strapping guy from London who asked – cried out – if I was going to rob him when I took him into a side alley to show him something really cool. I probably shouldn’t have bothered, though I hope there was a joke hidden in there.
- A brilliant ten year old that kept asking me questions about ancient Greece – not fun. This is what I mean by you can never be prepared enough! Or is Ancient Greece something I should have expected to be quizzed on during a walk around old Bombay?
- Children are clearly the most challenging of audiences. You can imagine, then, my relief – joy even – at being pulled aside by one pointing to a certain seated public statue. As I launched into the story I assumed he wanted, he broke in, pulled me down to face level, and asked whether he was permitted to climb and sit on it; it seemed comfortable you see. Why didn’t I think of that?
- This one isn’t about a person on a walk, but someone I often encountered along a popular route – an old lady who squatted on the pavement and would first harass the foreign tourists for money, then proceed to spout abuses at me for advising them to ignore her. Remember the Chinese lady I mentioned? Wearing a tank top and shorts, she was screamed at for not being modest enough for the older lady’s tastes. You can imagine how poorly Mumbai compared with Shanghai after that! Seriously, I could not make this up if I tried – I wonder if heritage guides in other countries have similar obstacles to scale.
- Whilst I could potentially go on, I will end with those few who get in to a bad mood because of the weather. Apparently the heat and humidity can come as quite a surprise, and a poor one at that!
The highs though, far far outweigh the lows. Having led heritage walks here since 2004, I’ve met and interacted with innumerable people from all over the world – people with just the sense of adventure and humour necessary to enjoy Mumbai. I’ll correct myself and say that the best part about doing this tiring, sometimes hard, work is making that connection, and communicating something of the joy and feeling I have for this incredible, difficult city. Most satisfying is when that happens with my fellow citizens.
So, I look forward to many more walks, and meeting more strange-though-still-fascinating individuals along the way.