Sunday, December 6, 2015

No - Elephanta Island

Two weeks after writing my first ever blog entry, I am starting to realise that finding the time to write is actually harder than expected. My original idea was that I would have lots of time sitting in a car commuting (as I did know Mumbai traffic was going to be bad) but that was before I experienced it for real on a daily basis. It’s fair to say I’m not great with any type of public transport as I get travel sick very easily – most people I have traveled with would have had to witness me being very unwell (and worse) on some bus, train or boat or at least had to give up the front seat in the car (trust me, it’s in everyone’s interest) because I frankly don’t like ground transportation. Underground and in the air much better but sitting in stop and go traffic where the driver would accelerate from 0 to 50km/h for 10 meters just to slam on the breaks and start hooting again because out of NOWHERE a car had appeared in front of him is not the environment I can put any thoughts on paper (the internet) or really do anything else. I tend to get through half a news article on the BBC app and then resign myself to watching the traffic, people and Mumbai madness around me (more on that another time).
But here I am with blog entry #2 and I wanted to go back to our first weekend in Mumbai when Indiadam (aka boyfriend) and I decided to go to Elephanta Island. To be clear – I absolutely love elephants, both real ones but also ones that are printed on postcards, scarves or mugs and I am a very loyal owner of a 28 year old elephant cuddly toy called Dumbo (he has moved to Mumbai with me). So you can only imagine my excitement when I heard of an elephant island off the coast off Mumbai. Does that sound great to you as well? Let me stop you here because Elephanta Island does not have elephants, real or fake. It once had a statue of an elephant that was removed years ago but the name has stayed.

Luckily I read up on it a while back so I knew there was not going to be an elephant (just imagine the disappointment) but stone caves which sounded interesting anyway and we thought we should check out the local attractions so we would know what to recommend if we (ever) had visitors.
So to get to Elephanta Island, one needs to take a 1h ferry from the Gateway of India. We arrived in the middle of the Saturday rush to see the main tourist attraction of Mumbai, so it’s fair to say it was rather busy. A lot of guides and touts will come up to any non Indian person offering tours to Elephanta island but you can very easily buy tickets just to the right of the entrance to the Gateway. Tickets are 150 rupees for a deluxe ticket and the regular ones are even less. The “deluxe” tickets from my understanding guarantee you a space on the boat upstairs but whether that actually is the case is a different question. After buying your ticket, you then need to find/join the queue for the boats. For any English people reading this, please be aware that the English idea of a queue probably doesn’t meet your expectations in most countries but in India it doesn’t seem to exist at all. After Indiadam spent 5mins trying to find the end of the queue for a while (it looked quite far away from any boat), I decided we would go with the flow and join the crowds somewhere close to the boats. The last boat had just left so everyone was quite relaxed until the moment the next boat arrived. And from that moment it became a bit like a scene from Noah’s Ark (or what I imagine it might have been like). Shuffling, pushing, making sure your family gets on the same boat as you and as soon as you are on the boat, fight to get a space on the top deck (not sure anyone checked for deluxe tickets). We decided to stay downstairs and despite all the pushing and rush, the boat was not crowded, you could quite easily get a seat and once the boat left, we were treated to the most stunning view of the Gateway and the Taj hotel in the background. The boat ride is quite nice though I advise you just choose to ignore the lack of safety barriers that stop you from falling off the back of the boat. You go past some islands and some big boats and the air is a bit fresher than in Mumbai. We also felt like minor celebrities as about 50% of the boat asked to have photos taken with us J

Once you arrive at the island, there are a lots of little shops selling snacks and veg as well as sun hats which is clever because you arrive in 35 degrees heat with no shade. So when I saw the lady selling hats I though “what a good business idea”. Turns out there around about 25 clever ladies (or likely one big company) selling hats so you can walk for a bit to where there is more choice and the further you walk, the lower the prices get. I bought mine at the 3rd shop and bargained from 100 to 50 rupees which I was quite pleased with but I’m sure you can get them even cheaper.
To get to the main part of the island, you can take a mini train for a few rupees or walk down the pier which isn’t very far and the train is very busy. You then have to go through various gates paying various (small) fees. Indiadam wanted to buy a guide book about the caves and he thought it would be best to buy it through the official seller, the guy at the entrance of the park. Turns out this isn’t the cheapest option (despite the chap saying “prices same everywhere”) so as with the hats, keep walking for a bit and prices will come down.

After some hat and guidebook shopping, we made our way up the island. And up means up. To get to the caves, you have to walk up hundreds of steps that are lined with souvenirs stalls on both sides, none of it looked that nice and as it was a weekend it was very busy so not the most enjoyable part of the journey. They do apparently offer carrying you up on a chair on wooden sticks but I didn’t see anyone do it or could imagine anyone asking to be carried up the stairs either. But there must be some people who take up the offer as there were a lot of these stools standing around.

Once you reach the top, there is the final gate with the final entrance fee. However, there are two entrances – Indian and non Indian. The only difference is that you pay 5x the price an overseas tourist (which is still not that much at 250 rupees to be fair).

The caves are actually quite impressive, carved into stone with different gods carved out on the walls, some really well maintained, other less so but all of them pretty. Unfortunately, many people seemed too busy taking selfies of themselves rather than looking at the ancient art but if you go to some of the smaller caves a bit further away, it gets less busy and more peaceful to have a look around. At the same time, you can sometimes catch a nice view of the sea to the side and while enjoying the company of many cows and monkeys.


On the way back we decided we would do the walk to the other side of the island as well which takes you to two old Portuguese cannons that were left on the island. Although the cannons itself are nothing special, there are a lot less people this side of the island and we enjoyed the 20min walk to the second canon. Feeling a bit peckish after walking and sweating in the heat, we stopped by a little restaurant (the Raj Mahal Restaurant) on the way back which served Dosa and veg Thali and had some very welcome fans which meant it was a nice break from the heat. We sat squashed onto a little table with a big Indian family which I felt we made friends with through lots of smiling and head wiggles over a Dosa. After that we were ready to head back, getting on the boat was a lot more civilised on Elephantha Island and we managed to get a seat on the top deck of the boat.


So overall, it was an interesting yet quite exhausting Saturday afternoon spent on Elephanta Island. For visitors, we would probably recommend not to go on a weekend as there were lots of families and tourists on weekend trips which made it very busy. But during the week it is definitely a nice way to spend a few hours on a boat and island – even without elephants.

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