We didn’t see Joanna again after that one night where we listened to her speak in ‘that’ voice reserved for Pats – every sentence was littered with a ‘yah’ and she clearly wasn’t hiding, wearing a beautiful fuchsia blouse and with lips painted in big bold red. Exit stage left Joanna, and enter stage right, Junior and as I sit in a magical guesthouse in Goa typing this post I am trying madly to recall each and every wonderful piece of our stay at the Taj Palace overlooking the magnificent Gateway to India and the Arabian Sea, in the wild and rich city that is Mumbai.
‘Welcome to BOM-bay,’ Junior shouted down the phone ‘join me tomorrow night at the Harbour Bar and then do come to the Breeders Cup on Saturday… can you hear me?’, ‘yes, I can hear you just fine,’ I responded, giving Tor the raised eyebrow signal ‘you’re going to love this,’. He shouted goodbye and with that we ordered another gin and tonic – life in Bombay was going to be fun.
Friday morning we woke (after a slight kerfuffle the night before with a Faulty Towers moment taking place at check in, where the madams were assumed to be a happily married couple with one of the madams continually being called Sir) and breakfast was had under the wonderful colonial awnings that frame the pool at the Taj Palace; stunning garden furniture was filled with big fat American bottoms and ceiling fans did a whirly gig as the Indian men strutted around with huge pots of coffee all while displaying big white teeth behind perfect smiles. We had organised a guide to come and meet us early with a trip to a slum community taking place in the morning, and a tour of a Bollywood studio in the afternoon.
A young boy named Vishant met us at the hotel with another man who was a bit older and a bit bossier (Indian men never step out alone), and we were told Vishant would be with us for the morning.
Vishant was kind and determined, and he chatted the whole way in the car explaining all of the very British buildings and architecture and how they came to be – ‘Victoria, our number one train station in Mumbai is named after you, Victoria Terminal but fondly known as VT (pronounced veetee),’ we both smiled and gave a quiet nod Queen Victoria as we passed the most magnificent building not dissimilar to Saint Pancras station in London. Mumbai is so absolutely incredible and completely different to Delhi, where we felt like locals and whizzed around in tuk tuks, but the throwback to British reign is deeply felt in Mumbai (in a different way), and evident through the most insane architecture.
We spent two hours weaving through a slum with Vishant and an even younger sidekick talking us through each area (commercial and then residential), taking in all the different industries they work in, from recycling plastic, to melting aluminium to tanning leather to making terracotta pots- everyone has a purpose and there was no one lying around. We learnt so much from Vishant and sitting in a small chai stall in the midst of it all, listening to him laugh as he chatted to the men drinking their second chai for the day- suddenly everything seemed to just line up.
Vishant left us with our driver, who wove through cows and women and chickens and goats and children and cars, before the most enormous man threw himself into the car. Stifling giggles in the back, we nudged each other and tried to look straight ahead. Sunil was larger than life and larger than the car itself. He took us to SJ Studios via a fabulous roadside cafe where we feasted on Thali (a selection of small Indian dishes, mopped up with chapati). He was so bossy and so different to Vishant, but he knew his stuff and barged through studio doors taking photos of us the whole way through. We watched a medical drama being filmed and then took part in a Bollywood dancing routine. Sadly, we weren’t offered a gig but we had a magical time and had a full time job on our hands telling Sunil that we really needed to get home- he wanted to stay by our sides forever.
Junior, true to his word, was sitting waiting for us in the Harbour Bar in our hotel and after he charmingly chatted and threw his hands in the air, taunted the waiters and introduced us to the whole room (who he didn’t actually know), plied us with Bombay Blazers- a cocktail of guava, gin and vermouth lit up with a match and drunk with a smoky essence. At one stage, a tray of drinks fell off the bar and made an almighty smash! ‘Oh Christ, Joanna just took a turn in the kitchen,’ he said before continuing on with his story. We had the most hysterical night with Junior, who grew up in India but studied in the UK and now lives between the two countries with his wife and daughter. We had met his sister in Delhi the week before and she put us onto him straight away.
The following day (yesterday), was spent watching the races at the Breeders Cup at the South India Turf Club, where Junior swanned around in a delightful white linen suit and introduced us to every horse breeder on the continent (or so it seemed). He has a box in the wonderful old colonial grandstand and we sat in rattan chairs under wobbling ceiling fans as the horses took to the track and women in saris walked around with spades filling in the holes in the turf at the end of each race.
‘Dilip couldn’t make it today,’ Junior told us over lunch, ‘but he will take you to a magnificent evening with the stars tonight,’ he finished. Tor had told Junior she’d worked in television the night before at our first meeting, and with that, he was on the phone to Dilip Thile, a charming and handsome Indian film and television star who Junior somehow knows (he seems to know everyone). Last night, exhausted and partially beside ourselves after too many Bombay Blazers the night before and a full day of racing with Junior, we hopped into a taxi and made the hour long journey across town to the Taj Lands End- a magnificent hotel with a sweeping private lawn and palm trees dancing up above. We spent two hours with Dilip, who introduced us to every screenwriter, producer, star and diva from Bollywood and waiters gathered around him, desperate for a selfie. Tor and I drank Moët as beautiful women swanned around in high Indian fashion and people followed the entourages of amazing people through the garden, under a perfect Bombay sky.
This morning we caught a flight to Goa and arrived here at the Vivenda dos Palhacos – a beautiful old Portuguese villa owned and run by an English brother and sister duo. We were sent straight to the bar, which is made of an old Tata lorry tray, and served fresh lemon juice and soda whilst our room was prepared. A south Goan curry of prawns and the fluffiest of rice was enjoyed on an old oak dining room table, under more ceiling fans and surrounded by walls filled with books and brilliant photos taken during a bygone era.
As we sit in the garden drinking masala tea under a clear Goan sky, we are loving reflecting on all the characters who have joined us on this trip, and those who have brought us here.