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Wednesday
Jan292014

Mumbai’s Best People-Watching – Marine Drive

There is no better way to explore a city than on foot, and if that walk takes you along a sea-fronting 4.3km promenade, what could be nicer? Welcome to Mumbai's Marine Drive, a gently curving wide road that carries traffic to and from the busy Nariman Point, a hub of office blocks, government offices and shops. Marine Drive is rather picturesquely known in all the guidebooks as the Queens Necklace, and technically as Netaji Shubash Chandra Bose Road but everyone calls it, quite simply, Marine Drive.

Mansion blocks line one side of the drive, and anywhere else in the world they would be fabulously expensive pieces of real estate, not to mention eye-poppingly beautiful. Here in Mumbai they are indeed fabulously expensive but many of them are distinctly ramshackle, relics of a repressive rent control regime that means people paid virtually nothing for prime real estate, and so the landlords (naturally) didn't bother with the upkeep. Along with the mansion blocks there is the gorgeous 19th century Wilson College, sports clubs, equestrian shows, and a large aquarium that is a venerable institution, visited by generations of children on organized school trips. There are cricket pitches – always busy – a railway line, statues, hotels and restaurants, and a brand new hospital that looks more like a 7 star hotel from the outside. The variety is fascinating.

But the real slice of Mumbai life, the real Mumbai experience, takes place on the sea side of Marine Drive, on that wide curving promenade that takes you from uber-smart Walkeshwar all the way to busy Nariman Point. On any given day or night, there will be people walking, idling, running, sitting, chatting, wandering, eating, trying to catch a moment of privacy in public – all of life seems to take place on Marine Drive. Let's walk along it, shall we?

The end of Marine Drive near Walkeshwar Road has a huge wide stretch of sand called Chowpatty Beach, which is a magnet for family picnics, impromptu cricket matches, and for eating the traditional Mumbai snack bhel puri at any of the many food stands dotted around. However, Chowpatty Beach is not a beach for sunbathing or swimming. There are just far too many curious people, not to mention a conservative culture that doesn't really encourage lying around half-naked by the ocean. Chowpatty Beach is for wandering and eating and people watching.

As you continue down Marine Drive towards the tower blocks of Nariman Point ahead of you, the beach gradually peters out, and is replaced by hundreds of large concrete tetrapods, placed there to prevent erosion. The sea-fronting pavement is wide and clean with lots of seating provided, and the good folks of Mumbai discreetly ignore the young couples sitting close together trying to have a moment of intimacy, in a society that frowns on public displays of affection. And so youngsters quietly hold hands, or sit gazing at the ocean, leaning close together, whilst people walk past them. On any given evening, the most popular time to visit, there will be a wonderful variety of people doing a wide variety of activities. Families saunter along eating snacks while children play with bright plastic toys just bought from a vendor; servants walk pedigree dogs while the resident street dogs lounge around enjoying the evening breeze; people in varying degrees of fitness are exercising – portly power-walkers, sweaty joggers, serious stretchers, and more. Of course, everywhere there are people with mobile phones taking pictures of themselves, their families, their friends: eating, sitting, watching the sunset, posing rather dangerously on the tetrapods - wherever you look, a “selfie” is being taken. The most popular spot for photos is right at the end of the 4.3km boulevard, where Marine Drive ends, and the tetrapods become the ultimate balancing ground for yet another souvenir picture.

Mumbai is a bustling and often confusing jumble of a city for visitors, but a walk along Marine Drive is sure to clear the senses, and reward you with great views, delicious food, and nice open place to appreciate the diversity and rich culture that the city has to offer.

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