My Mumbai Masala


A masala is a blend of hot, fresh spices. That’s how I think of India.  I’ve been meaning to, as it were, put pen to paper and write about the rich tapestry of experiences that represents my time in Mumbai. Yet, like a masala, it’s hard to capture with words and, unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of India as I didn’t get to do the “tourist thing”. I watched Slumdog Millionaire a few weeks ago and the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel again just before I started writing this. They inspired me to take on the challenge of translating Mumbai memories into words.

I remember Mumbai as a collage of images and experiences and that’s not easy to structure and compartmentalize. For this reason, today’s content is more personal than business. Along the way, I’ll share some practical travel tips and even the sales tips I picked up as they come to me. The approach is more of a travel diary than a structured blog post. I’m not sure where it will take us or how far I’ll get but for sure there will be a part 2.

I’ve been to Mumbai 3 times to facilitate workshops for executives and managers. The first time I went buy myself. I was advised that it’s important to be prepared for the grinding poverty. My first job after graduating was as a social worker in the Caribbean but my work with families from Kingston’s ghettos did not prepare me for Mumbai.

Day 1: Arrival and Acclimatization

As we landed, there was a strong odour like smoke. The pilot reassured us that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft. It was was the smell of the pollution hovering over Mumbai. On subsequent trips, I arrived at night, once just as the monsoon season started, and the odour wasn’t present.

A representative from the company hosting my workshop picked me up. He was quite interesting. His father was German and his mother was Indian and he had lived all over the world.

The architecture reflected one of the oldest civilizations in the world, a collage of Hindu and British influences. On the way to the hotel it was clear that Mumbai is busy, hectic, noisy, and congested. Cars, taxis, buses, tuk tuks, handcarts, ox carts, motorcycles, trucks, cows, and even a couple of elephants competed for space on the road.

Travel Tip 1: Arrive at night if you can. You’ll avoid the smell on landing and travel to the hotel will be faster.

Malaria Prevention

The weeks leading up to my trip had been so busy that I hadn’t started my course of malaria medication. I made sure to use insect repellent with DEET upon landing. If you find yourself in this situation, adults can take one Malarone tablet per day for 1 – 2 days before entering an area where there is malaria. Continue taking it for 7 days after leaving the area. If you forget, you can start as soon as you can get it after arrival.

Travel Tip 2: Don’t neglect your malaria medication. If you do, remember Malarone is available.

Exquisite Décor and Exceptional Customer Service

The hotel was called the Taj Tower at the time. I remember looking at the narrow tower and thinking “If anything were to happen, how would I get out?” I asked for a room on one of the lower floors near an elevator. This was Pre 9/11 and 8 years before the Mumbai Massacre. Where do these thoughts come from? Out of the blue?

The room was richly decorated and gorgeous, more like a royal suite. I enjoyed a panoramic view of Mumbai. Given the fact that, 8 years later, the hotel was in the headlines internationally, I regret not taking photos.

Travel Tip 3: Even if you’re on business, always pause and capture your experience on film.

Arriving at the hotel and again once I was settled, I asked to be directed to the nearest pharmacy to get some Malarone. I said I was fine to walk but the hotel kept asking me if I was sure I didn’t want the pharmacy to bring it over. The hotel staff clearly wasn’t comfortable with me venturing out on my own. It’s always best to follow the advice of local residents so I agreed. In short order the tablets were delivered to me and I was given full instructions for taking them.

This is an example of the high level of personalized customer service and exceptional hospitality that I experienced wherever I went in Mumbai. I had to ask people to stop calling me Mamme “You’ll spoil me. I have to return to Canada where no one treats me like that.” Of course they continued.

I dined at the hotel the first night. The portions were huge, the cuisine was exquisite and the service top-notch. In the Caribbean, curry is something that comes out of the a plastic package. In India I learned that housewives create their own curry blended from fresh spices.

Day 2: Getting Down to Business

Then next morning I was picked up and taken to the office of Indian affiliate of the company hosting my workshop. It was in a low-rise office building near the water at Nariman Point. I noticed that each member of the sales team was speaking with a British accent and had adopted a European name. (Of course, the gentleman with the German name used his own name.) I sat with a couple of sales representatives as they made outbound calls. We had a lot of laughs as they switched back and forth between British and their natural Indian accents. I had never seen anything like it. One of them told me that business clients were more receptive to foreign sales professionals. I found this interesting. I guess it shows that one really needs to understand their target audience and fine-tune their approach.

Sales Tip 1: There are many ways to build credibility with clients. Cultural nuances have to be kept in mind.

At lunchtime, I was taken to a restaurant that specialized in local cuisine. From the outside, it didn’t look like much but inside the ambience was exquisite. There was marble, glass and mirrors. Again, I enjoyed a splendid meal. Given my Caribbean heritage, I am also familiar with roti but in India, there are many types of roti and they were all delicious.

For tea break, a cart arrived with tea biscuits and tiny cakes, a delightful British tradition that has been preserved.

For the rest of the day, I waited for a Times of India reporter to interview me.

Day 3: Out and About

The next morning, I was picked up and taken to meet a client. A drive through Mumbai is certainly an assault to the senses. There are lot of cars, crowds of people, barking dogs, street vendors, food stalls, temples, cricket pitches, slums, and, sadly, children under 5 begging or weaving in and out of traffic selling.

These are my photos. This building intrigued me as the fresh coat of paint and really showed off the traditional Victorian architectural design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later that day, we set up at the hotel for the workshop. It was called the Taj at the time and it was located across from the Gateway to India. No words can do the ambiance and décor justice.

Again the customer service attentive and outstanding. The hotel bent over backwards to ensure that I had everything I needed. The newspaper reporter finally caught up with me there.

Days 4 and 5:  The Workshops

The next day I met the delegates for my workshop. The sales professionals from the office were all there but this time they used their Indian names. The gentleman with the German name adopted an Indian name. By mistake I called one of the sales professionals by his German name. One of the older delegates, a witty white haired man overheard me and approached him. “Why did you change your voice and use a different name when you spoke to me on the phone?” We had a great laugh.

Sales Tip 2: Always have a sense of humour.

I spent two days with a delightful group of executives and managers who were warm and a lot of fun. They were receptive to my reggae warm ups and other energizers. There were a lot of jokes as their sense of humour was certainly evident.

One amusing moment came when I asked if a point I had made was clear. Some participants nodded their heads up and down for yes, others move their heads from side to side and still others moves their heads slightly from shoulder to shoulder. “I’m confused. Is this yes or no.” Again there was laughter was people explained that people from different parts of India had different ways of expressing yes. That was the perfect segway into my discussion of body language.

 

The Real Reason I Fell in Love with Mumbai

As the plane took off for what would be my first trip to Dubai (before heading back to Canada), I had a last view of Mumbai, I reflected on my experience. Mumbai, was depressing at first. Yet, despite the pollution, the noise and, yes the poverty, Mumbai grew on me. From the unsurpassed customer service standards to the amazing cuisine to the plush décor at the hotels and restaurants, it was quite the experience. I never went sightseeing but I did something even more worthwhile. I got to know the people with whom I worked at a deeply personal level. More than anything, the warmth, humour and generosity of the people is what made me fall in love with India. I knew that I would be back.

Travel Tip 4: Take each place as it comes and let it grow on you.

Flickr: Andy HaySajjad Lambe, MM

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