Mumbai on a time budget
I admit I was not prepared for Mumbai. In my defense, I don’t know that anyone really can be. The city is massive, and crazy, and filled with people and buildings that at once seem modern and equally apt to fall apart in a strong wind. I had a 10 hour layover at the Mumbai International Airport, which in and of itself wasn’t so bad except that a series of armed guards won’t let you into the terminal until two hours before your plane is scheduled to depart. I had intended to try to do some birding somewhere while I was there, but with no place to leave my bags during the 8 hour interim, that plan was rapidly devolving into the prospect of sitting on curb for most of the day.
I had been traveling with a Portuguese/English travel writer, and not being a birder he was willing to sit by and watch my suitcase while I took off for a few hours to nearby Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the hopes of seeing something, anything, other than the Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows that make Mumbai no different than any other major city in the entire world. This changed everything.
I grabbed a cab, who almost certainly ripped me off, and headed north along the main thoroughfare towards the park. Driving in Mumbai is an experience unto itself. The same highway on which massive semi trucks barrel across the potholed surface also hosts cyclists putzing along in the middle of the road. There are no lanes, only right of ways shared by everybody. It is hair-raising to be sure, but enough that all you can really do is sit back and enjoy it, and my driver delivered me to the entrance of the park for only about $5 so I couldn’t complain. It’s India, if you worry too much you’re sunk.
I had done a bare minimum of research on the park before I left for the airport. Learning little more than the fact that the park has the highest concentrations of tigers in the nation. It’s an odd thing to be birding in a place where there is a very real, if exceptionally distant, chance of being eaten by an alpha predator. Fortunately, the entry way to the park was packed with people, like almost every part of India is, and there were no big cats, and exceptionally few birds but for the Oriental Magpie-Robins that hopped around a garden.
Without any sort of map or guidance, I sort of wandered the main paths looking for any sort of movement. An odd sound caught my ear and I paused to seek it out to find a gorgeous Coppersmith Barbet perched motionless on a almost bare tree. As this was one of my targets, I was pretty stoked.
The birds were pretty quiet around the masses of humanity, so it was with some trepidation that I wandered up a dry creek bed deep into tiger country in search of anything else. A flowering tree with huge orange blossoms attracted a nice variety of birds including Greater Coucal, Asian Koel, and Indian Jungle Crows with their enormous bills and deep voices. Good stuff.
Some smaller birds turned out to be Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a total brain bird. Until now I had managed pretty well identifying Indian species. Nothing had completely thrown me given the research I’d done beforehand. This odd species floored me, however, though I was able to guess at the family. They’re smaller than the Euro Starlings, though the shape was familiar.
A troop of Rhesus Macaques escorted me down the path as I returned to the entrance to catch a cab back (worth a blog post in their own right). The locals undoubtedly thought I was something of a nutjob as I paused to photograph them. A single Little Cormorant perched over the pond on my way back, the best opportunity I’d had to photograph one since I’d been there and a good enough last bird of the trip, if you don’t count the Rock Pigeons at the airport, and why would you?
I took an open air jitney back to the airport, a truly Indian experience, and made it back to the airport dusty and exhausted, but with a better sense of the country that I was going to be leaving. There’s truly no place like it, the modernity and the poverty crammed so abruptly against each other. I hope I get to come back some time, I remain insufficiently overwhelmed.