Friday, September 07, 2007

An evening in Mumbai

Hindu Business Line

…or a daylong discovery of Chennai — organised must-sees minus the hassles.

By engaging locals, they get invaluable “insider” information as well.

Shaju John

Inside a city: Catamaran at the Marina Beach

Vijaysree Venkatraman

There are tour operators galore cashing in on the travel boom to our photogenic country, but few have taken up the formidable challenge of ensuring clients a tourism-rich experience. Filter Coffee Tours hopes to make a difference with services that help well-heeled international visitors experience the subcontinent’s colour and complexity, minus the customary hiccups.

Back in 2004, Zuleika Nazneen, an HR professional and Deepa Krishnan, a banking consultant, formed a company to offer customised tours for business travellers to Chennai. They realised they had a niche market as overseas clients — with a weekend or evenings to spare — turned to them for advice on local must-sees and places to go gift-shopping for friends and family back home. Soon they began catering to other high-end travellers looking for premium tours in the chaotic metro.

Hardly anyone in the business sees the city as little more than a gateway to the real tourist spots which lie further afield. But Zuleika, who requisitions vehicles from her husband’s travel agency, successfully hunts for new places of interest — as a counterpoint to the not-to-be-missed ancient temples of Chennai. And Deepa recently created Mumbai Magic. Both entrepreneurs are conceptualising creative tours that afford quiet moments of discovery in metros where the frenetic pace of life can unsettle the uninitiated visitor.

Mumbai Magic

An antiques shop in Mumbai.

Mumbai offers a kaleidoscope of experiences for anyone who is willing to venture into the narrow and crowded alleys of the city’s various marketplaces. “But my clients will always get more than an offbeat shopping experience even at places like Chor Bazaar,” says Deepa. This tour of the “thieves market” begins at Mutton Street, which is flanked by antique shops selling cuckoo clocks, gramophones and other bric-a-brac. Further, every side-street has its speciality product — perfumes, kebabs and what have you.

The guides have been specially trained to point out aspects that visitors would otherwise miss out — the neighbourhood mosque with the marzipan colours, the pastel shades the Bohri Muslim women dress in as opposed to black burqas< /em>, and other minutiae that make the place distinctive. Even as they walk away with decent bargains, the visitors get a quick primer on Islam as it is practised in that corner of the city.

Woven into every tour narrative is the story of how Mumbai became this bustling cosmopolitan city from its humble beginnings as a fishing village. The cultural diversity is evident in everyday lives. Besides, the city’s calendar is full of festivals, many of which involve exuberant public celebrations.

And there are other finds. In the winter months, Mumbai is home to half a million birds, a fact which even long-time residents are unaware of. Flamingos, a good quarter-lakh of them, make their colourful appearance in Sewri Bay tucked away amidst tall buildings, slums, and open dumping grounds.

On your feet

Paul Noronha

Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations

Tours for smaller groups — less than six people— include bazaar walks, heritage district walks and boat tours, minus car service costs. The Cuisine Tour, a special treat for foodies, is new on the menu. A Cricket Tour is also on the cards in both Mumbai and Chennai.

Deepa and Zuleika pay their multilingual guides — five in Mumbai and three in Chennai — handsomely. They also promote responsible tourism and try to ensure that some of the money generated trickles into the neighbourhood. By engaging locals in their business, they get invaluable “insider” information as well.

On the whole one wonders if it is easier to sell Mumbai, which also gets a greater share of international visitors. Chennai does have a reputation of being a staid city, says the bubbly Zuleika, but visitors delight in everything it has to offer. “For many of them shopping for silks in Usman Road, buying trinkets on the sidewalks in Pondy Bazaar or just crossing the roads becomes an adventure,” she adds.

But there is more. The truly daring can go on a catamaran ride at dawn. These boats are nothing more than logs of wood tied together and used by fishermen all along the Coromandel coast. Filter Coffee Tours also takes groups to watch kol am (flour-based painting) contests in Mylapore, a suburb which is even older than the city it is now a part of.

Living traditions

S.R. Raghunathan

Kolam festival in Chennai

Many aspects of our culture that we consider commonplace could be fascinating for the visitor if the significance behind these living traditions is researched and presented well, says Deepa. Nor does she believe in confining her operations to familiar cities — the ones she grew up or worked in. So the capital New Delhi — with the Taj Mahal as a day trip — has been added on.

Drawing up imaginative tours involves researching facts and asking people the right questions. “That is how you find the legends and stories,” says Deepa. A three-generation-blog — — which she maintains together with her mother and her teenaged daughter, is a fount of information on various communities, cuisines and locales in Mumbai. “I can’t wait to come to India, and try all this,” says a visitor to the blog.

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