Another city that never sleeps, Mumbai (or Bombay, as many folks here seem to call it) offered me a fabulous welcome to India.
Harsh from India Someday was a gem, filling me in on all the exciting details for the unbelievable month ahead of me, sorting out my SIM card and stipends, feeding me endless amounts of deliciousness and touring me all around town. We meandered the Fort neighborhood, ate dosa at a stall by the stock exchange, drank sugar cane juice, fresh sweet lime juice and unlimted vegi thali lunch, not to mention a bunch of other chaat (snacks.) He provided me with lots of history and cultural info, an opportunity to visit his friend’s apartment with beautiful waterfront and city views, and was uber patient as I raised concerns about water, malaria and other miseries people so often warn about He chilled me out and that was awesome.
After our fist full day, we grabbed a bite at the trendy venue called Social. I dug the vibe, especially the bicycle and other functional paraphernalia used in the design. A clever menu, friendly staff and a different side of Mumbai than the historic and business areas we’d seen earlier.
The next morning I would venture out on my own. They booked me on a “slum tour” through Reality Tours and I had to meet the group at the Churchgate Train Station. I of course made a couple of wrong turns and ended up running through the traffic-packed streets to catch the group in time. There were two couples from Montreal at the meeting spot, wearing huge backpacks and looking defeated. They seemed to have experienced all sorts of travel foibles and I was quickly re-reminded about just how fortunate I was to be a Wanderer with the support of the India Someday team.
I must say that as a social worker, I can get pretty uncomfy with poverty tourism and as a traveler, I rarely find myself on organized tours, so I was a bit nervous about how I would feel on this excursion yet I was determined to go in with an open mind. As an aficionado of public transportation around the globe, I was stoked to finally experience the open air, packed train cars – and I was not let down! What a trip, people literally hanging out the doors.
Thankfully, my tour group consisted only of one other tourist (Dorothy from Germany), our uber knowledgeable guide and someone he was training. Before we climbed down the stairs of the bridge leading into the Dharavi slum, our guide shared lots of good info and asked that we be respectful and not take any photos (I much appreciated this and the social responsibility of Reality Tours in general.) He defined slum as a community on public land and noted that they were legal establishments before 2000 and that Dharavi literally functions as a city within a city.
Reality Tours seeks to de-emphasize the squalor of the slum, hoping instead to showcase the amazing sense of community, coexistence and commerce. 60% of people in Mumbai live in slums, including doctors and police officers. Similar to other neighborhoods he shared, people develop emotional attachment and connection to their community and many families reside there for generations.
I must say I was quite happy to have followed their instructions of wearing closed toe shoes. Clean it was not! And I experienced (without umbrella or rainjacket) my first monsoon rains while walking through the unforgettable very narrow passageways of both the commercial and residential areas. Nothing torrential – it was actually quite refreshing but boy, was I was dirty by the end!
We learned about the serious business of recycling, beginning with the rat pickers who earn 35 Rupees per kilo of rescued plastic. Others then sort it, crush it, clean it, dry it, dye it, melt it, make into string, work it through a machine, make it into pellets and transport it where it will then get made into products (but not water or food containers). Other bustling industries take place in the slum as well, including pottery-making, leather tanning, baking, and more. We saw all of this in action. In fact that is what stood out the most – so much work and activity in every direction. Sad though not unexpected, we saw children busy at work too. The legal working age is 14. 95% of the work is done by men, many of whom are migrants who stay for 5-10 years, work about 10 hours and day and earn approximately 200-250 R. Many sleep in the factory itself to avoid paying rent in the residential section, which seems to serve as a win win for all as the factory gains built in in security. We were able to climb to a factory roof to check out the scope of the slum. It seemed to go on forever. We also walked through the market area and both the Hindu and Muslim residential areas. We ended by visiting the community center supported by funds from the tour. I’m quite glad to have gone on the tour and indeed feel good about the work of Reality Tours (as opposed to many other “poverty tour” providers.)
After the tour, Dorothy and I decided to share lunch. We thankfully had a restaurant recommendation, but ordering was a laughable challenge for us both, each newbies to India and similarly paranoid about bad water and other potential food fiascos. Walking over the bridge, I was once again in awe of all the street food and dreamed of trying everything. Way too nervous to do so on my own – and plan on sticking to the recommendations of trusted locals.
Excited to take the train back to the Fort area, Dorothy and I boarded the all-women car. So impressed and relieved that it exists. We parted ways at the station, reminding me of the fascinating aspect of solo travel – when we share some of our most powerful experiences with someone for an hour or possibly a day or week – and may never be in touch again.
Using CityMaps2Go and Google Maps, I navigated myself around the city, checked out the synagogue and then found my way down the maze of streets to the India Someday office where I enjoyed some AC moments to cool off, hydrate and let my sweat-soaked cotton layers dry off before the next adventure I was excited for – a home-cooked meal at Harsh’s house. There was a taxi strike going on (an anti-Uber situation) so we had to take a local train and bus to get there. Harsh was less than excited about doing this during rush hour. I, as you can imagine, was elated! I got to experience a small flavor of the pushes to get on and off, and the sight of passing trains with people dangling off the sides, arms outstretched. I also enjoyed getting to see parts of city that felt much more open and less congested - modern stores, open air markets and of course steady flows of people and animals.
It was a great honor to meet Harsh’s parents, each exuding more warmth than the other. A beautiful home, with ornately carved wooden doors and wall/ceiling designs, all handcrafted with precise symmetry without the use of rulers. The sitting area was incredibly calming. Arpita, Harsh’s wife, says his mom is one of the most spiritual people she knows and takes great care to make it feel so tranquil, sometimes spending full days meditating there. Harsh’s brother and his family live downstairs in the same building and come upstairs daily for meals. Speaking of meals, this one, unsurprisingly, was divine, including a steady flow of chappati, each of a different density and a clay pot of some of the most delicious home-made yogurt.
I then went to meet Joseph, a friend of my friend Aditi (fellow domestic violence/sexual assault social worker in NY, working for the NY Asian Women’s Center) She’s been putting me in touch with all sorts of folks and helping me experience true Indian hospitality.
I know I only scratched the surface of Mumbai and am sad to go so soon, though who knows what lies ahead in Ahmedabad. Early train in the morn!