Travelling to Mumbai I was back to complete lone wolf travel. I couldn’t quite work out if I was more or less apprehensive about this than I was when travelling with a friend. This might sound stupid, but when you are by yourself it’s much easier to ignore the voice of fear which is solely internal as opposed to the voice of fear when it comes from a companion’s mouth. Arriving in Mumbai I got a prepaid taxi from the airport as I assumed this was the best option – as it turned out my driver spoke no English beyond hello and didn’t know where my hotel was. The journey therefore was littered with stops to ask other taxi drivers where we were going, one of whom hopped in just to get a lift down the road. Finally we found the hotel thanks to my offline map (never leave home without one).
As I arrived early evening in Mumbai I walked straight down to Chowpatty Beach – a hugely popular beach with the locals the place was full of families, couples and friends. I felt out of place, all on my lonesome and without a picnic as everyone sat chatting with friends, playing games with children or sharing a meal. I was amazed that both on my walk and while at the beach for the first time since I landed in India I was left completely alone – no one said hello, asked for a photo or asked where I was from (this has been a common theme in Mumbai). Sitting on the beach I took a lot of pleasure in seeing things like little girls playing with their dad’s hair or kids running back and forth from the waves yelping with joy (although I would screech with fear as that water is seriously polluted).
As the sun set, the voice of anxiety set in and told me to head back to the hotel. En route grabbing a butterscotch kulfi (Indian ice cream) I walked back to the hotel and realised for the first time that I was basically wet through with sweat from the humidity despite the fact it was only 33 degrees.
Waking early for my only full day in Mumbai I went straight to Cafe Leopold – a famous cafe that really wasn’t particularly interesting apart from the fact that there were still bullet holes in the walls from the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Conveniently the meeting point for the tour I was taking of the Dharavi slum met just past the cafe. Alongside 2 other kiwis we drove through the red light district of Mumbai, learning about the enormous issue India has with domestic trafficking of young girls who are then forced into prostitution. When I asked my guide about what the police were doing about it he said sadly much of India’s police force is corrupt so there is basically nothing happening
to help these girls. In saying that however since 1990 when there was an estimated 60,000 prostitutes there is now only 8,000 – so clearly someone is making changes! From the red light district we drove to Dhobi Ghat…
This is an open air laundromat run by dhobis – the washing of local hospitals and hotels occurs here. It was a remarkable sight, hundreds of men moving below us soaking, bashing, hanging and moving laundry all through the area. Our guide told us that many of the dhobis will have come from out of state to make money and send it back to their family, working 10 hours a day they will earn roughly 200 rupees ($4.40 NZD) a day.
We drove on to the main purpose of the tour, the Dharavi Slum. The largest slum in India, and certainly one of the largest slums in the world. Estimates of the population of the slum vary but our guide suggested that when spread over the area there would be 500,000 people per square kilometre (the rest of Mumbai is about 30,000 per square kilometre). This slum is very productive, 80% of India’s plastic recycling occurs here as well as a strong pot making and leather making industries. However, there is still enormous poverty and a huge problem of child labour throughout the slum. Moreover, the conditions the workers endure are hazardous and no doubt shorten their life spans significantly.
Walking through the slum was unreal. The plastic recycling area saw men and young boys sorting, melting, cleaning, and drying plastic, no one wore shoes, goggles or a mask to protect them from the multitude of hazards that existed there. We saw a boy as young as 9 working – again like in the Dhobi Ghat for 10 hours work they will only receive 200 rupees. We then walked through the residential area of the slum. In the Muslim area the lanes were so narrow and low that anyone much larger than me would struggle to get through. The winding alleys trapped the humidity and harboured smells that I am definitely not accustomed to. The Hindu area had wider streets and generally slightly larger houses – in saying that they were still not much bigger than a single room 10 ft by 10 ft (8-10 people will live in that room). Our guide told us that none of the houses have loos, instead they all depend on the limited loos provided. Continuing through the slum we saw the leather production, pot and poppadom making.
The company I did my tour through is called Reality Tours and Travel (I would highly recommend them) have been working within the slum for 10 years to try and improve the lives of slum dwellers, they provide education, job opportunities and practical training for children and young adults throughout the slum. Their tour guides have all lived in the slum at some point in their lives, so they really do know what they are talking about. Moreover they bring people like me into the slum and generate funds to invest in the slum through the tour I took. The work they are doing is desperately needed in the area – despite having already seen a lot of poverty in India there was something very confronting about the slum, maybe it was seeing a 9 year old working in such hazardous conditions. I don’t know. But I left the tour coming to terms with the enormous privilege I have come from and continue to live in compared to so many people in a country like India who are genuinely slaving away to provide the bare necessities for their family.
Note, we couldn’t take photos in the slum so these are provided by Reality Tours
Leaving the tour I travelled back through the city to the Fort area – this area is filled with Colonial influence, particularly in terms of the architecture. Once more wet through with sweat I first stopped for a particularly posh lunch (at a table for one). Like all good lone travellers I had done my research on places to eat and found a Burmese restaurant (called Burma Burma) that boasted a delicious tea salad – for anyone who knows me or my family this is an absolute favourite at the Bhodi Tree/Rangoon Ruby so I had to try it. I was not disappointed (however my expectations were not exceeded – Bhodi Tree still wins) the tea salad was delicious and accompanied by steamed buns of some creation…
Ready to roll my way through Mumbai I headed across the road to the High Court as I heard I could sit in on court in session – which I thought would be rather interesting. After battling my way into the building and consistently coming across the least helpful humans in India (a rare find in my experience) I made it into the court building. I was however at the wrong end, I had made it to the area where all appellate judgments were stored. This was even better than I could have imagined – with absolutely no semblance of order there were leaflets of paper, some bound, some loose, stacked wall to wall throughout the building. In some areas the fans were blowing too hard and the paper was flying down the hall. The whole thing was so wonderfully Indian! (Sadly I had to relinquish my camera and phone due to the sensitive nature of some of the subject matter so there is no photo evidence of the mayhem that was).
From the HC I walked down to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) a remarkable piece of colonial architecture, admiring the building was only about 1/10 of the fun. Walking inside it was like being at a rave with no music, just the occasion horn of a train – people pushing their way on and off the platform and generally all round the station it was a thriving mess of humanity. My enjoyment was however short lived as I realised I was moving further and further from the entrance/exit and I suddenly had to battle upstream back to the entrance to escape!
Grabbing a taxi I went to Haji Ali – a mosque in Mumbai that at high tide looks like it is floating in the sea, all reviews said it was very beautiful and you did not need to be a Muslim to appreciate it. I did not appreciate it at all. Arriving at low tide I instead found myself looking at a sea of pollution, surrounded by touts and as was the theme of my day in Mumbai continuing to sweat. Walking down towards the mosque I the situation did not improve – I actually became angry as I witnessed people throw more plastic and rubbish into the sea! By the time I reached the mosque I was in no state to enter a place of worship. Instead I sat down on a rock and watched the sea for a while.
The only thing that managed to improve my mood was that amongst the stalls en route to the mosque there were about 4 guys sitting on the ground with scales – the service you could pay them for was to weigh yourself on your way to prayer. I found the whole concept ridiculous and it really did improve my mood…
Saturated with sweat I began my slow journey back to my hotel. Originally believing I would walk the 4km my dreams lasted all of about 1km before I realised I may melt into the pavement before I reached the hotel. Giving up and hopping in a cab (with AC – absolute luxury) I retreated to my hotel to pack up my belongings in preparation for my 3:30am trip to the airport.
Peace out Mumbai – I’ll be back for High Tea at the Taj!