Mumbai: 24th – 31st July 2019

Our train arrived into Mumbai/Bombay* in early afternoon, and we went straight to a cheap local cafe that has been around for over 100 years. After a lovely lunch of thali and vada, we ordered an Uber. We waited out in the torrential monsoon rain; water cascading off awnings and the streets flooding, but businesses and individuals all around us just continued as normal.

We’d arranged to stay with the family of a friend in the UK, who welcomed us with incredible generousity and warmth. We were staying with our friend’s cousin but she was busy for the evening so we went to her parents’ house to leave our bags and refresh before heading out for the evening. They treated us to proper loose tea and tasty snacks.

The rain eased a bit and we walked up the beach, which was the most litter-strewn that we’ve seen in India, despite the efforts of a local group to clean it up. The water was wild, and crashed on the steep beach in huge waves. It was clearly not a place to go swimming! Despite the ongoing drizzle and stiff wind, there was a significant crowd congregating at the water’s edge, and hawkers sold popcorn and seaside tat. We walked to the cinema to see The Lion King. The film was amazing, but the experience was quite odd as we arrived early enough for the national anthem which everyone stands to, and of course the annoying intermission in the middle of the film.

When we got to Shermeen and Neha’s apartment later that night, Maeve became properly ill. The next few days passed in a blur of sickness, antibiotics and broken sleep. We were infinitely grateful to be staying with lovely hosts (with an ensuite!) rather than in a cheap hostel. Shermeen’s mum also provided a load of fruit which was really kind and helped with the recovery.

Our first tentative outing was to the Bandstand, a Victorian-type promenade on the beach in an area where lots of Bollywood stars live. Maeve was constantly astonished by how weak she was – apparently having never had a proper energy-sapping illness like this before! We took another tuk tuk to a bookshop, and to a vegan cafe where we both managed to have a full meal followed by ice cream. That night we were able to hang out with our hosts finally; Jay getting very drunk on whisky, and Maeve losing her whole lunch after stupidly having a gin and lemonade. Back to bed for the next few days! The Lakeland 100 race set off that night, so Jay was glued to the online tracker for the whole weekend, keeping an eye on friends and frontrunners.

Once Maeve was feeling better, we left to go and stay in a hostel in the South of the city, determined to see a few famous sights before leaving. After dinner, we took a cab back and near to the hostel became aware of firecrackers going off and a huge cacophony of drums up ahead. We went to investigate and joined a huge crowd watching the performance. It was a local religious festival celebrated by a form of drumming that only happens in this region. People of all genders stood with enormous drums strapped to them, beating them and dancing exuberantly. Others kept a treble beat on smaller drums with strange plastic sticks, and two men with ordinary brick hammers beat the timing on a gong. The performance ended abruptly, the crowd staying silent as we both wondered whether to clap and cheer the amazing display. Suddenly electronic music blasted from loudspeakers attached to a nearby car, and another drum troupe started up. It was amazing! We returned to the hostel and went up to the roof where we were treated to a fantastic view of the city and harbour, and listened to the ongoing drumming at a less ear-splitting distance.

The next day we went on a tour of Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia. We had been reticent when we first heard about it, not wanting to contribute to poverty tourism, however after a fair bit of research about the different organisations that offer them and their impact on residents, we changed our minds, and we’re very glad we did. The tours are run by an NGO called Reality Tours, who return 80% of the profit to their community centre and other local projects. The tours are led by people who live and work in the slum and aim to highlight the industry and ingenuity of the people who live there. The various industries have an astonishing turnover of $665 million USD, highlighting the sheer scale of work going on, as individuals rarely earn more than 400 rupees ($4) per week. There is a strict no photography rule on the tour to protect peoples’ privacy, so the photos below are all from Reality Tours’ website.

It was very wet on our tour; when we entered the slum some of the narrow ways between buildings were covered with tarp which let down the water in thick streams. Drains were open and sewage flowed along the narrow walkways. People worked in open-fronted cubicles, sat on floors usually with a single lightbulb overhead. It was dim and humid and the narrowness of some streets left us feeling hemmed in. At times we squeezed between buildings down walkways which we had to turn sideways to fit through. However these narrow openings serve a useful purpose during the majority of the year when they provide shade from the blazing sun. We saw a building which had collapsed inside because someone had tried to add an extra storey on the unstable foundations. Although the slum felt claustrophobic, it was not unpleasant, and what came across most was the sense of community within.

Officially 700,000 people live in Dharavi, but the real number is closer to 1.2 million. The people living there have a mixture of religions and seem to get on well. There is a problem with the government selling off land to private developers, who are required to build housing for those displaced as well as for private sale; the difference between the high-rise flats that result is stark. Redevelopment of slums is always a contentious issue, as governments strive – and generally fail – to find solutions to poor/nonexistent housing that genuinely meets the needs of the communities they purport to serve. Even with the existing conditions in the slum, many people like our guide who work outside still choose to live there, because of the togetherness and sense of pride they have over their community. It seems unlikely that even fancy apartments would be able to preserve this, and certainly not the soulless high-rises that have sprung up around the area.

Dharavi is a beacon of reuse and recycling. There are sectors devoted to recycling metal, plastic, cardboard and all kinds of household and industrial materials which have been brought here from all round the world. We also saw people cleaning out paint cans for reuse. Nothing is wasted!

The really toxic industries such as plastic recycling and leather tanning are mostly kept separate from the residential areas, but people working here have short life expectancy – around 55 – and many die from respiratory diseases. Another health hazard is the water supply: pipes run along the ground, alongside and often through the open sewers, and are easily contaminated through small cracks when they are trodden on. There is particular danger during the monsoon as the huge vats for water storage – the pipes are only active for a few hours per day – can be infiltrated by dirty runoff from the roofs above. Our guide explained that the need for boiling water (filtration is too expensive) is not universally understood and it is a slow process to educate everyone about it.

When whole communities do get sick, sanitation is a huge issue, as few houses have their own toilets. For most people living there, one toilet is shared per 14,600 people. Those people who do have outside jobs tend to use the toilets at their work, and others use the railway line.

Kumbbharwada neighborhood, famous for ceramics manufacturing, is more than 150 years old and is the oldest part of Dharavi. Artisans create various types of earthen pots that are shipped all over India. This manufacturing region is one area where the commercial and residential districts are combined; huge kilns sit in the open space between houses. Clay is brought here to be turned into pots and cups. To fire the clay, wood is not used as it burns too quickly and too hot. Instead, offcuts of cotton from the local clothing industry here are used, because is smolders slowly. It is highly toxic and huge amounts of CO2 are produced which blackens the surrounding houses with soot. When we visited, thick smoke filled the alleyways and presumably inside the houses, making everything hazy and stinging our eyes. Despite this, the area is highly desirable as the ceramics industry is relatively profitable and many of the houses had their own outside toilet.

We visited the community centre where adult learning classes are taught, and an IT suite is available for people to avail themselves of all the necessary online services. Most households have at least one phone as wireless telecoms are so cheap in India.

Overall the slum tour was fascinating, and enabled us to see a tiny glimpse of how different facets of India work, away from the tourist centres where we necessarily spent most of our time. It gave us a different perception of slums and what they mean for the people living in them, far more nuanced the image portrayed in Western media and education.

In the rest of our days in Mumbai, we visited a few famous sights, whilst also being mindful of recovery and Maeve needing to take it easy. The Gateway of India is an enormous stone arch which was built to commemorate the landing of the first British king to visit India. As a symbol of colonialism and British rule, it was fitting that the last British troops left India from there in 1948, after India achieved it’s hard-won independence from occupation. We also went to Leopold’s Cafe, a famous haunt popularised in Shantaram, a novel Maeve picked up in a hostel in Jaisalmer (which seems a lifetime ago!). We visited Marine Drive in the pouring rain: from the sea wall we could see the whole bay; the sea was rough and below us, on massive sea defenses, red and black crabs scuttled feeding on algae.

We left Mumbai by another long distance train, leaving from the stunning Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus station, an incredible Victorian train station built in the late 1800s when India was occupied by the British, and now a UNESCO world heritage site. One of the things we are not going to miss about India is the times we have come up against tedious and pointless bureaucracy, such as when we attempted to check our luggage for a few hours before our train:

We put our bags through a security scanner, something we had become used to at most (but not all) Indian train stations. We then hoisted our heavy bags back on and traipsed to the cloakroom, where we “queued” for a while (read: scrum). Near the end of the queue, someone told us we needed a padlock for our bags and a sticker from security. There had been no information at security to let us know this. So Jay left Maeve with the bags and went back to security to ask for stickers, meanwhile Maeve (still struggling with painful stomach cramps) tried to keep the bags in one pile as other people jostled around trying to get to the desk. The security guard would not give up stickers, saying we had to come back and have our bags scanned. Again. So once again we went back to the station entrance and went through the scanner. This time he came round, looked at our bags and asked for our padlocks. We pointed at the small padlocks on the bottom of our backpacks (Maeve’s was only attached to one zip toggle, literally not holding anything closed at all. Besides which, the nature of backpacks means there are several other openings that are not padlockable). He covered each padlock with a sticker to seal them shut and presumably to prove that they were not tampered with whilst in the cloakroom: even though this in NO WAY proves that nobody has been through our bags. We then returned to the cloakroom to queue once again to deposit our bags. What a pointless faff. It’s these small things that are bureaucracy seemingly for the sake of it which become frustrating when they are happening multiple times every day!

We went for food at – of all places – a Burger King. Since being really ill, Maeve was struggling with Indian food so we thought a bland burger and chips would be good. In the UK, Burger King don’t have any vegan burgers as the veggie ones have egg in, but in India the concept of ‘pure vegetarian’ excludes egg and is widespread. It was easy to check that their veggie burger was vegan and ask for it without mayonnaise. We took advantage of their aircon to hang out for a few hours, before heading back to the station to catch the train. It had been a mixed visit, with some serious lows for Maeve being so sick, and some incredible highs with the kindness of our hosts and the experiences we’d had exploring this mega-city. With our time running down in India and a few more things to do before we left the country, we moved on feeling we’d only just started to scratch the surface of Mumbai. Next stop, Agra, and the Taj Mahal!

*We struggled with what to call the city in this blog. In all our planning, booking train tickets etc., we used the official name of Mumbai. However all of our hosts in the city, and most of the people we met during our stay, referred to it as Bombay. So we’ve used both here. There is a useful 1-minute history of the various names the city has held at this link.

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