Saturday 10th December 2016
Accommodation-Duration: Hotel Windsor-2 days
As the location of the epic story I have been so engrossed in during my Indian adventure, finally arriving in Mumbai felt like I already knew it so well. The city of Bollywood stars, millionaires, cosmopolitan city living amongst stunning european-like architecture, is strangely juxtaposed with one of the biggest slums in the whole of Asia. As Lonely Planet describes it quite accurately as a “beautiful mess”, there couldn’t be a more accurate description of this interesting city. Previously known as Bombay until 1996, Mumbai has an odd mix of people, more so than any other place I visited in this intensely diverse country. What I would liken to most places in India, is the bizarre beauty amongst the chaos; basing my sightseeing in the Fort area of the city where street names felt familiar from the pages of Shantaram, I stumbled across stunning gothic architecture that seemed reminiscent of days when Mumbai strived for more. Saying this however, I did feel very civilised in this urban glamour, with it being India’s financial and fashion capital, and home to one of the largest film industries in the whole world. The streets are lined with fine dining restaurants, designer shops and luxurious hotels, that seem so out of place in a country like India.
Eager to step off the train onto the famous platform of Mumbai’s Victoria station, it was nice to be back amongst the vibrant atmosphere of the Indian railway after travelling by bus through most of south India. Strangely, as we began to approach Mumbai, I saw my first transvestite Indian pacing the carriages asking for money, as if it was a show. I was completely gobsmacked to see this in such an insular culture that would surely be something so shocking. Like most of my journey’s throughout India, I made friends with the curious locals along the way, which made me feel a little sad that it was my last voyage on the local transport in this wonderful place. Much to my dismay, the station that we rolled into wasn’t actually the famous rail network I had watched a documentary on years before, however I was pleased to discover my hostel was only round the corner. Buzzing with curiosity to be in the Bollywood city, I began wondering whether 2 days was enough to explore a place I had heard so much about. Regardless, it felt like a perfect place to end my incredible voyage around India.
Meeting a really great group of people in my hostel room, I found a companion to wander the city with on the first day. With so little time we managed to pace over 21,000 steps across 15km that day. Beginning on ‘Fashion Street’, which Lin finds the height of fashion in Shantaram, it was a little disappointing to find it was mostly cheap western fashion. By any means, it was interesting to stroll the long street of roadside stands that were bustling with locals. It was fascinating to learn that Mumbai is the mostly densely populated city in the whole of India, with a population the same as the whole of the UK. Surrounding these streets stood countless grand gothic buildings that really made me warm to the city of Mumbai. I unexpectedly thought I could see myself living in this city, which although still has the essence of beautiful Indian culture, has a sophistication and cosmopolitan atmosphere derived from western cities. Working my way up through the large clean streets of the city, we eventually arrived at the breathtaking Victoria Terminus station. It really did take my breath away seeing it in real life, what an incredible building that stands at the forefront of one of the largest railway networks in the world. This exuberant, overflowing epicentre, has a bizarre mix of Victorian, Gothic and Hindu stonework of buttresses, spires and stained glass windows. As the beating heart of the Indian railway, it felt so appropriate ending my story here. Walking past the station, we found the famous marketplace where we wondered through Crawford and Mangaldas markets. Crawford market, under the shadow of a British built stone structure, has everything and anything you would ever need; fruit and vegetables with whole stands dedicated to hand peeled garlic cloves, chocolates, spices, meats, and even livestock like budgies and rabbits. A real market for the real people. Turning back on ourselves to walk back down south of the city, we passed beautiful schools and cricket grounds where their sport culture came alive. Strolling back down the Mahatma Gandhi road, which I had heard so much about, we passed gorgeous shops like FabIndia, Bombay Spice, and Cotton Cottage. Walking through the main part of the Fort area, we came across the Flora fountain, Horniman Circle, National Museum of Art and countless more stunning buildings. Finally we arrived at the famous Gateway to India right on the waters edge. This bold archway was built for the visit of King George V in 1911. What a grand gesture! It is now a busy port full of tourists and beggars, a great place to people watch. A stones throw from the magnificent archway is the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the most luxurious in the world. This iconic hotel is a humble yet fairytale-like structure with Islamic domes and gothic stonework. Feeling like ceasing the moment before I finally go home, we decided to have a drink in one of the many hotel bars. The rich interior did feel really bizarre to experience in India, however I have realised that Mumbai seems to be the exception. Having spent a weeks budget on a drink and a pudding, we felt surrounded by luxury, however as I began to forget I was still in India, I was bluntly reminded when we stepped outside the doors of the hotel to find begging children at our feet. You escape reality for a split second.
On my final day in India, I decided to spend it experiencing an environment so normal in this country, which I felt was my duty to pay my respects to, and it turned out to be the cherry on top of the cake to my Mumbai experience. Having heard along my travels of people touring around the famous Dharavi slums in Mumbai, the concept wasn’t something I got to grips with and I felt a little frustrated at the thought of a company monopolising from a communities misfortune. However, after a little openminded thinking and research, I was pleased to discover that the socially responsible tour company ‘Reality Tours’, give back 80% of the takings to the community. Meeting our extremely friendly and re-assuring tour guide at the train station, we jumped onto the train scrambling for seats. This particular line is travelled by 7.5 million people every single day, and because of the locals hanging out of the doors and riding the roof of the train, on average 6-7 people die each day. These frantically busy trains were something I chuckled about it in my book, but knowing people risk their lives during their daily commute seems absurd. Arriving at the Dharavi slums close to Mumbai airport, we were told to take no photo’s during our time inside. Mumbai has over 2000 slums with over 10 million people living in them, and being the most densely populated city that means there are 30,000 people per square km. Dharavi slum is one of the largest slums in all of Asia and known as the 5 star slum, and I could see why. Having already stepped inside the slum, I could have been on any other Indian street. Beginning in 1840, it took until 1995 for the slums to become a legal residential area and is now government run with electricity, 4 hours of running water per day, schools, hospitals and police stations. Anything the community needs in within the confines of the slum. I could not believe how different this place was compared to my expectations. Our tour guide explained that the idea of these tours is to educate people about the real slum environment because movies like Slumdog Millionaire has ruined people’s perception. I felt completely overwhelmed, but in a completely different way to what I ever expected; these people have purpose and are part of a solid community that strive for more than the street beggars you see. Our guide explained that the poorest people of India live on the streets, which is their choice; they choose not to work within the slums and think begging is more lucrative. Within the slum it was amazing to see there was no begging at all, our guide also explained how crime is incredibly low. What an eye-opener! The slum is split into two main sections, the residential and industrial. Beginning in the industrial section, we were shown the major plastic and aluminium recycling factories, which the city of Mumbai relies on to keep pollution low. It was interesting to learn that people come from other parts of India for 8 months of the year to work within the industrial section of the slums because of the good pay and free accommodation. Although it was a fantastic way of people making a living, the work conditions were incredibly dire and often the workers just sleep in the factories each night. We were then shown the leather industry which now make their own branded ‘Dharavi’ bags, and the bakeries which produce most of the baked goods for the whole of the city. I dreaded to think how badly the money crisis had effected the slums, probably more than any other area in India, however it will have a positive impact on the future. As we entered the residential area full of brick buildings, fridges and satellite dishes, it did oddly become a little more ‘slum-like’. As we weaved through the tiniest alleyways with exposed wires hanging above us, our tour guide told us we need 3 things to survive crossing an Indian road; good hands, good legs and good luck! With the power of your firm hand signal he couldn’t be any more accurate! Emerging from the claustrophobic residential houses, I couldn’t help wonder how horrific it would be in monsoon season when I’m sure the small alleyways would become rivers. The residents of the Dharavi slum pay 5,000 rupees a month for a tiny 2 story slum house, they often live on the lower floor and rent out the upper. Families of upto 6 people live in just one room. The one major problem in the slums is sanitation; we approached a large canal running through the centre of the slum leading to the sea, containing all of the sewage from the slum. We also walked past one of the few toilet blocks that serves over 1 million people, often the locals decide to use the railway tracks instead. We ended the eye-opening tour at the NGO office amongst the madness of the slum. It was there that we learned exactly how the NGO company helps the community. You can understand that initially the locals of the slum were quite reluctant to welcome these tour guides into their homes, however once they began to see the benefits it reaped, you can see how much respect the tour guides have. The NGO set up a Youth Empowerment program which has changed the community immensely. They also won the Virgin Holiday Responsible Tourism Award on 2012. My overall experience of visiting the slums was dramatically different to what I ever expected. It gave me hope that communities are developing in such a poor country like India, they have government support and are some of the happiest people I’ve ever seen. It just goes to show that money doesn’t buy happiness. Thank you for having my Dharavi.