Reconnecting with friends and seeing the city from every angle
The grand finale of our December wanderings in India landed us for a couple of days in Mumbai, a.k.a. Bombay, the financial heart of India but also holder of numerous other less auspicious titles as well. The grand majority of people we met who had been to Mumbai were happy to leave it behind - crowded, chaotic, polluted, crowded - these are the adjectives most commonly associated with India's Gotham. Curiosity drew me the place, Jenn would have just have soon skipped it altogether were it not for the opportunity to visit some distant friends of ours who we met on our honeymoon while travelling in Indonesia. They live in Mumbai with their two daughters who are about the same age as our girls. If we were going to be on the road for New Year's Eve, spending it in Mumbai with friends promised an interesting experience.
Our mode of transport this time was an overnight train from Aurangabad where we had our cave adventures into Victoria station in Mumbai. We boarded the train after midnight (it was running an hour late at this point) and managed to push and nudge our way into our compartment. The reservations computer gave us bunks in different compartments but Jenn managed to negotiate some rearranging so that we had a room to ourselves. Once settled, sleep fell over us quickly and we all rested quite comfortably during the overnight hours of darkness.
Elena waits for the train.
Like the rest of Mumbai, the train traffic exceeds the capacity of the infrastructure to support it and we soon found ourselves intermittently stalled on the tracks awaiting an open bay at Victoria. By the time we finally reached the station, the train was five hours late. The plan was to meet our friends Gilles and Ferzin along with their family at the Gate to India to join them for an excursion out to Elephanta Island (for more caves). Our first taste of Mumbai confirmed the place's reputation - the taut from whom we hired a cab stuck us with a 25 year old Ambassador beater - the fact that it continued to move was a testament to the Indian ability to keep nearly anything going with a few pieces of wire and some gum. Or so I thought. As we pulled out of the exit from the station and into the Mumbai traffic, the clunker stalled halfway across the road. The driver motioned me to quickly get out and push the thing back into the station driveway while frantically attempted a roll back start up. It finally fired up and we were off but for how long? Every time the wreck stopped in traffic, I was sure it was going to die once more, but it made it all the way to YMCA International House where we were staying in the heart of the very touristy Colaba district just a few minutes from the Gate of India, the Taj Hotel, and infamous Mumbai made infamous by 2008 terrorist attacks.
The Gateway to India, built in honor of the 1911 visit of King George V and Queen Mary and now a serves as a major meeting point for tourists and locals.
The Gateway again with the very ritzy Taj Hotel behind it.
After dumping our bags, we rushed across the square just in time to meet our friends and board the ferry for the hour long sailing to Elephanta Island. It was great to see Ferzin and Gilles Moutounet - the last time we were together was during their visit to the US about 10 years ago. Not unexpectedly, the kids hit it off quite nicely and the outing gave us a chance to get reacquainted after such a long time apart. Ferzin is a native of Mumbai and Gilles hails originally from Paris. Jenn and I got to know them on the lip of a volcano cauldron in Java where we were trying to watch the sunrise with hundreds of Indonesian telecom employees on crushed together with us on their company outing. We discovered we were all on our way to the same town in Bali and forged a friendship in the days that followed.
Both Indian and non-Indian tourists are drawn to Elephanta Island for it's collection of cave temples - having just arrived from Ajanta and Elora, we were hard to impress. Still, it is always fascinating to see how similar and different tourists from different cultures can be. The trip up to the caves involved a long gauntlet of a stairway packed on each side with hawkers pushing every sort of souvenir junk imaginable.
Not an uncommon site in India - there is little collective appreciation for natural resources. The little train in the back tows tourists down the length of the jetty where the ferry boats are docked.
Corn fresh off the grill.
Sedan chairs were available - 600 rupees (about $12.00) for the ride up, 200 rupees on the way down.
The temple caves of Elephanta.
We landed back at the Gateway after dark and said good-bye to our friends until the following day, New Year's Eve. After a comfortable, quiet night at the hotel, we set out to explore the Colaba area for a little shopping and people watching. I experienced what must be a common sensation for the first-time visitor to this area - the nagging imagination of the horror that took place in this very area in November of 2008 when over a hundred people died and many more were injured. We ate lunch at the locally famous Cafe Leopold, one of the first palces to be attacked as gunmen fired from the street into the open restaurant killing 10 people and injuring many more. It's a hopping place, filled with tourists and locals alike. The food was great and the beer flowed abundantly.
Serve-yourself beer dispensers are a specialty of Leopold's
I took this photo from my seat inside Leopold's - a rather startling but direct message to would be terrorists.
A military armored personnel carrier with heavily armed police just outside the door to Leopold's.
While in Colaba, I sought out the office for Reality Tours, a group that offers guided tours through Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia which sits right in the middle of Mumbai. They offered tours even on New Year's Day so I signed on for the next morning once I found their very tiny office.
The office for Reality Tours.
After a little more shopping, we headed back to the room to prepare for the evening's events. The girls were sleeping over Ferzin and Gilles with Gilles' parents, visiting from France, looking after them while we attended a massive New year's Eve party at the Bombay Gymkhana, a locally famous health and social club where Ferzin is a member. We hired a cab to take us across town enabling us the opportunity to experience first hand the infamous Mumbai traffic. Our friend live on the fifth floor of a 23 story high rise with a beautiful view of the city.
The view from the top of their apartment
The girls check out photos of their four honeymooning parents
The girls had their own New Year's Eve celebration.
The Moutounets live right next door to the Mumbai Four Season's Hotel, so we went next door to check out the New Year's Eve scene in one of the most luxurious hotels in the city.
Many goodies were being made ready for the evening's events.
Ferzin drove us to the club on a rather cool and windy evening for an outside event. The guest list included over 2000 people sitting at tables set out on the cricket pitch with a dance floor the size of a baseball infield. Most people were dressed to the hilt in their New Year's Eve best I couldn't help but feel like I had crashed a party for a crowd I didn't really belong to, which was, in fact, the case. It was slow to get going but picked up as the clock ticked toward midnight. The buffet dinner just went on and on with every kind of Indian dish available along with numerous other Asian dishes. There were ice sculptures gracing the dessert tables and a very "hip" and very loud band enjoining the crowd to dance.
The guest begin to arrive.
An amazing spread of food and treats.
The first ice we'd seen in months
The scene on the dance floor
Ferzin, Gilles, and Jenn
Our table included Gilles' sister and Ferzin's friend and her husband who were visiting from England.
The energy level grew with the approach of midnight which was greeted with colorful fireworks display put on by the club.
Like the fireworks, the party seemed to pop brilliantly for a short time before fizzling and fading quickly in the 30 minutes past midnight. Due to sound level restrictions (something I did not think existed in India), the party moved inside but never really recovered as people, including us slowly dispersed and headed somewhere - we went to the Y.
A few hours later, I found myself at the train station joining up with the others taking the tour of the Dharavi slum. The organization that conducts the tours, Reality Tours, has a good relationship with the people with whom they interact and offer job training and assistance centers with the profits they make from the tours. As part of their ethical tourism policy, they also forbid the taking of photos during their tours, so any photos seen here have been taken from the internet.
I wasn't sure what to expect by taking this tour. I wasn't completely comfortable on account of the voyeuristic element of going out of my way to see people worse off than me. Anticipation of emotional and maybe even physical discomfort hung over me we approached the edge of the slum. I expected to feel alien and out of place. I envisioned extreme poverty and miserable people. It's because of these fears and preconceptions that I am so grateful to myself for making the trip - I was afforded the chance to displace ignorance and fear with truth and understanding. It's one of the major reasons I came to India.
First some stats - the Dharavi slum is one of numerous slums in Mumbai but holds the title of largest slum in Asia, a claim that is disputed but nonetheless believable when visiting. What makes Dharavi unique is it's location in the heart of the Mumbai financial district. The slum area encompasses only 3/4 of a square mile but is home to close 1,000,000 people. In such an expensive city as Mumbai, the slums are the only affordable destinations for rural and urban poor to settle.
Surprisingly (to me anyway), it is a very bustling industrial area with thousands of businesses both small and large employing scores of workers involved in production of clothing, consumer products of every kind, and food as well as the recycling of everything and anything that can be reused. Walking through the narrow alleyways, the place was a crowded beehive of activity - cluttered and filthy with air filled with various fumes and stenches in places, but is people were working hard no matter what door or window I peered through. Children ran through about in streets peppered with every kind of trash and filth but they did so with great energy and joy - wherever we went, the children came out to greet us and want to be in our pictures.
Laborers wore the soot and grime of their dirty work, but everyone else somehow managed to stay amazingly clean while moving about is squalor of some of the streets and passageways.
And they were very gracious people - the entire time we snaked our way through gaps between buildings wide enough for one way traffic, touring various industries and shops, and walking down streets jammed with trucks and carts and animals and every sort of refuse, not once was I asked by anyone for anything. As was the case during all of my time in India, I occasionally felt the stare of curious eyes but never did those eyes seem suspicious or hostile. There was a palpable sense of pride in this tight knit community of people living more closely than I can ever imagine and who possess so very little. Their water comes from scarce and sparsely situated taps that deliver once a day, at an unannounced time, for perhaps an hour - miss it and go thirsty. A few multistory buildings dot the slum street plan, but most buildings are constructed from the debris of the more affluent in arrangements and patterns of metal, plastic, cloth, and wood that both construct an architectural landscape seen perhaps in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
The longer our two hour tour progressed, the more relaxed I felt. The slum dwellers are quite accustomed to the tours coming through and are aware of the job training programs offered by Reality Tours using the income of the tours. Coming here alone would likely be a different experience - finding one's way out might take days - but I feel fortunate for having had the opportunity to visit as part of group with an organization having the best interests of the slum dwellers at heart.
Jenn met the Moutounets in town to gather the girls, have some lunch, and share farewells. I met them back in the hotel after a crowded train ride back from Dharavi and some time spent watching the Saturday cricket matches played by serious middle-aged men decked out in full whites on a massive expanse of green open space lined by elegant stone buildings and the aura of a different era - it was certainly a different world from the one I left an hour earlier. After a long night for all of us and a general feeling of travel fatigue, we laid low at the hotel for the afternoon in preparation for an early trip to the airport and a return "home" to Kerala.