Mumbai

I wanted to go somewhere this weekend and had so many grand plans for exciting places to visit. But flight times just didn’t work out. So I decided to go to Mumbai – I haven’t been (only to the airport!) and it looks cool.

Only a 1 hour 30 minute flight and you get a three course meal! A chaat – puffed shell filled with spicy potato. A tomato curry. And a sweet soft sphere-shaped fried dough dessert.

I hadn’t organised a taxi pick up – the hotel were trying to charge nearly £60. So I got a pre-paid taxi from the desk in the airport. For £8. It was a little rickety, the guy didn’t speak English so I didn’t have to make small talk, and it was hot. Even at 11pm. Hot. And we had no windows (basically a tuk tuk with doors) – so all the city smells. Incense. Food. Pollution. Flowers. Sewage. All the usual smells of India.

We didn’t go the main route down to where I was staying. Instead we drove through the city. Through the slums, past the markets, a lot of people sleeping on the streets with no cover. Some under tarpaulin. And a surprising number of people. Apparently there are around 100,000 homeless people in Mumbai. Women were sitting folding leaves (used for betel nut) on the street. This is where there will, in the morning, be a fish market.

And the contrast. Right next to this area. A brand new office building of a French company.

We arrived at my hotel around midnight. I’m staying at the Taj Palace. It’s incredibly fancy. Again greeted with tikka put on my forehead – and a necklace made from basil leaves.

The contrast between my large hotel room and the people outside who have nothing has not escaped me.

Saturday 12 August 2017

Despite going to bed around 1am, I tried to have a lie in, but rather failed. And was too excited to look out of my window.

Wow

The view

India gate

Right beneath my window.

It was 8am, and it was quiet outside. Hardly many people. The boats lined up on the water next to the gate, getting ready for the day trips to elephanta temples.

I lazed around a bit and headed out around 10.30am for a walk around.

I’m staying in the Colaba area, which is the waterfront. About a street away from where I was staying, a woman started walking with me. Talking at me. After a polite ‘no thank you’, she had already deduced I was from England and was still walking with me, insisting she didn’t want money or to sell me anything. I hate this. One street later, I lied and said I was late meeting friends on a different street. The opposite direction to where I wanted to go. But that seemed to work, once she realised I had no interest in visiting her shop/market stall/wherever she thought I might be going. Maybe she was just being nice. Maybe she was trying something on. You just never know.

Crossing roads is a fun game. The red man on the pedestrian light says you have about 108 seconds to wait. The cars aren’t moving. So you just go. Across about 4 lanes of vehicles. Best to do this with some locals, nestled in the middle of them.

A few roads later and I was next to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (!) museum. A pretty building, with equally pretty palm-filled grounds. But I wasn’t going inside.

So carried on walking further, up through the Fort area. I wanted to visit a tea shop. But it was closed. Typical. Opens at 12pm. That’s late! So instead, I made my way up to the main train station.

Weaving between different roads, random market stalls. Printing shops. A woman selling grass, that you can feed to her cows. Sugar cane juice stalls. One fancy Zara shop.

The main train station. It used to be called the Victoria Terminus. Now it’s the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. A UNESCO world heritage site. The city’s most extravagant gothic building.

From the outside, it was really pretty. Lions sitting on pedestals. Fancy windows and arches and roof. Even the ticket hall looked like the inside of a church,

Once out of the ticket hall, the rest of the station really did just look like a normal Indian train station. People with more luggage than they can carry. Huge long lists of departing trains. And stalls selling snacks. I wandered around a bit, then headed out of a different exit, at the back of the station.

Here was a market and a bus stop. Buses lined up, people weaving in and out. Usual chaos. It was awesome.

I made my way back the way I had come. But this time choosing random streets to walk down, rather then mostly on the main road. I got lost in market stalls and temples and men on bikes weaving through the crowds.

By now, the tea shop was open. They gave me samples of practically every tea they had. And I bought too much.

When I was looking up cool vegetarian places to eat in Mumbai, the one which came out top was Burmese. Weird. When I was in Burma, the food was terrible. But I found myself walking past it, and decided to pop in for an early lunch. It was 12pm, and I hadn’t had breakfast.

The restaurant was pretty fancy. A total contrast to the dirty chaos outside. I had a coconut milk, noodle soup. With a tamarind and lime juice. It was really tasty. I also hadn’t noticed how cold the air conditioning was, until I went back outside and the temperature hit me like an oven.

Perhaps 1pm wasn’t the best time to visit India gate. It was busy. Not that exciting close up. I have a pretty awesome view from my hotel room. But it was still cool moving between the crowds. Everyone trying to get the best photo. And it was a nice view of the Palace hotel.

Then back at the hotel, time for the pool. Peak Saturday afternoon. I was apprehensive. But there were two people. Craziness.

So that was fun. The water was a warm 30 degrees C. And it was really pretty. The view of the building all along one side of the pool. Trees on the other. Masking the sounds of the noisy roads the other side.

At 3.20pm I headed back out again. I was joining a group for a tour around the markets. There were 3 of us, with 2 guides. We struggled to get a taxi. All the taxi drivers saw white people and were trying to charge too much.

Then it began to pour with rain. For about 1 minute. Before being sunny again.

And in that time, we got a taxi.

We weren’t going far. About 10 minutes north, up past the railway station to the first market – Crawford market.

This is the largest market in Mumbai. Most activity is in the morning, so by now it was relatively quiet. But still plenty of fruit and vegetable sellers, spices, dates and other random things. I bought some sambal spice.

The market turned into the next market – jam packed streets of people, stalls selling clothes and shoes. Vehicles trying to move down the streets but so many people even the pedestrians weren’t moving. Wow.

P

We ducked down a side alley into a fabric market – Mangaldas. 9 lanes of shops selling fabric. Apparently this is where designers will come to buy their fabrics, including lots of Bollywood films. It was hot. And busy. So hot you could barely breathe. Stacks of fabric everywhere. Men rolling out more piles of fabric, as you made your way through the narrow lane between the shops. People all pushing to move different directions.

Out the other side, into more markets. A complete maze. Here there was a mosque, and just the other side, a Hindu temple – Mumba Devi temple (mother temple, where the city gets its name from). We went inside, but weren’t allowed to take photos. Even the temple is a market – people selling offerings: coconuts, flowers, bracelets, tikka powder.

At the back of the temple were food stalls. I love street food. Lots of different types of chaat – different shaped savoury snacks. Lentil currys. Puffed balls. I tried s few things – poppadum topped with bits of vegetables, golgappa (a puffed ball filled with daal and a spicy water). So good. Probably not the ‘cleanest’ place, but never mind. I wasn’t sick!

We walked through a flower alley. There were lots of flower garlands hanging. And flowers being threaded. But nowhere near as impressive as the Bangalore flower market that I was at last week.

Then somewhere I was excited about – the Panjrapole. A sanctuary for 300 homeless cows. I would never have found it myself. Everywhere is a maze of alleyways. But so fun.

The cows were sorted into sex and age. Held in barns. We bought some grass to feed to them. There were lots of pigeons and cats hanging around. Apparently there are often other animals here, like donkeys. But none today.

Again, they wouldn’t let us take photos – worried that we would complain that the animals are being mistreated, and they would be closed down. Odd. So here are a few sneaky ones from my phone.

We weaved down a few more alleyways. Everything is sold here.

At the end of the tour, I caught a taxi to head back to my hotel. The taxi driver was so excited that he had a white person in his taxi. He kept trying to talk to me. In Hindi. Not too successful. And then asked for a selfie. Any opportunity (cars moving slowly. Not stopped (!)), he was trying to take a photo of me in the back, with him. Crazy.

The traffic was bad. It had taken about 40 minutes to get as far as the Colaba area. Rather than sit in more queues, I asked the taxi to drop me where we were. A block or so from India Gate. A very well priced taxi – he even stuck to the number on the meter (!), 200 rupees. About £2.30.

A few years ago, I was a bit obsessed with a book called Shantaram. I read it whilst I was in Vietnam, a few months before I first went to India. The book is about the Mumbai underworld, drugs, gangs, slums. And frequently in a cafe called Leopolds. Right behind my hotel.

Without meaning to, I found myself inside. Sat at a table ordering dinner. It was busy. Packed full of a mixture of tourists and locals. A strange mix of people drinking beer, eating afternoon cake and eating dinner. I had a vegetable curry, with roti – delicious.

And then was handily only a block from my hotel. Sadly no sunset, it was too overcast. But the gate lit up in the darkness was pretty.

Sunday 13 August 2017

I had another lazy morning. Watching the moving crowds under my window.

I left at 11am. Picked up for a half day tour around some places in Mumbai.

We drove out of the city, heading north. Along the coastline road – Marine Drive. This is a semi circular road leading all the way around the bay. People were sitting, running and hanging out along the oceanfront. Across on the opposite side is Malabar Hill, an expensive area full of high rise new buildings. And just next to here is the expensive house in the world, costing over $2 billion. Chowpatty beach, a fake beach (its on the ocean, but the sand is brought on a truck) full of street vendor food stalls was packed with people playing games.

We passed up through Mumbai’s red light district. Even at 11am, women were hanging around on the streets. Many women end up here through human trafficking – from other areas of India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The younger women are usually locked up in rooms, drugged until they become addicted and can’t escape. Only once they become older are they dropped by the brothel and left to fend for themselves – and with little to no education, no other jobs, many of them then set up by themselves and hang around on the street corners. There are thousands of women here. The buildings were dirty and scruffy, with sarees hanging out of every window.

Past the new train works. They are building an underground train from the airport to Colaba. Past the hundreds and hundreds of newly developed high rises. Many still being built. One being built by Trump.

And again, right next to these brand new, expensive buildings, the homeless women. Selling leaves on the streets. Apparently often their husbands have a gambling addiction, leaving the women to sell goods on the streets, whilst they are out all day.

Illegal slums which have been freshly knocked down by the government. Tarpaulin still strewn across the ground.

Mumbai has so many faces.

Our first stop was at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. This ghat is 150 years old and is known as the city’s laundry. There are 1026 open-air troughs, where people wash clothes every day. And hang them up to dry. They receive clothes from hotels, hospitals and houses across the city. The water is supplied by the government.

It is not known how much longer this site will be here, as the government have it marked for redevelopment. Knocking down people’s homes and livelihood.

Next up, heading to Dharavi slum.

I’m with an NGO, who use 80% of their profits to run education programmes in the slum. (Highly recommended: http://realitytoursandtravel.com/index.php )

This slum is the third largest in the world (after Khayelitsha in Cape Town and Kibera in Nairobi – both of which I have seen, but not walked inside), and is home to around 1 million people. Across Mumbai, around 13 million live in slums. 60% of the city’s population.

In India, the definition of a slum is that the government owns the land. For a legal slum, they have given permission for you to build there. An illegal slum, you have no permission. Therefore you could have an expensive million dollar house, but if the government owns the land, its a slum.

Dharavi slum was founded in 1882 during the British colonial era. The British did not want polluting industries near their land area at Fort. Initially leather tanneries and pottery. And local people could no longer afford to live in the Fort area and were forced to the northern end of the city. In addition to this, more and more people were travelling to Mumbai for a better life.

Dharavi is different to a tradition slum. Here there is a high work ethic – particularly around recycling. And there is an estimated total annual turnover of over US$1 billion.

I have none of my own photos from the slum, as we were asked not to take photos of how these people live. This wasn’t poverty tourism.

The slum is divided into different parts. There is the ‘dirty’ industrial area, this is visited first. Lots of one-room factories. Some sorting plastic into colours. Others chipping plastic into small parts. Others melting plastic and forming a plastic string to be sold to make new plastic. The design being stripped off paint cans, to be reused. Women sorting plastic airplane cutlery to be recycled. So much activity.

Many of the people working in the industrial factories are from outside Mumbai, or other countries. They were mostly men (except a few women sorting cutlery) and will often live in the factory as well as work there. They have a patch on the floor to sleep.

We climbed up onto the roof of one of the factories, for a view across the slum. The old mosque – the oldest in the city. Corrugated iron, blue tarpaulin. Random buildings everywhere. And to one side, a couple of concrete residential blocks – built only s couple of years ago to house some of the slum dwellers. But already, looking totally worn – they cannot afford the upkeep.

Across a small (very polluted river) is the Muslim residential area. Completely separated from the ‘dirty’ industrial area. Some ‘light’ industrial activities are carried out here – like bakeries. Making goods, which are packeted and sent all across India. The packaging does not say it was made in Dharavi.

We made our way through a maze of alleyways. Some very narrow and low ceilings. Others wider. So many people were bustling through. Some with massive packages on their heads – zooming through so fast you almost had to duck to the ground not to be caught. Lots of children running between our legs. Some being chased by a policeman.

The sound of the call to prayer playing in the air.

Largely, the slum didn’t smell. Of course the industrial area smelt of chemicals. The housing area mostly of food cooking. With the occasional smell of sewage. Sanitation is a continual problem, at one point there was one toilet for every 1,000 people. Apparently it has improved now – there are a few more (but not many) and some charge 2 rupees per use (2p).

Next to the residential area was a playground. This was cleared up a couple of years ago, so that children could play. But it wasn’t that clean. And all the swings etc were already broken.

A few alleyways later and we made it to the Hindu residential area. Generally these houses were bigger, many made of concrete and the was more space around. Rather than narrow alleyways, there were some larger courtyard areas – filled with children playing cricket.

Two train lines run through the area, meaning that many office workers now choose to live here too. Rent is from around 500 rupees per month (£6). And most houses pay for water and electricity. (Although many are hooked up illegally – so the government turn them off every now and then).

There are markets. Temples. Mosques. A whole city within a city.

Mumbai city has grown so much over the years, that Dharavi is now sitting on fairly ‘centrally’ located land. And is at risk of redevelopment. Many company have bid for the redevelopment, but no one knows what that would look like yet, or where all the people would go.

Everyone was really friendly. I didn’t feel unsafe – but I was walking around with a well known guide – everyone was saying hello. He said the daytime is perfectly fine, but no one wants to walk around at night, due to the high crime rates. I was also surprised st the level of litter – much lower than I had expected. Perhaps due to the high volumes of recycling that takes place here.

After a couple of hours wandering around, it was time to head to the airport, which was only a short drive away.

We got to the airport around 2.30pm. Way too early for my 6pm flight back to Bangalore. But I managed to waste time – eating samosas, buying sweets to take home, editing photos.

It only takes about 80 minutes to fly back. Tonight I’m spending the night at the airport hotel before flying back to England at 7am tomorrow morning. Sad times.

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