Published: April 29th 2012April 29th 2012
This is the young man who works for Reality Tours who guided five of us through the Mumbai slum. I took no pictures while on site thinking it may offend the people living there. George and Katy are friends from Vancouver Island.
The first thing that struck me about Mumbai was the heat. It was already near 90 when we arrived in early morning. Add to that the humidity and smog and the result is stifling, almost suffocating heat. It got to over 40 degrees C. yesterday. That is about 110 degrees F. The city is huge and spread over a what used to be several islands, now all connected into one large land mass. The harbor was jammed with cargo ships and military vessels. The Indian navy maintains a large base just next to where Nautica docked. We are at the “Green Gate”; the navy next door at “Lions Gate.”
I joined four other folks for a private tour of the city. We crammed ourselves into a very small van and took off with an Indian tour guide and a driver. One of the couples, who now live in Canada, were originally from the Netherlands. The missus, a most agreeable woman, was, shall we say, a large boned girl. Three of us were squeezed together in the back seat, two in the middle seat and the driver and guide up front. After a couple of times having to push
Hindu bathing site
This is a place in Mumbai where devote Hindus go to bathe in water trucked in from the holy Ganges many hundreds of miles to the east.
me out of the van with her feet at stopping spots, the seat of my trousers ripped and I spent the rest of the day touring Mumbai with my ass hanging out. Not that anyone cared, and in the heat a little extra ventilation was appreciated.
It turned out that our tour operator had an “office” deep in the Mumbai slum where one million people are living. We spent more than three hours walking through the slum along passage ways no more than 18 inches to three feet wide. The noise, the smell, the smoke and then absolute crush of humanity was just unbelievable. But the people were friendly and smiled at us as we walked along. The children would give us a shy grin and wave as we carefully made our way through the maze. Not once was I approached by someone begging. Everyone here is busy recycling garbage from the city garbage dumps. There was a constant din of metal being cut, flattened or ground up, glass being broken and plastic being chopped into small bits. The material is sold and hauled elsewhere where it is turned back into useful items. In some places we
A scene from above a huge outdoor laundry near the slum
passed tiny rooms where several people would be perched on stools in front of sewing machines rapidly sewing cheap shirts and other garments. Huge smoky kilns were burning charcoal to harden clay pots.
There was a stream of fetid water and God knows what else flowing in the passage ways and I had to be careful not to stumble and fall in. At one point I actually stepped on a live rat that was scouring across the path. We visited the home of a woman who lived with her husband and two children in a room about 10 feet square. It had a concrete floor, no furniture at all, a gas hot plate with a pressure cooker, and some sleeping mats rolled up in the corner. There was no window and only a cloth to cover the doorway. Everyone slept on the mats on the floor in the evening. There was a public “latrine” somewhere in the maze. The ones I saw were merely holes in the ground. I have no idea where they bathed, but hopefully it wasn’t in the drainage ditch that surrounded the slum. The ditch water was yellow brown and stunk. There was
Katy, Jean and Jenohn at the Hanging Gardens high above the beach and what is known as the Queen's Necklace, a waterfront promenade brightly lit at night.
all sorts of trash floating in it.
In spite of what this description may lead you to think, the slum tour was perhaps the best experience I have had so far. I have never, ever seen anything like it before. The scenes from “Slum Dog Millionaire” do not do it justice. But most importantly I felt the humanity of these people and their gentleness and friendliness seemed genuine. They are living out their lives in conditions Americans and Europeans would find utterly appalling, yet they are industrious and reasonably content, or at least so it seems. Most people looked clean and not under-nourished. I suppose there is a feeling of community and family that helps hold them together in their shared struggle. In fact our tour leader was a young boy of 17 who said he grew up in the slum and seemed to know lots of people there who greeted him as we walked through. Perhaps we wouldn’t have had as friendly a reception had it not been for him.
After we immerged from the slum I was dripping with sweat and exhausted, but we pushed on by traveling to visit the Mumbai
Another view of a Mumbai laundry
red light district where thousands of prostitutes line the streets. We also stopped to tour the house where Gandhi lived for many years in between prison terms. I saw his small bedroom, sleeping mat and his huge library. I did not know that he was such a literate man. I purchased a copy of his autobiography there so that I can find out more about him. He is a revered figure in India and his image is everywhere.
After that we took a walk through what is known as the “hanging gardens” which is a park on a hill overlooking the city and the Arabian Sea. Not far from the gardens and behind some trees was an area used to dispose of the bodies of people who belong to the Parsi sect. These folks originated in Persia and do not cremate their dead like the Hindu peoples. Our guide said that the Parsi hang their dead by their feet inside a sort of open air mausoleum. Then huge birds fly into the place and peck the flesh from the bodies until all that is left are the bones. These are later ground up and used in fertilizer.
Victoria Terminus, main railroad station in central Mumbai
As gruesome as it seems, this really is a very sensible way to quickly return a person to the life cycle much as that practiced by some American Indian tribes; an earth to earth, dust to dust, bird to bones process that lends a sense of mystical harmony to life and death that on some level appeals to me. There was a huge flock of birds circling the mausoleum when we drove by which probably meant that it was lunch time in side.
In the evening, tired as I was, I met Bill and two of our friends, Lady Jean and Gene the Elder, for drinks and dinner at the Taj Mahal Hotel on the waterfront. This is the famous old hotel that sits right next to the “Gate of India” monument which was erected in 1912 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. The hotel is a vivid symbol of old Mumbai’s British colonial past. It is simply gorgeous. The inner courtyard has a swimming pool and is surrounded by deep verandas where one can sit under ceiling fans with a drink. We ordered Bombay Sapphire gin of course and then dined at the top floor restaurant in a new wing attached to the old hotel. The Taj was the site of a horrific terrorist attack a few years ago when armed extremists stormed the place and gunned down scores of people. Several parts of the grand old hotel were completely destroyed, but it has all been restored. It was not surprising to have to go through a metal detector to enter. There are guards armed with machine guns in many places near the hotel and the military base nearby. But life goes on as it must to ensure that terrorism doesn’t succeed. Though I have to admit I am not exactly sure what the ultimate aim of all this blood shed really is.
On the last day here I was just too hot and tired to do very much. Bill and I managed to find our way to the Victoria Terminus of the Indian railroad system. We watched as the trains, packed with people, would pull into and out of the terminal. It was absolutely chaotic. There were literally thousands upon thousands of people coming and going all at the same time. The noise, the heat, and the crush was draining. Though I didn’t see beggars in the slum, they swarmed around us just outside the port gate. I had to fight my way through crowds of little children with their hands out pointing to their mouths to indicate they were hungry. Mothers with little babies strapped to their shoulders did the same. It is hard to ignore them, but that is the only option. If you stop to give a dollar to one, you would be trampled by a horde of others trying to get something. I will never again complain of having been dealt a rough hand. All I have to do is remember what I have seen in India.
Nautica is now underway again headed west across the Arabian Sea. I am exhausted and am planning to lay low for the next few days. We have only pirates and the empty sea to contemplate until we reach the Arabian peninsula and the kingdom of Oman in two days time.