Busy Bombay

We left Udaipur at 9pm on Monday 9th April 2018 and wouldn’t be arriving into Mumbai until at least 1pm the next day. The 16 hour journey we had booked onto was made slightly better by the fact that it was a pretty new train so had good air conditioning and clean sheets. We didn’t mind the trains and preferred them to the buses so it wasn’t a big deal really to be on the train for so long and at least with the train being through the night, we were likely to sleep for a chunk of it.

As expected, we slept for most of the journey. In Mumbai we were staying at a hostel called Bombay Backpackers which wasn’t really near any tourist attractions but we had struggled to find anywhere that was very central and this was already a more expensive hostel than we were used to staying in. The hostel itself was fine but it had a strange vibe with it being a mixture of Indian people staying there to work and then a few travellers. The bit I found the hardest though was the number of snorers in our room and so I didn’t get the best nights sleep here! The train station we had got off at ended up being over an hours drive from our hostel so we didn’t bother to venture out on the day we arrived particularly since we were tired from traveling and nothing was nearby. All we did was eat at a nearby bar, relaxed and planned for the day’s ahead.

The next morning we went into the city centre by train. Mumbai’s trains (their metro service) are like nowhere else! People pile in and hang out of the doorways (there aren’t doors) for the journeys and even getting on the train itself is a mission. It took us three attempts to board the train (which had only cost us 10 rupees/11p). Our first attempt involved us being pushed out of the way by others forcing their way onto the train and our second attempt was halted by a local who said the train wasn’t a good one for me to travel on because it ‘was full of dirty men’. When we did finally get on the train – that was ok’d by our new local friend – it wasn’t that bad and we even managed to get seats at one point. We later spoke to someone who told us the quality of the trains can be dramatically different and that some of the older ones even have bed bugs! We ended up not finding it too bad but I don’t think it would be our preferred mode of transport if we could avoid it. You have to experience it at least once whilst you’re in Mumbai though!We got the train to the last stop which was Victoria Terminus (now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT)). This is a really huge station and also a UNESCO world heritage site built in 1886 during colonial times and you can see the British influence straight away. If you got rid of all the people you’d think you were back in the UK. This is one of the busiest stations in India due to it having local and national trains departing from it and I’m glad we were getting off a train here instead of trying to get on one as the scale of the station and the number of people would make it very stressful! It was when you came out of the station and went round to the front you could see the true grandeur of the place – it was beautiful.This was a good introduction to Mumbai and put us in a good location to explore more of the city. Everywhere you looked was another grand stone building like you’d see throughout the UK. We loved it and you could almost imagine what it was like in the past when these buildings were first built.

We tried to walk as much as we could whilst in Mumbai which wasn’t always easy as Mumbai is enormous! Mumbai (officially known as Bombay until 1995 and still colloquially called that) is the most populated city in India and is also the wealthiest in the country with the highest proportion of millionaires and billionaires amongst any other city in India!

We were in South Mumbai which you could tell is on the richer end of the spectrum in the city from the amount of shops, the number of Starbucks and the grand buildings. We walked through an area called Khala Ghoda which is full of art galleries as well as people selling their work on the street. I didn’t get a picture but even the police headquarters that’s there is in an incredibly grand, beautiful building!

We headed through leafy neighbourhoods to the harbour and the Gateway of India. The Gateway of India monument was built to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary during their visit to India in 1911. Despite this being the motive for the monument it actually wasn’t finished until 1924 and so was used more as a landmark for new arrivals to India. The gate is enormous and would be a good site to see as your first glimpse of India. This gate was also where the last British troops who occupied India after they received independence, the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, passed through in a leaving ceremony on 28th February 1948. How iconic that a sign of welcome to people from the UK when they would come to India was also their sign of dismissal.

This gate is still a huge tourist attraction with Indian’s as well as foreigners like ourselves. When we were there we were stopped multiple times for photos and a few people even posed for a photo with us to have professionally printed which was just crazy! The gate looks out onto the Arabian Sea and there were loads of boats in the water. I think it’s also somewhere you could get a boat trip along the bay from but we didn’t bother to do that

Next to the gate was the original landmark that welcomed people to India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is a 5 Star heritage hotel which has been open since December 1903. The hotel has 560 rooms and 44 suites and has had really famous people staying there such as Obama, Prince William and members of the Beatles.On 26th November 2008 the hotel was victim to a terrorist attack “against a symbol of Indian wealth and progress”. Members of a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba took hostages by gunpoint at the hotel, killing 31 people. This was part of a larger attack throughout the city where at least 167 people were killed in total. There is a memorial to commemorate the people who died at the hotel in the form of a fountain with the names of the people engraved onto it and when we entered the hotel we were searched and had to go through a metal detector.

This hotel was probably the most fancy hotel we have ever been in. We could only afford to use the toilets here as they’re free but even they’re great with an attendant and individuals cloths to dry for hands, Niall also said that the men’s toilets had a sofa in it! We checked the prices at the bar and the cheapest drink you could get was 400 rupees (£4.40) which is more than we were paying in total for our evening meals!After soaking up as much of the expensive hotel we could whilst not paying for anything, we walked through more of southern Mumbai and came to a large park called the Oval Maidan. This was an enormous green surrounded by two large main roads and rows of trees. Inside the park were loads of different cricket games of different ages and levels from people in full whites to a few kids playing with a battered ball and makeshift wickets. It was great to see some people play cricket as we hadn’t really seen that on our trip so far and had expected to a lot more. It did put me on edge a bit though to have so many cricket balls potentially flying towards me without me knowing particularly with the speed and skill these guys could throw with!This park was also where the High Court and the Clock Tower were which showed further examples of the beautiful gothic architecture that was littered throughout Mumbai. It was so nice to see it as you turned a corner or looked across the road and it reminded me of how nice the buildings are back home.Our final stop for the day was to Marine Drive where we watched the sun set. Marine Drive is a 3.6km boulevard that looks out across a bay and the skyline of Mumbai. We sat here with the many, many other people who had come for the same reason as us, to watch the sun set across the water. It was a really pretty sunset and it was a nice end to a good day exploring Bombay.Marine Drive leads to Chowpatty Beach which we only saw in the dark but it did have a big food market that was really busy so we stopped here for tea and had a great meal of pav bahji (like we had in Amritsar) and a cheese pilau rice which were both very tasty. Since the market was so busy and so was the particular stall we got our food from, we didn’t have to worry about getting ill which is often why we avoid street stalls in India so it was nice to be able to eat at them again especially as it all came to 250 rupees (£2.75) which included a drink each – bargain! On our way back along Marine Drive we saw a cricket match being played at a small ground lit up by flood lights. We were there at a good time and got to see one of the teams win. The cricket ground was right next to the busy main road and didn’t have any nets that would have stopped the ball going into the road which did make me wonder if they’d have any accidents before. There was a small crowd of people watching and it was nice to get to see some proper cricket being played. It was around 10ish when we got back to our hostel. We just got a taxi back to the hostel seeing as we didn’t fancy getting a train that late at night.

On our next day in Mumbai we were up early to go on a tour with a company called Reality Tours and Travel to the Dharavi Slum. The Dharavi Slum houses around one million people and it is considered to be one of the biggest slums in Asia and 3rd biggest in the world. Some of the film Slumdog Millionaire was also filmed here but we found out that they filmed at slums all across India so you would never have been able to tell which bits were from Dharavi anyway. We had taken a while to decide on whether to go on a tour of the slum as we didn’t want to be taken around to ‘gawk at poor people’. After speaking to someone in the hostel who had used Reality Tours as well as extensive research online, we decide that going with this company would be different and worthwhile. ‘Poverty tourism’ as its often referred to is quite a contentious issue with many arguing that the money you spend on the tour never reaches the communities you are paying to go and see and this is probably true a lot of the time. Reality Tours gives 80% of the money you spend to go on the tour back into the slum in the form of schools and other important infrastructure to help the community’s general wellbeing. What’s more is that all of the tour guides are inhabitants of the slum so you see the direct benefit your tour fee has as it is employing them! As well as this, a section of the tour does take you to see some of the work that the company do in the slum which is nice to see the benefits and the progress they’re having there. We got taken to one of the community halls which was being used as a school but also offered other activities such as dance lessons.

Before going on the tour, my view of a slum was of tiny, make-shift houses made from bits of corrugated iron, no sewage systems and extreme levels of poverty. I’m sure this is what some slums are like but not Dharavi. Being defined as a slum really just means that there isn’t proper infrastructure in place. Dharavi slum came into existence gradually over a number of years on unused government land until it was a thriving community. It had been around for so long that it became established and the government could no longer remove it. The slum is made up of many different communities and are mainly properly constructed houses. In all honesty, it looked like so many other bits of India which really surprised us. Moreover, the industries within the slum make an annual turnover of approximately US$65million!

Our guide was called Balaji and he was great with really good English and loads of knowledge on the area as it was his home. There were five of us in our group which was nice and we saw other smaller groups from the same company so it’s good that they don’t over crowd the groups as you’re all walking around. Our tour started at the train station where Balaji told us facts about the slums and gave us an overview of what to expect. There was a strict ‘no photography’ policy during the tour as we were visiting communities and, rightfully so, they didn’t deserve to be photographed without permission and in their personal space. The company did email you some stock photos later though which was nice so that you had some to remember your time there and that’s what’s included in this post.Once we entered Dharavi, we were taken up to the rooftop of a building so that we could see over the roofs of the entire slum and get a sense of the scale of the place. It really was enormous. Balaji told us that some people are very rich who live there but don’t move out as they enjoy the community aspect. He told us they still have nice cars, good phones and clothes and we did see many satellite dishes on the roofs of the buildings but that they had no need to move out of the area when they had it so good there and were surrounded by their full family – made sense really. Because of the exceptional location of Dharavi which is in the middle of the city and surrounded by multiple metro lines, property here costs 2 million rupees (£22,000) per 10 square km! I find that incredible and really debunks what you think of a slum!

Most people live in very small houses that are often just one room and there are only communal toilets as opposed to private toilets in peoples houses. Balaji told us that he remembered when he was a child that there were no toilets at all and that the women would have to wait until nightfall to go to the toilet in open-ground somewhere – I wouldn’t be able to do that! We went through some really narrow streets with hanging wires that had tiny houses and then to larger streets that looked like anywhere else you’d see in India. Dharavi has shops, schools, a hospital and bars. It has everything you’d need and that’s why Balaji said he’d never want to live anywhere else.As the industries of Dharavi are such a huge part of the lifeblood of the place, we were taken to see a few of them. The first industry we were taken to see was for recycling. There were streets and streets full of people all sorting out different materials and being part of different levels of the recycling process from the initial sorting of plastic or metal to melting it down or packaging it up to be resold. Countries all over the world, including the UK, send their rubbish to Dharavi to be sorted and sold on, this is one of the biggest industries within the slums and provides work for loads of people within the community. People from all over India (and surrounding countries) will come to Dharavi to exploit the mass industries here and try and create a better quality of life for themselves – another debunk for my image of a slum!

Two tons of food is produced every day in Dharavi and we saw food being made everywhere in the slums from small alcoves making chapatis, people delivering tins of food to workers (we were told this was a monthly service you could sign up for to get your lunch each day) and then the biggest of the produce, poppadom’s. Women would work in the open squares of the residential areas of the slum rolling out small balls of dough, stretching it as thin as possible and then laying it out on wicker baskets in the sun to dry out before they would either be fried in pans of oil or sold to be fried later.

The final industry we were taken to was the Kumbharwada Pottery Colony which is a neighbourhood that’s over 150 years old and one of the oldest parts of Dharavi. Here we got to see every stage of the pottery making process from digging up and mixing the huge piles of clay brought in to the slums with water, the moulding of the pottery, clay pots sat out to dry in the sun, the large kilns setting the pots and then the painting and polishing of the pots. It was really interesting and it’s likely we would have seen pots made from this community when we had been in markets throughout India.As well as this we also saw people fixing bikes, building houses and creating leather products. There is even a leather company called Dharavi that makes bags and leather jackets out of goat hides as Indian’s eat a lot of mutton (goat) as opposed to cow so it’s a more readily available material for them. The bags were really nice and we all also enjoyed looking around their shop because it had air conditioning!

Going around Dharavi really opened our eyes to what misconceptions we in the western world have about slums. I know that some slums are definitely how we imagine them and I’m certainly not saying that I think life is easy for them in Dharavi but then I think for most Indian’s life isn’t that easy where they’re living. Here, people worked, cleaned, chatted and laughed. This was their community and people came from all over India and some surrounding countries to make a life in Dharavi and be a part of the many industries they had. I’m really glad we chose to go on the tour and that we picked a reputable tour company so that we got to see the slum for what it was, a thriving community in the heart of Mumbai.

After our tour was finished we headed to the Dhobi Ghat. This is an open air laundry in Mumbai that has many people cleaning clothes and linens by hand from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. The ghat was built in 1890 and the name is used throughout India for any area that has many washers so it isn’t like the ghats we were used to seeing by the edge of a river. You couldn’t go into the ghat without paying 300 rupees (£3.30) for a tour and we didn’t really want to do that but it turned out that you didn’t need to do that to see the ghat. There’s a flyover bridge that comes from the nearby train station and this gives a really good view of the entire ghat and all the clothes hanging up to dry in the extremely hot Mumbai heat. It was incredible really to see the scale of the ghat and I still don’t know how they’d be able to work out who’s clothes belonged to who!

Over 7000 people work at the ghat for around 18 to 20 hours each day. We saw people standing knee deep in soapy water in square concrete tubs, scrubbing, dying and bleaching clothes which must reek havoc on their skin – I hate it enough how my hands feel after having to hand wash a few items as we travel around let alone doing it for 20 hours! Everything is then hung up between twisted rope instead of pegs (very clever) and then pressed and transported back to whoever they came from. The work here has even been given recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘most people hand washing clothes at a single location’ in 2011 which shows the scale of the operation there. It was good to be above it all as it allowed you to continually spot new sections of the ghat and people watch what everyone was doing in their set job but this is also where people who work in the ghat live and has around 200 families that have worked there for generations. We went in the afternoon which I think was a good time to go as stuff was out hanging on the roofs and throughout the ghat and I think in the morning it’s a better time to see the clothes being washed – it was definitely worth going to see.Our final stop of our time in Mumbai was to a district called Bandra. Apparently this is a popular neighbourhood for Bollywood stars, cricket players and politicians but we didn’t really spot any particularly grand houses that would have shown this (not that we actively looked for them). We had been recommended to come here by our friend Daisy who had given us great tips and lots of details about India. She had told us to come as they did a lot of good food that she said we had to make sure we tried during our time in the city. We were recommended a place called Elco’s which did good pani puri. Pani puri is a round, hollow fried crisp that gets filled with flavoured water which can have anything from tamarind, chutney, chilli, chaat masala, potato, onions or chickpeas. We had seen little carts selling this all over India and had never really known what it was or trusted the look of the place to try some. Elco’s uses mineral water in their pani puri so we were safe to try it. I liked it but Niall wasn’t as bothered by it and both of us were surprised that it was cold as we had expected the flavoured water to be hot. I don’t have a picture of these so have included one from online to show you what it looks like.

We also were told to try a Frankie which is the Indian version of a wrap so a chapati stuffed full of any filling you liked (we chose paneer and vegetables) and it was nice. We tried this at a place called Tibbs which was just a tiny stand on the side of a building! Apparently a Frankie is a famous street food in Mumbai so it was good to get to try it from one of the original places.We really enjoyed our time in Mumbai. The city is enormous so we didn’t make it to every corner but we liked what we got to see and just the general, busy vibe of the city. It was incredibly hot whilst we were there which I think would be unbearable to live in all the time and the city does have some extremes when it comes to the rich and poor which we didn’t fully see but I imagine would also be more evident if we had spent more time there. Regardless, we had a good time and it would be somewhere I’d be happy to return to again on another trip to India.

Next stop: Varanasi

Sending love x

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