After two flights and three stomach flues (one of which unfortunately still leaves me repulsed by okra and banana flowers), our group of four – my mom, Kerry, my brother, PJ, Kyle, and myself – arrived in Mumbai (previously Bombay) near midnight, reeling. Our four bulging backpacks bounced about precariously on the Ambassador taxi’s gilded roof rack.
Hotel Kum Kum was our destination. From that first, nighttime glimpse of the hotel’s exterior, it looked like it should have been condemned ten years ago. The thing is, in India, just because a building looks derelict doesn’t mean it is. While Kyle and I are well familiar with this, the concept was new to the other half of our tired troupe. In fact, our arrival at Hotel Kum Kum was rather quite a shock. So was the fact that, while the rooms were clean enough, guests were not provided with a top sheet – only a fitted sheet and a scratchy, wool blanket.
On this trip I got to see North India again through fresh eyes, travelling with newcomers PJ and Mom. What I discovered is that after six months here, I have developed the tendency to ignore how India looks. I mean, how it really looks. I will gladly admire great, pink puffs of hibiscus, or shockingly green limes stacked into perfect pyramids by street vendors, but I have become blind to the piles of garbage, the urine-stained corners, and the monsoon-damaged buildings streaked black. It has started to look normal to see men in immaculately pressed suits hop over a crumbled sewer cover, black liquid oozing beneath, or to see women in crisp, sparkling saris amble around a giant pile of sand covering what you’d be generous to call a sidewalk. On this trip I became alert to everything again, and not only did it give me an empathetic sense of panic, but it also strangely made me feel defensive – defensive of India – wishing I could block out all of the ugliness so that Mom and PJ could see only the incredible beauty that I’ve fallen in love with. Then they’d fall in love with it too.
But of course it can’t work that way. It was their turn to learn to look beyond India’s sometimes grotesque appearance, to choose to see the adorable street dog with a curly tail sleeping peacefully in the comfy garbage pile, the fantastic spray painting of a kingfisher behind the urine stain, and the way the monsoon damage shows nature’s incredible capacity to shape human landscapes. Our trip together was not only a wild adventure in itself, but it was also an adventure for Mom and PJ of discovering, adjusting to, and overcoming the challenges of the appearances, unknowns, and realities – all of that – of India. All in two weeks. While recovering from the flu.
It only took one night and one good sleep for Hotel Kum Kum to transform from uninhabitable into a place of comfortable refuge from the madness of Mumbai. In fact, by Mom’s suggestion, we even rented a room for an extra day, just to have a peaceful place to nap!
Mumbai struck Kyle and I as a very liveable city. The monstrous metropolis buzzes with energy – the energy of thirteen million people – and it’s exciting to be a part of it. The Arabian Sea laps at its edges and a fantastic Marine Drive boardwalk pulls everyone to the seaside. The food – French, Italian, Mughlai Indian – was incredible. The shopping options were wide-ranging, from street vendors selling overpriced churidars (leggings) in every colour imaginable, to boutiques selling hand-block-printed, fixed-price garments. And taxi drivers drove a hard bargain, but never ripped us off too badly.(Enjoying sangria and delicious juices at ‘Le Pain Quotidien’.)
We enjoyed touring the old, colonial buildings, such as Victoria Terminus rail station with its terrifying, bearded gargoyles; got PJ a spontaneous and fetching Indian haircut; visited the pilgrimage sites of the novel, Shantaram; saw the famous Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Hotel, where Mom and PJ were accosted by a “Jain priest” who tried to charge them Rs. 500 (~$7.50) for eating a little, fennel “blessing” candy, and then thumb-printed a bindi onto their foreheads when they finally paid him RS. 25 (~$0.50); and visited Haji Ali, a stunning, white-washed mosque built up at the end of a jetty, which becomes submerged in high tide, leaving the mosque as its own island.(Victoria Terminus)
The most memorable of all, however, was our short tour of Dharavi. Dharavi is Asia’s biggest slum. It’s a city within a city, with an annual turnover of billions of dollars, and is inhabited by about one million people who live within about 2.4 square kilometers. That’s a population density of about 416,700 people per square kilometer.
Hesitant about the ethics of a slum tour, we first found out that nearly the whole tour fee is used for slum schools, and that no photography was allowed inside Dharavi during the tour, keeping everyday life in Dharavi from becoming a tourist spectacle.(My single photo of Dharavi, from the bridge before entering.)
We began with a tour of Dharavi’s lucrative industrial area. Folks were busy processing recycled plastic into coloured pellets, drying papads (a spicy, Indian chip) in the sun on woven baskets, fashioning small pots out of cool, red clay, baking pastry puffs, tanning sheep, goat, and buffalo leather, and making curry-cutting soap in giant vats. While I know many of these jobs are tough and even physically harmful, it made my stomach hurt to be confronted with a man in a small room, dripping with sweat, stirring molten, toxic aluminum in a gigantic blaze of heat and light, readying it for recycling. The man, and thousands of others like him, came to Dharavi from their villages to make a little extra money to send home to their families in dire need, knowing that it’s at the expense of their lifespan.
Thankfully, we also got to see the other side of the coin, the slumbering dog dreaming on the pile of garbage – the residential area. It was incredible. Not only to hundreds of thousands of people manage to fit into Dharavi’s small land allocation, but they also manage to thrive there. As we zig-zagged through a dark, residential maze of alleyways so narrow that Kyle’s shoulders touched each wall, we could sometimes peer into tiny, six-by-six foot homes, crammed with people watching TV and enjoying each other’s company. We learned that doctors and lawyers – professionals who could easily afford to live elsewhere – choose to stay in Dharavi for its strong sense of community.
It was another lesson in seeing the good beyond the bad for all of us. In what could be seen as just a sad place of poverty and sickness, Dharavi was also rich in connectedness, friendship, and support.
On a different note, for future travelers to Mumbai, ‘Mumbai CST’ stands for ‘Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’ train station. Not for ‘Mumbai Central Station’, as you might guess. We visited both on our last night in Mumbai, making it to the right station only thanks to an angel taxi driver. We were out of breath and had only eight minutes to spare before our train whistled us on our way south to Goa. (Perfectly on time…at the wrong station.)