Today’s tour started much more smoothly. I rearranged the tour groups yet again; almost everyone in my group had been in the same group the previous day. Group 2 was partly composed of those that had been on the previous day’s tour and partly with those that had not; group 3 was all new people. We spent a wild, wonderful day in the incredible city of Mumbai. Payment went much more smoothly and we were able to get started (almost) on time. We went through our immigration check and double-check. Apparently, this system was put into place after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Today was a regular workday so we saw Mumbai traffic in all its glory. Meherukh shared a saying that in order to drive here, you needed three things: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck. So true! The horn honking is constant. People run red lights, turn in front of others (there is no such thing as a turn arrow), drive the wrong way down the street, ride 4 to a motorcycle or scooter, and this is the short list! Add to that people walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk, and jaywalking everywhere. It is nothing short of amazing. You have to experience it to understand it. It makes driving in Naples, Italy look civilized. Buses will stop in the middle of the road to allow people to take pictures, or to load or unload passengers. Everyone just swerves around them (often into oncoming traffic).
So many motorcycles and scooters weave in and out of traffic. Only the driver needs to wear a helmet so you see small children riding with 3 adults, all on the same scooter. And yes, only the driver is wearing a helmet. It is also common to see people walking whilst balancing large objects, baskets, whatever, on top of their heads. Meherukh told us that Indian heads are very versatile. A tour guide in Goa told us that Indians are level-headed.☺
The vast majority of the buildings are in abysmal condition. This is partly due to humidity, weather (including monsoons), and pollution, but is also attributable to rent-control. Some rents are as low as $10 per month. This is great for the tenants; most could not afford to live in these apartments if the rent were raised. The downside is that the owners have no incentive to keep the buildings up; they do not bring in enough money to do so. The end result is that most buildings are literally crumbling.
A woman in the bus asked about the red dots that some women wear on their foreheads. These are called a bindi and can indicate that a woman is married. It can also simply be a fashion statement. And, bindis are worn sometimes on auspicious occasions. We were headed to a Hare Krishna Temple; some Hare Krishnas wear a u-shaped bindi. This represents the “third eye”; an open eye represents a sense of the supreme and the hope is that the third eye will be opened.
If you are of a “certain age” you probably remember the Hare Krishnas wearing orange robes and trying to find converts during the 70’s (probably earlier as well since the sect was founded in 1966). The temple we were visiting was built in 1986 and is a Hindu Temple where Lord Krishna is worshiped. Hindu is not a congregational religion and has no rituals; it represents a one-on-one relationship with the divine. There is daily prayer at the temple at 7:45 am. We arrived around 8 am, so the prayer had already begun.
The prayer service here is nothing like I expected. Prayer here is nothing like the quiet, contemplative event that I have experienced. Prayer involves joyful singing, dancing, and jumping. The men and some monks were at the front of the large rectangular room; a few women were in the back. There was no “leader” perse, just groups of people expressing pure joy through song and movement. A few people lay prostate on the ground. One woman invited some from our tour group to join her. I took some pictures and then decided to join in the fun myself. If nothing else, it was a great aerobic workout! The “praying” lasted about 45 minutes. Towards the end of the time a microphone was brought out and monk recited something into it while all of the followers lay prostate on the floor. A microphone was also put in front of the representation of Lord Krishna. I wasn’t sure if this was a purely symbolic gesture or if they were hoping the mannequin would come to life and speak up! This was a very interesting stop. It was so different than anything I had expected and quite fun. Meherukh said that if we had come to a later service that we might have seen people sitting on the floor with hands in a cloth bag. Inside the bag would be prayer beads. People sit and meditate while fingering the beads.
On to the Open Air Laundry – Dhobi Ghat. This is a laundry service on an enormous scale. A dhobi will pick up your laundry at your home, wash it using stones and water, hang it to dry and then return it to you. The cost is 7-8 Rupees per garment (about 10 cents). Most of the time you get the same clothes back that you sent in, but not always. The land belongs to the government and the government also provides the water. Most of the workers are migrants. Only men do this type of work. The laundry was originally set up by the British to wash uniforms and continues today. There are multiple laundries like this in Bombay. Many in the middle class have a washing machine (dryers are rare) so no longer use this service. However, the majority in Bombay are not middle class.
Clayton stopped to feed a cow, doing his part for the local economy. We were accosted by many children and adults selling extremely cheap products – small purses for $1, large purses for $5, maps, bangle bracelets, fans, you name it. I ended up buying a pink purse (the original asking price was $5; I paid $1) but managed to hold back from any further purchases. It is too tempting to buy when the prices are so low!
On to the Flower Market. This is a wholesale-type operation. The flowers are sold to those that create garlands out of them. The garlands are offered to the deity in homes and temples. When someone dies, their photo is framed with garlands. Garlands are, of course, used in weddings as well. We passed by the fish market before arriving at the flower market. The picture below is of the colorful trucks that the fish is sold from.
The flowers are sold on the sidewalk. Some people just sell leaves. These leaves are called neem leaves and have many medicinal uses including being used to ease the itching of chickenpox. They have antiseptic and antibacterial properties. The stems are also sold and are used to rub on the teeth (instead of brushing).
We passed under an overpass. There were people lining both sides; they looked to be loitering. Actually, they were illegal flower-sellers. A government van was parked nearby. If they were caught selling illegally they would be heavily fined, so they put their wares away until the van moves on.
We loaded the bus and drove on. In addition to the insane driving, the outside lanes were littered with vegetable scraps making them impassable. Vegetable sellers use the lanes in the morning before people go to work. They leave behind quite a mess. At 9:45 am, there were men just starting to sweep up the scraps so that cars could use the lanes. We also passed some families living on the sidewalk. They used tarps to create a living space. Their children do not attend school (those living in the slums do); these are the people that beg for a living. There used to be more of these people living (literally) on the streets, but many have been relocated. We saw a train passing; it was not as crowded as normal – only a few people hanging out of the sides!
It was a surprise to us that the children living in the slums attend school. However, people that can afford to send their children to private schools. The typical public school classroom has 50-60 students. It is obviously very difficult to provide a quality education under those conditions.
We drove to the island of Bandra. This is a Portuguese suburb given to the Jesuits. It is a Catholic enclave within a predominantly Hindu or Muslim population. There are many, many Catholic churches here (the densest amount of churches in India) and you see many crosses along the road (the picture below is a cemetery, however).
We drove past a church (Mount Mary?); people believe that if you light a candle here, your wishes will be fulfilled. Near the church, candles in the shapes of houses, cars, etc. were sold. I tried to get a picture from the bus, but it didn’t really show what I wanted it to.
We drove along the beach and passed the house of a famous Bollywood Star. Young teenage girls hang out there and take selfies in front of his home. Across the street is the beach. Lovers like to sit on the rocks. Some have gotten stranded on the rocks when the tide has come in. Others have been swept away while taking selfies.
We had arrived at Ranwar village. We stopped here and went for a little walk through one of the neighborhoods. Meherukh pointed out a couple of women in below the knee skirts. They were Catholic. It is more common to see women in saris (some wear western clothes as well). Even the nuns here wear saris, though they are dull-colored as opposed to the beautiful jewel-toned saris that other women wear. We also stopped for coffee; we decided to get a quick snack here rather than stopping for a full lunch. Unfortunately, the first place we went to was closed Mondays; the second seemed to have no interest in serving us. The third try was the charm; we found a place that served tasty pastries and coffee, and more importantly, a clean(ish) bathroom. And, it had the perfect name for us after having lived on a cruise ship for a month!
The grand finale of the tour was a visit to the largest slum in Mumbai, Dharavi. This blew away my pre-conceived notions of what a slum was about. In our country, we often think of those living in a slum as too lazy to work. Not true here. One million people live in this slum. As a matter of fact, 60% of the population of Mumbai live in slums. These people are the backbone of Mumbai. They are the taxi drivers, the bus drivers, the working people that help the city run. The slums are for those that cannot afford to live in the city. Many of the families have lived in the slums for 4 or 5 generations. They are incredibly hard working people. All have jobs. The migrants typically work in the industries within the slum itself; others work outside the slums.
We were met by two nice young men that were to be our tour guides, Oves and Parvez. They were both college students pursuing degrees in commerce and had both been born and raised in Dharavi. Dharavi consists of 550 acres of land and is 20 times more densely populated than Mumbai. There are over 1000 slums in Mumbai. We were to tour the Industrial area. Would it surprise you to learn that the slums have four industries that generate over one billion US dollars in revenue per year? The industries here are recycling, leather, textiles and pottery. We were told that we would be unable to take pictures in the slums, but could take a few crossing the bridge into the slum. We were also warned not to humiliate people by wrinkling our noses at the smells. We were also told that police were everywhere within the slum.
The street where we entered reminded me of many other streets we had driven along in the city. It was lined on both sides by a variety of shops. Oves asked us to guess what one of the stores was (there were some posters in the front). It turned out to be a “movie theater”. For 30 Rupees per movie, you could sit on a mat on the floor and watch the small tv inside. At the first intersection, there was a mosque on the left (14% of the population of Mumbai is Muslim) and a temple on the right (80% are Hindu).
We turned down a narrow lane and the guides talked to us about the recycling industry. Plastic is picked up around the city by rag pickers. The plastic is brought to the slum and is separated by color. It is then crushed into tiny pellets and sent to melting industries. It is then reformed and the cycle is complete. Even the blades that crush the plastic are created here in the slums. Everyone works. Most of the workers are men; women are taking care of the families. But, if a woman does not have a husband, she works, too. Women are only given “the easiest jobs because that is all they are qualified for”. We saw women sitting in the hot sun sorting the small plastic pellets by color. We saw car parts being separated for recycling. We saw an area where aluminum is melted and molded into 7 kg bricks which are sold to the manufacturing industry. Paint cans were cleaned inside and out to remove any residue. Someone then pounded them back into proper shape. They were then sold back to the paint companies for reuse. Large cartons (appliance-sized) were cut up and used to reshape into smaller boxes. It was truly amazing.
We moved on to the pottery community. Large sacks of clay are stacked everywhere. They use their feet to soften the clay and then use a potter’s wheel to form pots, cups, lids, etc. These are dried in the sun and then baked in an open-air kiln. The kiln uses textile waste from the slum’s textile industry and coconut shells to provide the fire. Lastly, the pots are decorated. The entire process takes from 2-3 days.
The workers in the slums earn from 250 to 500 Rupees per day ($4 to $8) and most have come from villages where their families still live. They send their earnings to their families and are only able to visit once or twice per year. In order to get hired here, you need to know someone already working here.
The children in the slums all attend school. There is a nominal cost to attending (if you are in 5th grade, your family pays 5 Rupees per month) but school is free if your family cannot afford the fees. The younger generation is becoming more educated and so perhaps many will be able to move from the slums as they grow up.
You may wonder what the residents of the slums think of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Suffice it to say that it is not a popular movie here. Our guides explained that the people of Dharavi felt that the movie showed only the negatives of living in the slums and none of the positives. They also did not like the name of the movie. Would you like to be referred to as a Slumdog? The slums truly are a city within a city. They have hospitals and medical care. There are a variety of shops. And, everyone works. There is a tremendous sense of community here; people take care of each other.
I asked one of our guides about sanitation in the slums. He said that 70% use public showers and toilets. Only 9% have toilets in their house. Amazingly enough, each house in the slum has its own address and the postal workers know all of them.
This truly was a fascinating glimpse into a whole other world.
It was time to head back towards the city. I had asked Meherukh earlier about death rites for Hindus. She said that to the Hindus, the human body is like a dress. You discard your body at death just like you discard a dress at the end of the day. All Hindus are cremated; ashes are not kept. Typically, they are scattered on a river. In her religion (Zoroastrian), bodies are left out on a hill for the sun to bake and for animals to feast on (the ultimate recycling process). She pointed out where the “Towers of Silence” were located; these are the platforms that the bodies are placed. Since vultures have disappeared from the area, solar panels are now used to dehydrate the bodies. Cremation is not allowed. The Towers of Silence are in the Malabar Hills area, which used to be in the middle of nowhere but is now in a ritzy area of town.
The last interesting tidbit of information has to do with what is known as a lunchbox. Dubba Balla’s are men that deliver lunches, but not from restaurants. These lunches come from the worker’s home. The lunch is prepared at home and then picked up and delivered to the train station. From the train station, it is picked up by a person that either stacks the 35-40 lunches on the back of a bicycle or on a pull-cart and delivers them to the offices. The empty boxes are then picked up and returned to the homes. This takes place 250,000 times per day and the accuracy rate is 99.99%. Pretty impressive!
A few in the group asked if we could do a shopping stop rather than heading back to the ship. We ended up stopping at a street bazaar area (I can’t remember the name) for 1/2 hour. It reminded me of the souks in the Middle East, right down to the overabundance of men selling fake pashmina scarves. I had hoped to find a beautiful Indian-design skirt to buy but couldn’t find anything in the shops that interested me. We headed back to the meeting place and arrived about 10 minutes early. We got to fend off beggars for those ten minutes. When everyone had arrived we were driven to the Bombay Company which was a lovely store that had some unique items. On the way we came to a dead halt in the middle of a 5-way intersection; a milk cow was sauntering across the road! I scored a couple of necklaces and a pair of earrings for a total of just under $10. I love bargain shopping!
We were probably only a mile (at the most) from the port but it took at least 20 minutes to finagle our way through the traffic jams to get to the port gate. We passed by the Bank of India; apparently, they felt the need for some extra security! One last time to have our immigration cards and passport copies examine at the port gate and we were back “home”. Oh yes, one more thing. We have finally identified the unique stench that Mumbai has. All of the sewage from the city is dumped into the Gulf of Arabia. Nasty!!!!