Sunday, November 18, 2012


We'd been trying to find a good time to go to Mumbai all semester, so we finally decided to go over Diwali. We left last Thursday and then came back on the following Wednesday, which was fine because we didn't have classes at the beginning of the week. Originally it was me, Kaia, Marianna, Trudy, and Diana, but then Maclain decided to come to, although she left on Sunday night and Diana left Monday night.
The train from Hyderabad to Mumbai was 17hr, and, as always, it sucked. I just do not like Indian trains. They are not fun for me, so it's gonna be great when I'm taking the 30hr train from Varanasi to Hyderabad in a few weeks...
But we got to Mumbai around 7am, found a hotel, dumped our shit, and went to India's one and only Starbucks! It was perfection. It was just like any American Starbucks, but it was in India. My coffee was excellent and so was my mushroom and chicken pie.
So let's talk about our hotel. When we first arrived we went to several different hotels, but they were all out of our budget. I mean, we knew Mumbai was going to be expensive, especially since it was Diwali, but we're also all poor students (Well, except the Norwegians. Did you know the Norwegian government gives them a stipend every semester just for funsies? Stupid socialists...). We decided on Hotel Janata, mostly because we were all tired and it was the first one we found that we could afford. We slept 3 to a room, which was fine since Maclain and Diana were leaving early. As usual, you had the option to pay more for an AC room, but we just went with the rooms with fans. However, the manager put Marianna, Maclain, and I in an AC room, which had no ventilation. I kid you not, our room was a fucking sauna. When we tried to move rooms he wouldn't let us and tried to charge us extra. Eventually we just ended up paying the Rs300 extra/night for the AC. There were also cockroaches in the rooms and they were generally dirty with stained sheets. He was incredibly rude to Marianna and straight up told us that the only one of us he liked was Maclain. We considered switching hotels several times, but ultimately decided against it. Needless to say, both us and him was grateful when we finely left.
Without a doubt, one of the best things about Mumbai, which we spent a considerable amount of time doing, was eating. In itself, Mumbai is a very Western city. It really felt like we were in Europe, except we were surrounded by Indians. All of the buildings are old and beautiful (obvious signs of the British Raj) and the drivers even abided by the traffic lights! A nice thing was that rickshaws aren't allowed in the city center, so it's a lot quieter and all the cabs go by meters. 
Anyway, the food. The food was great, particularly the bakeries. We got fabulous coffee and pastries nearly everywhere. We found this one French-style bakery(kind of like Provence in Nashville) where we ate breakfast several times. It was absurdly expensive, but incredibly delicious. We only ever ordered the bread basket, to share, and then we each got a pastry or fruit cup. I swear, I ate the best chocolate croissant I've ever had in my entire life there, and I've had a lot of chocolate croissants. The bread baskets were more than enough because it came with jars of their freshly prepared jam(with REAL fruit) and a homemade nutella spread. It was heaven. 
I felt dumb once I realized this, but it took me two days to remember about the terrorist attacks that happened in Mumbai in 2008. It was partially targeted towards Mumbai's small Jewish community and quite a lot of people died. However, I think I didn't think about it because the city literally has no remnants of it. Everything looked completely normal, with no construction or anything. Maybe thats normal, I guess I just assumed it takes longer to recover from those types of things. I mean, didn't the 9/11 memorial only open up fairly recently? I guess that's just the American in me that doesn't realize how common terrorist attacks are in the rest of the world.
One of the places that was bombed was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I'm not sure if this was the original Taj Palace Hotel, but back in the early 1900s the founding Mr. Tata (who are basically Indian royalty) was denied entrance in a fancy hotel because he was a "native." So he was all like, "Well fuck that! I'll build my own hotel!" So he did, only it soon became one of the most elegant and luxurious hotels in the world. Now there are several worldwide, but the one in Mumbai doesn't allow visitors. Well obviously, we were having none of that. 
One afternoon, Kaia and I were nicely showered and dressed, so we decided to pop into the Taj for a bit. We were nearly caught and kicked out several times, but we totally did it! And let me tell you, I bet every room in the Taj has AC and a cockroach has never stepped a leg inside. It is nice. Super, super nice. We didn't take pictures because that would've given us away, but we stole some toilet paper (which is Kleenex brand and really soft) and a pad of paper and pencil from beside a phone in the hallway. 
One of the most striking things about India, and Mumbai in particular, is how close in proximity the rich and poor live together. I've been in India for about 5months now, and I've never seen as many beggars as I did in Mumbai, particularly children. Mumbai is home to Dharavi Slum, Asia's largest slum, in population, not area, and its located between two major railways in the middle of the city. Strangely enough, the shape of the slum is actually quite similar to a heart, so the slum is also called "The Heart of Mumbai."
I know this is going to sound weird, but one of the best things we did was go on a slum tour. It was recommended to us by both Lonely Planet and another group of friends that went to Mumbai several weeks earlier. We went with a company called Reality Tours, and they put 80% of the money you pay for the tour back into the slum. They've built schools, a community center, and various art projects. A couple of the girls had reservations about taking a slum tour, for obvious reasons, but I actually didn't. I felt really good about going with Reality Tours, but part of me also knew that if we didn't take a slum tour I probably would've just taken it upon myself to walk through the slum, which definitely would not have been safe.
We met the tour guides and a larger group at a nearby train station and then took a train to where the slum is. We were then handed off to another tour guide who just took the six of us around, so it was a fairly intimate process. We crossed a bridge that lead over some railroad tracks and were emptied into a street that looked like it could've been anywhere in India. The Reality Tours has a strict "no photography" policy, but there was no obvious signs that we had just entered a slum. There were a lot of people around, but it was early on a Saturday morning in India, so even that wasn't too strange. 
We began the tour with the Industrial District of Dharavi. So everywhere in India there is almost always some poor person collecting plastics and aluminums from all of the various garbage heaps and cans. In Mumbai, different companies and manufacturers in the Industrial District buy the plastics and aluminums from the garbage collectors and in the slum they are cleaned and melted down to be recycled into new products. 
molding hot aluminum into something new
(the slum pictures were provided by Reality Tours via email)
All of the "new" products produced in the slum are usually small parts that are required in larger appliances and electronics and are all generally sold to Indian companies. All of the workers are quite used to tour groups (aka, a bunch of white people) wandering through their factories, so we got to watch them go along with their usual business. Most of the factories we saw dealt with plastics and metals, but one recycled used ink pen ink. 
The Industrial District is definitely the most dangerous and poorest part of the slum. The working conditions are horrible and ridiculously unhealthy. I mean, these men are melting plastic bottles and aluminum cans all day and inhaling all of those toxic fumes. According to our guide, these workers come from small farming villages up North when its no longer harvest season. The factory owners let them sleep in the factory at night (which also provides the factory with free security) so the workers are always on time. Depending on the factory owner, some of the workers are compensated for on-the-job injuries, but not always. Most of the factories provide protective wear, but in the Mumbai heat wearing a thick suit and gloves while working around an incinerator all day is not ideal. 
cleaning out old oil & paint cans before they're melted down
After the Industrial District we moved on to the Residential District of the slum. Nowadays its generally divided between Hindu and Muslim communities, but apparently it wasn't always like this. Prior to 1992 nobody really cared where you lived or what religion you were, but then there were some terrorist attacks and a lot of religious violence, so the communities divided up (Remember in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamaal's mom is killed? I think that was a depiction of the violence in the early 90s). I'm not quite sure how to accurately describe the houses there. The neighborhood was generally dirty and smelled, and all of the houses were just one room with a communal toilet and wash area nearby. However, every house has electricity and gets water in the mornings. The residents also have to pay rent, which is about Rs.40,000/month ($800) and because of it's central location, property in the slum is a hot commodity. 
One of the most enlightening things I learned was that nearly everyone living in the slum has a stable job. Of course the Muslim women can't work, but people who live in Dharavi are taxi drivers, waiters, janitors, ect. I had always kind of assumed that the beggars we encountered wandered around the streets during the day, but then went back to their house in the slum at night. While the people living in Dharavi are poor, they aren't living on the streets, which means that the beggars who live on the street literally have nothing except what they can carry on their person, and considering all the street children there are in Mumbai, realizing that is very unsettling. 
The Muslim area was very cramped, with tight winding passages and stacked, multi-story buildings. However, the Hindu area had more open-air and was noticeably cleaner (Our guide said this was because keeping a clean house was so important in Hinduism, but I think he was Hindu so I'm sure he's biased). 
Near the Muslim-Hindu community divide there was an open space, covered in garbage, where a bunch of kids were playing cricket and running around. Unless a child is potty trained I think Indian parents find it pointless to even put pants on that child, so there was a whole bunch of naked toddlers running around Mumbai. Consequently, I don't think I've ever seen so many little toddler penises and I'll be quite fine if I never see so many again. However, while we were in the area where the kids were playing we kind of integrated ourselves with the kids and played with them for a bit. I put myself on official "pants-patrol," so if any little kid that actually had pants was showing a half-moon or a bit of crack I'd walk over and help to pull their pants back up. 
We ended the tour by walking through the Dharavi potter community, which I was particularly interested in. Unfortunately we didn't hang around very long because our guide said that the residents weren't being very friendly that particular day, but it was still very interesting. 
a woman in the pottery 
Despite being in a slum, I really enjoyed myself on the tour. We learned a whole lot and got even more out of it. We asked our guide what the Dharavi residents thought of all the tour groups coming through, and he said that they actually didn't mind it too much. Apparently there was a lot of discord with the way Slumdog Millionaire portrayed Indian/Mumbai slums (the movie was actually shot on-location in Dharavi), so the locals are glad that people are coming to get a more accurate depiction of slum life. However, because of Slumdog the residents are really wary of being photographed, which is mainly why the "no photography"  policy is so strict. 
I know that sometimes I tend to be a little standoffish, particularly with Indian men. Believe it or not, I've actually been told that I can be quite intimidating, however, I don't think I ever stopped smiling on the tour. There was just so many children, and I always smile at kids, and I just really wanted the people we saw to know that I didn't view them negatively because of where they lived and how that's stereotyped, particularly by the West. Yes, I know I was on a slum tour, but I just hoped that me smiling at them was able to translate that somehow. 
me and the doomed kitty
On a brighter note, there were tons of cats in Mumbai. Like, everywhere and most of them liked being pet. One little kitten smartly staked out his home right outside of Starbucks, so every time we passed him he was being fed or pet by some tourist. Unfortunately he looked quite sick and on the last day we were there we went to Starbucks early in the morning and he had died some time the previous night. There were dogs in Mumbai too, but not as many as usual in India, and all the dogs we did see were always fat and sleeping. 
I've observed a pattern in cities in India. It seems to be a symbol of social status if you own a fat, yellow lab. Without fail, in every large Indian city I've visited, I've seen Indians walking obese yellow labs. I've still seen this even if I'm only in a big city long enough to catch a bus and leave. I had several of these sightings in Mumbai, which lead to the formation of this theory. 
Our last night in Mumabi was Diwali, which is the Hindu New Year. Also known as "the festival of lights," Diwali is usually celebrated with a bunch of fireworks and Christmas-esque lights strung up all over the place. At this point in our trip it was just Trudy, Marianna, Kaia, and I, and since most everything was closed for Diwali, we spent all day at Starbucks studying for our exams. 
We went to a New York/Mexican place for dinner and I had a delicious Oreo milkshake. Afterwards we hung out on Mumbai's beach promenade and waited for some fireworks. We stayed there for well over an hour, but nothing exciting was really happening. We'd see the occasional fireworks in the distance, but it was really just kind of lame. We decided to go to a nearby coffee shop, so we hung out there for another couple of hours. 
Once we decided to go home, we walked back out on to the main road and there were fireworks everywhere! This was a busy, four lane street, and people were lighting firework after firework on both sides. And these weren't just little firecrackers and bottle rockets, there were the big ass fireworks that are usually shot off in firework celebrations. Only they weren't a "safe" distance away from the crowd, they were in the crowd. So when one was blasted up and exploded we could all feel the ash floating back down and landing on us. It was awesome, but also kind of scary. 
By the time we left on Wednesday I think we were all fairly ready to leave. Big cities are expensive and we'd been away for nearly a week, so we were beginning to miss our Tagore family. The Norwegians wrote a song about Hyderabad that we always sing in the airport when we get back from a trip. To the tune of "Oh Christmas Tree" it goes:
"Oh Hyderabad
Oh Hyderabad
Its nice to be in Hyderabad

'Cause when you are in Hyderabad
You're so much closer to Tagore

Oh Hyderabad
Oh Hyderbad
Its nice to be in Hyderabad"

The water may be toxic, but the bay is real pretty
The Gateway of India
Victoria Station
Mumbai has this wall where you're allowed to make art and such on it.
This was one of my favorite
(The word around her wrist as handcuffs is "dowry") 
The Taj Mahal Palace and Gateway of India
Apparently Bowen has a cult following in Mumbai

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