India Diary – The Weekend

The weekend finally dawned and I think most of the group were pretty appreciative of the break. Some were recovering from ailments, picked up and self inflicted, but we were all looking forward to some free time. I was really keen to walk – after so many hours spent on busses and planes my legs needed to move.

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So in the morning I dressed and headed out – not with any real mission, just to get out and see the local area. I went down to the Colaba market and had a bit of a wander. I didn’t go too deep into the market – I was happy to keep moving and enjoy the noise and colour from the edges. I then walked down to the area near to Zone Startups because the night before I’d been told that the Black Horse (Kala Ghoda) Arts Festival was on this weekend.

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On the way down I got hustled by vendors and had a few encounters with people begging. As the 6’1 red head guy you tend to stand out in the crowd in India. I’m always confused by these encounters – trying politely to decline the engagement – but it’s a fairly constant thing being the nearest westerner. I find it difficult to say no to people in need, and I struggle with this kind of interaction. I did give money away during the trip, but usually at night on the way home to people setting up camp on the streets, those with kids really broke my heart.

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But I also got approached by a few people for selfies – the 6’1 red head guy is a bit of a novelty here. I also had a nice chat to a guy who randomly came up and asked where I was from. His take on Mumbai and the experience of the city was quite interesting. He referred to it as “not the real India” which is something a few people had mentioned. It was interesting to hear, because I felt that way a little too. Mumbai was certainly easier to navigate and adjust to than I expected. It wasn’t anything I’d done, my preparation for this trip was more along the lines of “bring it on and I’ll cope with it”, it was the city itself. While it is chaotic and loud and polluted it wasn’t beyond a point I couldn’t cope with. The hotel room was a great oasis of calm and quiet and comfort that I was always able to retreat and recuperate.

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The festival was still setting up when I got there – I like the timeline for India – sluggish starts and later nights, it’s a match to my body clock. I had a quick wander around and then met up with Todd. We ducked into the side streets and found somewhere for coffee before deciding to go and check out the museum. I’m so glad we checked it out (the Modern Art Gallery was where we really wanted to go but it was closed) as it was full of amazing art and craftsmanship. The intricacies of the sculptures and carvings were amazing, so beautiful and ornate. I loved seeing the many armed and many headed statues up close too. I’m not sure how they do it but the seem so natural and fluid, there’s a motion captured in these works despite their strange concoction of limbs. We bumped into Matthew at the museum and experienced that strange feeling of running into someone you know in a city of 20 million people.

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In the evening we headed out to the Wine Rack, a place Todd had seen and made famous by a documentary that followed its establishment. The bar was in the Phoenix High Street – a very Western style mall. Surrounded by brands that I was completely familiar with was quite strange. It’s easy to forget just how global retail has become and that the world is populated by these big global entities now, bringing their cookie-cutter approach to retail. It was such a contrast from the Colaba markets in the morning, but at the same time I noticed that so much of what’s sold in the markets aren’t hand crafted or artisan produced, their all mass produced objects – plastic injection moulded products made in China. That too is now a global phenomenon.

We had a couple of glasses of wine – which was a nice change from the Kingfisher beer we’d been consuming – and after a while we headed to a hotly recommended restaurant – Bombay Canteen. The food here was amazing, a fusion of Indian and Western cuisine, trends and flavours. While the traditional food we’d been eating was fantastic (I can’t eat enough curry!) this meal took it to another level. What I noticed most was the depth and complexity of flavours. While I ordered a gin and tonic I inherited a turmeric cocktail (which someone who was over curry didn’t want), which was also amazing.

The next day I headed back to the Black Horse festival with the express desire to get some gifts to take home. The stalls they’d been setting up the day before were in full swing, and myself, James, Jake and Peter wandered through. I managed to find some really nice shawls and fabric – and the beautiful thing about the stalls were that they were all run by non-profits from the different states in India. So I knew I was buying authentic gifts and feel positive about my purchase.

After that we went for a wander to explore other areas of the festival. On the walk we came across the biggest cricket venue any of us have, and probably will, ever see. I cannot really describe the scene adequately but there were roughly 100 cricket games going on simultaneously in this space in the middle of Mumbai. It was a sight to behold!

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The four of us then decided that we should go and check out one of the temples before the slum tour we had booked in the afternoon. We piled into a taxi and headed off. Now Indian taxis are quite small – so our little group was quite a tight fit into these – and unfortunately I think Peter got the worst of it.

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We arrived at the temple and managed to navigate our way through the stairs and stalls to the main area. We were in time to see a ceremony in action and got to experience the sights and sounds of it all. We were completely oblivious to the nature and purpose of the ceremony, we simply stood to the side and took it all in.

In the afternoon we had booked in for a tour of the slums. I was a little bit hesitant about this and I was really worried about it being ‘poverty porn’ for westerners. While we’d seen some of the slums around Mumbai, there was one literally around the corner from our hotel, none of us had really gone in and seen it up close. We knew that poverty existed but hadn’t had to really come face to face with it except the brief interactions on the street.

We met our guides at across the train tracks from Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire then you would have seen Dharavi as it was the backdrop for the movie. They gave us a briefing about some of the courtesies required for visiting the slums, no photos in certain areas, to ensure we kept up with the group and to take their directions seriously. We broke up into two seperate groups to keep the numbers down and headed over the tracks on the pedestrian bridge. The slum didn’t take long to reach us, as our guide was giving us a briefing a heavily intoxicated guy decided that right in front of us was the best place to curl up and have a nap. From the bridge itself you got a view of the buildings that look like they’ve been stitched together from discarded debris, but you also how vibrant the place was. This isn’t an abandoned, hollow – this is a place with one of the highest density populations in the world. It’s thronging with people and sound and colour. As we went down into the slum itself it loomed over head. The buildings are far more permanent and substantial than I expected, most made out of bricks and concrete, but because this is a populated space, no room has been surrendered to cars or transport. The streets are narrow and thread through the slum like a maze. After seeing some of the industries, recycling in particular, we made a dash through one of the residential areas. The street was as wide as my shoulders and live wires hung overhead. I ducked and stooped the whole way, glimpsing into peoples houses and living spaces. Shoes left out side, televisions blaring, cooking pots being washed – all around us life was being lived.

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We broke back into daylight and were greeted by a throng of children. We were as much an attraction to them as they were to us. They played and messed around with the group – posing for photos, running around, inviting us to join in their games. It was a lot of fun hanging out with those kids – it put a lot of things into perspective. That this wasn’t a place devoid of joy or happiness, it was simply a place that people inhabited and went along doing things similar to us. Yes the conditions were completely foreign, but at the same time you got a sense of the community that inhabits these places. That it was a microcosm of life.

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We trekked on through the streets and the markets. We visited a school and another throng of kids surrounded us and begged for our attention. We kept moving through this space, bouncing between smiles and laughter and the reality of life in a city like this. There is no proper infrastructure – the power, water and sanitation is all ad-hoc. The houses are so close together and cramped that I wonder how this place survives something like the annual monsoon. This place must get flooded and be incredibly hard to navigate.

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I loved my time in the slums. It wasn’t the poverty porn I was expecting, it was something quite different for me. It was deeply engaging on an emotional level, and place don’t usually have that affect on me. Sure a building might be beautiful or awe inspiring, but it’s rare that a space will actively engage your emotions in the same way as the slums. In the couple of hours we were there I went through the complete spectrum of emotions and I thought a lot about home and the lives we lead. I thought a lot about our privilege and how we often experience life based purely on where our parents chose to have sex! It’s hard to say that the slum tour was ‘good’, or that it was the ‘best’ thing to do – but it was, just not in terms of how we usually use those words. It was good because it made feel bad, feel wasteful and unappreciative. It was the best because it showed me how much I have waiting at home for me, that my struggles are trivial compared to this, that I need to be more grateful for what I have. It’s hard to say something that made you feel bad, that made you doubt yourself and made you question why you feel you have a right to complain as being ‘good’ but it was.

If you’re in Mumbai so the slum tour – it will change you.

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PS – I want to mention our awesome tour was led by the team at Slum Gods. They were incredibly knowledgeable and respectful and really added to the experience.

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