I’m so behind in my writing, oMGGGGG. (Also been kind of stalling because this is kinda a big one.) This blog will be all about our second class trip from two weekends ago. Destination: Mumbai.
No problems with security at the airport this time. Wait, actually, I think we had a lil dilemma with baggage, hah. But nothing too drastic. We arrived in Mumbai on time and met with Johnson again, our tour guide for these trips outside Hyderabad. Previously known as Bombay, Mumbai got its name from a temple called Mumbadevi. Apparently if you can survive in the streets of Bombay, you can survive anywhere else in the world.
Our first stop was at a Dhobi Ghat, which is essentially an outdoor laundry mat. Dhobis, who are the washer men, hand wash, dry, and iron the clothing of hundreds of families daily. Uniformly they line up jeans, white shirts, bright kurtas on the clothes lines. After the clothes have dried, they are sorted according to their codes. They are ironed well before being sent back to their owners. Dhobi work is reserved for a specific caste and for men only. We were told that the women of dhobi families do work indoors.
On our way to the hotel, we passed by Marine Drive, which offers a scenic view of the city and its skyscrapers. After lunch, a couple of us went and sat by the water. There was hardly any space to sit on the wall, and when a spot opened up for the three of us, we snagged it like a mouse. Below us were some big black rocks; in front of us, the city of Mumbai.
We went on a walking tour after that. As it was Republic Day, we were barred from entering the beautiful University of Mumbai. The guards situated in their stations outside the gates had their rifles pointed outwards, right at the walking pedestrian. It was at the perfect height to align perpendicularly with my head. Wasn’t a pleasant feeling walking past them.
We kept walking and stumbled upon Fashion Street, a bazaar hugging the streets and spilling over into the roads. There were countless stalls full of “Adidas” sweatshirts and hats, phone chargers, books, jeans, shoes, and colorful clothing. I was interested in a pair of flowy pants but the man tried to swindle me and I said “nope.” The pants were very much fraying at the edges and he kept saying “good quality, ma’am.”
We had to rush back to our hotel to begin our group architecture tour, led by uncle Johnson. We boarded the bus and stopped at the next street over (lol) in front of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus Rail Station. Honestly, I didn’t even know what I was looking at until I was told what it was. I thought it was some kind of museum or palace because of its Gothic architecture. We made our next stop in front of the state Central Library (also Town Hall?), where we took a full group picture on the steps leading up to the doors. We drew quite the attention. Getting a selfie with all of us in the background was, like, the goal of the year for the locals that were milling about in the area.
Our tour continued on foot after that. There were high-end shops and boutiques on one side, with the gemstone Starbucks nestled comfortably between them. Tall buildings surrounded us, making me feel like a teeny weeny ant. Starbucks was not one of our architecture stops, (un)fortunately.
Our final stop of the day was the Gateway of India, which was built to welcome King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. The area at night was too busy to be considered safe to walk around in, so we stood there looking at the structure for a while and being asked by people to take pictures with us. We then ate dinner Leopold Café, a very busy restaurant with not-enough moving space. The food was good, the dessert even better. We kinda scammed them into giving us another lava cake, because the first one wasn’t warm enough to have chocolate sauce inside. I ended the day with a full tummy and began the next one with a pretty upset one.
This second day was an important one for the trip. We drove a little over an hour to reach Dharavi—the world’s largest urban slum. Looking out the window, I observed the contrast of life sitting right next to each other. Slum developments from the 20th century remain standing, but a lot have been replaced by skyscrapers, tall apartments, and other businesses in all stages of development. There was a grocery bazaar on the streets, individual vendor selling his or her specialty vegetable. The streets we passed were crowded with buying and selling, vendors weighing the product, customers comparing the ripeness of one plantain with another.
We were shown around Dharavi by tour guides that work for an NGO. The company disperses its profits from giving tours back to the community. I had a more positive experience with my tour guide than the other groups did. Our leader stressed the self-sufficiency of the community, the fortitude of its workers. The slum is broken into two: the commercial and the residential. Our leader portrayed the place as more of a collection of industries; plastic and leather are two of the biggest of industries here. Every day, the male workers in the commercial district work in toxic conditions, intentionally passing up gloves and masks that slow them down. They work through these conditions to provide for their families, content with their meager incomes. And yet, these people do not beg.
The leader’s purpose–which he was open about–was to dispel negative images of slums. Dharavi was its own city, with groceries, markets, electricity. I didn’t know what to expect from slums in the first place so there was no negativity that I felt I had to rid myself of. The tour had a positive impact on me and my perceptions around the notions of public vs. private, government interference, and social mobility. However, I still couldn’t help but feel intrusive and speculating. Here we were invading private space and observing this place as if it were a museum. It felt wrong. I asked our guide how the slum dwellers perceived outside people regularly coming into their space; according to him, they had an understanding of the multi-layered work the NGO did–of teaching outsiders about Dharavi and giving its profits back to its people. But I can’t say I’m fully convinced by that. What about photographers who come in and start taking pictures of people’s homes without asking? I’m still trying to come to terms with that tour.
Ok, wow, I’m more tired than I realized I was, so I’ll just leave off with that thought.