This is the third in a four-part series on India
The Slums of Mumbai
It was in the rooftop restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Mumbai, that we first encountered Joe Tourist. He was at the other end of the open-air bistro, ordering sushi. “Hey,” he shouted across the floor at the flustered waiter, “make that four tuna belly and throw in an extra order of unagi.”
Ordering sushi in India is ill-advised – for a couple of reasons. First, there is a near-zero probability that you will actually receive what you ordered and second, in the days following, you will almost certainly regret your decision to consume raw fish netted from the Bay of Bengal.
While events unfolded on the far side of the restaurant, we sat quietly enjoying a soft Indian evening and a delicious appetizer of aloo gobi and paneer fried in onion gravy. On the street far below the honking traffic crawled while pedestrians strolled Mumbai’s broad malecon, which serpentines along Marine Drive.
We overheard Joe Tourist ask for the bill, “La cuenta por favor.” (He must have mistaken Mumbai for the Mayan Riviera.) The waiter, barely able to comprehend English, stared blankly, mystified by Joe T.’s garbled Spanish.
Minutes later, as if on cue, a tsunami arose from Mr. Tourist’s table over the fishy tab. Ignoring the commotion, we dug into our delightful entree of tandoori chicken and bhindi masala, served with a side of steaming garlic naan. But serendipity had a cruel fate in store for us. This was not to be the last time we would cross paths with Joe Tourist during our adventure in India. (Part IV next month).
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the fourth largest city in the world. India’s business capital is undergoing the greatest construction boom in the country’s history. Everywhere huge apartment buildings are being erected, scraping the sky. Yet just meters from these multi-million-dollar luxury condominiums lie Mumbai’s vast slums. Eighty percent of Mumbai’s twenty million residents live in these jumbled shantytowns.
In the movie Slumdog Millionaire the protagonist, an 18-year-old orphan from the Dharavi slum, relies on his street smarts to answer a series of obscure questions – and collects the grand prize of 20,000,000 rupees. In true Bollywood fashion there is also an elaborate dance scene – and of course in the end he gets the girl. 22 year-old Nic is also from Dharavi. He picked us up at the hotel for a tour through the slum he calls home. But first he showed us the sights of colonial Mumbai: Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Railway Station), the iconic Gateway of India in Mumbai Harbour and, across the street, the opulent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
On November 26, 2008 Pakistani militants stormed the hotel, setting off explosives and killing 31 guests. Nic was in the plaza across from the Taj when the terrorists began strafing the crowd with automatic rifle fire. “When the firing started, I broke away on my own,” he told us matter-of-factly. “Shooters are more likely to fire at a group than one person.” Duly noted.
We weren’t permitted to take pictures in the Dharavi slum. But what I saw is forever seared into my memory: a group of women crouched on haunches in a dimly-lit room, separating an endless mountain of used plastic utensils; two young lads – without the benefit of eye, ear or lung protection – shoving broken toys into a gas-powered chipper. I stuck my head in that forsaken room for a few seconds before the deafening noise and smell of churning plastic drove me out.
From the ‘plastic’ district, Nic led us past open sewers, under precariously dangling electrical wires and through narrow twisting passages to a quarter where the planet’s discarded leather coats are re-tanned. The gutter ran ochre with chemical sludge. Then, holding our breath, we entered a smoky neighbourhood where bricks are re-kilned. Finally we toured an area where dirty paint cans from around the globe are emptied, cleaned and banged back into shape. The gutter here ran all colours of the rainbow.
And every Dharavi rooftop billowed to overflowing with stuff the world has long-since discarded.
Amidst all this commotion folks lived, cooked, cleaned, ate. Children played, old men smoked, teenagers flirted, mothers nursed, babies slept. In this single square kilometre of squalid, stifling slum, a million people go about the daily business of survival. But to street-smart Nic, Dharavi is just home, the place where he rests his head each night.
If you visit India, you may wish to bring an attractive blonde along. Your group will be popular. We couldn’t walk down the street without someone requesting a selfie with our cute friend from Saskatoon. In Mumbai’s main square locals surrounded her like paparazzi hounding a celebrity. Thus began our symbiotic photo relationship with India. Locals took shots of our ‘BB Ji’ while we, demanding a reciprocal favour, photographed them photographing her.
Last evening in Mumbai. Returning to the Intercontinental from a late-night stroll along the Malecon, I was pooped, ready for bed. A motorcycle pulled up to the curb. “Jump on.” It was Nic. Fueled by a couple of Kingfisher beers and disregarding all common sense rules mother may have laid down, I climbed aboard for a death-defying, adrenaline-stoked roar down Marine Drive. Nic laughed and joked as we weaved at break-neck speed through cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedestrians – and other insane motorcyclists. I hung on for dear life. Eventually he returned me, unscathed, to the hotel door. “That was fun,” I said, shaking. He waved, shouted “Alvida,” and sped off into the bedlam.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. Despite utter exhaustion, I lay awake listening to the incessant, unrelenting, honking traffic – and thinking of the millions of souls eking out an existence in the slums of Mumbai.
In the morning we left chaotic Mumbai for the relative calm of Kerala, on India’s extreme southwestern tip. The ‘land of coconuts’ is a tropical paradise dense with rain forest, wild elephants, monkeys, tea plantations – and spices. Kerala is home to a wonder of zesty flavours: pepper, cinnamon, licorice, chili, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, turmeric. For centuries the colonial powers fought, won and lost wars over the exotic spice trade.
And from these amazing seeds and roots comes India’s great contribution to world cuisine: curry.
Next time: the spices of Kerala.
If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C. (www.exploreindia.ca) capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.
The ultimate penalty for package thieves – A hilarious Christmas story of revenge
You may be familiar with Mark Rober. Mark is an engineer who loves to put his profession to work for him in curious and extremely entertaining ways. His video called Building the Perfect Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder has been watched more than 53 Million times!
Well here’s a new video and the timing is perfect. Considering the combination of COVID19 and online Christmas shopping, package thieves are undoubtedly busier than ever. A couple of years ago the creator of this video had a package stolen from his front step and when there was nothing police could do about it, he decided to take his revenge and do his part to decrease the practice of poaching packages.
For anyone who has had a package stolen from their step, here’s your revenge! Mark admits it’s a bit petty, but his overall goal is to steer people away from making poor decision. Take a few minutes to enjoy Mark’s amazing work.
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