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Join Gerry for a wild ride through the Slums of Mumbai Pt. 3 of a 4 part series

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This is the third in a four-part series on India

The Slums of Mumbai by Gerry Feehan

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.

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

 

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.

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

 

 

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

 

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On top of the world with Gerry Feehan

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Fisher Peak by Gerry Feehan

Taunting the Temptress

Once in a blue moon something improbable occurs. A goal beyond expectations and beyond the capacity of aging knees is accomplished.

Once in a Blue Moon

The view of Fisher Peak from our Kimberley condo is mesmerizing. For years I’ve gazed across the Rocky Mountain Trench at that daunting, taunting pinnacle. Fisher dominates the skyline in this range of the Rockies. At nearly 3000 meters it towers over its lofty neighbors.

Last July my brother Pat and I watched the second full moon of the month, a blue one, rise over Fisher and decided, “Let’s do it.”

The start of a long climb!

Good weather is critical to mountain climbing. Luckily, the forecast was ideal: clear skies and calm winds. An alpine storm even in summer can necessitate an overnight bivouac. We were not equipped for that nasty contingency. (An aside. Have you noticed the weatherman has become markedly more reliable over the last few years?).

As predicted a perfect day greeted our early start. Climbing Fisher requires no mountaineering equipment, no technical skills. But it’s a long drive to the remote trailhead and the sheer, steady steepness of the climb – and the equally grueling descent – make for a long, hard day. From trailhead to summit the elevation gain is 1400 meters. That’s nearly a vertical mile!

tarn at the halfway point

The hike began unfortuitously. When Patrick donned his daypack, the water reservoir was empty – and his pack was sopping wet. A leaky start. It is imprudent to begin a seven-hour climb on a hot summer day without H2O but we had little option. We’d driven an hour up bumpy logging roads to reach the trailhead. Returning to get water meant we would not have time to complete the ascent. Besides, we were in the mountains. That’s where water comes from. Find a stream, fill up – and beaver fever be damned.

Prayer flags adorn the saddle

The upward march began in a shaded forest of conifers. After an hour patches of light started to shine through the canopy and the trail opened across a jumble of rocks. Beneath our feet we heard gurgling, the babbling of an invisible creek. The steepness continued as the path skirted a cascading waterfall, the source of the hidden rumbling – and the source of clean, beautiful liquid sustenance.

What goes up …

After ninety minutes of relentless climbing, the trail leveled and we came upon a beautiful alpine tarn, its crystal clear waters mirroring the jagged peaks enveloping us. Above the small lake a cirque opened up and we had our first clear view of Fisher, the temptress, still hundreds of meters above us. A solitary marmot whistled a warning call. The sound echoed loudly off the walls of the rocky amphitheater.

… must come down

We were halfway to the summit.

The next leg of the assault is difficult: three hundred vertical meters of steep, loose scree. A real b#&ch! Even with foreshortened hiking poles digging firm, two hard-earned forward steps were countered by a slippery step backward. The scree section is also dangerous. As it steepens, the risk of lost footing and a fall increases. And, worse still, a hiker above can dislodge rocks upon those below. Self-preservation dictates that you want to be in the lead. Unfortunately, Pat is fitter, stronger and younger than I. So, lagging behind, my focus was keeping my head up while keeping my head down.

Did I mention the scree was a real b#&ch!

After an hour the loose slope resolves to a saddle – a safe refuge before the final climb to the top.  This notch in the mountain is festooned with prayer flags. We took a breather in the thin air and gazed around. We had equaled the height of the nearby Steeples. Dibble Glacier, a remnant of the last ice age is visible from this vantage, its ancient blue-grey mass cupped within the Steeples.

The last section begins innocuously with a well-marked switchback through ever-bigger rocks. But soon these boulders become broken, vertical slabs. We abandoned our hiking poles, which became a liability in the four-limbed scramble up, over and around truck-sized stones. Clinging precariously to handholds and squeezing through narrow fissures, we neared the top. In a few spots only a tiny foothold marked the difference between moving safely upward or making a quick 1000-meter descent. But for us Feehans this is the fun part.

The top of Fisher is as tiny as it appears from our balcony 30 kilometers away: a small platform with room for just a handful of climbers. I’m not sure what I expected at the peak but was surprised to see just a jumble of huge boulders stacked atop one another, like the playthings of a giant. The view from the top is remarkable. 360 degrees of pure horizon. To the north and east an endless ocean of mountain peaks. To the south the blue meandering waters of the Kootenay River and Koocanusa Lake disappearing into the United States a hazy hundred kilometers away. In the west, directly below us, lay the verdant green fields of the Rocky Mountain Trench. Further distant the bare ski runs of Northstar Mountain stood out clear as day. I could see my deck over there in Kimberley. No, I couldn’t.

Gerry at the top.

The difficulty with scrambling up to a steep, precarious perch is… what goes up must come down. On the ascent we had concentrated on grabbing, reaching and looking upward. To get down we had to look down. It was disconcerting hanging over a cliff ledge, slipping toward an invisible foothold below. But we slid safely through the slabs, retrieved our poles at the saddle and surfed down through the scree. Soon we were back at the lovely tarn. We stopped briefly to look back up at the now distant peak. Picas gallivanted about, squeaking cutely, gathering nesting grasses, oblivious to the great feat we had just accomplished.

on top of the world

Surprisingly, the last downward section can be the hardest, an unrelenting ninety minutes of joint-jarring, toe-busting, knee-knocking descent. Alpine wildflowers in radiant bloom helped ease the pain.

fireweed

We were back in Kimberley in time to enjoy barbequed steak. At sunset we sipped a cold one on the deck and watched as alpenglow lit Fisher’s face. The next blue moon is October 31, 2020. What to do for an encore?

Thanks to Rod Kennedy and Kennedy Wealth Management and Ing and McKee Insurance for helping to make this series possible.  Please support them.

contact Gerry at [email protected]

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