May 8th – Mumbai

Song of the day: Stretch Out and Wait by The Smiths “Amidst concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way”

Our final full day in Mumbai. We took the train north from Mumbai Central to Mahim Junction. We climbed a footbridge over the tracks and from that elevated viewpoint we were able to see the undulating patchwork of corrugated roofs that make up the Dharavi Slum. Squeezed in amongst skyscrapers, flyovers and train tracks, Dharavi is a place where a million people live on top of each other within a square mile of the city. It featured heavily in the film Slumdog Millionaire, although now that we’ve been to Dharavi and seen for ourselves, I think that film paints a pretty bleak picture of a place that was in fact in a bizarre way, almost uplifting to visit.
When Luke suggested that we visit one of Mumbai’s infamous slums I was a bit apprehensive – I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone or I wouldn’t have come to India in the first place – but I was a bit worried that we’d be so alien to everything that was around us that we’d be chased away, or attacked, or robbed, or something else bad. Now that we’ve been I feel guilty for having held such a low opinion of the people who live here. My other concern was that we were going to the slum just to go on “Poverty Safari” as it’s described in the Lonely Planet. I don’t know, maybe we were, but Luke shares my curiosity for this kind of thing and I do believe that seeing places like this makes you a better rounded person.

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The slum housing of Dharavi alongside the railway tracks

We came down the steps and passed a huge open wasteground where barefooted kids were playing cricket in the dust. We turned onto a long tarmac road which was lined either side with tiny two storey huts built of random materials. Many of these huts even have satellite dishes poking out of the top – not everybody living here is completely destitute, but they lack alternative housing options. The street throbbed with the usual hustle and bustle of everyday Indian life. Goats and cows of similar stature roamed as they pleased. Beautiful children with mucky faces beamed up at us, occasionally daring to offer an English greeting before running off giggling into the shadows. Some of the huts were entirely open to the street as the owners ran their businesses out of them. Cobblers, tailors, Chaiwallers, butchers, restaurants revealed not only the extent of their craftsmanship, but also the spaces where they and their families eat, sleep and pass the time of day. It’s a humbling sight to be able to fix a family of five and all of their worldly possessions with a swift glance out of the corner of your eye.

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Some of the more “permanent” houses we walked past

At the end of the paved road the slum stretched itself out into dusty, unadopted side streets that existed more out of necessity than design. Thin slivers of dry mud are the corridors that seperate the serpentine rows of makeshift housing, and a million different people tramp the dirt flat as they make their way from one improbable location to another. We saw handshakes and shaking fists, smiles and sneers, laughter and tears. All of human life is here, existing and thriving in conditions that couldn’t be dreamt up in the grimmest of nightmares. If you want a monument to human endeavour – our ability to survive and endure against all odds – don’t look for it in skyscrapers or palaces or parks. Come to Dharavi.
We walked back to the station and took the train south to Mahalaxmi. Here we stood overlooking a little circle of houses, in the middle of which 1026 washing pools are situated. Hundreds of women stood soaking, rinsing, wringing and beating clothes in each of the segregated stone basins. It was one of the first times on our travels in India that the air felt sweet, fresh and clean. Clothes hung everywhere on rooftops and outside windows. On one roof a dozen or so police uniforms swayed in the mid-afternoon breeze, and I wondered how easy it’d be for a crook to pinch one and get up to all kinds of mischief dressed in the attire of the law. Owing to the lack of laundry services we’ve found on our travels, Luke and I have been handwashing our clothes using a bucket of water and a bar of detergent, with which we scrub the clothes. It’s hard work, I can tell you! Usually I’ve washed my clothes just before going for a shower myself, because the process of washing them is that intense in these hot conditions that you end up drenched in sweat. Wringing clothes out is a particularly arduous task which has left me with callouses on my fragile, unworked hands – I never thought I’d be in a position to appreciate the mangle as an invention! Our hats must go off to the ladies of Mumbai who keep the city’s laundry fresh and clean without drawing upon the luxury of a washing machine – an invention which I take all too much for granted back home.

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Beyond the corrugated roofs, hundreds of washing basins at Mahalaxmi

We returned to the hostel to pack up for the following day’s transit to Bengaluru, before returning to Girgaum Chowpatty beach for a a final Bhelpuri and people-watching session. Mumbai was a bit of a slow-burner for us.  That first morning we wondered what all the fuss was about, but as we’ve explored and soaked up the atmosphere here we’ve begun to appreciate the city’s importance to India. There’s no doubt that Mumbai is a city on the move – you’ve only to look at the skyline, which far outstrips London for skyscrapers. There’s also the inevitable poverty which blights such an overpopulated country, and in Mumbai the contrast between rich and poor is made all the more stark by the fact that the different classes live on top of each other – sometimes literally. Here more than anywhere else we’ve been though, you get the impression that even the destitute are on the lookout for a way to break out of that perpetual cycle of poverty. What’s that Oscar Wilde quote? “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”.
Tomorrow we fly to Bengaluru.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

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May 7th – Mumbai

We got up and had a dhosa at Sai Samrat, creatures of habit that we are. We walked to the nearby Mumbai Central Railway Station, and bought a ticket to Churchgate – the final, most southerly stop on the line. The journey cost us five rupees – or five pence – each. From Churchgate Station we walked through a very grand, Victorian-looking part of Mumbai. On our left the gothic High Court of Mumbai building towered over us, and to our right a long strip of park. We peered through the railings to watch overs of various cricket matches that were going off. It was a saturday morning and I suppose what we were watching was an equivalent of pub football in England. There must have been a dozen cricket matches going off at once, each on a full sized pitch. As we walked further along, two bare-footed young boys stood beneath a tree with open carrier bags. In the branches of a tree overhanging the road, their mate was picking mangoes and dropping them into the bags. They looked to have already bagged themselves a good haul, and we wondered whether they might take them to the nearby Crawford market and flog them to a shopkeeper.
Eventually we made it to the southernmost part of Mumbai, where the land meets the sea and a huge ornamental stone arch, known as the “Gateway to India” is situated. The gateway was built by the British Empire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Bombay. When India gained it’s independence in 1947, the last British soldiers to leave Indian soil marched under the arch and onto their troopships – an iconic moment in this country’s history. Needless to say, we were bombarded with the usual requests to pose for photographs by some Indian lads. They were friendly and polite, and got very excited when I said that I wanted to take a selfie with all of them – they chanted the word “Selfie, selfie, selfie” over and over like some kind of primitive tribe.
We boarded a boat to Elephanta Island. A mile or two out from Mumbai’s busy harbour, a small mound of land juts out of the water, where ancient Hindus carved a network of caves into the rock. Boat journeys are quite cool and novel for the first ten minutes, but in my experience they tend to make time feel as if it’s passing by very slowly. I can’t imagine how I’d have got on in the olden days when it took months by sailing ship to get anywhere – I think I’d have ended up walking the plank out of boredom. Luckily, the tedium of this particular voyage was loudly and spectacuarly interupted by a man throwing up over the side. His wife patted him on the back as he jettisoned his breakfast in several gut-wenching heaves onto the side of the boat, whilst the seagulls provided a mocking chorus of laughter. We passed menacing looking ships belonging to the Indian Navy and an oil tanker the size of a stadium, before eventually arriving at a stone jetty that jutted out a few hundred feet from the island.

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We walked along this causeway, passing up the opportunity to take the miniature train that runs along it’s length because it looked dreadful and had to pause for several minutes whilst a cow was shoed off the line. As we walked along the causeway the waves lapped gently in to shore, bearing upon them all kinds of household junk that had been thrown into the sea. A layer of rubbish about two metres wide seperates open sea from solid ground, like mouldy cornflakes bobbing around in a sea of curdled milk. Elephanta Island itself is beautiful – a rocky outcrop covered in jungle vegetation and patrolled by monkeys – more on these treacherous rogues later. We climbed a set of steps which seemed to wind on into the heavens, though climbing them felt as hot as hell. At the top we posed for more photos with a random Indian family – they told us to say “Cheese!” but Luke substituted this for the word “Paneer”, which apparently provided the family with the most hilarious joke they’d ever heard. We paid our “Foreigner’s Entrance Fee” and explored the impressive cave complex.

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The most impressive thing when studying the length and depth of these caves, is to acknowledge that they were carved out of solid rock. Many hands and many years came together to create something as special as this, and in our age of instant communication and internet, where a million distractions are available at the touch of a button, it’s hard to imagine any civilization having the time and inclination to create something like this ever again. Perhaps in another thousand years we’ll marvel at ancient wall carvings of selfie-stick wielding tourists, but I doubt it.
Statues of Shiva as destroyer and creator stand at the rear of the main cave, holding various ceremonial items in multiple sets of arms. Multiple limbs are a feature of most Hindu Gods, and often if a child is born here with some kind of birth defect which provides it with an extra arm or leg or something, it is seen to be an incarnation of a God. We walked around the other caves that form the Elephanta network. Some of these caves contain large blocks of stone with a kind of trough around them – altars upon which living things were sacrificed to the Gods. There are an alarming number of these blocks scattered around various ancient Hindu buildings we’ve visited, and I wonder just how many animals (or even humans!?) were sacrificed on a daily basis in ancient times.
We sat resting in the sun for a while after completing our tour of the caves. An Indian man came up to us and said: “I am curious, why do you sit in the sun? the shade is much cooler.” We explained that in our own country, we didn’t get much chance to sit in the sun. However, after standing up and looking at the sweaty patches of where we’d been seated, I concede that the man probably had a point. As we walked back we pointed and laughed at a group of monkeys that had surrounded a lady and snatched her water bottle. When I was young my Grandma had a saying: “Don’t laugh at others, because you may be struck comical yourself one day.” How right she was, as instant karma came to bite me in the arse, almost literally. A monkey came sprinting out of the undergrowth and blocked our path. I greeted it with a cheerful “Hello!” the way I would any other sentient being. It hissed and raised it’s chin – a sign of masculine challenge, as I learned in Cambodia – then went for my bottle. At this point I metaphorically (and almost literally) shat myself, and ran as fast as I could away from the creature in question. The word “RABIES, RABIES, RABIES!” screamed an indelible mark into my consciousness like a World War Two air raid siren. After setting a personal best time for the hundred metres, I allowed myself to look over my shoulder. No monkeys were in view – just Luke, doubled up in hysterical fits of laughter. I took a long swig from the coveted water bottle to replace the fluid I’d lost in the sprint, and we continued down the hill to the boat.

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The journey back was unremarkable until we reached the jetty at Mumbai. Owing to the short length of the platform, our boat was forced to moor up against another boat, which was in turn moored up to two identical boats. This meant that in order to reach dry land, we had to hop the gap over to the next boat, and so on until we reached the safety of the jetty. As I have alluded to before in this blog, Indians have a very different attitude to queueing – ie: they don’t do it. Luke and I stepped back and allowed fifty to a hundred odd people to cram onto the starboard side of the boat, pushing and shoving as one person at a time hopped onto the next boat in the sequence. There are times in this country when you can picture yourself being the subject of a rolling news headline passing along the bottom of the screen on BBC News 24 – something along the lines of “Twelve people crushed in boating accident in Mumbai Harbour” – this was one of those times. Fortunately, the entire party was safely transferred to shore and we returned to dry land to continue our adventures.
There is a legendary book called Shanteram, which is set almost entirely in Mumbai. It’s the true story of an Australian man who escaped from prison where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, came to Mumbai to hide out and ended up falling in love, becoming a kind of doctor for people in the slums, and generally living an extraordinary life. Luke has read it and I’m now in the process of doing the same, so our next stop was a bar called Leopolds, which features heavily in the book. Leopolds was established in 1871 and became a hangout for the seedier characters of Mumbai. These days, due to the popularity of Shanteram the place is a lot more touristy, but it still made for a really atmospheric place to have a beer and some food. In a break from curry, I had a buffalo burger (no beef on the menu in India, remember) and it went down a treat.
Our final destination for the day was the Chhatraparti Shivarti Terminal (formerly known as the Victoria Terminal) – another example of respledent Victorian architecture, with turrets, towers and stained-glass windows in abundance. It is still the main railway station in Mumbai, and officially the busiest railway station in Asia – which is some claim to fame, I can tell you. Anybody who’s seen the film Slumdog Millionaire will be familiar with scenes that were shot in and around the station area. Sadly it might also ring a bell in people’s minds because of the terrorist attacks that occurred here and a few other sights in Mumbai in 2008, when 163 people were killed. There is a large armed presence in most of the places we have been to in India, as well as metal detectors in every railway station. This being my first trip I have no basis for comparison, but I imagine security has been tightened a lot since before 2008.

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We returned to the hostel for a bit before going to a restaraunt round the corner for tea. Here we witnessed the most bizarre excesses of Indian hospitality yet. Our waiter was short and smartly dressed with a pencil moustache. Both in looks and latterly in mannerisms, he could well have played Manuel in a Bollywood version of Fawlty Towers, or if you’ll indulge me… Balti Towers. Firstly, I got as far as ordering my own food before he abruptly buggered off, having taken only half our order. He disappeared for five minutes and then returned. We attempted to explain that Luke wanted to order his food too, which was lost on him. In the end a bloke who spoke good English at the next table had to translate for us. Even at this point, Manuel suddenly walked off halfway through Luke’s order. When he returned, he had a jug of water, pouring a glass for each of us. Luke completed his order and eventually the food came out together, which was a minor miracle. Many Indian waiters have a tendency to spoon your curry out onto the plate for you, and Manuel was no exception. He also topped up our water and poured two fresh glasses for us, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t touched the first two.  By now the table was getting quite crowded. He retreated to the end of the room and watched us like a hawk, returning at random intervals to spoon various bits of food onto our plates, in spite of our looks of bafflement. Towards the end of the meal, when I thought the coast was clear, I picked up the spoon to scoop the last of my Jaipuri onto my plate. From out of nowhere Manuel materialised, snatched the spoon out of my hand and proceeded to do what I could have done for myself. He was too wierd and whimsical to get annoyed with, and at the end of the meal he recieved a large tip for the entertainment value that he’d provided. As we were about to pay he poured us each a third glass of water, which needless to say remained untouched.

The deference shown by some waiters in India has made us somewhat uncomfortable – though amusing at times, I can’t help thinking that this excessive desire to please might be borne out of the Caste system, or even represents a hangover from the days of the British Empire. After Episode one of “Balti Towers”, we went back to the Central Guesthouse to sleep after another successful day.

Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

6th May – Mumbai

Song of the Day: Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) by A.R.Rahman and the Pussycat Dolls. Why? It reminds me of the film Slumdog Millionaire (Luke would like to point out that he does not like this song, but reluctantly agrees that it is a good choice because of it’s connections with Mumbai.)
My first night’s kip at the Mumbai Central Guesthouse wasn’t good. Perhaps it was the whirring of the fan, or the distant sound of traffic horns, or the too-close-for-comfort squeaking and scrabbling of rats in the roof above. Luke managed to get a full night’s kip, and it seems to have been a feature of this trip that one of us sleeps like a log, and the other lies awake for hours. We lay in for once and had a kind of brunch at the Sai Samrat restaurant, which was next door to our lodgings. The dhosas were divine and the chai – well, I’ve had one bad cup in the whole time we’ve been out here – it rarely fails to revive and revitalise.
On first appearance, this city is more orderly and affluent than previous destinations. This is an illusion – after all, this is India. Apparently, 60% of the population of Mumbai live in slums. For every skyscraper, gated community and speedboat in the harbour, there are a thousand people living in poverty. It sounds grim, but, many of these people have migrated from elsewhere in India to be here. There are jobs to be had and money to be made, and relatively speaking, many of these people would rather be here than anywhere else. The term “slum” is in some ways quite degrading, and does a diservice to a large portion of these resourceful people, who in the absence of proper housing have built their own shelters out of whatever materials they can find. They operate trades out of their little corrugted shacks – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, butchers, you name it. Theyre all here, earning a relatively honest rupee from providing a service to their makeshift communities.

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We spent the early afternoon walking around, getting quite hot and bothered and not seeing all that much. Though the temperature is a bit cooler than Varanasi and Kolkata  – 35 instead of 40, the heat here seems to suffocate you in exactly the same way. In spite of the heat we covered some serious ground and came to our first sight of the day – the impressive Crawford Market. This grand colonial building of a slightly gothic look was purpose-built to house the market by none other than Rudyard Kipling’s Dad, Lockwood Kipling. The dimly-lit market that the building was constructed for is quite opposite to the orderly, pompous regime who built it. It’s a pungent, humid, throbbing throng of hard bargaining. Mangoes piled as high as people teeter in impossible piles, whilst watermelons as big as beach balls are hacked into managable portions by murderous-looking machete men. A menagerie of caged animals barked, scratched, squawked, and croaked at each other from opposite sides of the narrow gangway between two shops. This is something I don’t get about Indian businesses – instead of setting up shop in a unique area which might require the services of that particular business, it seems that tradesmen selling the same wares will congregate together. Surely there would be more money to be made from finding your own patch, instead of becoming the fifteenth pet shop in the same square mile of Mumbai? A peculiar habit.

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After another hour of hot, sweaty walking the huge, looming presence of the Wankhede Stadium (no sniggering) came into view. The Wankhede Stadium is Mumbai’s main cricket ground – host to the odd international test match, and home of the Mumbai Indians, the city’s IPL team. As soon as we knew we were coming to Mumbai we got excited at the prospect of watching a 20/20 game. We checked the fixtures and discovered that there was a home game on the Sunday – our last night in Mumbai. Armed with this information we set out for the stadium with the intention of booking tickets. We walked along a glorious sun-baked promenade that overlooked the Arabian Sea, and attempted to enter the ground to buy tickets. Several security personell blocked our way and said “It is not possible. There is no game here.” Then something that we’d read weeks ago suddenly dawned on us! Because of the intense heatwave and drought that parts of India are currently suffering, the Mumbai Indians were banned from playing at their home ground because it would drain precious water supplies from the city in order to keep the pitch in a playable condition. The “home game” that was advertised was due to be played in Jaipur, some 900 odd kilometres away! This, along with the fog which obscured the mountains in Darjeeling, is the second time that the weather has denied us. For all the cricket matches in England that are called off due to rain, we came all the way to India to have the opposite issue.

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We went back to the hotel to cool down and rehydrate before one last foray into the unknown. The beach at Girgaum Chowpatty is an incredibly popular location, and we thought it’d be a great place to watch the sunset. Crawling with holidaymakers, chaiwallers and nine to fivers looking to relax after a hard day at the office, Chowpatty is a great place to spend a few hours peoplewatching. Up until this point, we’d gotten used to seeing the everyday people of India with their nose to the grindstone. Whether driving, selling, crafting, building, begging, hustling or farming, we had seen people occupied in the act of getting by. How nice it was to see kids playing, couples courting and families united in having a good time. We sat down at a beach cafe and each had one of Mumbai’s legendary Belhapuris. A belhapuri is a mound of puffed rice, dough, chutney, onion, tomato, chilli, coriander and anything else the chef can think of. The puffed rice gives it the same audible “snap crackle and pop” as rice crispies, and the chutney and chilli make it a slightly spicy sweet and sour treat. We rounded the evening off with a couple of Kingfisher strong and a curry in one of Mumbai’s very trendy, up and coming bars.
That’s all for today.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

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5th May – Varanasi to Mumbai

Luke’s alarm struck at half four, and it was difficult to overcome the initial fatigue that comes with being on the road without the appropriate level of shut-eye. These early starts have been a battle, but at the end of the day not once have I regretted getting out of bed. We headed for the Brown Bread Bakery, which was completely covered in metal shutters. We found ourselves in a pitch black alley in the company of half a dozen stray dogs, a cow and various piles of rubbish. After a while a bloke walked up to us and said “Brown Bread? I am your boat man”. We gave him our voucher and followed him down to the riverbank, where he immediately delegated a small boy to the task of rowing us out onto the river. We had inadvertently become employers of a child labourer without having any say in the matter whatsoever. The young lad bumped into several boats as he struggled to get us away from the ramshackle flotilla that was moored up to the bank. When finally we broke free from the other boats, a man called to him from the bank, and the boy started rowing towards him for all he was worth. For a short while we were concerned that we were going to be boarded by a barbaric pirate of the Ganges, but our fears were shortlived.

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The man swapped places with the young boy, who scurried off into the town. The man rowed us towards the Manikarnika Ghat of yesterday. Even at this early hour, the pyres were burning and families were surrounding their dearly departed. From the other side of the river, through a clutch of cloud, the sun began to rise on a new day. Each bank of the river offered a different perspective – on one side death, and the past. The other offered life, the present and the future. As I always do at moments such as these, I’d like to point out that you don’t need to be religious to appreciate the power of these moments. The boat ride lasted an hour and to anybody who wants to go to Varanasi, I would recommend a thousand times the sunrise boat trip along the river.

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We returned to the and pottered about a bit before taking a tuk tuk to the railway station. The plan was to fly to Mumbai, but we wanted to take advantage of the pre-paid taxi stands that operate at most major stations in India. We bagged a rickshaw from the station to the airport for 450 rupees – an excellent price considering the journey was some 35 kilometres. We got to the airport four hours before our flight, and spent the meantime bored, pottering about in the thankfully air-conditioned terminus. Of course, our Spicejet flight was delayed by forty minutes – on the screen it claimed that the reason was “Security”.
Our flight took off at ten past eight, and the next two and half hours held nothing but anxiety for me – not so for Luke, who somehow managed to bury his head in his jacket and go to sleep. We hit turbulence and flew through a storm during which I could see the lightning flashing in the distance. The seatbelt sign was on for almost an hour after takeoff, then, bizarrely, the Captain of the plane came out and began serving food and drink to the passengers! I’m glad he had confidence in his copilot, but in my mind I had visions of the spotty work experience kid flying the plane, whilst the pilot ensured the passengers were well fed and hydrated. As we were about to land he finally buggered off back to his cockpit to start earning his money. We flew in over a moonlit sea, over hills covered in slums, and finally touched down onto the tarmac at Mumbai.
We purchased a pre-paid taxi journey to our hotel, although our driver clearly had no idea where it was. As we attempted to engage him in conversation about the directions, he said “No English” and put his foot down. We drove past legions of skyscrapers – far more than the London skyline has to offer. Our driver wound the window down a couple of times to ask fellow taxi drivers for directions, before finally coming to rest outside our hostel.

On the pavement in front of us two portly, ageing police officers were standing over a drunk who had fallen into the gutter. They both held bamboo canes in their hands and in the absencce of any better ideas, they were applying gentle whacks to his legs and arms in order to get him on his feet. To be fair to them, their hearts clearly weren’t into police brutality. I don’t think it would matter if they beat him black and blue right in front of us, the guy was too hammered to even sit up straight, and we left the spectacle outside in order to climb the stairs up to our guesthouse. The Central Hotel is a grotty, tired kind of place which passed it’s sell by date about forty years ago, but we didn’t care – we just needed to sleep.
That’s all for today – a day of travel and not much else.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey