With only 36-hours on the ground in one of Southeast Asia’s most populous cities, Dr. Jamil and Dr. Idries go on a whirlwind adventure of exploration as they attempt to squeeze every little bit of living out of magnificent Mumbai India.
So, here we are people, The Twin Doctor’s Travel Bag has travelled to the one and only incredible India! India, once the crown jewel of the British Empire is today a country of stark contrasts and contradictions. The world’s largest democracy and the world’s second most populous country (ranking only behind China), India is a nation that has one foot in its past and one foot firmly planted in the 21st century. There is of course the modern India of shiny new high rise buildings, a booming tech industry and the delightfully gaudy and if not slightly over-the-top Bollywood productions. But then there also is the India of long held and sometimes crippling religious and social divergence and the India of heartbreaking poverty and destitution that at times can feel like a weak link in a growing and strengthening chain. Travel however my friends is the Doctor’s prescription for a weary soul. It is the Great Educator, the Great Unifier and the Great Destroyer of barriers and when travelling there is no good or bad, only different and new. Different foods, different sights, different languages, different perspectives, different beliefs, different ways of living and different ways of seeing the world. So, The Twin Doctor’s Travel Bag is here to experience every facet of India and we are really excited that you have chosen to come along on the journey with us. Our first stop will include 36 hours in Mumbai India. Mumbai, the sprawling Indian metropolis on the Arabian Sea. So sit back, kick up your feet and together let’s experience the sights and sounds that make India one of the most unique destinations in the world and Mumbai one of India’s most intriguing and appealing cities!
To learn the details of the individual journeys that we each took to reach Mumbai read our separate trip reports which will be coming soon. In a nutshell however Idries and I typically fly the majority of our flights with different airline alliances. Idries is a Star Alliance flyer while I frequent the One World Alliance. The primary U.S. carriers in each alliance (United for the Star Alliance and American for the One World Alliance) have major hubs in Chicago, and so both alliances suit our travel needs as Chicagoans quite well. To reach Mumbai I flew One World Alliance partner British Airways. This required me to make a brief stop with a change of planes at London’s Heathrow International Airport before finally arriving Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport a little after 2AM. With the 8-hour flight from Chicago to London, the 4-hour layover in London and the 9-hour flight from London to Mumbai, my total travel time was a little over 21 hours. To reach Mumbai Idries flew Star Alliance partner United Airlines. This required him to make a brief stop with a change of planes in Newark New Jersey before he reached Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport 2 hours ahead of me at midnight. The typical journey time from Chicago to Mumbai on United via Newark is roughly 18 to 19 hours, with the flight from Chicago to Newark being 2 hours, the average layover between flights in Newark being another 2 hours and then the flight from Newark to Mumbai being an additional 14 ½ hours. Idries however took a somewhat less direct more circuitous route to Mumbai, the details of which can be read in his trip report.
Mumbai’s recently completed International Terminal number 2 is both modern and clean, and it looks very much like any other airport terminal you might find anywhere else in the world. Likely in large part due to the late hour that we each arrived, we both found the airport not to be very crowded. As a result, clearing Immigration and Custom was a breeze. After exiting the airport and finding ourselves curbside, though travelling separately and arriving more than 2 hours apart, we both oddly enough chose to travel to our hotel and to start our 36-hours in Mumbai India in the very same manner. Now you know my friends, we didn’t opt for the safer more comfortable option of travelling to the hotel in a pre-arranged sedan. That would have been too touristy, and tourists we are not. No, we are Independent Travelers and Independent Travelers travel among the people. So we each separately chose to travel to our hotel (the Taj Mahal Palace) by cab. And when you travel by cab in Mumbai you have two options. You can either travel in a “Cool Cab” or you can travel in one of Mumbai’s more traditional (and not so cool) “Black and Yellow Cabs”. Cool Cabs are obviously air conditioned, that’s what makes them “cool”. The Black and Yellow Cabs on the other hand are not air conditioned, and that’s what makes them “not so cool”. Given the relatively crisp late evening temperatures that we each encountered after we arrived however, we both decided to keep it as real (real sweaty that is) as any Independent Traveler could. And so we each schlepped on over to the Black and Yellow taxi stand. Black and Yellow taxis, while certainly a more traditional option, are known at times for maintaining varying degrees of professionalism and varying service standards.
Each of our individual rides to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel provided us with what would be our first glimpses into what driving (or in our cases) into what riding in a car in India can be like. Suffice it to say that unless you are VERY familiar with driving in India, we would recommend that visitors to the country just sit back and let someone else negotiate the chaos that can ensue on the nation’s streets 24-7. The drive from the airport to the hotel also really provided each of us with our first glimpses into the wonderfully polarized dichotomy that is India. A dichotomy that is characterized by the most derelict of slums and the most ostentatious of highbrow neighborhoods.
After a roughly 45-minute drive we each separately reached the urban oasis better known as Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. The Taj is located just off of the Arabian Sea in the city’s Colaba neighborhood. While the Taj Mahal Palace has been a Mumbai landmark since 1903, many people may best remember the hotel as being one of the many locations in Mumbai that was targeted during the terrorist attacks that took place in the city on the 1st of November 2008.
During these attacks, six separate bombs were detonated throughout various parts of The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and over 200 of the hotel’s guests were held hostage for two days. In addition to targeting the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, terrorists on the 1st of November also targeted Mumbai’s Oberoi Trident Hotel and the city’s Victoria Terminus train station. Thankfully, both the city of Mumbai and The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel have bounced back in a big way. Today many people consider The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in fact to be one of the best if not the best hotel in Mumbai.
During the hotel check-in process, we were each greeted with cool drinks. These drinks were then followed by placement of the “Tilak” on our foreheads. The Tilak is a ritual marking placed on the forehead using either “Kumkum” or “Chandan”. Kumkum is a mixture of turmeric, iodine, camphor and alum while Chandan is simply a sandalwood paste mixed with musk. The Tilak mark is placed on a person’s forehead between their brow, an area of the body that is felt to represent the seat of a person’s wisdom. Tilak marks can be placed on the forehead as part of religious ceremony or simply as a means of welcoming a visitor. After the Tilak marks were placed on our foreheads we then had a pair of traditional Indian beads placed around our necks. With the traditional welcome complete, we were each then shown to our room.
Like a sexy Siren calling out to us, beckoning us to come hither and play, our beds were more than a welcome site as we settled in for what would be a short night. And as we climbed beneath the sheets, visions of what tomorrow and of what the next 5 days in India might hold for us began to dance about in our heads until Ratri, the Hindu Goddess of Night took us with her and we fell deep into a jet-lag induced slumber.
Mumbai, India’s most populous city and the 9th most populous city in the world, is named in honor of Mumbadevi, a local incarnation of the Hindu Mother Goddess Devi. The history of modern day Mumbai dates back almost 500 years to a time when Mumbai was nothing more than a collection of seven islands under Portuguese rule. These seven islands were collectively referred to as the Seven Islands of Bombay. Control over the Seven Islands of Bombay was then transferred from the Portuguese to the British as part of a dowry when Catherine of Braganza (the daughter of a Portuguese noble) married Charles the Second (the King of England, Ireland and Scotland) in 1661. Through multiple land reclamation projects that occurred over the 200 or so years that followed, the Seven Islands of Bombay were merged into one giant landmass. Eventually this one giant landmass was then merged with the nearby islands of Trombay and Salsette to create one even larger landmass that became known as Greater Bombay. Later, the ruling British would come to refer to Greater Bombay simply as Bombay. In 1947 however, India regained its independence from the British and in the year 1995 the Indian government officially changed the name of Bombay to Mumbai.
Day # 1 Mumbai
After getting about 4 hours of solid sack time we both woke up early Thursday morning eager to maximize our 36-hours in Mumbai India and chomping at the bit to start full day number one of our Indian adventure. Being both Doctors as well as self-avowed and totally unashamed Greedy Pigs (or what some disingenuous overly sensitive Generation X’er might call “Foodies”), we understand and truly appreciate the value of eating a good breakfast. And so after taking quick showers we together made our way down to the Taj Mahal Palace’s “Taj Shamiana” restaurant for a quick bite to eat. The Taj had a fantastic breakfast buffet on offer. The buffet featured a perfect mix of traditional Indian and traditional western breakfast foods. This allowed the adventurous Independent Travelers and the not-so-adventurous Tourists among the hotel’s guests to get their fill of whatever kind of culinary faire their palate’s desired. The Taj’s breakfast buffet was so good in fact that it turned out to be the type of buffet where one plate is really just not enough. And so after having gone back for seconds, and after having shoveled food, food and more food into our mouths hand over fist with a speed and precision that could only be mustered by two totally unashamed Greedy Pigs, we found that our bellies were sufficiently full, that our palates were sufficiently pacified and that our appetites (at least temporarily) were sufficiently satiated. Mission accomplished, the Brothers Pig (though you can just call us Jamil and Idries thank you very much) then tucked their pink little coiled tails back into their pants. We then headed for the hotel lobby before exiting the hotel and crossing the street to visit Mumbai’s world famous “Gateway of India”.
With only 36-hours in Mumbai India we had to make the most of our time in this massive metropolis. Making the most of our time in India’s Gotham therefore meant hiring a local guide to take us from one end of the city to the other. However, having finished breakfast a bit earlier than we anticipated and not being due to meet our guide for another 30 minutes or so, we decided to strike out on our own and to visit The Gateway of India. The Gateway of India fittingly enough was once designed to welcome visitors to Mumbai and so what better way to begin our day? Even at 8 O’clock in the morning we exited the hotel to find that the streets of Mumbai were very busy. In a bit of a post-meal stupor and apparently with our pores dripping of that undeniable scent that most locals like to call “Gullible Tourist”, we were almost immediately approached by a young girl who was herself carrying a baby along with her. The youthful appearance on the girl’s face made us think that she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. And as she positioned herself in front of us, and without even asking, the young girl then placed a bracelet made of white flowers on each one of our wrists. We were later told by our guide after he inquired as to where we had gotten the sweet sweet white Indian floral bling, that the flower bracelets that this young lady had placed on our wrists were typically given to women by men as a symbol of their undying love. Huh?!?!?!? Oooooook, well that took the luster off of our little Indian bling, making it feel more like a good old fashion burn or at the very least a little sting. None the wiser after she had initially placed the floral bracelets on our wrists however, we stood there and snapped a few quick photos with our new little friend, proudly displaying our white floral bracelets for the camera like newly betrothed giddy teenage schoolgirls. After taking these pictures we then offered to pay the young girl for the bracelets. But no, this little angel couldn’t accept our money she said. Instead of money, she simply requested that we purchase some milk and some rice for her and for the baby that she was carrying around with her. “Wow” we thought. She doesn’t want our money, she only wants some milk and rice and to be our friend. Oooohh how sweet!!!! How in the heck could we say no to that? And who could fault her for wanting to feed herself and that cute little baby, right? She then continued by explaining that if we could only spare her a mere 5 minutes, she would like to take us to a store “just around the corner” where we could purchase the milk and rice for her. “Yeah, why not” we thought? After all it was the least we could do after she had so openly declared her undying love for the both of us with those sweet, sweet floral bracelets. Oh my friends, at this moment our pores were dripping. No, in fact at this moment our pores were gushing. Gushing with that scent that every con artist who has ever targeted a slack jawed stupid out-of-towner loves to smell. The scent of “Gullible Tourists”!!!! Ah man, looking at her picture now, she doesn’t even look like she was that young or that damn innocent and cute. Looking at her picture now she just looks like (in our best Michael Jackson voice now) “a smooth criminal….dah dah dah, dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah”
With our new little friend in the lead constantly reassuring us with a quick glance here or there, a glance that was then typically followed by a wry smile and words of encouragement that would always go something like “we are almost there….just a few more seconds” we found that we were negotiating a number of back alleys and less populated side streets in an effort to reach her shop of choice. The fact that we passed multiple larger and more reputable looking shops along the way in an effort to reach this little hole in a wall shop that she was leading us to was an indication that something less than honest was likely afoot. But hey we thought to ourselves “let’s just see (literally) where this little experience takes us” and so we followed her? As we finally arrived and entered the little shop that she had brought us to, our little friend quickly grabbed a bag of rice and a container of condensed milk off of the shelves. She then handed them to the shop owner and placing her hands together in front of her face and bowing her head in our general direction, she thanked us very humbly for our kindness. Now this shop owner that she had just handed the rice and milk to really didn’t look like a very trust-worth guy. He was wearing a traditional Indian waist frock and a dirty wife beater tee-shirt that, being WAY too small for him put all of his over-grown chest and belly hair on full display for the world to see. In fact, this Shopkeeper looked like the kind of guy that probably had the fingers from one of his hands shoved right up his nose moments before we had come into his place of “business”. Yeah, he looked like that type of guy. The type of guy that sitting alone privately without any store patrons probably had the fingers from one of his hands jammed up his nostrils while the fingers from his other hand were probably shoved right down his waist robe as he lounged, slouching lazily in his chair, Al Bundy style. In fact we imagined that he likely saw us coming well before we saw him standing there in the doorway and in an effort to look profession and trustworthy (both of which he was not) that he likely sprang up out of his chair and to his feet all while simultaneously removing his soiled meaty round fingers from the deep dark places that they were previously residing in. Undoubtedly we suspected that he must have, after removing those little Indian sausages that he called fingers from the deep dark places that he had just moments before had them plunged into, that he must have then stealthy wiped them onto his tee-shirt before welcoming us, his new “guests” into his store. Ugh!!! Yeah, he looked like that kind of guy.
After our little friend, an innocent little angel who wanted nothing more than some rice and milk in return for her floral declarations of love for us (can you hear the sarcasm dripping from my voice) handed “Creepy McCreeperson The Indian Shopkeeper” (that’s what we call him now) the rice and the milk she wanted, he then informed us that the total cost for her paltry haul would be 1300 rupees! Now let’s put this price into some perspective for a moment. 1300 rupees is about $20 US OR 17 Euros. For a large bag of rice and a container of condensed milk that was not a totally unreasonable price……IF you were buying the rice and milk anywhere other than in India. But in India, that price was approaching grand larceny. And given that the young girl knew exactly what shop she wanted to take us to to get her rice and milk and given that she passed quite a few more reputable looking shops on her way to that hole in the wall shop, we were already anticipating some funny business. Partially wanting to be kind hearted though and partially not totally being familiar with the conversion rate between dollars and rupees yet, we settled on a price 1000 rupees for the rice and milk. This price represented a “compromise” that falsely allowed us to feel as if we hadn’t totally been taken to the cleaners, though in reality, we had totally been taken to the cleaners by the shopkeeper and his little accomplice. But hey, we considered the money spent to be an investment in a good story, so readers there you go, a good story to start our Indian adventure, you are welcome. Our good deed for the day now done, we quickly made our way out of the shop and back towards The Gateway of India. Maybe though that little excursion through the back alleys of Mumbai, in search of what must have been the country’s most expense bag of rice and container of condensed milk more than the time that we would spend at The Gateway of India was our real welcome to Mumbai and to India.
Gateway of India
After the Mission of Milk and Rice had been completed and our detour was done, we made our way back towards The Gateway of India. We arrived at The Gateway just as the morning sun had started to burn off some of the smog that seems to constantly be blanketing the city. As we reached The Gateway of India the crowds around the landmark were starting to build. This was not surprising given that The Gateway of India is not only one of Mumbai’s most recognizable and frequently visited landmarks but it is also one of India’s most recognizable and historically significant landmarks. The Gateway was constructed in 1924 to commemorate the 1911 visit to India of England’s King George the Fifth and Queen Mary. It was built using a locally obtained yellow basalt (a form of volcanic rock) and reinforced concrete.
At its tallest point the dome of The Gateway of India’s central arch stands 85 feet (26 meters) tall. The central arch is then topped with four cylindrical turrets and flanked by two much smaller arches. These smaller arches are then themselves topped by two expansive indoor reception halls that can accommodate upwards of 600 people each. The Gateway of India overlooks the Mumbai Harbor and provides views of the Arabian Sea. From the back of The Gateway in fact there are stairs that lead directly into the waters of the Arabian Sea, a feature that once must have made it easier for arriving dignitaries to disembark from their ships before being welcomed to the Indian port city.
While The Gateway of India was built to commemorate a momentous arrival to India (i.e. that of England’s King George the Fifth and Queen Mary), and while after its construction The Gateway of India was used as the ceremonial point of entry to India for the country’s British Viceroys and Governors, perhaps today The Gateway of India is most celebrated among Indians for a departure that it helped to facilitate. As it was through The Gateway of India that the last group of British soldiers left India when England’s rule over the Indian sub-continent ended in 1947. Today, The Gateway of India is open to visitors from 7AM to 6PM 365 days a year, and making The Gateway of India our first “official” stop in India seemed quite fitting.
After leaving The Gateway of India we made our way back to the hotel lobby where we were due to meet our tour guide for the day Zeeshan. Right at our prearranged time of 8:45AM Zeeshan made his entrance into the hotel lobby, and having to do nothing more than to locate two African American twins, not a common site in Mumbai we suspect, he found us milling about the hotel’s lobby in no time. After we completed our introductions and exchanged a few pleasantries Zeeshan led us back out of the hotel and into a waiting van where he then introduced us to our driver for the day. After a second round of introductions and some more socially required pleasantries we all buckled up and headed out into the early morning Mumbai traffic. Our first stop of the day was to be Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum.
According to the United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-HABITAT) close to 1 billion people worldwide currently live in densely populated areas that are characterized by substandard housing and generalized squalor. These areas are commonly referred to by most as “slums”, and they are home to some of the world’s poorest of the poor. Currently the world’s five largest slums can be found in Mexico City Mexico, Karachi Pakistan, Mumbai India, Cape Town South Africa and Nairobi Kenya. Mumbai’s slum, the third largest in the world with close to 1,000,000 inhabitants is called Dharavi and Dharavi’s estimated 1, 000,000 people are packed into just 535 acres of space. This means that the population density found in Dharavi is over 10 times greater than the population density found in the rest of the city of Mumbai, a fact that is pretty awe inspiring when considering that Mumbai itself, with its population of 12,000,000 people, is one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises. With 1,000,000 souls packed into Dharavi’s 535 acres there is approximately 1 person for every 23 square feet of space in the slum. As a frame of reference consider the fact that the average bathroom in an American home is 40 square feet. So if you lived in Dharavi, your little piece of the world would be about half the size of the average American bathroom. Or better yet, consider the fact that the average American home today is 2700 square feet. So if the average American home was packed as densely as the slums of Dharavi are packed, that home would house 117 people. Can you imagine sharing your quaint little home with 117 of your “closest” friends and family members? Yeah, neither can we.
Dharavi is located in the heart of Greater Mumbai just south of the Mithi River. The Mithi River flows southwest from Mumbai through the Mahim Creek that lies directly to the west of Dharavi before it ultimately empties into the Arabian Sea. Dharavi’s location just south of the Mithi River and just east of the Mahim Creek makes Dharavi particularly prone to flooding during India’s monsoon season. The monsoon season in India typically begins in July and it concludes in September. It is during the monsoon season that India receives the majority of its rainfall for the entire year, and so it should come as no surprise that most locals in India frequently refer to the monsoon season as the “rainy season” or the “wet season”. Now while those of us abroad may refer to the time between July and September as India’s monsoon season, and while many locals may refer to that same time period as India’s rainy season or as its wet season, many local tourism boards whose sole purpose it is to generate tourism in Mumbai rain or shine, well they frequently refer to the time of year between July and September as India’s “green season”. And why not? Doesn’t the euphemism “green season” just sound so lush and tropical? Why most people hear the term “green season” and they can hardly wait to spend their time and their hard earned money enjoying nature’s lush tropical “green” vegetation. “Sign me up” these people may be thinking!!! Well unless your name is Noah and unless you plan on bringing two of everything and building a modern day arc while on vacation, we’d advise that you beware of “awesome travel deals” to India during “the green season”. If not, you just might end up taking both a literal and a figurative bath on your lush green tropical Indian vacation.
Dharavi’s beginnings took root with 19th century British Imperialism. During the 19th century India, like much of the “developing” world, was under the authority of the British Empire. While under British rule the city of Mumbai (then referred to as Bombay) was segregated into European and Native Indian neighborhoods. Where the European neighborhoods were clean, well maintained and boasted the very best municipal infrastructure of the day, the Native Indian neighborhoods were squalid, densely populated and lacked even the most basic forms of municipal infrastructure. This meant that there was very little safe drinking water in the Native Indian neighborhoods of Mumbai and that there were also no means by which human waste could properly be disposed of. Not surprisingly, in the late 1860’s Bubonic Plague hit the Native Indian quarters of Mumbai hard, killing over 200,000 people and causing a great deal of alarm among the city’s European inhabitants and overseers. Bubonic Plague, also referred to as “The Black Death” is caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis. Yersinia Pestis is carried by rats and the name “Black Death” was given to the Bubonic Plague because the illness caused by a Yersinia Pestis infection frequently causes necrosis or death of the tissues on the hands, feet and face of its sufferers, giving the affected skin and tissue a black appearance. Obviously, in squalid areas with poor sanitation rats abound, and so the segregated Native Indian neighborhoods of Mumbai were the perfect breeding ground for The Black Death. As the Black Death swept through Mumbai’s Native Indian quarters the solution of the British government was not to clean up the Native Indian neighborhoods in Mumbai. Nor was it the reaction of the British government to beef up the municipal infrastructure in these areas in an effort to improve sanitation. No, instead the solution of the British government was to move the native Indians out of what was then Mumbai proper, even further away still from the European neighborhoods and instead onto what was then swamp land referred to as the Village of Koliwadas. In addition to relocating the Native Indians away from the city, the British government, now in full clean up mode, also required all “polluting” industries to relocate to the swamps of Koliwadas as well. With the relocation of Native Indians and of polluting industries to the swamp lands of Koliwadas, Dharavi was born. In time, both Mumbai and Dharavi grew. In fact, since the 19th century when Native Indians and “polluting” industries were forcibly moved to Koliwadas, Mumbai has grown to, around and even beyond Dharavi’s original borders, basically encircling the previously banished community. So once where Mumbai and Koliwades (i.e. modern day Dharavi) were separated, today Mumbai envelops Dharavi on all sides.
Most of the residential dwellings in present day Dharavi are “illegal”. Additionally, close to 90% of the businesses operating in Dharavi are also “illegal”. This means in effect that the majority of the homes and businesses in Dharavi are there without “official” permission from the government. The government of course is well aware of the fact that these homes and businesses are there, but it chooses to turn a blind eye to them. This means that the majority of the people and the businesses in Dharavi do not enjoy many of the basic public services provided by the government like running water, in-door plumbing and sewage/sanitation drainage. In fact, it was recently estimated that there is only 1 toilet in Dharavi for every 1,440 residents of the slum. So most of the residents of Dharavi use shared community toilets or they are forced to urinate and defecate in the Mahim Creek that lies immediately to the west of the slums. Not surprisingly, epidemics of infectious diseases like dysentery, typhoid, cholera, leprosy and tuberculosis, all disease that can be transmitted from one person to another via contaminated bodily fluids, have occurred over the years in Dharavi.
At best the early morning traffic in Mumbai can be described as a loosely orchestrated, somewhat chaotic, yet surprisingly functional symphony of cars, car horns, motorcycles, mopeds, buses, the occasional motorized rickshaw and people, lots and lots of people, all trying to get to various places seemingly at the same time. At worst, the early morning traffic in Mumbai can be described as something akin to an old fashion demolition derby, all be it surprisingly enough a demolition derby without the crashes, carnage or death that one would expect given the seemingly erratic and haphazard way that the people of Mumbai use their vehicles and their feet to get to the places that they are going. Making our way along to Dharavi through this opus of humanity that we like to call “Early Morning Traffic in Mumbai” we had some time to speak with our guide Zeeshan about Dharavi. It was during this discussion that we were surprised to learn that Zeeshan himself was born and raised in Dharavi and that it was in Dharavi that he still lives with his family (see video that follows).
After exiting our vehicle at Shammi Nagar we were able to reach Dharavi by first climbing a long set of stairs that led us to a bridge. Crossing this bridge, which itself traversed a number of active train tracks then led us to the Tilak Nagar area of Dharavi and to our first taste of the Dharavi slums. As soon as we set foot on Tilak Nagar we were immediately hit with a cacophony of sights and smells and sounds and interested, dare we even say at times quizzical but always unyielding stares from the locals. And these sights and smells and sounds and unyielding stares all conspired for a brief moment to create a feeling of sensory overload that was ever so slightly intimidating while at the same time being wholly invigorating. This sensory overload, the type that makes you stop and think to yourself for a moment “is this real, am I really here” is the kind of sensory overload that completely takes hold of you for a few moments. It is the type of sensory overload that the Independent Traveler lives for. It is what the Independent Traveler flies over 8000 miles for and it is what reminds the sojourning body, mind and soul that they are not only alive but that they are actually living.
As we walked through Dharavi Zeeshan informed us that the slum is loosely separated into residential and business areas. We began our tour of Dharavi by visiting some of the areas where businesses dominate. While these areas are considered by most locals to be “business areas” the reality is that many of the people that work in and/or own these business also live in the spaces where they conduct their business, and so many of these areas are really more like hybrid residential and business spaces than anything else. While all kinds of businesses thrive in Dharavi, a community that really is kind of like a city within a city, businesses that participate in tech and e-commerce, recycling and repurposing, textiles and the creation of leather goods seem to be the most common. While in Dharavi we had an opportunity to visit a number of plastics and aluminum recycling businesses. Most of the aluminum recyclers in Dharavi were very happy to show us around their facilities. In these facilities they would demonstrate how they would first crush the aluminum scraps that they receive before they then melt them down. After melting the aluminum down the recyclers then create aluminum blocks from the molten metal that they then later resell.
In contrast to the business areas of Dharavi the residential areas of the slum tended to be less well-lit and more compact and congested. Walking the alleys of Dharavi’s residential areas, we found that very few of the homes had doors. Many times in fact we found that the only thing separating most homes, the inhabitants residing within those homes and the belongings of those inhabitants from the outside was nothing more than a simple curtain. And as we continued to walk the tight alleyways of Dharavi we also found that the residents of the slum frequently would congregate, commiserate and converse with one and other while standing in and around the entrances to their homes. This created a feeling of familiarity, a feeling as if everyone in the residential areas of the slum knew everyone else. It created the feeling as if no one in the residential areas of Dharavi had anything to hide behind closed doors and so there were no closed doors.
So while the residential areas were certainly squalid in many locations, there was an overriding sense of community among the people. In fact, on more than one occasion seemingly random people would stop Zeeshan during our travels through Dharavi. Many of them stopped him for no other reason than to just say hello or to simply inquire about how he and his family were doing. While darting in, out and through the alleyways and tight spaces we asked Zeeshan just what it was like growing up in Dharavi with so many friends and family so close by? As he began to answer this question he smiled before simply saying that growing up in Dharavi with so many friends and family was “great”. He then continued by saying that Dharavi was home and that the sense of community in the slum was very strong. He said that people in Dharavi looked out for one and other and that, save for a few “not so nice people”, everyone wanted to see one and other succeed.
Zeeshan was undeniably very proud of his connection to Dharavi, and during our time there with him it was very clear that he generally saw the best in both his community and in the people of his community. And where he saw short-comings it was also clear that he wanted to address them so that he could help to make Dharavi a better place for today and tomorrow. In fact, one of our most interesting moments while exploring Dharavi came when a little girl, she couldn’t have been more than 5 years old, came up to us holding her hands before her mouth as if to indicate that she was hungry. She then held her hands over her stomach to again indicate the fact, through the use of universally recognized symbolism, that she was hungry and in need of some money for food. Simultaneously feeling both incredibly sorry for this young child and incredibly happy that our children were well fed and safe, we reached into our pockets and gave this little girl some money. It wasn’t much money, but with it in hand she quickly left looking happy. However, after we had given this young girl the money, Zeeshan immediately ran over to us shouting and looking anything but happy. As he approached he yelled “don’t do that guys, don’t give them money! Why did you all give her money?” Before either of us could even answer his questions however, Zeeshan then continued by saying that “she should be in school. School is free for all children here in India and the law requires that they be in school at least until the age of 15. But instead of sending her to school her family has her out her begging for money. When these children get a taste of easy money they don’t want to get an education, so no one should just give them money”. While we had to acknowledge that his line of thinking made sense in some ways, and while we found his desire to see a better tomorrow for Dharavi and its children to be admirable, we also became acutely aware of how reasonable people can view the same side of a coin very differently and of how we are all the products of our past, our present and of our future aspirations.
When we saw that child in front of us, seemingly hungry and wanting food, we saw a poor innocent child that we immediately felt sorry for. We saw someone that made us think “there but for the grace of God goes us”. We saw someone who many might argue had lost the genetic lottery and in hindsight that made us feel a bit of guilt. A bit of guilt knowing that we, along with our children had in a sense won that same genetic lottery. Recognizing that we had been lucky enough or blessed enough (depending upon how you look at things) to have been born in a country and into circumstances that many in the would see as being privileged. Why we wondered, are some given so much opportunity, so much privilege, such a better start in life, while others are not? But when Zeeshan saw that young girl, he undoubtedly saw a little bit of himself in her. And we suspect that in looking at her, he saw someone that might not have been given the best start in live in some respects, but someone who was still a part of a strong and supportive community and living in a country that is economically on the rise. We suspect that in looking at her he also saw someone that he felt had opportunities, someone who, while not as privileged as some in this world was still privileged enough to make the most of what had been given to her if she chose to do so. Yeah, when Zeeshan saw that girl we suspect that he saw a bit of himself in her and in seeing a bit of himself in her that he did not see someone or something that was to be pitied or felt sorry for. Maybe in time our eyes will learn to see the world in the same way that his eyes see the world, but as for now, we are just not there yet.
The Barefoot Acupuncturist of Dharavi
While in Dharavi we made it a point to go and to visit the Barefoot Acupuncturist. The Barefoot Acupuncturist is a not-for-profit acupuncture clinic located on the second floor of a small nondescript building in the slum. It was established in 2008 by two European Acupuncturists, Walter Fischer of Belgium and Jacques Beytrison of Switzerland. Fischer and Beytrison opened the Barefoot Acupuncturist after visiting Dharavi in 2007. It was during their visit to Dharavi in 2007 that Fischer and Beytrison were struck by what they perceived to be a general lack of quality affordable healthcare in the slum. Wanting to offer a solution to this issue of accessibility, Fischer and Beytrison teamed up with Ujwala Patil, a young Indian Social Worker, and together they opened a small 2 bed acupuncture clinic that they called the Barefoot Acupuncturist. Within a year of its opening the Barefoot Acupuncturist had grown out of its modest 2 bed clinic site and into the larger 6 bed site that it currently occupies today. Today the Barefoot Acupuncturist is staffed by 2 Indian acupuncturists who treat an average of 40 patients per day 5 days a week. Patients with conditions that range from chronic pain to sleep disorders and any and everything in between are treated at the clinic, and each patient treated there is asked to pay no more than 20 Indian Rupees ($0.35 US) per treatment session. This fee of 20 Indian Rupees per session represents only 15% of what each session actually costs the clinic to provide, and so it is largely with the help of donations that the clinic is able to write off the remainder of its operating costs.
While visiting the Barefoot Acupuncturist clinic, Vrushali, one of the clinic’s 2 full-time Acupuncturists was on site with her assistant, and together the two women were busy caring for three patients. In addition to the three patients that Vrushali and her assistant were caring for at the clinic there were another two patients quietly waiting in the waiting area to be seen. Even though she was busy when we arrived, Vrushali warmly welcomed us. She then took a few moments to sit down with us and to share details about how the clinic was established, how it operates on a day in and day out basis and what the organizations plans are moving forward. She then took us on a tour of the clinic’s treatment area. While touring the treatment area we had an opportunity to speak with the three women who were receiving therapy at the time of our visit.
Vrushali then informed us that two of the women receiving treatment worked as Fisherwoman and that they suffered from occupationally related chronic knee pain. The third woman receiving treatment was a housewife whose ailment neither she nor Vrushali shared with us. The two Fisherwomen with chronic knee pain however were both receiving acupuncture. In addition to simple acupuncture one of them was also receiving some form of electrical stimulation of the acupuncture points that she was having manipulated. The third women who suffered from the unspecified ailment was being treated using the ancient technique of cupping. Cupping is an alternative medical therapy that is thought to date back as far as 1500 or more years before the birth of Christ. The technique involves cups being placed on the skin of a patient in a manner that creates a mechanical suction. The cups used are typically made of glass, bamboo or clay and the most common methods of cupping are referred to as either “dry cupping” or “fire cupping”.
The method of cupping being employed on the housewife whose aliment had not been revealed to us during our visit to the Barefoot Acupuncturist was the “fire cupping” method. The fire cupping method involves soaking cotton or gauze in 70% alcohol. The cotton or gauze is then set on fire and the flaming fabric then, with one fluid motion, is quickly placed within and then immediately removed from the cup(s). By quickly passing the flaming fabric within and then immediately removing it from the cup(s), the air contained within the cup(s) is superheated. When air is heated it expands. The cup, with its superheated expanding air is then placed on the skin of the patient. As the superheated expanding air now trapped within the cup cools, it begins to contract. As the air contracts it then creates a suction that pulls up on the patient’s skin. It is believed that this suctioning created by the cooling air helps to mobilize blood flow in the tissue that is being sucked and that this mobilization of blood flow helps to treat a wide variety of illnesses. While many western medical organizations are skeptical about the potential benefits of cupping, there was a joint study recently conducted in Australia and China that indicated that cupping might be of some benefit in treating diseases like Shingles and Acne as well as certain forms of arthritis and facial paralysis.
After showing us around the small second floor clinic and after allowing us to observe some of the patients being treated, Vrushali asked us to sit down with her at her small corner desk before leaving the clinic. Clearly feeling both very excited and very proud, Vrushali wanted to share The Barefoot Acupuncturist’s new computer App with us. That’s right folks, Apps are everywhere!!! And the new App that she wanted to share with us was one that allowed the Barefoot Acupuncturist to completely do away with paper charting. It was an App that stored all of the clinic’s patient charts in electronic form. In showing us the App Vrushali told us that the App had proven not only to be logistically very convenient for a small clinic that largely runs using a barebones staffing approach but that it also had helped the clinic to save a great deal of money by eliminating the costs associated with maintaining paper charts. Impressed with what we left calling “The Little Acupuncture Clinic That Could” and inspired by the Barefoot Acupuncturist and their commitment to the people of Dharavi, we continued to explore the slum on foot for close to another hour. To learn more about the Barefoot Acupuncturist or to donate to their charity you may click here for more information.
While many parts of Dharavi are densely populated and squalid, India’s largest slum is still somehow uniquely inviting, invigorating and full of endless intrigue. Dharavi has an energy and a vibrancy that is truly all its own. It has a heartbeat and it has a soul. And it has an essence that is bold and that is colorful and that makes absolutely no apologies for being either. From the first times you see Dharavi, from the first time you smell Dharavi, from the first time you taste Dharavi, the slum and its residents proudly say “here we are, here we have always been and here we will remain”. Dharavi today is the lemonade that was made out of yesterday’s sour old colonial lemons. Today Dharavi is a vibrant city within India’s most vibrant city. It is an economy within an economy that boasts over 5000 businesses and 15,000 single room factories that together generate close to one billion dollars a year in annual revenue. Dharavi is a place where people have hopes and dreams and a place where people’s hopes and dreams are both sometimes realized, sometimes deferred and sometimes lost. Dharavi is a place where you can see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity and it is a place where the best and the worst of humanity are oftentimes separated by little more than a city block. Dharavi is not only a microcosm of Mumbai, Dharavi is a microcosm of India and it is a stop that should be on every Independent Travelers Mumbai itinerary.
Saat Rasta Dhobi Ghat
After leaving Dharavi our next stop was one of Mumbai’s open air laundries. Open air laundries in India are referred to as “Dhobi Ghats” with the word “Ghat” meaning laundry. The men who work in these “Ghats” or laundries are referred to as “Dhobis”, hence the term “Dhobi Ghat”. The Dhobis or the traditional laundrymen collect dirty laundry and linens daily from many Mumbai area hotels, hospitals and private residences. Then using large rows of concrete washing pens, the Dhobis clean the laundry and linens that they had earlier collected. Each individual concrete washing pen is fitted with a flogging stone that the Dhobis use to beat the laundry and the linens against during the laundering process. Once the laundry and linens have been cleaned and dried the Dhobis then neatly fold them before returning the newly washed items to the hotels, hospitals and residences that they originally collected them from. The largest of Mumbai’s Dhobi Ghats is the “Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat”. We however chose to visit the nearby “Saat Rasta Dhobi Ghat” where close to 700+ Dhobis and their families work together in businesses that have over time become real life Mom and Pop family operations. The Saat Rasta Dhobi Ghat is open every day from 7:00AM to 5:00PM.
After a brief walk from Dharavi we arrived at the Saat Rasta Dhobi Ghat to find men of all ages hard at work. The Dhobis of Saat Rasta were soaking, beating and scrubbing clothes and linens vigorously and with an impressive attention to detail. And as they did so the sounds of water rhythmically being rung from the newly washed linens before then gentling drizzling upon the concrete floors of the Ghat’s washing pens mixed melodically with the sounds of laborious friction that were being created in unison by the Dhobis and their finely bristled wash brushes. These sounds in collaboration with the refreshingly damp smell of aromatic washing detergent infused waters created a very unique atmosphere that felt to us as if it harkened back to a simpler more carefree day and time.
The work being done by the Dhobis was clearly quite labor intensive and many of the men in an effort to stay cool were working without shirts on. Some of them in fact were not only shirtless but also were working while wearing nothing more than a pair of boxer shorts or a traditional Indian waist robe. Often times and not surprisingly given the energy that they regularly expend washing clothes, we found many of the Dhobi’s to be notably thin and their skin to be deeply and richly bronzed from years and years of working directly in the hot Mumbai sun. And while the concrete wash pens that they used looked simple and primitive, as did their method of beating the dirt and the stains that soiled the clothes and the linens that they were cleaning into submission, their results were undeniably impressive. The finished product of their toils included some of the whitest looking newly cleaned whites that you will ever see. What is more all of the newly cleaned linens and clothes were also miraculously free from wrinkles, creases or rust stains. Now for those who have never hung clothes or linens out to air dry after cleaning them, you will read that the newly cleaned linens and clothes at the Dhobi Ghat were free from “rust stains” and wonder why any newly cleaned clothes or linens would have rust stains to begin with? Well one frequent challenge of air drying something is that the pins used to hang your newly washed items will frequently leave unsightly rust marks on them as they dry. To avoid this happening, especially in the hot and humid Mumbai air, the Dhobis have come up with an ingenious little solution involving the use of braided ropes. These lines of braided rope hang all around the perimeter of the Dhobi Ghat and it is from these lines that newly cleaned clothes and linens are hung. The newly washed clothes and linens are hung from the braided rope lines simply by adjusting the tension on the rope lines to allow for the suspension of and then the subsequent retrieval of items being dried. This helps to facilitate drying while avoiding the use of metallic pins or clips that might cause rust staining.