Wednesday, 6 April 2011

India – The first human washing machine

March 31-April 1, April 3

Hello everyone!

I’d stopped in Panaji to recover from and overcome illness, the main symptom of which was diarrhoea. The next stop was to return to Mumbai. Let me give you a quick stat about Mumbai. For every 1 million people in the city, there are 17 public toilets. Seventeen.

Thankfully, the soup-and-banana diet had had the desired effect by the time I touched down at the airport. Yes, I flew, which hit my pride as much as my pocket. Two reasons. One: I was not risking a bowel movement on a bus. Two: I wanted to be in Mumbai ASAP, as almost every person I had recently met was there at this time.

I found one of them, Cameron, in my guest house. The guest house where I had my phone stolen last time. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a cheap bed. The only things stolen this time were my towel (I now have one of theirs) and my pillow. Twice. I really can’t recommend Delight Guest House, but I guess you get what you pay for.

What I can recommend very highly is getting out of the main tourist drag in Mumbai. On the Sunday we hopped on a bus up to Malabar Hill, one of the wealthier parts of the city and home to lots of greenery. We spent an afternoon lazing and chatting in a park with a view over the beach and bustle below. Bliss for the Bindie Bunch.

I don't have this picture yet. Anyway, a bindie is the shiny decoration that is put on the head between the eyes. Apparently boys don’t wear them. In that case, call me a revolutionary. We saw many bindies on the Friday, when three of us ventured north, towards the slums.

Some people may have an issue with foreigners ‘touring’ the slums. I do as well. There are actual tours with guides that take you around the main slum in Dharavi. These tours take the same route and see the same things and people every day. The people are used to seeing foreign faces. The tours go to ‘safe’ areas and tourists throw their rupees around in ignorant pity: most of this money never reaches the people who really need it.

So a few things I state here will clarify why I went, and how we went about things a little differently. Cameron and I had gone with a fascinating guy called Nick (in the left of the picture below), who had spent the last week in different slums on a photography project. He intimated to us that there were no ‘safe’ zones – the vast majority of the neighbourhoods are safe and organised, so long as you are respectful and not foolish.

We also…well…didn’t go to a ‘slum’. Not one you can picture from Slumdog Millionaire, at least. I don’t really know how they are defined. We hopped off the train when we fancied, and weaved our way through that particular neighbourhood. It was clear from the reaction, especially from the children, that this did not happen often. Three foreigners! With cameras! How exciting! Let’s follow them and use all of our English on them!

It was great fun stepping through the narrow lanes, saying hello – ‘namaste’ – to everyone we passed. No tour guide to take us to certain places for refreshment – we bought and drank from local shops, so the money goes straight back into the local community. After a while, when some boys stole Nick’s cigarettes and taunted him about it, we felt we’d outstayed our welcome, so headed away.

Nick instinctively decided we should disembark at a random station on our return. What we found was an illegal settlement that resembled a gypsy camp, and a place where clearly no foreigner had ever ventured.

We were greeted by a young boy, who had stopped washing to run over to us. More kids followed, all giddy with excitement, until we were surrounded. All wanted their picture taken. A beautiful young lady then approached us. We chatted to her, she flashed us a stunning smile and then led us into their tents. Their homes. Their lives.

We were introduced to everybody. All greeted us warmly with smiles. I spent part of this time carrying around a toddler, and always had someone holding my hand. The way they all survive is by shucking and cutting corn. Do they complain? Are they angry or resentful? No. they loved us visiting; it was a unique and intriguing experience for them. As for us, we were filled with humility and happiness. Such wonderful people, with smiles that could light the darkest room.

Friday was busy. I jumped off at Mahalaxmi to see the world’s biggest washing machine. Over 5000 people work in this areas, painstakingly washing clothes by hand with such care that you would think they were their own. It is a surreal sight to see dozens of Daz-white shirts hanging high in the air above people slamming dirty clothes onto stone.

As I walked, I got side-tracked by a group of teenagers playing street cricket. I ended up playing. Box ticked. Especially as I got ‘Sehwag’ out third ball. Caught and bowled Smith, 0, thank you very much. They then accompanied me to the Haji Ali mosque, my original destination.

I haven’t seen a mosque like this. Well, in the fact that I’ve never seen a mosque…in the sea. It is at high tide, anyway – the walkway is easy at low tide. Worryingly, someone had fallen into the water, which has very strong currents here, behind the mosque as we arrived. Six lifeguards waded in, but could not find anyone. Impossible to see in the dirty water. They had to give up.

Moving away from that morbid realisation, you’ll all be happy to know that I’m now eating normally again, which means I can once again savour Indian food. The girls we’ve been hanging out with – including the first Welshy I’ve really met! – seem to have an addiction to paneer (cottage cheese), which has been passed on to me.

I love Mumbai now. It’s firmly placed in my top tier of favourite places. I can’t explain why, and this blog is long enough already. Maybe it’s the sense of calm chaos. Maybe it’s the people I met and spent time with. Or maybe it’s the thing I will visualise when I think of Mumbai in the future – massive, impish smiles from the children in that settlement.

Love you all


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