Setting off on a long international trip without my beloved skates was bittersweet. While I have absolutely no complaints about being able to travel the world for a few months, I love derby and was worried about staying in decent enough shape to hit the track running (so to speak) when I get back.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered it’s not that hard to incorporate derby skills into everyday travel experiences. If you find yourself abroad without skates, here are some drills I’d recommend.
Sit next to an elderly woman on a bus traveling close to freeway speeds on a narrow paved road with one and a half lanes, no shoulder and no suspension. Try to avoid squishing her like a fly every time you race around a hairpin turn or hit a pothole a little too hard. If you can do this for three hours without injuring your seatmate, it should be equivalent to a few hundred crunches.
At some point, you will eat something and realize an hour or so later that you need a bathroom, now. Most likely, the only toilet available will be an India squat toilet (pictured below).
Rather than reacting with dispair, view this as an opportunity to keep your thigh muscles rock-hard as you evacuate your bowels while trying not to think about the various microbes that could be responsible for your predicament.
If you get through an entire course of traveler’s diarrhea without using a Western toilet once, it’s safe to assume you’ve kept your derby stance in good shape.
Towards the last week of your time in any given place, you’ll realize you’ve purchased an obscene quantity of things that can’t possibly be carried home, like five liters of mezcal or six pounds of black tea and assorted spices plus a mini library of Indian novels. Pack your excess belongings into shopping bags and carry them from your hotel to an autorickshaw, then onto a bus, then a train, then another bus, then the airport. Do three reps for best results.
When two members of your group are walking at a determined tempo through the throng of people at St. Mark’s Square in Venice while one stays behind to take pictures of buildings, you may find yourself panicking because you’re dangerously close to being separated in a place with thousands of people where no one has a cell phone that works and you didn’t think to come up with a meeting place.
To avoid disaster, straddle the distance between them with your arms outstretched. For extra points, you can yell, “Bridging!”, though you will further degrade the already low opinion the entire world (deservedly) has about American tourists.
After twenty minutes of waiting in line to get into the Accademia to see Michaelangelo’s David, you’ll be approached by a group of eight people insisting they were told to come over from the group line and cut their way to the front of the reserved ticket line. When they refuse to go to the back of your line like decent, civilized people (“I’m a professor! I’ve been doing this for 12 years,” one will object), use that A-to-V blocking stance to prevent them from cutting you in line. Enjoy the angry look on their faces as they get jostled back half a dozen spots.
At some point, you’ll find yourself across the street from something you want to reach. In the U.S., you might find a crosswalk or wait for a light and walk nonchalantly across, but expecting that sort of order in India (or Italy or Mexico, for that matter) will get you laughed out of the country. Instead, navigate your way across two directions of traffic by stepping over cow shit, stopping on a dime to let a bus rush past six inches from your face and jumping sideways at the last minute to avoid a downed electrical wire. Your goal is to make it to the other side without being killed. Daily reps advised for best results.
In the course of visiting a fishing village near Kochi, you may run into a group of local women who are adept at making rope from coconut husks and then want to demonstrate the strength of their rope by playing tug-of-war with you. Crouch low like you’re getting ready to absorb the force of a jammer hitting your wall and put on your best, “You’re not getting past me” face. You’ll win the tug-of-war game and the respect (or at least wild amusement and giggles) of the assembled onlookers.
Kerala’s backwaters smell unlike any other part of India we’ve been to. The crisp salt water breeze of the ocean and canals blends with the monsoon’s ambient humidity into a sort of lazily clean scent. Fish abound on restaurant menus and homes. A network of narrow, shallow channels chop up the land for a 100 kilometer stretch along the coast, creating a maze of saltwater that works its way inland, supporting fishermen and a mild climate year-round.
“Venice of the East” is the moniker given to Alleppey, the city that serves at gateway to this watery world. We spend an evening in town awaiting a train, but three days in the more rural network of canals connecting villages and rice paddies.
To call the area Asia’s answer to Venice isn’t wrong, exactly, but it doesn’t quite capture the fishing canoes carved from jackfruit tree wood, the striped black and white snakes undulating through green water, the noise of cows and goats and birds calling out into the humid air. It’s a rural Venice. A tropical Venice. A Venice where all the food is seasoned with coconut and you can spend less on three meals, a comfortable room and a two-hour canoe ride than you’d pay for half an hour with a gondolier.
We started in Kochi, the port city illustrated in guidebooks by graceful pictures of Chinese fishing nets suspended just above water in the harbor at sunset. The old historical part of the city is technically an island, with a few bridges stretching to a mainland dominated by tall buildings and shopping malls. It’s not really part of the backwaters, which stretch further south, but it has the same ocean-tropical feel to its wide streets, and a sea breeze that does more to quell my homesickness than any American fast food ever could.
The Dutch came to Kochi before the British, and the city’s centuries of immigration and foreign influence show in its religious diversity (48 percent Hindu, with the rest split about evenly between Christians and Muslims). A sizeable Jewish population settled here around 70 AD following the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, though many of their descendants left for Israel.
A four-hundred year old synagogue still stands, though its interior is less grandiose than the mosques and temples we’ve been inside. Inside, an old man sits scowling at the tourists, mostly Indian, who venture inside and wags his finger at me when I pull out my phone. I had been hoping to search Wikipedia for a brief history of Jews in India but resign myself to ignorance until lunch. When we leave, we find someone has stolen the umbrella our homestay family lent us for the day.
Close by, there’s a palace with faded but impressive murals showing scenes from the Ramayana, plus placards narrating the history of Kochi and its royalty. The monarchy was matrilineal, I learn, and royal women commonly went around topless until Europeans showed up with their civilizing anti-nipple influence. I’m tempted to argue wearing a shirt is prudent in a climate with so many mosquitos, but the next few days teach me that even seemingly foolproof precautions only go so far. If there’s an upper limit to the number of mosquito bites you can get on your breasts in Kerala, I have yet to discover it.
Spencer and I are given to being lazy tourists, less interested in sightseeing than wandering around, ducking into strange alleys and hiding under awnings when the rains pick up. We find ourselves in a spice shop waiting out a torrential monsoon rain and part with 1100 rupees after a kind, professional and insistent saleswoman helps us fill our basket with sandalwood soap, green tea and star anise. We walk along the beachfront, where half a dozen people stop us to ask where we’re from. We take snapshots of murals and invent personalities for so many goats that we contemplate starting a “Goats of Kerala” blog to parody Humans of New York. We enter a bookshop and leave an hour later with eight more volumes to add to our quickly growing backpacks.
Three days in Kochi and we’re off again, to a backwaters homestay near Kottayam. The bus takes two and a half hours to reach the town, and an autorickshaw takes us the rest of the way. Roads turn to mud a few kilometers before our host’s front gate. George, an energetic 60 year old man, bounds out and shows us to our room – a separate block from his house overlooking a massive rice paddy. “Welcome home,” he says.
This is where there are backwaters, not just waters. Two lines of houses are separated by narrow dirt roads, then a canal through the middle. Stone steps on either side descend into the brackish water, where women wash clothes and men bathe wearing dhotis, the traditional skirt-like cloth worn by most Keralan men that Gandhi made iconic in the west. In the morning, a man paddles down the canal near our house in a small canoe, calling out in Malayalam. He’s a fisherman-cum-traveling salesman letting neighbors know about the day’s catch.
Over meals, we talk to George about the homestay business, which he’s been running for 13 years and swap tidbits about weather and politics in our native states. He attributes Kerala’s good government and health to its excellent education system, for which he thanks foreign influence.
I’ve noticed individual explanations for Keralan prosperity tend to align closely with personal opinions about the rest of the world. George is a former guard for the Sultan of Oman who spent much of his working life around Brits and hosts only foreign tourists. (Indians, he says, don’t understand the homestay concept and expect five-star luxury regardless of the price they pay for a room). Scholars I read in college said Kerala’s success is largely due to its Communist influences. Another Christian homestay family said the state is healthy and well-educated because it’s blessed with good weather and climate.
For two days, we go for short walks and a boat ride, looking at the jagged lily pads in the water, appreciating the cooling effect of the rains and playing basic English tutor to every child (and the few adults) who calls out, “Hello-where-you-from?” as we glide past their homes. (One especially ambitious boy yells, “Hello-how-are-you-I-am-well-thank-you” in a single breath.)
Our laundry dries slowly and we take dozens of pictures of coconut palms and beautiful flowers we can’t name. The power cuts in and out, so we sit on our covered porch and read while trying to fend off mosquitoes and wasps. And then we pack up our spices and our books and board a bus to take us to a train, which winds around the mountains and on to our last stop in Madurai before we begin the long journey home.
Our introduction to the southern Indian state of Kerala – famous for its Communist government, distinctive coconut-infused cuisine and chart-topping rates of literary and other human development indicators – began, as so many good things do, with a bumpy bus ride.
We boarded the state-run bus at the station in Mysore, destined for the hilly city of Kalpetta, the gateway to and capital of Kerala’s famous Wayanad district. The bus was run by the Kerala State Roads and Transport Coalition, which confusingly has identical initials to its equivalent in the neighboring state of Karnataka, where we started our trip.
Having come from Bangalore earlier in the day, the bus’ seats were mostly full when we got on, so we took a middle and an aisle seat next to an older woman who spent the ride alternately dozing and re-wrapping the end of her cream-colored sari around her bald head. She had a somewhat flexible definition of where her seat ended and mine began, so between me, Spencer, and our large backpacks, we were in for a tight squeeze.
Though we gained considerable elevation over the course of the four hour ride, I don’t recall going up any noticeable hills, for which I was grateful. My travels in Latin America have made me more aware than I’d like to be that it is physically possible to drive a Greyhound-sized bus up a partially washed-out steep mountain road mined with potholes at dizzying speeds.
Dizzying speeds were part of this journey, but being near the back of the bus, we remained blissfully ignorant of the many head-on collisions our driver narrowly managed to avoid while swerving around other trucks and motorcycles and women walking down the side of the road. Instead, we were slammed forcefully into the seats in front of us only once, and could pass the time enjoying the views as we rode through fields of coconut palms, orange flowers and eventually a national park where we spotted monkeys and deer in abundance.
Some guidebooks advise against visiting the lush, mountainous Wayanad district during monsoon season, but for people accustomed to the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest, it was immediately relaxing. Roads meander through greenery on all sides – tea bushes and coffee plants growing in the shade of carefully scattered palms. It’s not cold by any stretch, but both pleasantly cool and quite humid, a combination I found refreshing even if it left my skin a bit sticky by evening.
Our first night was at a homestay with cousins of the father of a friend in Portland. Though our friend said her dad had called ahead to warn his relatives of our arrival, they seemed confused when we showed up and quickly sprang into action, bringing us tea, providing the wi-fi password and showing us to our room. Dinner was a feast of half a dozen traditional Keralan dishes which I struggle to name or describe (other than the ubiquitous chapati), but all were tasty and left me wishing coconut were a more commonplace ingredient back in the U.S.
The next morning, we set off for the luxurious portion of our monthlong trip: a two-night stay at Tea Terrace Vythiri, a “boutique resort” featuring eco-friendly cottages spread out over a hill of black tea bushes. After a late breakfast, we headed back to Kalpetta on a standing room only bus, which we quickly realized was gender-segregated after boarding. Spencer moved to the back with the men, while I tried to hold onto my swaying backpack with one hand and the railing with the other, all while keeping my billowing skirt out of the faces of the women sitting beside me.
Eventually, I hauled my possessions towards the front in the hopes of leaning my backpack against the wall behind the driver. A woman sitting on a long bench next to the driver took pity on me and offered me a seat with a smile, so I joined the four women already seated there and spend the rest of the ride trying not to fall on anyone, hold my backpack up and avoid having a finger sliced off by the bushes we were driving past at high speed.
From Kalpetta, I figured we’d take an autorickshaw to the resort. The area is small-town enough that most people seemed to know where things were, or at least know someone they could ask for help. The first two drivers we asked refused to take us to Vythiri, while the third acquiesced. “One hundred fifty rupees to Vythiri,” he said. The implication was something like, “After that, I have no idea where we’re going and am not responsible for the fare.” We agreed and set off.
As it turns out, the resort is about half an hour or so from Kalpetta. We didn’t know that, though, so it took us over an hour to get there. First, we got to the town. Then, our driver stopped and asked three people in quick succession for directions before taking us to an out-of-the-way dirt road and pointing to a sign for a different tea resort. No, we told him, that’s not the one. We called the resort and our driver spoke with reception for a while before driving us all the way back to town and down a different road on the other side.
Antics like this continued until finally we went up a torturously steep mountain road and met a guy from the resort in a Jeep, who took us the rest of the way. Our driver remained good-humored throughout and only charged us about $12 for his troubles. And at last, we could relax.
We were completely surrounded by tea fields, something I’d never seen before. The bushes growing all around us smelled more like generic leaves than I’d expected. They can be harvested every two weeks, the guy at the resort told us, but a kilo of leaves fetches only 10 rupees (about 16 cents). The resort was started by a bunch of IT guys who got burned out and wanted to try something new. It catered mostly to domestic tourists coming from larger cities to get away from it all, and we had the distinction of being the first foreign tourists to visit.
The relaxation continued until the next morning, when we set off in another autorickshaw to visit a tea factory and see the stuff being processed. Half an hour of bumping down mountain roads in the the tripedal vehicle treated us to sweeping views down into the valley below, though the high speeds and cloud cover didn’t let me take any decent pictures. We’d been told there was a minimum tea purchase requirement of one kilo per person at a fixed price of 100 rupees. After the road levelled out, our driver pulled over and another autorickshaw full of men pulled up beside us, asking for the cash. They handed two large plastic bags of tea to our driver and demanded 20 more rupees, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. This deal concluded, they departed and our driver took us the remaining few kilometers to the factory itself.
Our arrival at the tea factory caused some consternation with the supervisor. “You need the manager’s permission to enter,” he said, in a tone suggesting he very much doubted we’d secured the required permission. We tried to explain our hotel had phoned ahead, but he wasn’t moved. After five minutes of negotiation, during which Spencer tried to phone our hotel and clarify things, our driver suggested producing the receipt for our tea purchase, which magically changed the supervisor’s demeanor. “Of course, come in,” he told us, suddenly eager to begin the tour.
I wish I could provide a detailed step-by-step account of the tea production process, but the whir of machinery stretched my hearing abilities too far and I opted to take pictures inside the dark rooms instead. From what I gathered, tea is harvested and left to dry upstairs, then ground down into a paste with water, blown dry with hot air and sorted by grade. Mostly, we walked past a lot of impressive machines that smelled like tea while the factory’s workers either waved or glanced at us with a deer-in-the-headlights look. Our whirlwind tour was over in about 10 minutes, after which we boarded the rickshaw back to the resort.
Spencer and I left Wayanad this morning, saying goodbye to what has to be in the top five most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life. I hope we’re able to go back someday, but if nothing else, we now have four and a half pounds of tea to remind us of our brief foray into the mountains of Kerala.
For all my writing about Mumbai’s history and the challenges of travel, I’ve been rather remiss in writing about where Spencer and I have actually gone and are going. No longer! Here’s the quick and dirty version of our travels thus far.
Our route around India has been rather circuitous. The initial plan was to stick to the south, but you can see for yourself how well that worked out.
The map below shows our route, including what we’ve planned for the next two weeks, though our stop in Agra (southwest of Delhi) isn’t showing up for some reason.
Mumbai, Maharashtra (June 28-July 2)
We started our adventure in Mumbai, the densely packed city of 22 million in central India on the Arabian Sea.
I’d hoped that as a large, cosmopolitan city, Mumbai might be a good way to introduce us to India gradually in a place that still had the many comforts of home. We went on a few guided tours here, which helped make the city seem more manageable, and had a lovely home-cooked meal arranged through Traveling Spoon. The humidity and crowded streets made our first few days much more grueling than I anticipated, though, and both Spencer and I were happy to move on to less chaotic waters.
Nagpur, Gondia and Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra (July 3-6)
Our first experience with the Indian railway system was an overnight train from Mumbai to Nagpur, a city of 8 million with little to offer tourists other than a location in the center of India. India’s rail system is truly incredible, and I loved the feeling of falling asleep on a moving train (though some of the romance was lost when the lurching of the carriage woke me up half a dozen times).
From Nagpur, we hopped in a car to the small town of Gondia, the closest town to many forest reserves in the area. Through a friend of my mom’s, we’d been introduced to the district forest officer, who organized four days of trekking around the land he administers.
Our typical day started with hopping in a car with a driver and forest guide. Some of our guides were outgoing and spoke fairly good English, while others knew some isolated words. (“Madam! Take picture!” was a fairly typical phrase.)
We’d be spirited away for an hour or two of driving to some part of the forest, often with no idea at all where we were headed. Then we’d get out, meet some other forest staff, walk for a bit, take lots of pictures and invariably be invited to have tea in the home or village of almost everyone we spoke to.
It was a lovely and low-hassle way to see what life in rural India is like, though the excitement we caused by getting out of the car took some adjusting to. Spencer and I were briefly concerned on our first day that we’d been mistaken for high-level government officials or partners with some important grant money to award for Indian forestry or something. But nope, we were just foreigners in an area that doesn’t see many tourists.
Our last day took us to Tadoba National Park, about three hours away from Gondia, where we went out in a Jeep in hopes of spotting tigers. We got lucky on our second drive.
From Tadoba, we spent an evening back in Gondia at our ridiculously swanky five-star hotel, the Gateway (highly recommended at $45 or so a night, and they actually make a decent mac and cheese).
Grueling trek to the Taj Mahal and back (July 7-10)
The thing about the Taj Mahal is that you kind of should see it if you go to India just in case you never get another chance to go to India in your life. So we decided to exhaust ourselves in an effort to make that happen.
On July 7, we drove to Nagpur from Gondia (3 hours), got on a plane to Delhi (2 hours), took a bus and a metro from the airport to the rail station (1 hour) and then got on a train to Agra (3.5 hours).
Did I mention that north India has somehow discovered how to defy the laws of physics and achieve a remarkable average humidity of 240 percent?
In Agra, we befriended an English-speaking autorickshaw driver, Haseen, who had a guestbook from his previous tourists and won the auction to take us to our hotel for 100 rupees ($1.58). This, of course, was so he could offer us his services as our driver for sightseeing the next day, which we agreed to because his price seemed reasonable and why not? (This actually did work out, though naturally he took us to a few stores selling fancy souvenirs so he could earn a commission, and we did wind up with some marble inlay pieces as a result. But worse things have happened.)
Anyway, we got to our hotel late, went to sleep, and woke up at 6 a.m. to see the Taj Mahal, a short walk from our hotel. The Taj was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan after his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died giving birth to her fourteenth child. You have to admire a guy who’s so upset that he raids the royal treasury for millions of dollars (in 1600s dollars, so multiply that by a lot) to build the best, coolest tomb ever for his wife. Also, by that standard literally everyone else’s husband is completely slacking off. He was buried in the crypt under the Taj as well following his death.
Everyone has seen pictures of the Taj and its reflecting pool, but here’s one of my favorite pieces of it.
There’s beautiful Arabic calligraphy all over the structure that’s really hard to see until you get close. It’s actually designed with the human eye in mind, so the verses at the top are just a bit larger than the ones near the bottom to give the illusion of everything being the same size. The whole thing is designed to evoke the Muslim vision of paradise and there’s a lot of other really neat symbolism and artistry to that effect.
Agra has more than the Taj Mahal – there’s a cool fort that the Mughal emperors ruled from and several other impressive marble mausoleums as well, plus some lovely gardens.
While there, I read a book called “In the Shadow of the Taj: A Portrait of Agra,” which gives some history of the city plus some perspective from locals who often feel that they’re ignored in favor of the monument (for instance, several factories that wanted to locate near Agra and would have provided good jobs have been forced to go elsewhere because of concerns about air pollution hurting the marble).
Having that context was great, but it didn’t really make me like the city at all. Not content to meet north India standards, humidity in Agra actually averages a shocking 300 percent in July, and the constant cries of, “Where are you going, Madam?” by autorickshaw drivers hoping for a job got old quickly.
From Agra, we boarded and evening train back to Delhi and spent the next day on a fast-paced tour focusing on religion and culture. Our guide took us to a Sikh temple, where rich and poor work side by side as volunteers in a massive communal kitchen to feed thousands of people per day. The temple itself is centered on their holy book, which they view as akin to a person. This means the book is put to bed at night so it can rest. (Did I mention Sikhism is kind of an awesome religion?)
Our guide walked us through the streets of Delhi, and we also visited a large mosque built by the Mughals in the center of the old city. In the afternoon, we went to the Akshardam, a massive Hindu temple founded by follwers of an 18th century guru. The whole place kind of has a Hinduism-themed Disneyland feel, with massive animatronic diorama exhibits explaining the life of their guru and his values.
From there, we went to the airport and took an evening flight to Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka. Arriving at midnight, we bused to the train station and spend 40 minutes walking around, fending off territorial street dogs and autorickshaw drivers before finally finding our hotel shortly before 2 a.m.
Mysore (July 11-14)
For the past three days, we’ve been in Mysore, a city of about a million people in Karnataka. Mysore is a center of sandalwood and silk production and is home to Mysore Palace, which is literally the most beautiful palace I have ever seen in my life (and I’ve been to Versailles). Photos aren’t allowed inside and the outside doesn’t do it justice, but here’s a quick snapshot anyhow.
Here, we’ve been relaxing at our lovely B&B homestay while planning the rest of our trip. We’ve also been to the local market and seen the Mysore Zoo, a world class place with most of the major mammals from India and Africa, plus a bunch of awesome birds.
Wayanad, Kerala(July 14-17)
Tomorrow, we’ll hop on a bus up to the mountains of Kerala, where we’ll spend a few days relaxing on a tea plantation and hopefully visiting the family of our friend Christine for a day.
Cochin and Alleppey, Kerala (July 17-23)
From Wayanad, we’ll descend to the coast of Kerala, spending time in the city of Cochin and doing a homestay in the backwaters of Alleppey (sometimes called the “Venice of the East,” though our guidebook says that comparison does Venice no favors. I will report back.)
Madurai, Tamil Nadu (July 23-26)
Finally, we’ll spend a few days in Tamil Nadu, the heart of southern India, before flying back to Mumbai in July 26, and to the U.S. on July 28.
A fire blazes inside a one-room shed made of wood and corrugated metal. Outside, the day is at its hottest with an unforgiving Indian sun shining down on the narrow maze of streets. Inside the shed, a few men supervise the furnace, where nine paint drums are stacked and glowing in the white-hot fire. The workers are melting off excess paint for recycling; after their work is done, the drums will be repaired and reused. The smoke coming from the shed is acrid and the men sweat profusely.
This is Dharavi, better known as Asia’s largest slum and made famous as the setting for many of the scenes in Slumdog Millionaire. Somewhere between half a million and a million people live on about two square kilometers of land on the central north part of Mumbai’s peninsula, making Dharavi one of the most densely-populated areas on earth.
Fed up with the image of slums as places of despair and suffering, some locals started offering tours to Dharavi to complicate the Hollywood version of the neighborhood. The first thing they tell you: Dharavi is home to thousands of one-room factories and businesses, generating an annual economic output of close to a billion dollars. Even that description doesn’t do the area justice, and by the end of our two hours there, I felt like I’d been given a look under the hood of the machine we call global capitalism.
Slum tourism is controversial, to put it mildly, and I still have mixed feelings about the tour we took. Our trip was run by Reality Tours and Travel, a Mumbai-based group founded by an American do-gooder and now run by an Indian staff. The tour itself was incredibly well-done: informative and well-paced with professional guides.
Photos were strictly prohibited (instead, Reality shares a dozen high-quality photos they’ve taken with you after your tour) and tour guides are Mumbai locals, at least some of whom have ties to Dharavi. Our guide, Jitu, used to work in a factory in Dharavi and gradually learned English through Hollywood movies, eventually learning enough to qualify him to be a tour guide. Eighty percent of tour proceeds support a partner NGO, Reality Gives, which runs educational programs for Dharavi kids. Their stated goal for the tours is to change the pervasive idea that slums are places of nothing but poverty and hopelessness, and by that measure, the tour is certainly doing its job.
On the tour, guides walk you through the slum and explain different local businesses, but you don’t interact with residents or hear them talk about their own lives, which felt odd to me. On the one hand, most of them are busy working and probably don’t want to take time to speak with foreigners about things that I’d imagine seem mundane to them. But I also tend to think asking a community what they need or giving cash to people who can use it in exchange for a service (letting us learn about their lives) is a better (and fairer) way to help them than having a Westerner set up a program to help slum kids, however well-run and well-intentioned it might be.
It’s possible I’m wrong in some tangible, evidence-based way and it’s also possible Dharavi residents feel differently or just don’t care much about the visitors one way or another. At the very least, that means what I write here comes from what I saw while walking around Dharavi and what Jitu told us during the tour, rather than from any people who currently live or work there. So with that long disclaimer, here’s what I learned.
Our first stop was a one-room aluminium recycling factory, where shards of aluminum are melted down into large bricks which are then sold. Because it was Sunday, the furnace wasn’t working, but the setup was similar – a single room shack with a corrugated metal roof. Jitu told us workers don’t wear protective equipment because it’s hot enough in there without extra clothing. Dharavi’s businesses are almost uniformly black market – unregistered, not paying taxes and bribing police when they come to inspect things – so even where labor laws exist, they’re not enforced here.
Many Dharavi businesses handle recyclables, facilitated by the work of trash collectors, who sift through Mumbai’s waste looking for anything that might have value. Plastics are ground down to small pieces, color-sorted, washed and then shredded to make filling for pillow cases and stuffed animals. From a rooftop, you can see colorful cobalt piles that look like pottery dyes or gemstones. One place we walked by had massive bags full of clear plastic cups – waste from McDonalds, no doubt arriving via some maze of subcontractors.
Lanes and streets are small and many are passable only on foot, though the larger ones have enough room for motorcycles and hand-pulled carts. Amidst this chaos, there are pet goats munching on greens hanging from an awning, boys cheering over a makeshift game of cricket in the middle of the street, people buying vegetables in preparation for breaking their Ramadan fast – in short, people doing normal human things squished into the most crowded, dense human settlement I can possibly imagine.
One residential street we walked down was so narrow the buildings above it almost entirely obscured the sun. The footpath was actually just a sewer covered by scattered boards, and we had to duck to avoid the maze of wires over our heads. But even on this street, the homes we passed, mostly one room concrete structures, had numbers painted on the doorway in white. Postal addresses exist, even in the densest part of the slum.
In the middle of all this, there’s a glass door leading to an immaculate air-conditioned room with white tile floors and shelves filled with leather handbags. It’s the headquarters of a leather factory that works chiefly with sheep and goat skins, since the state of Maharashtra, where a Hindu nationalist party won the last election, has recently outlawed the sale of leather and beef. The bags on display are fakes destined for the domestic market, sporting Gucci and Louis Vuitton labels.
Sometimes, these guys make the real things too, Jitu told us. Gucci might visit an Indian contractor who has all the latest machines and a nice-looking factory (plus a legal, registered company). Suitably impressed, they contract with him to make bags, except he doesn’t want to spend the money actually doing the work. So he pockets his share and subcontracts out to the Dharavi folks, with Gucci none the wiser. And this is how things are made the world over.
I’ve always had a vague notion that shadow markets like Dharavi exist, but seeing the machinery of it all left me speechless. The work done in these tiny, illegal factories is absolutely essential to the functioning of the entire global economy. They process electronic waste and recycle Coke bottles and handle contracts for huge multinational corporations who will never know a Dharavi factory was involved at all.
I saw purple water running from a factory into the sewer and men standing in acrid chemical smoke to make this machine function and couldn’t help but wonder how many Superfund sites you’d find in Dharavi’s walls if someone took the time to measure contamination. It’s incredible how many transactions, companies, interests and profits have some connection to one of these one-room factories in some obscure corner of an Indian slum.
With so many people living in such little space, sanitation remains a huge issue in Dharavi. Houses don’t have toilets, and public toilets are woefully inadequate, with about one for every 1,500 people. India as a whole struggles massively with sanitation, with about 600 million people defecating in the open according to the latest report on the Millennium Development Goals.
In Dharavi, open air sewers run through town and are a mix of human waste, cow dung, bath water and runoff from factories. Children ran around freely, in some cases falling in the concrete trenches. Our guide was fond of saying that there are more phones than toilet seats in Dharavi, and he was right – we saw at least a dozen young people, smartphones in hand, watching videos or listening to music as we walked around.
Residents of Dharavi are technically living there illegally, at least in many cases, but most pay rent (often under $10 a month) and the government has no immediate plans to evict them. The current slum “improvement” scheme is a government program run entirely through private enterprises. Real estate companies can raze a neighborhood in the slum with the approval of 70 percent of the residents. They’re required to build a bare bones concrete skyscraper on half that land to house the people they’ve displaced and provide that housing free of charge.
In exchange, the companies get the rest of the land to develop into a more lucrative luxury building to sell at market prices. Many slum residents opt not to relocate – some prefer their current homes for the sense of community they provide, others are concerned that a new development would leave no space for the businesses that are so vital to Dharavi’s economy. With the minimal information we got, I have no idea how routinely that program is used, how democratic the voting process is or what happens to the businesses that are left behind in the process.
That plan has been criticized as a government bid to make Mumbai a world-class city by hiding its poor away, prioritizing the needs of real estate moguls who want to take advantage of skyrocketing rents. I can’t say whether apartments are a good solution for Dharavi’s residents, though it seems to me that putting in more toilets should be a priority. But I have a hard time imagining what might replace these factories that handle so much of the world’s goods at the beginning or end of their lives. I can’t help but think that if you stopped them from working, the entire economy might grind to a halt.
When I was 14, I spent a week and a half in Costa Rica on a school trip. The venture was undoubtedly life-changing, and I spent the weeks and months after telling anyone who would listen stories about seeing six foot sea turtles lay eggs on a beach in the cover of darkness and ziplining above the canopy of a cloud forest.
The stories I told weren’t inaccurate, but they were certainly incomplete. Even when going over my own recollections, I skipped the part where I was standing alone in an ice-cold shower nearly sobbing as I tried to wash blood out of my underwear. I was homesick and on my period (still a relatively new phenomenon at that age) and traveling mostly with 11-year-olds who I thought were too young to understand, and adults I didn’t know well enough to confide in. In that moment, it didn’t matter that I was at a turtle reserve and getting an incredible opportunity to see nature up close. I just wanted to go home, to be around something familiar and comforting.
It’s easy to romanticize travel, to others and especially to ourselves. Being able to travel extensively is such an incredible privilege that it seems ungrateful to focus on or talk about things not going so well. Plane tickets, especially to strange foreign countries, aren’t cheap, and we humans are the masters of justifying things after the fact. Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars on something not perfect, so we tell ourselves stories that leave those parts out.
Some things that are painful in the moment become hilarious tales of misadventure after the fact. As soon as we return home, we laugh off stories of bureaucracy and delayed trains and intestinal problems cropping up in less-than-convenient places. When I talk about my family’s trip to France in 2003, the record-breaking heat wave that sent temperatures up to 120 degrees becomes a footnote, even though much of our day was consumed with searches for ice, for watering holes, for anything that would let us cool off.
Two weeks of travel around India has given me ample opportunity to think about all of this. According to our Facebook feeds, Spencer and I are having a classic adventure. We saw a tiger in the wild, took selfies in front of the Taj Mahal and spent a day visiting temples and holy sites scattered around Delhi.
Left out, of course, are the grueling hours spent hauling our possessions from taxi to train to bus to plane to another hole-in-the-wall hotel with flickering lights; the humidity, which rendered me so exhausted that I had trouble walking in a straight line after an hour at the Taj; and the endless haggling with drivers in an attempt to get where we need to go without paying an arm and a leg.
After days packed full of sightseeing in oppressive weather or traveling through three states in India, Spencer and I are often exhausted and a bit homesick. We miss the simple luxuries of home: having more than three t-shirts to choose from, being able to kick up your feet on a couch and watch a TV program that looks vaguely familiar, or just having friends in the same time zone as you.
Feeling that way can be discouraging at times. Travel is fun, we tell ourselves. We should be happy. We should be grateful.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize during my summer on the road. It’s not possible to see sights and meet people and experience a new place without having unpleasant and unhappy moments.
I’m not just talking about the momentary confusion of finding your train in a bustling station where your language isn’t widely spoken – the sort of character-building cultural difference that’s the meat of any good travel experience. I’m talking about the bone-crushing exhaustion of days where you transfer luggage four times and have an upset stomach and all your underwear is dirty and there’s a weird sore on your thigh that is probably nothing but possibly a parasitic worm and you really, really just want to be home wearing sweatpants and watching Netflix.
For every unforgettable visit to an ancient monument or enlightening conversation with a local, I’ve had a moment sitting on a train where I would have done anything to eat something disgustingly deep-fried in the way only Americans can do properly. A moment where I wanted to scream at the next person who interrupted my conversation to ask where I was from or try to sell me something. A moment where I would have paid a decent sum of money to be teleported home, just for one night, and resume my adventure in 24 hours.
It’s taken me some time to realize that feeling like this doesn’t mean I’m bad at travel or wasting my time and money. Because I think we all have these moments on the road, even if they get edited out of the stories later. If you want to see sights, you have to walk around in hot weather or transfer trains or brave long lines of other tourists, some of whom are probably jerks. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up being tired and irritated. Sooner or later, most of us miss something from home. And I’m convinced no amount of inherent peppiness or preparation can smooth all of those moments over.
India has, in many ways, been challenging, in both the good and bad senses of the word. I’m learning a ton about a history and culture that’s very different from my own. I’m seeing incredible things, gathering stories and trying all kinds of new food. And I’m learning a lot about the limits of my patience, about the ways my anxiety manifests in unfamiliar circumstances, and about the things I really need to be comfortable.
I am incredibly happy and incredibly grateful to be here. But that’s not all I am, and that’s not what I am all the time. After two weeks, I’m okay with the full range of feelings I’ve had on this trip. The hard stuff makes for good stories later, but I think we do ourselves a disservice by pretending adventures always have to be fun.
We touched down in the Mumbai airport just before midnight five days ago, and didn’t get to our hotel until around 2 a.m. Our driver, clad in loose-fitting white cotton pants and a shirt, spoke very little English and stopped twice along the drive to ask other cabbies hanging out on the side of the road for directions.
Some of the sights on our 40 minute drive were familiar to me. There were shacks of tarps and corrugated metal lined along the side of the road housing various small businesses like you’d see in Mexico or Ghana. But we also saw massive horned cows grazing in gutters and hundreds of people – adults, children and families – sleeping out in the open, under the freeway overpass or in cars and autorickshaws.
Though I’ve traveled a fair bit, India is unlike any other country I’ve been to in more ways than one. It’s the first country I’ve been to in Asia, the first where the predominant religion is not Christianity, and the first where the native language is written in a script other than the Roman alphabet (I’m discounting Greece here because the Greek alphabet is fairly close to the Roman one and thus somewhast discernable).
Ghana, where my dad lives and works, is probably my closest reference point. Like India, it’s a former British colony with an ethnically diverse population speaking dozens (or hundreds) of individual languages. English is nominally the official language in both places, but most working class people in Mumbai, as in Ghana, speak only enough for basic commerce. Hindi is the lingua franca in much of north and central India, and Mumbai has evolved its own Hindi dialect called bambaiya, which is spoken on the streets. India, though, is an entire subcontinent, while Ghana is roughly the size of Oregon. And here, Spencer and I are traveling alone, not in the company of someone who knows the country well.
All of which is to say that since I arrived, I’ve felt like a fish out of water. Today is my fifth morning in Mumbai, India, and I still struggle to describe it, but I’m going to try anyway.
Mumbai, the island city
Home to about 22 million, Mumbai is India’s largest city and one of the world’s 10 largest urban areas. Seven distinct islands were united by backfilling and reclamation projects to create the peninsula, which sticks out into the Arabian Sea and forms the bulk of the city.
Originally colonized by the Portugese, Bombay (renamed Mumbai in 1996 as part of a larger push to remove colonial names from monuments and roads) was given to Charles II of England as a wedding present when he married Catherine, Princess of Portugal. He quickly leased the islands to the British East India Company, who set up their headquarters here in 1687.
The British were responsible for subsequent projects to merge islands and unite Bombay with the mainland through a series of bridges. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Bombay was perfectly positioned to become a major trading hub – the Gateway to India, as it’s now known.
Today, Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city of glaring contradictions. It’s the financial capital of India, home to the Bombay Stock Exchange and India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who has the distinction of owning Antilia, the most expensive residence on earth after Buckingham Palace. (Outfitted with a helipad, the skyscraper is worth about $1 billion and requires a staff of 600 to maintain.) India’s Bollywood film industry is also housed here, with many famous Bollywood actors occupying northern suburbs with beach views where the streets are lined with palm trees.
It’s easy to see this version of Mumbai at night, riding in a speeding taxi along Marine Drive, which has beachfront on one side and high-rise buildings with Western chains on the other. Last night, as we drove back from a wonderful dinner with a family in a north Mumbai suburb, the glitz and glamour of the city showed through for the first time since I’ve been here. I was so enchanted by the rainbow-colored lights on the bridge across the sea that I momentarily forgot my upset stomach. If you’d told me I was in Hollywood, I probably would have believed you.
By day, walking around the city, Mumbai is oppressively humid and packed full of people. Horns blare constantly, sidewalks are narrow and packed, and people dangle out the doors of trains and buses during rush hour. Aldous Huxley famously described the city as “the most appalling of either hemisphere.” I tend to agree more with some Indian-Americans I know, who simply say it’s “crazy.”
The 21st century city
When I was in Mexico City earlier this summer, I read a travelogue by journalist David Lida called First Stop in the New World. He argued that in contrast to the planned metropolises that defined the past two centuries (Paris the 19th, New York the 20th), Mexico’s sprawling city of 20 million was a new type of city – a vast, unplanned, forever-expanding and wildly unequal metropolis – that would define the 21st. After all, half the world now lives in cities, and the majority of them look more like Mexico City or Mumbai than the carefully laid out grid of Manhattan.
I suspect if I knew more about the history of urban planning, I might be able to complicate this argument somewhat. I can’t tell you what New York City or Paris looked like when they were rapidly expanding, nor can I predict whast Mumbai will look like in 10 or 50 years. From the history of Mumbai book I’m reading now, Mumbai has certainly been planned in some capacity (otherwise, it would have remained seven distinct islands). But I think there’s something to this argument that’s more than the white Westerner’s unfamiliarity with cities that look different than the European model.
Whether I’m right about that or not, I’ve spent much of my time here thinking about the evolution and future of cities. Wealth inequality is a fact of life in any major city, and I couldn’t say how Mumbai compares to San Francisco or New York in that regard. Here, it’s much more visible to me, perhaps because I’m less able to block it out in a place that’s unfamiliar.
We’ve made our temporary home here in the rented bedroom of a 29th story apartment building. It’s a modest place belonging to a retired teacher whose globetrotting daughter helps her manage the space on Airbnb. There are two helipads visible from our bedroom windows and dozens of high-ride buildings that house Mumbai’s rich and powerful as far as they can get, vertically, from the bustle of the streets.
Many of Mumbai’s residents sleep, eat and earn their living on the streets, and a majority are engaged in the informal economy. Fruit stalls, street food, people hawking giant balloons at tourist landmarks, cab drivers, beggars and more crowd the sidewalks and make up the bulk of the 22 million who call Mumbai home. The smell of the street changes every few steps from charcoal to pungent fruit to sewage to generic humidity. In a tropical city where so many sleep outside, I found myself wondering how homelessness is conceived of here- whether housing itself is seen as a large challenge, or if policymakers focus more on sanitation and healthcare.
Immigrants from all over India come to Mumbai in search of work, many migrating seasonally and returning home during the monsoons to work on their family farms. The median income here is about $2,000 per year, or about $7,700 adjusted for purchasing power.
Since we’ve been here, Spencer and I have spent the bulk of our time wandering the streets and taking walking tours of monuments and neighborhoods led by young people who want to impart a realistic vision of the city. Yesterday, we took a bus to the central market area, spent an hour or so trying to get Spencer a cell phone, and hopped on another bus to a wealthy suburb for a home-cooked Indian meal. Neither of us has quite taken to the city, and I think we’ll be glad to hop on a train tonight and head to a tiger reserve near Nagpur in centra India. But Mumbai has gotten me thinking about a lot of things that will keep churning in my head long after the lights of Bollywood fade into countryside.