Living It Up

One of my favourite things to wake up to, apart from breakfast in bed consisting of a large pile of bacon and half a cheesecake, is the cry of “Chaaiiii chaaiiii garam chaiiii garam garam chaiiii garam” as the chai wallah makes his way up and down overnight public transport offering up tiny ₹10 cups of tasty, hot, sugary beverage. I love kicking back in my train berth, sipping on the dubious concoction of tea leaves, nipple juice and diabetes, waiting for the one toilet left that isn’t flooded or covered in shit to become free as the seventy odd people in my coach hock and spit their sinuses clear. Chai wallah makes mornings in sleeper class bearable. It’s not quite the same on a sleeper bus though on account of the fact you’ll probably end up wearing your chai as soon as the bus goes over the next bump which will probably occur around 0.4 seconds after your first sip. It kinda makes you glad that by the time the chai gets to you it’s cooled sufficiently from the flesh melting stage and the worst thing that’ll happen is that you’ll look like you pissed yourself which is way better than third degree burns. This is just reason number 468 I prefer trains over buses any day.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. No, I don’t know how to pronounce it. Yes, I copied and pasted it from the Internet.

So anyway, back to Mumbai for three nights before Tarrant had to leave. For its size there’s surprisingly little to do here apart from swan around drinking expensive beer and looking fabulous which fortunately we do rather well. *flicks hair* There are a few things you kinda feel obliged to put in your eyeholes such as the Gateway to India which is around the corner from where we were staying at India Guest House and was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and was then later used to parade the last British regiment before India won her independence. At least that’s what the book says, despite walking past it half a million times we never actually got up close and personal to the archway. Also, you’re meant to have a look at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (which mostly people refer to as Mumbai CST) train station. It used to be called Victoria Terminus and is a throwback to colonial times. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site so if you were ticking them off your list then boom, got another one init. India is bursting with these bad boys. It’s sort of inspiring me to start my own UNESCO collection.

India Gate. Walked past it a million times but for some reason I never got around to going in.

Another cool thing to look at is the dhobi ghats by Mahalaxmi train station which is where Mumbai sends all of its washing. Dhobi means laundry and they’re in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people simultaneously hand washing clothes at a single location. 496. You’ll thank me when it comes up in the pub quiz. You can jump off the train and walk over the bridge to get a really good view of the men working away, bashing clothes against a stone in the corner of their ghat, and lines and lines of garments hanging up to dry. I still don’t know why they bash clothes against stones to clean them but when ever I’ve put my laundry in in India it’s come back spotless albeit with a few more holes in it. I’d blame my penchant for Primark but when my overpriced lesbian regulation Superdry knickers came back practically crotchless, that’s when I decided to start doing my own laundry in the shower.

These guys are dabbawallahs, they collect hot food from people’s homes and deliver them to their place of work using a colour coded system.

So basically I lost all of my notes on this place when my phone reset itself and yeah, I think we can blame my tendencies to veer towards the cheap for that one, so I’ll just tell you what I remember. If you head down the steps, India’s answer to a younger Del Boy will offer you a guide for ₹200 per person. Tarrant was a bit weird about going into someone’s work place and taking loads of photos of them, especially as none of the money was going to the dhobi wallahs themselves. I set aside my shame because I’d been told that photography was totally okay and I didn’t take any photos of the workers without asking. Apart from a few stalker photos of a guy doing the bashy bashy thing with what could have been someone’s shirt. I figure that plenty of Indians have taken stalker photos of me in the last four months. I get a few free passes, right? I mean… right?

As well as being actually quite interesting the dhobi ghats are pretty photogenic.

Basically, the ghats are home to 5000 people which seems like an absolute fuck tonne when you look around the relatively small space. Housing located immediately around the ghats is provided by the company and we were told that only men do the laundry here. Women have another role but fucked if I can remember it. There’s also a surprising amount of machinery which apparently is slowly replacing the hand washing. There are pros and cons to progress and unfortunately, when a machine takes the same amount of time to do something that several blokes can do then there are more cons than pros for the guys at the bottom as they watch their jobs disappear.
It looks like absolute chaos here, clothes lie around in soggy piles or hang from the lines, held in place by twisting the rope instead of using pegs. I’ve no idea how they remember whose clothes belong to who, but apparently each guy has his own contracts that he deals with. They wash all the clothes from the industries around the city including the hospitals and he showed us where chemicals and water are boiled to sterilise it for the hospital clothes. Brand new, imported clothes that have a few stains on them are washed for free before they go to the market and no, I don’t recall why there’s no charge. There was also a pile of old, damaged clothes which they wash and repair or recycle to make extra money.

If you still haven’t gotten your fill of gawping at people as they go about their daily lives in a slightly voyeuristic manner, Reality Tours run an awesome tour of the Dharavi slum. Ok ok, this is one of those things where people have some pretty strong opinions. People call down from their high horses, “How dare you stroll through someone’s neighbourhood and compare your life to theirs!” and this is a perfectly valid opinion. How dare we? I think it’s about the attitude you go in with. Personally, I’m fascinated by how different people live. I have a genuine interest. Would you be as upset if I was taking a guided walk through an upmarket neighbourhood inhabited by celebrities or the nouveux rich? Or if I was being shown around an old money estate? I walk around villages and towns back home all the time, I’m just less fascinated how lives are lived because their lives are similar to mine. So yes, I’m comparing my life to theirs but not, I hope, in any derogatory or demeaning manner. I know Indians are as fascinated by foreigners as foreigners are by them, Indians take as many photos of us as we take of them, sometimes with permission, sometimes without. We’re so different right from our skin colour to the way we eat our food to our attitudes to work and life. I don’t think having an interest in how others live is wrong at all, especially when it’s so very different to how we live. I believe it’s a healthy curiosity.

Looks like utter chaos to me but apparently there’s a system.

Anyway. This tour. We started off by being taken onto a train at Churchgate by our guide before we were steered down narrow streets and across roads. He appeared to be skilled in the art of herding foreigners without losing one of them under a tuk tuk which is no mean feat. Herding cats is easier. I still covertly adopt an Indian when I cross roads in cities so I will blindly follow any local as they weave around traffic and confidently hold a hand up to stop that truck that’s heading towards them at high speed. I’m probably lucky to still be intact. Then the first stop was the commercial area on the outskirts of the slum. The people that work here are uneducated but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They earn a fuck tonne of money working in various unskilled jobs. In fact, this Mumbai slum and the commercial area combined turns over US$650 million a year, and that’s only what they tell the government about for tax purposes. However, the unskilled workers still live where they work to get free accommodation, and the business owner in turn gets free 24 hour security. They can’t afford to live in the slum itself because, as we were to find out, slum living ain’t cheap, sunshine. One of the main industries here is plastic recycling. Plastic comes in from all over India and even the world to be sorted by colour and quality, crushed, dyed, melted and turned into pellets for export. Batiking is another trade here, as is soap making.

Looks like utter chaos to me but apparently there’s a system.

Then we headed into the slum itself starting with the Muslim area. Hindus and Muslims generally live quite separately here. The two religions have a history of violence, most notably in 1992 when Hindus destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya, claiming it was built on the birthplace of Rama. This resulted in riots across the country and thousands were killed. Industries have separated out here too. We walked through the pottery area with the huge kilns for firing, there was a tannery area where Muslims worked with leather from around the world, including Indian leather from goats and sheep, even cows legally slaughtered in Kerala and West Bengal. And you know that fancy purse you have, you label whore, you? That tag inside that says it’s US made? It might be US leather, but it could easily have been stitched together right here in this slum. The leather is sent over, turned into bags or whatever then it’s sent back to have the designer label added. Sneaky fuckers ay.
We wandered past women making and drying poppadoms, rolling them out really thinly then draping them over baskets to dry in the sun. At one point we were lead down very narrow alleys, not more than a metre wide, with the guide at the front and the men in the group at the back to protect the women from a spot of groping. We walked for maybe two minutes and then we were told we’d walked past over 40 houses. No. Fucking. Way. I mean, you notice the small doorways, and the ladders up to more small doorways, but seriously they’re crammed in!

A slightly stalky photo of a bloke doing the bashy thing that I don’t understand. Though to be fair, when I hand wash stuff I just leave it to soak for an hour and insist that it’s clean.

And here’s where we get to the definition of a slum as is understood in India. It’s not a convenient place to stuff the poor to forget about them. It basically means that the dwelling in question was built illegally on government land, and the government have every right to bulldoze in and raze the whole bastard thing to the ground. But they won’t. Because 55% of Mumbaikars live here, and the government doesn’t want to lose 55% of its votes. Also, you can’t be poor and live in the slums, dude. Even our guide lives two hours away from the centre, he can’t afford to live in the slums and he gets what Reality Tours describe as a proper salary. You’re looking at ₹3000 to ₹4000 a month to rent a 10 metre square space here. I met camel drivers in Rajasthan that earned around ₹3000 a month. The tea pickers in Munnar earn about ₹4000. I asked him to reiterate, so the people who live here aren’t poor then? He replied no. Not at all. They all have mobile phones and flat screen TVs. And since 1995, every slum built before that time is protected so the slum dwellers have started taking pride in their homes. Now they know they can’t be bulldozed they’ve started tiling their floors, competing with the neighbours for the better home, generally doing their space up. When this act was passed it was deemed that the protected slums were entitled to 24 hours of electricity and 4 hours of running water a day.

For the tenants that have been displaced, the government built flats for them just outside the slums but the residents simply sold them and moved back. So they made it illegal to sell the flat given to them for ten years, but as our guide pointed out, Indians are clever when it comes to making money. They simply rent the flat out to another family for ₹5000 or ₹6000 a month, move back into the slum and rent a space there and pocket the difference. And nope, there are no photos of this tour on account of the fact that Reality Tours won’t allow them, to protect the privacy of the residents. A large percentage of the profits they make from this tour goes straight back into the slum via their NGO, Reality Gives. They run a school, they organise after school sports and they have a community centre too. Anyway, enough with the tourist information ay.

Mostly, we spent our time in Mumbai hanging out with Vikki and Jen. Mainly Jen. India done went and got Vikki good, she was not a well human. They were staying in the poshest fucking hotel in the world, dude. Seriously, I’m not even shitting you. We rocked up to meet Jen and I was so intimidated by it. I felt compelled to tell anyone who so much as glanced our way that we weren’t staying there, just meeting a mate as Tarrant whispered, “Babe, they don’t care.” We headed to the poolside bar for one drink just for the novelty value and when we were presented with with bill we had to try not to show pain as we parted with over ₹500 for a 330ml bottle of Kingfisher. That works out to be over £5. Five fucking pounds! I don’t pay that much for a pint of fucking Fosters back home!

I paid more for this beer than I’d pay in Brighton. Damn right I’m gonna artistically photograph the fucker.

We fled down to the concierge to find out where we could get a drink that wouldn’t require hocking one’s organs on the black market. When we asked for a local bar that wasn’t part of the big, air conditioned complex attached to the hotel we were given the reply, “Madam. This is not Goa.” Weeellll, that was us well and truly patronised then. We made our way through the flashy mall which smelt amazing, by the way, to… wait for it… McDonald’s. There. I said it. I went to India and had a Macca’s and I’m not even sorry. I’d been dying to know what they used in the absence of beef, usually (and yes, I frequent Maccy D’s enough to use the term “usually” when referring to my preferences) I go for a Big Mac because Big Mac sauce is the way and the light so it was only fitting that I opt for a Chicken Maharaja Mac. Iiiit’s… well I enjoyed it, but it was kinda like someone chewed up a chook, spat it out then kind of fashioned it into a perfect disc. It was also a bit bland. I have no idea what I was expecting to be fair but at least I got that out of my system and I could return to a life of masala dosas and thalis and an immune system begging for a break. And we did find a beer. We found a tower of beer for ₹999 plus tax in a bar called United Bar. As in Manchester United. Ah, the taste of home ay.

You’re judging me aren’t you…

But let me tell you about the poshest hotel that I’ve ever stayed in. Like, ever. It wasn’t as posh as Vikki and Jen’s, but it was amazing. Hotel Suba International. Google it and weep, bitches. Tarrant treated us to it on our last night together. It had air-conditioning as opposed to a dusty ceiling fan that looked like it could fall off and dismember you in your sleep any minute, and a proper mattress instead of a bit of sponge on a slab of concrete, and a proper bathroom that was clean and didn’t have multi-legged creatures living in it or dubious brown stains up the wall. And the shower. It was hot. As in, properly hot, all the time, not after you heat a geyser up for 20 minutes, but it had two taps so you could control the hot and not end up needing skin grafts. And it remained the optimum temperature throughout and didn’t turn freezing cold after 7 minutes, and there was free shampoo and shower gel. Backpacking makes you think about showers a lot. A proper, hot shower when you’re travelling on a budget is pretty much the holy grail. If Tarrant hadn’t coaxed me out with the promise of room service I’d probably still be in there now, working my way through the complimentary toiletries.

No word of a lie, this is probably my most favourite room service ever.

Ah, and the room service. We ordered the cheese platter which was printed on the menu and promised biscuits and cow products and all of those good things we love. Not long after the call was made there was a knock on the door and a smart, uniformed gentleman entered with a silver platter, and sat upon this platter was two plates, and upon these plates were five slices of cheese each. Processed cheese. Still in the wrapper. It’s a bloody good job we’re scruffs masquerading as classy bitches really. We thought it was hilarious and to be fair, you can’t be mad at a hotel where you get to control all of the room lights with an iPod ay.

What I loved about this hotel though, once you left the sterile cleanliness and the gorgeous air conditioning and stepped outside, you were right back in India again, with the tiny stalls selling sweets and drinks, cigarettes and beedis, as auto drivers called after you to find out where you were going and all of your pores did their very best to remove all of your moisture as quickly as possible. But yeah. That was the end of Tarrant’s Indian adventure. It had been amazing having her with me, I wish she could have stayed longer. Like, for the whole trip perhaps. Unfortunately she’s bound by the restrictions of Real Life so I dropped her back at the airport then headed to Dadar train station to carry on upwards.

This. This is where I draw the line. I will not be more feral than this. At least not in public anyway.

And in other news, I finally found my line. I now know how filthy my trousers have to get before not even I’ll be seen wearing them in public. I think the chai was the final straw. I have no idea what possessed me to choose light coloured trousers designed for travelling, I know how feral my trousers get in Brighton, never mind trawling around a country that’s not exactly renowned for its cleanliness. But here it is, guys. Here’s my limit. Though to be fair, I think if I’d tried to leave it any longer they’d have fucking walked to the dhobi ghats themselves.

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Stayed at: India Guest House & Hotel Suba International
Activity: Slum tour with Reality Tours

Probably the poshest place I’ll ever stay.

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