We arrived into India after our most stressful flight of the trip so far. Our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was delayed so that caused us to miss our connection to Mumbai. They were able to put us on the next plane which thankfully was leaving only 2 hours later. This meant however, that we didn’t get into Mumbai until 1am, and our hotel at 2am. The streets were still lively at this time but nothing like what we would experience our first full day there. We thought Kathmandu was crazy, but Mumbai is even more insane! Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) is the most populous city in India and the 4th most in the world, with roughly 22 million residents. To put this into perspective, all of New England has about 14 million residents.
We walked over to the Gateway of India on our first day. This arch monument was built during the 20th century and erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in Bombay in 1911. While we were walking around the square where it’s located, we were approached almost a dozen times by Indian people wanting to take their picture with us. We had actually read that this might happen and we didn’t mind, whether it was with me, with Elly, or with both of us together. Note: this continued to happen through all of India!
We went on a street food tour through Reality Tours our first night there. It was a great tour and all the food we tried was really good! We started in Chowpatty, which is a popular beach, even though the water isn’t safe to swim in due to sewage being dumped into the sea. The first half of the tour was all vegetarian options, while the second half was all meat based. We started with pani puri, a fried crisp (puri) that is hollowed out and filled with flavored water, potato, chickpeas, and masala. It was pretty good! They are meant to be eaten in one bite, so all of the flavor bursts into your mouth. We could easily see how people can just keep eating these snacks. We then had dahi puri, a variation with different chutneys, yogurt and topped with sev (crunchy noodles made from chickpea flour paste). We both liked these better than the regular pani puri’s. The yogurt gave it a nice creamy flavor that took some of the edge off the spice. Next up was sev puri. Introduced to us as “Indian nachos,” this one was Cory’s favorite. It was made up of a puri topped off with diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, various chutneys, chili, cilantro, raw mango, and sev. Neither of us really loved the next dish, which was pav bhaji. This is basically a thick mashed up vegetable curry served with a bread roll to mop it all up with. This is a popular Indian comfort food dish that children tend to love. After all these dishes, we had an intermission with some kulfi, which is like ice cream but much denser and creamier. This was Elly’s favorite.
Afterwards, we walked through the streets for a bit (narrowly avoiding cars) and then got a cab to our next destination: Mohammed Ali Road. Here we walked through the chaos of people and cars that surrounded us and made our way to some food stalls serving various chicken-based dishes. We can’t remember the actual names, but we had a type of chicken roll, flattened chicken sandwich, and shredded chicken burger. The burger was our favorite; pretty spicy though. We also had some cabbage and onions doused in lime juice and covered in salt which was much better than we thought it would be. To finish off, we went to Taj Ice Cream to try their special 131-year-old recipe. It was delicious! All in all, most of what we tried was really good and we ended up going back later in the week for more!
Another night we ventured across Mumbai to White Owl Brewery for dinner. I heard there were lots of great craft breweries in the city, so we figured we had to try one. We figured out the train system ($0.15 for a ride across the city) and joined the hundreds of locals crammed in the cars like sardines. We finally got to the brewery and were a little early for dinner, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We read some reviews that not all the breweries around have as good food as they do beer, but White Owl definitely delivered on both.
One day while walking down the street we had an interesting encounter. Casually coming down the sidewalk from the other direction was a huge bull (which isn’t out of the ordinary at all for India). Usually they just leave you alone, but we could tell he was sort of looking at us weird. Elly managed to quickly go around but then he trapped Cory and head butted him! Luckily Cory wasn’t hurt and managed to get away a second later, but it was a little scary in the moment. Once we were past the bull we were able to laugh about it with the Indian men behind us who had witnessed the whole thing.
The same group that did our street food tour, Reality Tours, also did loads of other tours around Mumbai, and one in particular caught our eye: Dharavi Slum tour. This is actually the same slum that’s featured in Slumdog Millionaire. We looked up reviews and they were all overwhelmingly positive about the ethicalness of the company and spoke of how the tour was an eye-opening experience. Dharavi is one of the largest slums in the world, with an area less than 1 square mile but having a population of over 1 million. The goal of Reality Tours is to educate people and change their perception on what slums are truly like. 80% of all profits from tours go back directly into the community, through their sister-NGO Reality Gives. Reality Gives runs great quality education programs in areas such as Dharavi. No pictures were allowed on the tour out of respect for the locals. During the tour we walked through both commercial and residential sections of Dharavi. No photography was allowed on the tour out of respect for the residents. We started in the commercial section and saw a wide range of business activities, such as recycling, leather tanning, bakeries, embroidery, garment-making, pottery-making, and more. Metal and plastic come from all over Mumbai (and beyond) to be recycled here and supplied back to manufacturers. We saw people making suitcases and some dress shirts, all of which are sent to manufacturers that put a (fake) brand name label on them and sell them on the streets of Mumbai. They don’t advertise that the goods come out of Dharavi, but if you’ve ever wondered where your fake brands come from, it may be places like this! There are an estimated 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories within Dharavi. Goods made here are exported all over the world, and the total annual turnover of all industries here is estimated to be almost US$1 billion per year. Sadly, this is not reflected in daily wages for workers, who can make roughly 200 to 700 rupees per day (US$3.06 to $10.72) depending on the job. A lot of the workers come from smaller villages in India and come to Dharavi for 10 months or so of the year and send money back home to their families. A lot end up living in the same factories that they work in, giving the owners employees that are on time to work and giving the employees a free place to stay.
We were also taken through the residential section of the slum, where we wandered through maze-like alleyways to see the many houses stacked upon each other. We also saw a few local playgrounds, as well as schools, hospitals, markets, and other stores. It was very much its own city within a city. During the tour we had many local kids come up to us to wave and say hello. We chatted with a few and had simple English conversations such as “how are you” and “what is your name.” One boy said we both had nice names, so we have that going for us. There was tons of diversity here, with temples, mosques, churches and pagodas all strewn throughout the area. Most of the residents have electricity running through their homes, as well as running water (only for 3 hours a day, however). Unfortunately, sanitation is a big problem in the slum, as there are very few private bathrooms and limited public ones, lots of which are dirty and broken down. Many residents resort to going in the streets, which leads to the spread of contagious diseases. The local river is also used, and has trash dumped into it as well. There have been many plans to re-develop Dharavi, but none have fully gone through so far. The latest plan involves constructing housing and resettling residents into 350 sq ft alternate accommodations. Many residents are opposed, especially if they currently have larger accommodations now. Others are concerned that their small informal businesses will not be re-located. This is currently an ongoing conversation in Mumbai. We ended our tour by visiting some of the community centers and seeing the school that Reality Gives set up in Dharavi. There was a variety of classes taught here such as English and Computer skills. It was cool seeing the good that the company is doing in the area; our guide even told us that she had learned English through those same classes. Overall, it was a very interesting experience seeing the slum first-hand and seeing that it wasn’t quite like what one might imagine. Some was definitely accurate to what we thought, such as the cramped housing and unsanitary living conditions. Otherwise, it was fascinating to see the wide-range of business going on and how many people were actively working to improve their lives and conditions. We came across many friendly people and while their living situation is far from great, they are still doing their best with what they have. Despite the conditions, Dharavi didn’t give off a depressing vibe; lots of people smiled and waved and just seemed to be trying to live their lives just like everybody else. The tour was absolutely something that won’t be quickly forgotten.
All photos used here picturing Dharavi are used courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel.
Our Reality Tours guides. For the food tour we had Balaji, Janna, and Rajesh. For the Dharavi tour we had Simran. All were great!