A couple of weeks ago, as I’m sure you know, I spent 5 incredible days in Mumbai, India. And though my time there was all-too-fleeting, I came back having had some unforgettable experiences and having made some beautiful memories. There is too much for me to share in one post so I’m going to break it down a bit, starting with what I truly believe was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire and renowned for being one of the largest slums in the world (home to almost 1 million people), the Dharavi Slum was on my list of places to visit long before I booked this trip to India. I was fascinated by the lifestyle, the culture and curious as to whether the movie accurately represented life there for its residents. So on my final day, I visited; I took a 4-hour-long guided walking tour of the slum. Perhaps it’s the fact that I did it on my last day that has allowed my memory of it to remain so vivid but it’s not an experience I could forget in a hurry.
The first thing that really hit me was the sheer size of it. As I stood on the bridge between the main road and the entrance to the slum, I looked over at the thousands of tin roofs, the rubbish heaps that littered the alleyways between them and the throngs of people weaving their way in and out. It is unquestionably a world in itself and a world that sadly, many residents will never know any different to. Thousands of them have never set foot outside of the slum – and never will in their lifetime. Because while some travel outside for work, the slum has its own operating economy, with numerous households employing the residents for industries such as leather, silk and pottery. So often, there is no need.
The second thought that I couldn’t shake was that the lifestyle that I was observing: the smells, the sights, the lack of space, the lack of hygiene – was the everyday reality for the people that live there. No documentary and no Google image can prepare you for standing in the middle of a slum, witnessing poverty with your own eyes. Or actually, for feeling so intrusive on another community. I have to be honest in saying that I never felt particularly welcome during my entire stay in India. The natives appeared to be, by nature, territorial and quite defensive of their property. They didn’t appreciate tourists. And though in the slum itself, I felt perfectly safe (aside from being under strict instruction not to make eye contact with or smile at the men – more on that later) and honoured to be there, learning, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was trespassing. I saw two other groups of tourists during those 4 hours and the smiles exchanged were like a big, reassuring hug. Being the minority at times did feel uncomfortable.
But the tour was fantastic. We covered the commercial areas, the residential areas, were told explicitly where we could and couldn’t take photos and informed every step of the way about the operation of the economy and the routines of the residents. We watched goods being made, spoke to the workers and I even had a beautiful silk scarf made for me, dip-dyed baby blue before my very eyes. And everyone we spoke to or interacted with (for the most part) was friendly and willing to communicate. Though this was only in the trading and business regions, as both eye contact and conversation with the locals in the residential areas was strictly forbidden. We were to walk down the alleyways (some of them barely shoulder-width) with our heads down, resisting the urge to peek inside the single box rooms that lined them – some of them home to families of 6 or more. This, though incredible to see, was notably uncomfortable, especially as we had been told how hostile the residents can be. It was also heartbreaking - it was the epitome of poverty.
I can’t end this post by saying that the residents looked happy or that they seemed satisfied with their quality of life. In fact, far from it. But they have a safe, fully-functioning community that is fascinating to learn about. As a tourist in India, visiting the Dharavi Slum should definitely be on your to-do list. It’s eye-opening, the tours are incredibly informative and certainly change your perspective slightly too. Poverty is no longer a concept that you hear about on Comic Relief or see an advert about on the tube, it becomes something that you have witnessed with your own eyes, something that you suddenly develop thoughts and feelings about, based on your own experience. You’ll lose yourself in those few hours, forgetting the world that exists outside of the slum and immersing yourself solely in the culture within it. It’s so powerful.
So if you do ever get the opportunity, go. You won’t regret it.