Daily Dose of Beauty: Mumbai

Daily Dose of Beauty: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos and stories from my archives, shared with you as we shelter in place.

April 6th, 2020

For the past few days, as countries all over the world address the crisis at hand, I’ve been thinking about India. The country’s population (1.3 billion) and lack of infrastructure add two enormous complexities beyond the already difficult and unprecedented situation nearly every country is dealing with. The images of people trying to leave Delhi for their home villages (as people lose their jobs and the country goes on lock-down) are overwhelming.

For today’s Daily Dose, I’m recycling a post about Mumbai that many of you have already read and commented on. It’s a post from 2016 when I spent ten memorable days in the city.

Not a single one of us knows how the story of this pandemic ends, but I can’t help thinking that for India our collective compassion, hope and aid may be especially needed.

Is there a country you’re thinking about or particularly concerned for? I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Until tomorrow,
Kelly

Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful, lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

The people of Mumbai are doing the best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai overwhelmed me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.

***

Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) Seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, it would be much worse.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Dharavi was full of hope, along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

***

Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.

***

Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.

***

Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I also  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from (currently living in Vancouver), then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? It’s imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.

***

Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did a lot of things in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak. then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”

***

24 comments

  • Jakarta has the most cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia and this has hit daily wagers in the city especially hard. Many of those who lost their income decided to go back to their hometowns, although from a public health perspective this is a very dangerous thing. But this is pale in comparison to what is happening in India.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Bama. So interesting to read what’s happening on the ground from bloggers located all over the world. I feel so powerless against this. Hope is the only thing we can offer to each other — especially the hope that people understand what they need to do and how they need to change their behavior to survive this. Much easier said than done many, many places. Wishing you continued health in Indonesia.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I am so happy you are doing these retrospectives! So good to read your posts and see your photographs. Of course you might guess the country I worry about is Mexico…the poor and impoverished in little towns throughout Mexico are going to suffer greatly, even more than they do regularly. The last I heard through someone’s post today is that they are not taking distancing very seriously as yet. Stay safe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Angel. It’s nice to be back to blogging and reconnecting with everyone again. I worry about Mexico, too. It’s so hard to know how well equipped (or not) everyone around the world is. Friends of ours in Sayulita say the government has shut down the town so that’s good to hear. But it does seem that in all cases, distancing only goes into practice after the fact. In any case, hopefully warmer climates like India and Mexico have a bit of a benefit with the summer heat that’s on the way. We’ll see. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  • Like Angeline, I too worry about Mexico (and Brazil – oh my gosh!) because they have been very late to recognize the dangers. My husband’s business is focused in Mexico, and his colleagues have lamented the idiocy of AMLO’s approach; he was still roaming through crowds, kissing babies, and holding up amulets that he swore would keep the virus away very recently. Almost makes our own leader seem sensible, and that’s a feat!

    But it’s Africa I fear for most. If and when this hits in their big cities, the death toll will be terrible. As always, the poor and disenfranchised will pay the biggest price.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Lex. I hadn’t heard that about AMLO. Unreal. In times like this it becomes so apparent just how important leadership is. When leaders of countries carry on as normal, avoid putting containment measures in place or say things will just “pass through” and go away on their own, we should all be very, very alarmed. Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself trusting my own instinct more than some of the ridiculous things that have been said and forecasts that have been made. I fear for Africa too, and hope we make some progress in treatments soon that can be applied before the most vulnerable are affected.

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  • I love love LOVE this idea! I am missing travel, and to get to explore some incredibly beautiful places through stunning photography is a huge mood booster. Thank you for sharing hun! ❤

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  • Thanks, Kelly. A very interesting read with supporting photos. (I really liked the watermelons.) Your story on the Jain Temple reminded me of a story that Joseph Campbell told about a Jain who would wander through the city carrying a mattress and asking people who would pay him a small amount to feed the bedbugs. He would then put the mattress down and lie on it. –Curt

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    • Curt, you are so full of great stories! I had a really good laugh at that one. 🙂 I liked the watermelons too! So many and so beautifully stacked.

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      • Hey, Kelly, at 77, one should have a number of good stories lying around. Best to get them out before I forget them. 🙂 I’m always impressed when food products are artfully arranged. First time I’ve seen watermelon receive that kind of attention. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  • Oh India! I love it so much, and it is such a wreck. I’ve not been to Mumbai so enjoyed your stories a lot, and your photos. It seems very much like Delhi only we didn’t do a tour of the slums and wish we had. Nothing like a little realness to ground you.
    I too worry about places like Mexico, India and Africa.
    Alison

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  • I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about India’s situation. As packed is the cities are, I can only imagine how bad it could get. Despite the attitudes or certain people in power, I think this pandemic will be with us for a while, as each region has to take a reality check. (Although reality checks seem outside the bounds of certain… nah, I won’t go there.)

    These recent posts have made me wonder how many countries/states/provinces you’ve been to. Do you have a count?

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    • I agree with you Dave. The pandemic will be with us for a while and some countries will definitely be far more affected than others. New Zealand has been particularly vigilant in its fight and is having great results. Isolation and a low population surely help its cause.

      Hadn’t thought about US states, but I just counted up the number and I’m at 24 so far. Regarding countries, I’m in the neighborhood of 47-48 depending on what qualifies (yes or no on Scotland? Vatican City is tiny but independent; do you count islands/territories in the Caribbean? Yes and no…). I don’t include countries where I’ve only passed through the airport. I was hoping to pick off a few more this year but we’ll see what happens. How about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Serves me right, I had to go make lists to figure out my counts. The Europe list I cribbed from didn’t include Scotland (rolled into UK), but did count Northern Ireland and the Vatican. I counted Bonaire and Turks and Caicos as independent countries, although they have ties with Netherlands and England. Anyway, I came up with 28 countries and 29 states (a couple of the states mostly drive through.) I didn’t count airport only’s either.

        And yesterday, we were originally to depart to country #29 (Mexico). Guess I’ll have to think of something else to blog about for the next four or five months…

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      • Sweet! Virtual high five to all of our travels! Haven’t been to Bonaire or T&C yet but both look like wonderful destinations. So sorry to hear your Mexico adventure has been sidelined for now. Where were you headed? An amazing country awaits you — so much history, culture, beautiful geography, friendly people and delicious food. And it’s so close and easy to get to!!! Looking forward to the posts hopefully in the not too distant future. I have a few of my own to catch up on — Chichen Itza, Coba and Ek Balam. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve often thought it odd that with as many countries as I’ve been to, I have yet to visit our neighbor to the south. We were to go on a tour running between Mexico City and Cancun (with a couple extra days added at the end for diving.) BTW, I noticed there were a couple more countries I hadn’t included on my “been there” list – including the United States. 🙄

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  • You have beautifully captured the essence of Mumbai. Very well written. Situation here in India is way better than any other countries in the world considering the amount of population we have! Thank you dear, I understand how much concerned you are. I really enjoyed the pictures. I stay around 150 kms from Mumbai. 🙂

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    • Hello! Thank you so much for getting in touch. It’s so wonderful to hear that India is doing well considering the population. I was reading a few days ago that Kerala has been very efficient at fighting the virus. This is all such good news. I have continued hope and best wishes for you and for India. Stay healthy! Thank you for reading my blog. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • The city’s density is rather worrying for the spread of COVID-19. Right now, there are efforts to curb the spread. I’ve never seen Mumbai so quiet and empty, its very eerie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good thing. Wonderful to hear that people in Mumbai are following the rules to stop the spread. It is strange to see the world quiet and still, isn’t it? Thank you so much for getting in touch! It’s great to hear Mumbai is doing its best. Wishing you continued health, Simran! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • very informative and useful. Thanks you.

    Liked by 1 person

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