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Archive for February, 2014

A farewell to India

Despite an abundance of time and an endless source of inspiration, we find ourselves hopelessly behind in keeping our travel diary up to date. I feel compelled to try and recall every precious moment from attempted burglary to humbling acts of kindness but with only a few days left before we make our way to the Nepalese border that seems almost impossible… but we shall do our best.
Goa and Hampi…
We leave Mumbai in the dead of night on a train bound for Goa. The attendant hands out sheets, a thick blanket and a disappointingly thin pillow. I ask him for another but he ignores me. Perhaps he didn’t understand my request so I ask again but get the same silent outcome. I wait for him to move into the next carriage and then liberate one from the linen closet which he has left unlocked.

Palolem Beach

Palolem Beach

We arrive in the morning at Madgoan, a small station enveloped by jungle thirty kilometres north of Palolem beach. The rickshaw drivers are as ever keenly waiting. We ask to be taken to the bus station which is 2km away. The driver has other ideas and insists on taking us all the way to the beach for 700 rupees. Apparently there are no direct busses, in fact we are told we shall have to endure the inconvenience of changing twice. He seems perplexed and angered by our apparent lack of faith and verbally scolds us several times in his native tongue. The bus costs 30 rupees each and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly runs direct all the way to the beach without so much as a single transfer.

Beach Cows

Beach Cow

Palolem Beach is a pleasant cove of Palm trees, brown sand and colourful jelly bean shacks. I feel immediately disconnected with India. I won’t deny that it has its charms but this could be anywhere in the world. A generic beachside backpacker’s playground of deck chairs, pool tables and bars selling cheap beer. There is the occasional wondering cow and one staff member who wears a Ghandi shirt just to remind me of where I am.
Despite a lack of genuine sub-continent culture we are fortunate to meet up with a number of interesting people. Dan and Sophie from Australia, Hillary and Dan from the United States who were on our bus, and Imogen, whom we met 9 months ago while travelling on the crippled train from Zambia to Tanzania. Seeing her is at first a surreal experience. It reminds me of just how far we have come since we last saw her on another continent that lies thousands of miles away across the Indian Ocean. She introduces us to Shaun a dry humoured and quick witted Brit who is attempting to lose weight with a diet of gin and strawberry cigarettes. His philosophies are pleasantly independent and truthfully crushing.

 

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy, Anna, Imogen, Emma and Shaun

Jimmy a friend from the US is currently waging a verbal war against him and accuses Shaun on a daily basis of being a Pirate. From what I gather a Pirate is an aging old man who has become institutionalised by the beach and walks around bare chested trying to pick up ladies of a younger generation. Imogen and Jimmy have even nicknamed his motorbike the Black Pearl and relentlessly mock him with a “piratical” voice. As I said this place has little to do with India but despite some contempt and overpriced beach shacks we have a pleasant week among the palm trees and the soft thud of waves dumping on the sand at night.

Boat ride Goa
Five hours east of Goa on a slow moving train is a small settlement set among the ruins of a much older civilisation. The landscape is dominated by millions of broken and weathered boulders. Some of them appear placed in impossible positions as if discarded by some giant from a bygone era. Among the jumbled rocks are palm tree groves and rice paddy fields filled with white cranes. It’s a soothing scene that begs exploration. We hire some small fixed gear motor bikes for only 150 rupees a day which is just over $2.00 USD and go exploring the back roads with our friends from the bus back in Goa. The roads are in terrible condition but most of the traffic is restricted to slender white cows decorated with flowers and pulling wagons loaded with harvested crops. Most of the drivers are children and they wave excitedly with each passing.

Hampi Ruins

Hampi Ruins

It’s not long before the dishevelled road claims its first victim. Dan from Australia drops the chain while going over a bump. I think back home this would prove a small disaster but here in India help and improvisation are never far away. Within moments expert chai wallahs and mechanics of dubious experience surround us. We take a seat at the request of our hosts on some old plastic chairs provided and sip some masala chai. In between cups the chain links are pounded by youths wielding Stone Age tools. I have complete faith in their methods and perseverance but no so much in their time frame. By sheer coincidence one of the bike rental owners is passing by and stops. He phones back to the shop and within thirty minutes another bike is delivered. Our situation is saved and we are free to continue getting lost in the Hampi landscapes.

Sons of Hampi

Sons of Hampi

Kerala…
I wake each morning to sound the sound of Brahman chants. I get a sense of their general direction but their exact location is difficult to determine. They seem to permeate a forest that is alive with the chatter of birds and bells ringing from afar.
The Gowri Guesthouse is a Mecca for mosquitos. Its meandering paths are pleasant and shaded by an assortment of tropical trees. The tiny vampires seem to thrive in such conditions and make a regular feast upon my ankles and arms. I have tried using Deet but this only dries the skin creating an uncontrollable itch. Outside the entrance on a busy street is a wagon selling fruit. I have developed a liking for his oranges which come cheaply at 6-7 rupees each depending on their size. Every morning and sometimes in the evening he hands me a small bag for 30 rupees. They are easy to peel and very sweet. Since our time in Pakistan I have been gaining weight despite my best efforts not to do so. Perhaps I am hoping a citrus intervention can arrest the problem. Emma on the other hand has suffered no such gains but she regularly insists she is becoming flabby from lack of exercise. She coins the phrase skinny fat for her current condition.

Kerala Backwaters

Kerala Backwaters

I survey my breakfast while slapping my ankles with slight disappointment. I think it is difficult for other nations to prepare food that is foreign to them. I am sure most Australians would fail miserably at making Masala much to the amusement of our current hosts. They on the other hand seem to struggle with toast. It is never toasted long enough and arrives limp and cold. Warm bread with a slight singe is the best way to describe it. The pineapple juice by comparison is a masterpiece. Out on the street men bang throw and twirl doe into paratha with apparent ease but something as simple as toast is a struggle. I probably should be having a local breakfast but I can’t bring myself to eat Indian Takeaway three times a day.

Chinese Fishing nets

Chinese Fishing nets

Kerela waters
Our reason for coming to Kerala is to explore its world famous backwaters. A series of lakes and interlocking canals that stretch for over a 100km along the coast of the Arabian Sea. A vast flotilla of house boats plough the waters. Their appearance range from cheap and gaudy to chic and traditional. We inspect several disappointing vessels that have had plaster boards and aluminium windows installed. It’s not the image we had in mind but then we discover Spice Coast Tours. Their boats have been kept traditional with exposed knots and wooden beams. The floors are covered with sea grass mats and the windows are shaded by bamboo screens. Not an ounce of modern tacky building materials to be found.
Life along the backwaters is a serene experience. We spend the next few days with Dan and Sophie watching Kerala life gently slip by.

Kerala Backwaters

Our Boat

Spice Coast Tours

Kerala Sunset

Cruising backwaters

Dan Emma and Sophie

Tamil Nadu…
The Western Ghats or spine of India is a mountain range that runs all the way down to the southern tip of the sub-continent. We seem drawn to this point of land where India runs out and we are confronted by 10,000km of open water that stretches unbroken all the way to Antarctica. It feels like a significant moment on our Trans global journey, almost like the topping out ceremony of a building.

Cape Comorin

Most southern person in India

Emma places her feet in the sea and for one short moment she is the most southern person in all of mainland India. Not bad when you consider there is over a billion people. To our right and far to the south is the Cape of Good Hope where we started almost a year ago. To our left and across a turbulent sea is Singapore, but our way there is directly behind us. We turn our backs on the Indian Ocean and head away from the sea on a northward journey that will take us back up to the Himalayas and the roof of the world.

Tamil Nadu

Riding the rails in Tamil Nadu

Our skills in acquiring rail tickets are improving but our destinations in Tamil Nadu are proving difficult to pronounce. I stand in a busy line with some degree of stage fright knowing my big moment is fast approaching. The Tamil language is laced with a tongue tying amount of syllables. As a result they have learnt to speak at an incredible speed. I practice my request over and over desperately trying to increase the speed of delivery but how is one expected to say “two tickets from Tiruchirappalli to Tiruvannamalai” in two seconds. Despite my rehearsals nerves get the better of me and I spew forth a rapid fire nonsense of T’s without the slightest comprehension and meaning to the recipient. I resort to passing through a note book with a written request, and lucky for us most of the India rail staff can read English.

Trichy Market
On his journey across Asia centuries ago Marco Polo described Tamil Nadu as the finest Provence in all the world. The British considered it the jewel in their Empire. So fertile are the lands they yielded three harvests per year. The southern cities of India are dominated by vast Hindu temples with towers that are encrusted with thousands of colourful gods, goddesses and demons. They are unique to the south and possibly the most impressive is great temple of Meenakshi in Madurai.
To enter through the gates early in the morning is like stepping into another time. Like ancient Athens where locals stop and pray to the city’s female deity on a daily basis. The grand corridors are lined with vast stone columns that support a decorative and colourful roof. Early morning sun light punches through the smoke from incense and as always musicians beat drums and blow horns.

Madurai

Madurai

The doorway to the inner sanctum is flanked with fresh banana leaves and carved reliefs of gods that are smeared with clarified butter and spices. A Brahman priest chants verses from the Rig-Veda. The air is perfumed with flowers, this is a mysterious place filled with energy and most of all devotion. We watch with fascination as the rituals are performed.
Bursting out of the calamity is an eruption of bells. A fully grown Elephant strides around the corner and walks past us. She is adorned with strings of bells that ring out like machine gun fire as she passes. She comes to a stop and pilgrims stand in front of her to receive a blessing. She curls her trunk takes the money and then taps their head with her trunk before placing the money in a bucket. We wait in line and hand her a coin but her trunk remains still. It seems that foreigners must pay with at least a note. How she can distinguish and determine who can use a coin and who has to use a note is mystifying. I look to see if the owner gives her any signals but he is not even looking. As with all costs in India we relent and hand the racist elephant 10 rupees. Her trunk lifts and gently thuds on our head.

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

Sri Meenakshmi Temple

On a bus somewhere in India…
The Indians seem unaware or incapable of evasive action. There are no potential problems or at least when it comes to road rules. Our bus is hurtling through a corridor of trees, shaving motor bikes, branches and pedestrians. Tanned skin and rusted metal are separated by mere millimetres. Just a few steps back would allow room for error, but none are ever taken. No eye contact is made, no acknowledgments given. They are either uncaring, fatalistically trusting or perhaps they just have superior judgement of distance and speed. Even the dogs seem ambivalent and remain fastened to the road, yawning while five tons of angry metal bare down upon them.
I have noticed that most of the bus horns in the south of India are less musical than their northern cousins. A few days ago one sounded a like a dying duck but today’s version is definitely akin to an enraged goose. We enter a small village at breakneck speed. The buildings and traffic close in. The outraged goose honks loudly in protest. More emotionless eyes and expressionless faces. It’s hard to understand and I remind myself that this is India, this is a just a part of how other people live. A life that is at times very different to my own, yet surely they must value this life, or are we too careful and defensive. Avoiding a speeding bus is probably a poor example but it does get me thinking. One thing is certain when it comes to playing chicken and showing no sign of fear the Indians are the world champions.

Hindu priest

On a train heading north…
The kilometres are ticking by, kilometres closer to Singapore, kilometres I won’t see again. The present quickly becomes the past. We are passing through lands that are foreign to me. Lands that are in no way connected to my home. There is a small boy who can’t be more than 6 years of age wearing a red shirt. He is guiding a buffalo more than twenty times his size with nothing more than a small thin stick. The large grey beast dutifully obeys without protest. The boy seems to enjoy his delicate position of power and gives it a whack just for good measure. Leaving Chennai the fields at first are fertile with crops. Tall stringy palms dot the country side along with electrical towers. The dense forests of Kerala are far behind us now.

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

All the houses in the south have these beautiful patterns drawn outside the front door

The green rice paddies dance and swirl in the afternoon breeze. The corn stalks rustle and lean over to one side. We pass shallow pools of water and small flocks of white cranes that scatter in all directions as our train gives a blast of its horn. Unlike the busses it’s a distant cry, a comforting and romantic tune of travel; of making progress on our journey. The world loves trains and Indians are no exception. People hear it coming and rush to their doors to watch it pass. They often wave. I see people of all ages flashing by me. For a few seconds we connect, make eye contact, smile and then they are gone. If only they knew how far I have travelled to see them.

Thanjavur

Thanjavur

The sun starts its daily descent towards the western horizon. A stout man walks past the garbage bin and throw his paper plates smeared with curry and rice out the open door in which I am standing. It catches on the metal handle and he bends down and flicks it into the lake below us. He asks me where I am going without any shame or concern. I tell him we are travelling to Jalgoan. How many days you in India? This is a common question that is asked. I tell him four months. He appears a little shocked which is a common response. His English is not so good but I appreciate his efforts to communicate. The Indians are a friendly and inquisitive people. With every new stranger that makes my acquaintance I can see Hussein smiling at me. I can feel his grip as we shook hands through the window when the train pulled out of Jaipur. We Indians are very accommodating peoples and indeed they are.

robin
Jaisalmer…
Not since leaving Egypt in early July have we seen any lands that resemble desert. I pull the curtain across to see a magnificent sunrise over a golden stretch of dry land. As we pull into Jaisalmer station I can see the castle for which it is famous rising out of the desert like a tired travellers dream. It appears to have been built using gigantic buckets of sand.
We are met by Johnny a tout who works for the Deep Mahal located inside the citadel. We have no real idea of where to stay so taking a look at Johnny’s place seems a good start. The rooms in Jaisalmer are some of the best value in all of India. Sweeping views of the old city and the Jain temples with soft beds and authentic decorations. The Deep Mahal is excellent value with rooms around 500-600 rupees for a double. We continue our search which eventually takes us to the Suraj Haveli. I never discover if Gukal is the owner or simply works there but he takes me to a stunning room with 8 stone pillars that is over 400 years old. The walls are covered with fading art work and the ceiling has original wooden beams. The room opens on to the tight alley below with 3 massive windows that are shielded by wooden doors and drapes that hang from the ceiling. It is an incredible room but I try to look impartial.

Our room in Jaisalmer

Our room in Jaisalmer

I manage to keep my negations tough but friendly and our staying for 5 nights helps to secure a good price of 1500 rupees per night or around $30.00 USD. I think this to be one of the most atmospheric and best value rooms I have ever stayed in.
The same must be said of Jaisalmer itself. We fall instantly in love with the beauty and character of this charming city. Almost every building is constructed with the same honey coloured sandstone and the overall effect is simply exquisite. Waking up every morning in our magnificent room, opening the shutters and looking out over the Jain temples is a daily pleasure.

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The locals in Jaisalmer are as beautiful as the city in which they live. The men wear bright coloured turbans and sport vast moustaches. The women are draped in silver chains and arm bands. Their tough and worn feet are adorned with shiny ankle bracelets and toe rings with semi-precious stones. Their noses are pierced with large rings that are connected to their earrings with chains.

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The fort was once protected by soldiers, but is now guarded by six ladies. They have taken position at the entrance to the fort. No tourist may pass into the citadel without exposure to a robust sales pitch. They seem to have developed and deployed an attack based on guilt and future promises to return later. With each pass I am admonished for breaking a promise I never made. They are charming and good natured and eventually our defences are weakened. We buy a pair of chunky ankle bracelets for 300 rupees. I can’t be sure if this is fair or not but it’s a lot less than the starting price of 700!

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Varanasi…
After many months we return to the banks of the Ganges River. It feels a long time ago that we swam in the Ganges at Rishikesh. The water here in Varanasi may be less inviting to the tourist but not so for the millions of Hindus that live in India.
The streets are chocked and dirty with mud and manure from last night’s rain. I survey the tangled mess, it looks like an aneurism of automobiles mixed with a coronary of cars. Despite these critical symptoms there is no sign of the city suffering a stroke. The resilience and persistence of society is at its most extreme here in India. I am reminded how tenacious life can be. We retreat into the tight alleys where Rickshaws and cars cannot follow, but this doesn’t stop the motorbikes. The horns are deafening. We find a boatman and take refuge out on the water, at last we are in a place of calm. The sun is trying to break through a dense fog. It eventually succeeds and glows golden on the water. It’s our penultimate day in India, where did four months go?

Sadhu in Varanasi

Sadhu in Varanasi

I think about the morning we crossed a white line at the border with Pakistan. Ahead was a sign with one word… India. It was a new country with adventures yet to be discovered.
To me India will always be loud horns, confident cows and stray dogs looking for love. The clatter of rickshaws engines, the shouting of Chai wallahs and chanting of priests and pilgrims. Spicy food, stuffed tomatoes and delicious saffron lassis. Head wobbles and warm smiles. Stupidity and improvising genius but always curiosity and hospitality. No more will I watch a magical world of colourful saris and fields filled with golden flowers flash by from the open door of a train in the morning… and for that I am sad.

The Ganges at Varanasi

The Ganges at Varanasi

I take in the last of this beautiful and extreme country that has been our home for four months. I think about Mr Butt up in Kashmir, Mrugank and Shridhar in Mumbai. Our new friends Sophie and Dan who made travel in southern India so much fun for four weeks. US Dan and Hillary who convinced us all to hire motor bikes. Matt in Madurai who was a bundle of infectious energy and then there are so many people who came into our lives for just a few precious moments. Who took the time to point us in the right direction, or helped carry our bags off a train. The crazy bus drivers, the persistent off road rickshaw men and even the hotel touts. They all helped to keep that long peel going.
So with this in mind we would like to thank you India. It seems fitting that as I write these last words I stand before the burning Ghats in Varanasi. The river is alight with candles and the black night is filled with glowing embers. We shall miss our time with you very much, but it’s time to leave and continue on our journey.

Mehndi

Thank you India for taking us in and showing us an amazing time

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There will come a time when our luck runs out but that time it seems is not tonight. I receive a text telling me that our seats for Mumbai are now RAC or “reservation against confirmation.” I have no idea what this means, so I call Mrugank to find out. My hearing is not the best and listening to his accent over a mobile phone with station announcements in the background is not helping.
We first met Mrugank and his friend Shridhar four years ago while trekking in Nepal. We were playing cards at the high camp on the Annapurna circuit and they asked if they could join us. Say what you will of Facebook, but if anything it is an excellent way to stay in touch with people you meet while travelling. But we never expected to be invited to Shridhar’s wedding in Mumbai as a result.
Mrugank explains that RAC means that one of our sleeping berths have been confirmed. It allows us to board the train and share the berth if necessary. It might also mean that at the last minute the other passengers on RAC will not turn up and then we get a berth each. The intricacies and classifications of India rail continue to confound me. Mrugank laughs over the phone. Yah it’s even difficult for us to understand don’t worry.
I spot a couple of other foreigners sitting in the gloom at the end of the platform. Ryan is suffering from a bad stomach and looks grateful to be hidden in the darkness. He also happens to be my other RAC partner. Emma is paired up with an unseen Indian lady who is 65. We only know this because it’s on the seating chart stuck to the side of the carriage. Amy doesn’t have a berth confirmed at all. She asks what they should do. I tell them with full confidence to just get on the train and the conductor should be able to work something out.
We pull out of Udaipur forty minutes before midnight with four people sharing 2 berths. The 65 year old Indian Lady never shows. It’s not long before the conductor turns up. Emma is in the clear and technically has her own berth, but in reality the situation is that we might have to share and let Amy and Ryan have his berth. Fortunately the conductor has room for Ryan in another berth and manages to get Amy a berth until seven in the morning. After this we shall need to share again. It’s a fair result given the predicament. I think about the station master in Jammu who lectured me in the power of positive thinking. I originally received his teachings with scepticism but I am beginning to think myself a convert now.
I wake early the next morning. Sometime during the night and in between a fitful nights sleep we passed through the tropic of cancer. I could hear the train horn faint and constant in the distance. I flip the catch on the lock and open the door of our speeding train. I buy a masala chai for 7 INR and watch India flash by in the morning light. The first thing I notice is an increase in humidity and an abundance of Palm trees. The dawn fogs that had settled over Rajasthan are now gone.

Bollywood Girl

Bollywood Emma

The sun is directly above us as we pull into Mumbai. We say goodbye to Ryan and Amy and look around for Mrugank. I am not entirely sure I will recognise him. I needn’t worry as a voice calls out my name. He is much taller than I remember and looks very different to his profile photo. This is a result of having to conform to his company’s personal appearance standards. The long hair and neat beard are gone, but he laughs this off. He drives us into an area of Mumbai known as Kemps corner. On the way we pass by an office block that is actually the private residence of the richest man in India. The building is over 30 stories tall and is the most expensive home in the world.

Colaba district in Mumbai

Colaba district in Mumbai

Arriving into Mumbai is like entering another country. It is completely different to the India of the north. There are large billboards with the latest Bollywood babes and gothic style apartment blocks covered in grime. The taxis have meters that work and the drivers use them generally without question. They even manage to some degree to stay within the lanes. The traffic is dense in parts but nowhere near as manic as that in Delhi or Jaipur. Mumbai has an essence of many other cities. It’s like a tropical version of London. The university and its clock tower are like a south Asian account of the Houses of parliament and Big Ben. The wide boulevards are reminiscent of Paris with Palm trees. There are New York nightclubs mixed with the bustle of Bangkok and domes from the Middle East Yet despite all these foreign familiarities Mumbai is very much an Indian city with its own identity. The more time we spend walking the streets the more we both feel draw in by her charms

Gateway to India

The Gateway to India

Possibly the greatest of these 19th century masterpieces is Victoria Rail Terminus. Built by the British in their own image, it was to be a symbol of the Empire for centuries to come. Now it sits among the palm trees and pepper vines like an aging expat overdressed and sweating in the tropics. Its legacy now belongs to the people of India.

Victoria Terminus Mumbai

Victoria Terminus

We meet up with Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopold’s for some reminiscing and beers. We muse over our time in Africa and back to our meeting in Nepal. More importantly we get a briefing on the wedding plans. Our current wardrobe is a little ragged and not really appropriate for weddings, but the guys have solved this problem and organised some traditional clothes for us both to wear… if we are game. The chance to see a real Indian wedding in Bombay wearing local clothes is an exciting prospect. We visit a friend of Mrugank who has some dresses for Emma. Mrugank who is much taller than myself must have dug into some of his childhood wardrobe. Actually Indian clothes are very forgiving. The pants are meant to gather around the shins and the tunic hangs just a few inches lower than is normal.

Leopolds Bar Mumbai

Mrugank and Shridhar at Leopolds in Mumbai

It’s the day before the wedding. I wake early as I do every morning in India. The daily ritual of sweeping, shouting and banging of just about everything echoes in the corridors. I am convinced that the Indians are incapable of quiet. This is of course an asset when it comes to festivals, parades and cultural ceremonies, but not when one is trying to sleep. Every morning at an ungodly hour we are woken by domestic tourists leaving their rooms and staff that shout instructions to each other down stone stairwells. I glance at the clock, its 6.00am. The barrage continues to around 7.30 when for some inexplicable and untimely reason it all becomes calm. In my opinion the worst offenders are young boys, who are making as much noise as possible before maturing into men and middle aged women, who seem to be making up for lost time and a childhood spent in relative silence. Whatever their motivations they are the principals of noise.

Worlds most expensive home

Worlds most expensive home

Ten Kilometres north of Colaba is a small area of Mumbai known as the Dharavi Slum. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a question mark regarding slum tourism. In fact the word itself is a little distasteful when you think about it. However these slums are an important part of life in Mumbai and other parts of the world. Around 65% of Mumbai’s population live in slums and this certainly does come as a surprise. We are not overly keen on taking a tour. Personally I don’t like the idea of being led around in a group, especially if it makes locals feel awkward. We decide instead to compromise and visit on our own.
We walk to Churchgate station which is a pleasant kilometre stroll from Colaba. It’s midmorning when we arrive, the peak of traffic has passed but Churchgate is buzzing with activity by most cities standards. The ticket to Mahim which is the closest stop to Dharavi only cost 10 rupees. A rather fat train pulls into platforms 1 and 2. This is so people can exit on both sides. The interior of carriages appear partially stripped of seating allowing for wider doors and vital standing room. The metro trains in Mumbai have clearly evolved to cope with high volumes of passengers. Despite the vast interiors people still cling to the outside of the doors as we depart. It takes about 30 minutes to reach Mahim. I examine the rail map and each station carefully to make sure we don’t go too far.
We exit to the left of the station turn right and walk about 500 meters up a non-descript street before climbing some stairs that take us over the tracks. From the bridge we can see the sprawling rusted roofs of Dharavi ahead. We descend the stairs and enter one of the world’s most famous slums. The main street dissecting Dharavi is not unlike most you would see in India. A tangle of rickshaws, cows and overloaded carts. Men shouting over the top of metal workers hammering tin and copper. Fruit and vegetable vendors display their goods on blue tarpaulin. There are even a few fish mongers with an audience of mangy cats gathered around their feet.
The end of the road is bound by a filthy canal. The putrid water sits still and stagnant among rotting rubbish. It is by far the most disgusting body of water I have encountered. The smell forces us to retreat. We turn right and see a narrow dark entrance in between the buildings. A stream of people coming and going like ants into a nest. We follow them in through the narrow crack. The alley floor is covered with metal pipes, and dangling just above our heads are dozens of black electrical cables. It takes our eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. The alley twist and turns, occasionally the walls of the buildings separate a little but mostly they press against each other like peak hour commuters forming a manmade cave.
Despite the entanglement of infrastructure I am surprised to discover the alley is unexpectedly clean. We pass by houses that have trap doors open at the top of short staircases. The small rooms inside have tiled floors with painted walls and are far more liveable than I expected. Small children play on the stairs in clothes that have been washed and pressed. One young girl with yellow ribbons in her hair and a pristine white Shalwar Kameez greets us in perfect English and wave’s good bye as we pass. The locals seem a little surprised at first to see us alone and wandering in the shadowy corridors. Our passing causing only a small commotion of laugher. They seem happy to see us and some even bring their babies out to greet us. Our confidence grows and we delve deeper into the dark passages.
What we are seeing is not a slum or at least not what I was ignorantly expecting a slum to be. This is a community, a well ordered society with family, friends and neighbours. People who work in white collared jobs choose to live here and I am beginning to see why. If anything I am the one who feels dirty and unwashed in back packer clothes.
We emerge back into the light feeling a little hungry, but despite our new assessments we are not quite ready to tackle street samosas just yet. Instead we buy some bananas and oranges and eat them as we walk. I spot a barber shop oozing with old world charms. The timeworn chairs have cracked black upholstery and a squeaking pedal that adjusts the height. A small transistor radio is playing versus from the Koran. I stare at a scruffy reflection and ask for a full shave and a trim. The barber nods and forces my head back with firm hands. He sprays water of an unknown source over my face. I think about the dirty canal and press my lips together tightly. He then squeezes some cream in a stone bowl and begins stirring it into a lather. The foam is applied with a thick brush and dabbed into all my facial recesses. I begin to wonder if he is going to shave the inside of my nostrils. Time seems to be of no concern as the application of foam to face lasts over ten minutes.
He reaches for the razor and proudly unwraps a new blade making sure I am aware of its use. He presses a thumb to my temple and squeezes pulling the cheek tight. The razor descends with a tiny crackle leaving a trail or perfectly smooth skin. It’s a wonderful sensation. He wipes the mixture of cream and whiskers on a towel before proceeding. Such clean strokes, you can hear hundreds of whiskers being severed, the thin blade of metal against your skin, only a few degrees of angle preventing a blood bath. He completes the cheeks and neck leaving only the moustache. He asks again if I would like this left, almost resolute not to remove what is a national symbol in this country. I nod and he pinches my lips together, I can feel his thumb pressing into my mouth as he applies delicate short strokes to my upper lip. Outside a small group of men have gathered at the entrance. They watch with great interest a foreigner being shaved, but I think even more entertaining and unusual is the presence of a woman sitting in barber shop.
The first shave is completed. He unwraps another fresh blade and exchanges it. Holding it in front of me to make sure I can see no expense is being spared to ensure I get a quality service. He repeats the process and then more blast of water are sprayed onto my face. He then picks up a block of ice and rubs it all over my cheeks and neck. Another blast of water, then some cream is dabbed and rubbed into the skin. More squirts of water followed by a dusting of talcum powder. He reaches up to a shelf and pulls down an ancient bottle of after shave. It smells like an original batch of Old Spice. This he splashes into his hands and then slaps me about the face. Finally he starts to rub my scalp in order to solicit a massage. I tell him it’s very nice but I don’t have time. Despite my protests he continues. I decline a few more times and he eventually concedes. The whole treatment with hair cut has cost 120 INR or around $2.00

Wet shave

A close shave

We leave the slum with very different impressions. In the three hours we spend here not one person from the oldest man to the youngest child ever asked us for anything. No money, no pens, no sweets. Just warm smiles and kind greetings. This is a wonderful place, a place that has spirit and I do not mean to say this in a condescending way at all. It’s simply a good place to live. Perhaps other slums are different and three hours by no means makes you an expert, but from what we have seen Dharavi appears in no way a slum, a place without purpose or hope. To think of it this way would be completely wrong.

Mehndi

Sneha’s beautifully decorated hands

The day of the wedding starts early but not so much as it does for the bride and groom. They were both up at 3am receiving special blessings. We enter a hall that has been personally prepared for the service. On a stage is a small gazebo that has been bound with flowers. The bride and groom are wearing elaborate and colourful garments. Their faces are surrounded by strings of pearls. A few seats are occupied by only the eldest members of the congregation, everyone else is standing around and mingling. The order of ceremony seems very different to that we experience in the west. It appears that here the couple arrive first and wait for their guests. Just to add to the confusion it seems despite the activity on stage people do not take their seats but just stand around like we do once the ceremony is over, talking and taking pictures. Mrugank explains that they are going through some blessings by a Brahman priest before the main ceremony begins.

Indian Wedding

Sneha and the Shridhar the happy Bride and Groom

I am escorted to a seat where men are tying the heads of male guests in a turban. I bite on one end of the cloth while he pulls tight and embalms my head in layers of vibrant cotton. The transition from blessings to ceremony is not totally clear to me. No one ever really takes their seats. Then the wedding vows start. I can only assume that they must be of a steamy nature. The audience are in raptures with each line spoken. A series of unknown foreign promises met with excited gasps, applause and laughter. Then finally a part that is familiar, the throwing of rice but even this is done with extreme enthusiasm. They are both pelted over and over occasionally having to take cover.

With Mrugank

With Mrugank

Like most things I experience in India the ceremony feels chaotic and beautiful. Far more open and less stiff than our western ceremonies. The partying begins from the moment you enter the room. There are no clasped hands and hushed whispers. People are free to move around and come and go as they please.
We have had a wonderful time in Mumbai or Bombay as the locals still call it. We both feel very grateful to have been shown around by Mrugank and been able to attend the wedding of Sneha and Shridhar. When we started our trip we had no way of knowing 10 months later we would be at an Indian wedding. It’s these unexpected experiences that make travelling this way so exciting. Our time in Mumbai is now over and we must continue south to the beaches of Goa and onto Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

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