After ten days laying on the beach, we expected Mumbai to be an assault on our senses. We worried that its noisy, dirty, and crowded streets would make our time in the city unbearable. Instead we found a pleasantly walkable old city center with the most amazing collection of grand British buildings and parks hosting numerous cricket matches. We spent 3 days in the city and, for the first time this trip, we left wishing we could stay for a few more. We saw a lot, but it feels like we only scratched the surface of what Mumbai has to offer.
We arrived in Mumbai on an overnight train that rolled into the city before dawn. It was eerie walking to our hotel while the city was still sleeping. We wandered around the Fort district in the morning as the streets steadily filled with thousands of office workers who commute along India’s busiest rail lines. I loved this neighborhood. There were so many old buildings, some well maintained but many crumbling. The streets were busy with food vendors and carts delivering water by hand to restaurants and hotels and very few cars off the main thoroughfares.
We spent one morning getting a tour of the Dharavi slum, known as the largest slum in Asia and featured in Slumdog Millionaire. It was an eye opening experience. The area is much more developed than I expected. It felt less like a slum and more like a densely populated, unregulated neighborhood. Most of the buildings were permanent concrete, but there were also recycled tin walls and roofs. The area is split into an industrial and residential zone, with schools, apartment buildings, and markets along the main thoroughfares. The industrial area is home to a huge range of factories with migrant workers who sleep on the floors. Recycling is a big part of it – everything from plastics to paint cans to hotel soap is recycled in Dharavi. It is inspiring but dirty work. The fumes coming from the aluminum recycling were noxious.
Most people who live in the residential zone work outside the slum in Mumbai. The homes were tiny and accessed by alleys only wide enough for one person. But it was surprisingly clean. While the point of the tour is to show that there is a lot of legitimate economic activity happening in Dharavi, there are still some very serious sanitation issues. Garbage isn’t collected often enough so it’s put in the only open space around, which also happens to be where kids play. The tour company has a sister non-profit which is working to improve education in the area. They do an amazing amount of work, just from the profits of the tour company. Social enterprise alive and well in India!
Note: pictures of Dharavi are from Reality Tours, as they don’t allow camera on their tours.
The Enernoc team in Mumbai was kind enough to give me a tour of the office and take me out for dinner and lunch. I’m not ready to go back to work just yet, but I do miss my coworkers in Vancouver and writing code. Hopefully they’re not cursing me for being away for so long.
Getting around Mumbai by train was fun. It’s the busiest rapid trains network in the world with 7.5 million trips every day. We only took the train in off-peak hours, but we still witnessed the legendary overcrowding. On our first train ride we accidentally boarded an express train and had to double back a few stops, changing at the busy Dadar station. Up until then our train wasn’t that busy, but as we went to get off a human tsunami of people rushed to board. We were crushed but managed to push our way off the train. We also watched some of the rush hour craziness from a distance. So many people!
Mumbai is expensive. Even with two free meals courtesy of Enernoc colleagues, our costs were double what we’ve averaged in the rest of India. The cheapest hotel we could find in the Fort area that wasn’t a shit hole cost us $50 a night. Maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t spend more time in the city.
Next stop for us, the Ellora and Ajanta caves east of Mumbai.