Having finally come to the conclusion that it’s easier to describe a country when you’re actually there, I’m going to shelve China for a while and start with India. I’ve usefully just discovered how to make a word document on my Kindle enabling me to write offline and finally finish my piece on the Pinkmans banquet (do give it a read if you haven’t already). So despite honest intentions to keep up a consistent travel blog, I’m beginning over half way through, in the fourth country, having had a fabulous two months in Asia witnessing the entirety of the monsoon season.
Travelling around China was like doing a hard-core kungfu warm up before playing a game of cricket in the middle of an Indian motorway. For the second time we dived into the deep end and began exploring a ridiculously overpopulated country in one of its busiest cities. Naively thrilled at how smoothly we had arrived in Delhi, we optimistically began walking towards our hostel. Very quickly we were halted, redirected to a tourist office and misinformed that the hostel was closed and that the city was on lock down due to crazy people violently protesting against a rapist baba’s imprisonment. This part had some truth, they probably thought they’d lucked out, but thankfully we managed to avoid being convinced to pay £500 for a private driver around Rajasthan and hurriedly jumped on the last plane to Mumbai. Just ten minutes in and we’d learned ‘shanti shanti’ (chill chill) and drank lots of free chai, jokes on them. Beware of the tourist office scam!
One of our most fascinating experiences in Mumbai was probably the train ride in. Their metro is more modern than the tube, not hard to imagine, with the added benefit of having a considerably more spacious carriage just for women. We intended to show solidarity and stand with Joe but crumbled when we saw how packed the carriage was, gotta reap what you can from the gender divide. To get to the older part of the city we changed to the overground train which was literally like it is in the films: heartbreakingly emaciated people begging from the floor, people selling samosas wrapped in newspaper, people hanging out of the doorless moving packed trains, rattling fans and seemingly far too many hand holds covering the ceiling.
After some deliberation we decided to go on a tour of Mumbai’s biggest slum, Dharavi. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire you’ll recognise the jumble of iron roofs and alleyways from the scene at the beginning. Hashim, our tour guide, was very funny; Indians have a similar sense of humour to Brits, except probably more playful. He grew up in the slum, living as is custom with his whole family sharing one tiny room where they slept, cooked, ate and lived. His favourite joke was to warn us that the living quarters were shocking, as they quite literally were- tangles of exposed wires hung low across alleyways so tight that you often had to crouch or walk sideways.
Throughout the slum a strong sense of community and dignity is ubiquitous, Hashim expressed some nostalgia for having moved out with his family. The maize of houses was permeated by cooking smells feeding the thousands living on a couple of the tiny streets. Countless voices called out greetings from high and low; each narrow building housed three families of roughly six, in three rooms stacked on top of each other and connected by steep metal steps. Despite common misconception, the open drains didn’t make the whole thing smell terrible; the smell was mainly confined to the area surrounding the sparse toilets.
Most of the slum is taken up by streets of shops and miniature factories, there’s so much going on it’s actually impossible to take everything in! Cars, trucks, mopeds, bicycles and people squeeze down streets packed with animals, carts selling vegetables, chai stalls and food stalls. They’ve even named a chicken hutch after the White House, intending on doing us all a favour and locking up Trump in the impossibly unlikely event that he ever sets foot in Mumbai. All around are butchers plucking and jointing glistening chickens, sweet shops piled high with goodies, shops crammed with absolutely everything, bakeries baking biscuits in wood fired ovens and men hard at work making things. The main trades are plastic recycling, textiles, pottery and goat leather production; all around people are hammering away or operating roaring machinery. Later I read online that the annual turnover the slum is estimated at 1 billion USD. No one seemed bothered by the torrents of rain cascading down buildings and turning the streets into flowing rivers (except us, we left for our nightbus looking like we’d been dunked in a filthy bath).
Although it occurs a hell of a lot less than in China we are still getting quite a few stares and requests for selfies. What came as much more of a shock initially was hearing so many people speaking in English, I kept expecting to be addressed whenever I heard it but mostly everyone is just talking amongst themselves. From what I’ve gathered, English is so widely spoken that our colloquial phrases are often used to compliment conversation in Hindi.
Conversely, at our first meal we were so ignorant of the language that the waiter had to order for us. I cannot tell you how happy I am to eat pulses again (shock). The dal here is unreal, and all the better for finally having chipatties to mop it up with. We also had palak paner for the first time- cubes of cheese that kind of looks similar to tofu in a rich, deep green spinach sauce. Everything is served in metal dishes, on metal plates, often with metal glasses. I thoroughly enjoy ordering stuff without knowing what it is in India, something I would NEVER dream of doing in China. A breakfast favourite which we discovered in Mumbai is stuffed parathas (chewy flat breads filled with Masala potatoor other yummy things) served with yoghurt and chutney. Always always washed down with mango/banana lassies, thick fruity yoghurt drinks of pure deliciousness and lots of chai Masala tea.
Probably going to have to try and limit the detail from now on……oops. We are already half way round India! Next post will be about the south and include more foodie things I promise.