Mumbai April 8-11 Slums, High-Rises, & Lessons from a Taxi Driver

October 10, 2016

We left Hong Kong on a Cathay Pacific jet bound for Mumbai.  The view of the sunset lighting up the Hong Kong skyline and the mountains was beautiful after take off but we were less thrilled when it appeared again half an hour later on the other side of the airplane.  Sure enough the pilot announced a problem and we were soon back on the tarmac in Hong Kong where we were herded off the plane, tagged, x-rayed and shepherded into a holding gate. We were soon on the next Cathay flight to Mumbai. Total delay two hours.  Modern travel can be so ordinary at times that you forget how miraculous it really is.

My knowledge of Mumbai (Bombay) was based on Slumdog Millionaire, Indian novels and the childhood stories of my Auntie Pam. I imagined a poor, crowded and dirty place filled with argumentative articulate people. For the first two nights we stayed at the Sofitel BKC – a luxury hotel in a foreign/commercial enclave north of the city. With its high fence, metal detectors and security guards that confiscated my Japanese knife, it felt like a jail only one that had purple velvet everywhere. The most Indian thing experienced during our stay was the masala breakfast wrap at the Starbucks.

On our second evening in Mumbai we took a taxi downtown to Nariman point to meet the guide and other travellers for our 14 day Rajasthan Unlimited tour with Reality Tours.  We negotiated a one way price with a taxi driver paying extra for the “sea link” toll route and A/C. From the motorway Mumbai looked like any other modern city with its skyscrapers and cranes.  In his broken English, the driver kept asking us to arrange our return fare with him.  My initial reaction (based on travellers suspicion and the usual male power trip) was no. However, I dropped my opposition the instant we left the motorway and our cab was swallowed by the chaos of downtown Mumbai. Crawling through traffic we saw the sunset on the Arabian sea on one side and on the other crumbling buildings, cricket fans with scarfs and people everywhere. A girl in rags knocked on the window at a stop light begging for money and I looked away. We saw families going to the beach and beggars sitting in front of a Zara store. The road was clogged with taxis, motorcycles, carts and even a ferrari. Like Peru, you could see an entire family on a single motorcycle except that here the women wore sprees or hijab’s and sat serenely side-saddle dangling their toe ringed feet inches from other vehicles.


As we prepared to leave the taxi, a surprising thing happened.  The driver refused to accept payment of 1/2 of the fare upfront. Instead he wanted us to pay the full fare after he returned us to our hotel.  I get edgy when I lend $5.00 to a work colleague for a latte and this man was willing to trust two foreigners with what must have been at least a days wage. It was a simple lesson in trust that stuck with me throughout the trip.

Reality Tours is the tour arm of an NGO that provides educational and vocational services in the Slums of Mumbai and Delhi. Eighty Percent of the revenues from the tours are used to fun educational and vocational programs. We found Reality Tours through an email inquiry made while we were in Peru to Responsible Travel an NGO that matches travellers with responsible tourism operators.

The orientation meeting took place in the breakfast room of a small hotel. We met our guide Suraj and the other two travellers. Suraj is a 20 something man from one of the Mumbai slums.  He was soft spoken but persistent when it came to getting his points across.  Although it was only his second time leading the trip he was confident and comfortable with us.  Thomas is a 20 something Scottish engineer in between offshore Indian petroleum projects. He is also a marathon runner and the founder of Raratribe a healthy breakfast food. A marathon running Scot that eats healthy food- there went all of my Scottish stereotypes in one go.  Christine is a Parisian account executive with an internet company. Armed with her patent leather birkenstocks and stylish but modest slacks, she was ready for adventure. I would soon find out that her stylishness belied her fearlessness and willingness to explore and experience. So we had the Ginger, the Jew, the Scot and the Parisian under the guidance of a young Indian.

Following introductions we headed out to see some sites. We started with the Gateway of India Arch built by the British to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in India in 1911. We passed the Taj Mahal hotel built by a Parsi businessman as an epic machuda (f#$@k you) to the owners of the whites only luxury hotels that denied him entry.  The Taj Mahal was also the site of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Suraj brought us to a rundown building where we climbed 5 flights of stairs (elevator out of order) and walked into  a beautiful rooftop restaurant with canopy covered tables, fountains and a number of well dressed patrons. We ate spicy prawns and Dahl fried while sizing each other up. Eliot and Christine immediately took a liking to each other laughing at something or someone.


On the way down I noticed a poster on lower floor restaurant that called for a boycott of Israeli goods to avoid strengthening  “the killers of humanity”.  The poster bothered me because of the implication that Israelis are outside the pale of humanity because of their conflict with the Palestinians and the policies of their government. Maybe I am being overly sensitive but I could not help but think that the turn of phrase is reminiscent of other posters used to describe Jews in other times. Would Indians be described as enemies of humanity because of what their government is doing in Kashmir?  Maybe it is just another example of the kind of no holds barred rhetoric that passes for political discourse in the internet age. Ultimately this tone of rhetoric is not helpful for bringing people together to achieve positive change.


As we left the building I was jolted out of my thoughts on rhetoric by the pungent smell of horseshit from a passing Caleche lit up like a christmas tree. The stench quickly gave wave to the intense fragrance of flowers followed fried food and diesel. That was India, all of your senses assaulted. When we got to the meeting place,  our taxi driver was thrilled to see us and he even put the radio on for the return ride.


The itinerary for the first day was to do a tour of the Dharavi slum in the morning followed by a tour of the sites of Mumbai. Dharavi is located between the Airport and BKC.  Suraj explained to us that “slum” refers a neighbourhood built on government land without authorization. I expected people living in drainage pipes but it was nothing like that.  Dharavi was like a small city within the city. The estimated population is between 700,000-1,000,000 inhabitants. It is divided into an industrial and residential section which is further subdivided into different sections housing members of the same ethnic and religious groups. Each group had its own counsel for local governance.

We entered through the industrial area. We were asked to refrain from taking photos  Walking through narrow crowded alleys we saw where they recycle washing machines, paint barrels and plastics. It was hot and noisy but not unbearable. There was a small stream of orange water flowing down the middle of the walkway. There was noise and heat. Suraj explained that many of the workers were farmers from the countryside who had no work during the dry season. There was electricity and water was provided by tankers twice a week. From the rooftop of a building we could see minarets from the Mosques in the moslem section and piles of plastic drying on roofs. We crossed a filthy river to the residential section and walked through a market. I stopped at a small store and bought Cashews an Indian sweets. Passing into the hindu section, we saw kids playing soccer and garland covered deities (Ganesh). The group had lunch at Suraj’s aunties home where we met his mother. The home was a neat but sparse room. The food was delicious and Suraj tried to show us how to eat with our hands. Similar to the Ethiopians, we had to use our right and and pop the food into our mouths without touching our lips. Needless to say, I was covered in rice. In the residential side there were light industries including ceramics, textiles and luggage makers. It was quite impressive.

Lunch with Suraj, his aunt and his mom


Entrance to Dharavi


plastics drying


In the afternoon we went to see the sights including the billion dollar skyscraper/home of one of India’s wealthiest men, the Mahtma Ghandi house, a Jain temple and the place where the Parsi leave their dead to be consumed by vultures. All of this can be seen within a few square km’s. We also saw a huge outdoor laundry and Suraj brought me to  Knesset Eliyahoo one of the remaining Synagogues in Mumbai. The synagogue was built by Iraqi Jews that moved to Mumbai to escape persecution in Iraq. As I walked in, I thought of my Auntie and her family worshipping there. It turned out that they went to the other synagogue.

We also got to see the imposing railway station built by the British and the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandan (formerly the Crawford market). A sprawling covered market.

All in all, I think we could have spent a week in Mumbai and barely scratch the surface, but this was a quick tour and after dinner in a local restaurant and a taxi back to BKC we had to pack for our early flight to Udaipur for the start of our trip to Rajasthan.

Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue


Crawford Market



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Billionaires home and slum houses

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Sitting on my own Sofa

    Sitting on my own Sofa Reply October 10, 2016 at 8:02 am

    There is so much detail in this! What a city of contrasts. I would love to visit Mumbai. I am fascinated by Dharavi in particular. Each section has its own government but it is all built on government land without authorization? The Knesset Eliyahoo is lovely. Were you able to be there for a service? Was it in Hebrew? And — that skyscraper is for just one man? I wonder what he does with all the space?

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