A Travellerspoint blog

Reflection on Dharavi

sunny 33 °C

It is a cliché but India truly is a nation of contrasts. I write this on the train from Mumbai hurtling past acres of fat grapes on the vine, neat rows of fruit trees – their harvest ripening in the sun. Whitewashed farmhouses and villages, children playing and gleaming tractors. A good time to reflect on the opposite-land craziness of Mumbai and our experience in the slums. Perhaps I idealise rural life but I find myself asking ‘Why would anyone leave this for that?’

The slums seemed almost never-ending; cities within a city – their own streets, their own rules, grown up organically between the edge of the railway tracks and the new high-rise development, in the gaps society has left unplugged.

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One day in Mumbai we ventured in. Arriving at the train station to meet our tour group we were faced with a slightly awkward group of tourists, white faces that looked uneasy at the prospect, perhaps at the thought of spending the next few hours ogling the poverty of others for the sake of an experience. We flipped a coin to decide whether to go with them. Tails never fails and away from the group we snuck and waited for the next train to the slum so we could enter alone.

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Nerves jangling, faced with images of squalor, shit, eyes in darkness, theft or worse flashing in front of me we set off from the train station towards Dharavi. Possibly the largest slum in the world with an estimated 1 million inhabitants. We walked along the main road bordering the slum, stepping over the usual bottles, rags, and puddles of sewage. We plucked up the courage and entered on the largest path heading in, making sure to check our bearings on the main road. No one batted an eyelid, nothing more than normal levels of staring. Once inside, we walked past endless shops selling all manner of items, all services on offer. Houses rise higgledy from the dirt, stacked precariously. They are held together by ancient beams and stolen bricks, dirt-streaked awnings and long-forgotten advertising hoardings. And sheer willpower.

Will to survive and thrive and to make the best of it; houses and businesses on land that was a swamp that nobody wanted, where the British put their garbage, pollution and sick Indian population. From the beginning Dharavi was a slum, and it seems set to remain that way despite some sort of token efforts from many governments. The alternative solution of new high-rises and shopping malls seem unlikely to favor the resident population.

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People are everywhere but what’s so different about that? People going about their business, selling coconuts and saris, shaving beards, and fixing generators. Of course there is poverty but there is also money here, in the largest informal economy in India. Kerri stops and buys some shiny metal bowls, later we see small factories and workshops. The mood is busy, lively, energized, not the oppressive misery I was half expecting. We continue this way and that. The path narrows until we are deep in the maze of houses. No light from the sun penetrates here. Past tidy living rooms, neat curtains, shrines, footballers, a blind man begging. Starting to doubt whether this was a good idea as we lose the main path. A local seems to point the way and we walk hopefully. Suddenly we are spat out on the road blinking in the light.

Soon we are heading back to our comfortable hotel in central Mumbai. How lucky we are to have the option.

N.b. we didnt take any photos inside of the slum, these are of the outside.

Posted by lewyandkerri 05:19 Archived in India Tagged india mumbai poverty dharavi slum Comments (0)

Life's a beach

Om Shanti - peace and tranquility. 13 days spent on a beach.

sunny 32 °C

Gokarna - it's a place for pilgrims and partying. Hindu's revere this spot as the place that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth). Don't ask for more explanation than that - as many people have pointed out to us Hinduism is as complicated as you want it to be and I prefer my legends simple. Suffice to say the old town holds several temples of significant importance and the town has a large dose of religious fervor in its make-up. The narrow streets are strewn with flags and offerings, flowers, cows and coconuts. Men from India's middle class (the Bramhin top caste) descend upon the town in 4x4s, desperate to show piety by switching their suits for black lungis, taking off their shirts and adorning themselves with orange paint. The cars themselves are a sight to behold; covered with flags and flower strings, and each with a small Shiva shrine attached to the front bumper. At night the devotees light fires by the beach and dance in their robes to the wailing temple music, backed by incessant drumming. Chanted prayer mantras are carried away by the warm wind and out to sea.

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We light a fire too - a different beach down the coast. Rum, and experiments with the local pharmaceuticals with new friends. Talk spirals and thoughts broaden in a place where time stretches. Suddenly there's so much to talk about. India inspires conversation - philosophy, economics, religion, politics, food, culture - all the big topics are here and inescapable. They demand attention.

It's great to spend some time in one place. The constant routine of bus, sleep, explore, train and small talk can be tiring. Even a week can feel a lifetime, at the same time passing in the blink of an eye. The feeling is enhanced by good company, and the residents at Om Shanti Cafe became a dysfunctional family unit for a brief moment, until we scattered to the four winds, each called away to another corner of India, small specks travelling under a big sun.

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The cafe sits at the heart of the ॐ (Om), formed by three connected sandy bays backed by greenery. Run by a warm family; mama - wise and caring, she gently takes away my coconut and shows me the correct way to cut it. Next minute she is cackling away as the next tourist to crack their head on the low tin roof walks away dazed. Papa - drunk and screeching when we arrived, he seemed to sober up occasionally to perform a Puja blessing on us. Depressing to see the effects of alcoholism, but he seems happy enough. Seca is the main man running the show. He and his brothers are the frisbee kings of Om Beach. He smiled at me twice, so I think I won him over.

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The beach is populated by Israeli travelers at one end, every one else at the other. Necklace sales people traverse the two, selling the same stuff to unwilling buyers. 'Why not sell some stuff people actually want, and beat the competition?' We suggest to the 10th offer of the morning. Perhaps not at our most tactful, but he seems to take the idea on board.

Sea is flat and blue, as you would imagine. Flat as a pancake in the morning, with a light breeze whipping up some chop later in the day. Not a soul at 9am. I swim across the bay and back, muscles relieved to be doing something. Flying fish follow, and then overtake, their silver sides glisten and sparkle with spray and salt. The water is cold enough to clear away the cobwebs of the night before.

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One evening in the sunset dolphins arch lazily through the water. Other evenings are spent with cards, a naughty milkshake, or a juice box carton of old monk rum, welcome after six sober weeks on the road. Still we can't stay for ever, Mumbai is calling and we must answer. From Om Shanti to oh shitty, to the big city we go.

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Posted by lewyandkerri 05:14 Archived in India Tagged india pilgrimage gokarna om_beach beach_life om_shanti_cafe Comments (0)

Hampiness

sunny 32 °C

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Hampi is a collection of ruins, but it's much more than that. Sometimes stoner traveller ghetto, sometimes serene paradise, always India and absolutely unique on this world. Hampi was inhabited from around 1 AD, but its peak was 1343 to 1565, when it served as capital of the Vijayanagara Empire (thanks, Wikipedia). It features heavily in both Hindu legend and secular traveler’s tales, and for good reason; it is truly spectacular. Rising from a river that dissects the landscape, dry and dusty temples on one side, and otherworldly boulder mounds on the other, placed and stacked here by powers greater than comprehension (Gods or millions of years of erosion?). It is surrounded by verdant green rice paddies, where you are just as likely to encounter a tractor blaring bollywood as you are another tourist.

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The river dissects the style of tourism too - on the south side by the ruins a collection of cramped streets cater for the two or three days needed to fully do the ruins justice. Cross over to the other side and the further from the ferry you go, the more chilled the guesthouses become. We stayed at Rambos, the last place before the lake. So friendly and relaxed, it’s easy to understand how many people find their few days turning into a few weeks.

We spent one afternoon by the lake. Far away I could hear the noise of a school -childrens' laughs and screams. It was so distant the smallest change in direction of the wind carried the sound away. Closer across the lake, two women washed their clothes. Musical voices, rhythmical washing. They scrubbed old saris on ancient rocks, pausing to discuss village life, family or perhaps philosophy. The only other sound was the still water lapping gently on the rocks and sand. The lake flat and the level low, revealing the sand and shingle beach where we sat.

My peace was broken by a herd of bleating goats. At least forty trot past, nimble on skinny legs. It is a scene perhaps unchanged from the time the great temples at palaces at Hampi were occupied. These goats providing milk and cheese for princes, women washing priests' robes and a queen's silks. The temples sit alongside the river which this lake feeds. Water winds its way through serene sunset-perfect paddy fields to the river where families bathe and tourists argue over the price of the small ferry. At 8am every day, Lakshmi, the temple elephant, bathes too. The river is low - drought threatens, some paddies stand brown and forgotten while others still burst pea green with life. The ferrymen are not happy; for every paying customer another fords the river, risking slippery boulders to save ten rupees. 'If you walk to the other side you won't come back' he shouts, perhaps a touch dramatically.

Across the river Hampi Bazaar thrives despite government efforts to remove it by bulldozing homes and livelihoods in the middle of the night. The result of this policy is tented nomads in the surrounding villages awaiting reimbursement from the ruling party. The bazaar is a busy collection of dirt roads and pizza restaurants, fresh fruit and tacky souvenirs.

The Sri Virupaksha Temple towers above the village as the highest building for miles. A shrine to a form of Shiva, the temple site has been in use since at least the 7th century AD. Monkeys clamber over the faces of gods - small hands cover intricately carved reliefs stretching into the clear blue sky.

The following day we headed out of the bazaar by bicycle along with many other English tourists; it seems we are a nation of cyclists. It's a peaceful way to get around; much preferred to the mopeds' relentless whining and horns that announce their every move. Mopeds even manage to cross the river, slightly unstable, on the ferry.

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The ruins are incredible. The temples sit amongst the improbably stacked boulders, their crumbling mantapams (porches) and gopuram (spires or pyramids) watched over by the ever-present monkeys and ladies in bright saris with wrinkled faces. It is quiet, unusual in India, which makes the scene all the more otherworldly. Entering one temple we catch a chipmunk unawares as he scratches, in another a lizard basks in the sun. Each temple is dedicated to a Hindu god - they are as numerous as the boulders it seems. Divine monkeys, elephants and snakes look down from every wall, covered with a thick layer of dust that has not been touched since the inhabitants left some 600 years ago. Some temples have corridors running underground. I groped my way in the dark past unknown features, happy to find a couple peering round the corner with their dim phone light.

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It is hard to imagine how these people lived. Not only is the past a different country, but India is a different country too - twice removed from my modern western lifestyle. The guidebook describes the history dryly, here lies a market or a red light district, or a king's dressing room or parade ground. Let's leave the rest unknown, mystery suits Hampi.

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Posted by lewyandkerri 07:08 Archived in India Tagged temples ruins india hinduism karnataka hampi Comments (0)

New travel pals join our foodie adventure

sunny 30 °C

India has not disappointed us this Christmas and New Year. We've taken an 8 hour government ferry ride from Kollam to Alleppey, peacfully gliding at 2 miles an hour through Kerala's backwaters and spying on its neighbours bathing, boating and fishing in its waters (including the local Communist party waving their flags). On route we met Quyen and Theo from Austria, who became our trusty travel comrades on our quest to conquer Indian cuisine.

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Since, we've taken a 7am bus ride into the whispering valleys of Munnar, where we teamed up with our Austrian amigos and Shoshuna and Thomas on their honeymoon hike on Christmas Day. We walked 15k, scoffed our faces on fruits and spices, and had a great nap together on a warm rock in the middle of a lofty tea plantation.

Our adventure continued, on two overnight buses to Wyanad (which kindly offered cockroaches a free ride too). Theo and Quyen stalked us all the way but we finally lost them (haha) after another sweaty bus ride to the city of Mysore where we sit now in this delightful internet cafe.

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Christmas hike and dosa delights in Munnar

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Munnar town is nestled in the Western Ghats mountains, 1,700m above sea level. The town has a huge personality and is spilling at the seams. Crammed with cars, trucks, buses and racing tuk tuks we inhaled a fair amount of fumes, but the locals were friendly and the food was plentiful and scrumptious! We shared a massive Masala Dosa and sampled all the local street food - here's a picture of the locals making fresh parotha bread.

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We spent Christmas and Boxing Day in a cottage in the hills to escape the noise and fumes. On Christmas Day evening the local kiddies dressed up as Santa and paraded the hills banging drums and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. On Boxing Day the village had a Hindu festival and everyone was out to see the parading elephant, drummers and dancers as they marched their way singing to temple. There, Camille and Clemonte (wonderful folk from France) joined our journey to Kelpetta in the Wyanad region.

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We all spent a few days feasting, hiking Chembra Peak, swimming in waterfalls and going on a jeep safari in the Wyanad Reserve. We saw a wild bull elephant extremely close to our jeep which was quite terrifying and lots of monkeys. Food highlights have to be the Chilli Chicken dish with lime, paneer masala and more parotha bread (so many calories but so good!).

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Glitz and glamour in Mysore

We are now travelling alone again after saying farewell to our travel buddies. Last night we celebrated New Years Eve in Mysore, a smallish city (in Indian terms) in the southwestern state of Karnataka. The city is LOUD, quirky, full of markets and people selling and buying everything from flowers and veg to incense sticks and body paint. We started the evening having all you can eat buffet at the Green Hotel (a palace originally built for Mysore's princess) followed by surprise fireworks and a smuggled bottle of red wine at the illuminated Palace (which we also visited in the day time with THOUSANDS of other very hyperactive Indian tourists).

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Food highlights in Mysore have to be the South Indian vegetarian thali (Ron you would have loved it!), mushroom biryani and also bright green spinach balls!

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Toilet troubles

I'm pleased to say that despite eating everything and anything in site (including all kinds of weird and wonderful fruits) we have not had any 'serious' diarrhea. I had not been to the toilet for 5 days but I'm pleased to say that today on the 1st January I have had a revelation! We've tried out the 'but wash' hose - it's very refreshing but we need more practice as it's easy to squirt it in the wrong place!

Right I need to escape this internet hovel. Much love and happy new year!
Kerri and Lewy xxx

Posted by lewyandkerri 09:30 Archived in India Tagged elephants munnar mysore alleppey backwatets kollam kalpetta wyanad Comments (0)

So far - only sun, sea and sensational food to report

sunny 36 °C

It's been a whirlwind of a year. We've moved from London to Bristol, quit jobs that we loved, bought our very own house (which we feel very lucky to have) and boarded a plane to India to escape the rat race for three months.

We stepped out of Cochin airport at 8am to crowds of loved ones held back behind railings and flailing their arms shouting. We walked through the gangway between the two crowds I couldn't help but just laugh. It was scorching hot and the airport pick up we'd arranged was nowhere to be seen. We called the hotel, they said 'ah yes he won't be coming'.

We spent two days exploring Fort Cochin and acclimatising to the heat, hoardes of people and honking horns. Drivers in Kerala seem to beep their horns every time they see a person, goat, bike, moto, tuk tuk, car and so on. Fort Kochin was chaotic and quite dirty to English standards which no longer apply, but we found a quiet market street full of antique vendors, artisans and spice stalls. We were far to concerned about getting a bad tummy so we paid over the odds in restaurants for a veg burger and Aloo Saag (My Nan's fave). We would get braver....

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We were lucky enough to pass through a Hindu festival late one evening. The grounds of the temple were neatly organised with hundreds of lines of incense dishes. As an old man pounded a drum, children, women in their finest saris and men kicked off their shoes and rushed forward to set fire to their wooden torch and start lighting the little tea lights, we were invited to get involved.

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We heaved our rucksacks down into town to catch the 8am air conditioned bus from Fort Kochin to Varkala. I cackled at a girl that missed the bus as she ran back to get her hat from her homestay, who would miss a bus for a hat? As the bus swerved around the bend I though oh shit. 'STOP THE BUS!' I'd left my passport under the mattress at our 'Dream Catcher homestay' (which I'd recommend by the way) . #Kerrifail1

Five local buses later (which were titan monsters, see below photo from Google), we arrive at Varkala - it's stunning and I've promised to buy Lewy dinner to apologise for my blunder. He says he liked the adventure anyway. The first two nights we stayed in a £4 room, which smelled so bad of damp we had to douse the bed with peppermint oil (thank you Jess!). We then moved to Skyline Tourist Paradise for £8 a night.

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We've been in Varkala for five days, it's a peaceful place away from the beeping horns. A giant beach with good waves, overlooked by a small cliff top path of restaurant and street vendors all covered in fairy lights. You can visit a few different beaches and if you wake up early enough you can watch the fishermen dragging in their boats and sharing out the money made from he nights fishing trip.

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We've seriously feasted since arriving in Varkala. Our whole day evolves around the beach and what to eat. Oranges for breakfast and Masala Dosa for lunch, curry or fish for dinner. Never going over our total daily budget of £30 between us. There are some odd customs here, the restaurants are leased out and change hand every season and because of Kerala's old-fangled licensing laws, which involve huge amounts of tax, a lot of cafes choose to serve beer discreetly in ceramic jugs, this is not a place to come and binge drink Brits.

We've sampled the local fish - caught by the local fisherman who don't get paid enough for their back breaking work through the night, catching fish by using lights which attract them to the surface (poor buggers). On the pleasant side, from the cliff top the ocean looks like it's lit up with fireflies at night. We shared a £8 red snapper, doused in lemon, garlic, chilli and ginger - and there was a lot more on offer.

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We've discovered the best vegetarian curries are served a small walk away in the small eateries outside the temples, where the locals feast in late evening. Masala dosas are our new found favourite. Originally from Kerala - a seriously large crisp dosa folded in half with a surprise package inside of boiled potatoes seasoned in mustard seeds, grated coconut, coriander, and lemon juice, all served on a banana leaf. The dish is accompanied with two types of spicy masala and a dish of sweet coconut - all to be eaten with your fingers which have been doused in sanitiser for extra flavour.

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So far no tummy or derrière troubles to report - only Lewy trying to decide whether or not to try out the local custom of using the mini-water shower to clean his bum instead of toilet paper. What do you think?

Posted by lewyandkerri 08:40 Archived in India Tagged food beach india fort indian kerala varkala kochin masala doda Comments (0)

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