Sunday, February 25, 2018

Put The Camera Away -There's Plenty To See Here

There weren't many places we couldn't / didn't bring our cameras during our 6 months abroad.

And for that reason, I do not have a photo to associate with this post. It's also a test to see how many of you read this without an image to lure you in. Haha j/k (maybe). And it'll give you a chance to use your imagination (or your Google skills).

Of the places I can think of, the easiest to remember are all the museums and the dozens of temples or other religious sites in India, Myanmar, Bhutan, Vietnam, and Morocco. I suppose most of the religious places of worship don't really allow photography or videography within. And so those visuals are for our memories only, and we're unable to share with you the beauty and grandeur of some of the images ingrained in our minds.

But the other area where we didn't really unsheath our camera was during our walking tour through the slums of Mumbai. Officially called Dharavi, it is the second largest slum in Asia (after Orangi Town in Pakistan) and the 3rd largest in the world (after Orangi Town in Pakistan [#1] and Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mexico [#2]).

How such an enormous population of poor people could be corralled into a geographic region is beyond belief. What's even more disturbing is its proximity to one of the financial capitals of the world, Mumbai.

We were advised not to photograph during our tour for safety concerns. Typically, we don't photograph people / people's faces anyway. We know the etiquette. But I recall they just didn't want to expose the neighborhood and it's ongoings. So we respected that, and took the tour anyway for our experience.

What follows is my attempt to allow you to visualize what we saw.

We walked deep into the slums. But to get there, we first had to cross a foot bridge over a set of train tracks. Below us passed commuter trains coming into and out of Mumbai's famous Victoria Terminus. You're probably thinking that you're not familiar with it, but you are. It was the train station in Slumdog Millionaire. See, I told you it was famous.

Anyway, once you cross over the tracks, it's like you've "crossed over" to a different world. There's a mix of dirt and paved roadways. After walking a little further, you are "in" to the slum. You stand amongst shanties of mixed use. Corrugated metals, wood, and other materials of a variety of colors are used as walls and roofs. Some are living quarters, but where we first came in are all the "businesses" are carried. You couldn't tell the difference because it was unclear where one "property" ended and the other began. Some were almost 3 stories high and most others were single level.

As we walked through the streets, many people bustled about in all different directions. Most had "normal" clothes. If you disregarded your surroundings, you couldn't tell that people were poor based on their clothing. Jeans, t-shirts, saris, tunics, and other wrapped garments were common for most people. The poorest of the poor were easy to spot, but strangely more out of place than anyone else.

Children ran through the streets and alleyways. Some playing soccer and others cricket with makeshift bats and goals. If anyone looked poor, it was the children. They suffered the most probably. With barely any clothing or shoes, they were the most susceptible to the grime of the slums.

The alleyways were so tight. If you could fit 2 people side by side, it was considered wide. Our young guide at one point even asked if we were claustrophobic and warned that if were had the least bit of anxiety about walking through close quarters we shouldn't proceed. But we didn't have the fear, so we set off even deeper than we thought we'd get.

Even in the dead of summer, there seemed to be so much moisture on the ground. We learned first hand that it was a mix of liquids. Anything from used cooking oil, to animal pee, to dirty dishpan water, to spit, to human relief could be found anywhere along the way. It was clear that the few communal latrines were not enough to support the population.

Garbage is literally everywhere. There's nothing you can do but walk through it, over it, in it. For all you know, it could have been above you. The random canals are filled with trash with a stench to make you puke on sight. And strangely, it was possible for you to see people searching for something to find in them, or children playing in and around them.

Despite all that, I think what was amazing were the businesses that were established in the slums, most of which were mini factories churning out various goods. Of all the businesses that surprised me though were the little stalls that sold chapati, an Indian flat bread. Somehow, they found a way to be clean enough to make and serve a staple food to most Indians. Other businesses included pottery makers, various garment makers, and a variety of other manufacturers. It was quite amazing to see some of them first-hand. Considering the lack of potable running water, reliable power supply, ample drainage, and other sanitary concerns these businesses seem to do fairly well with clientele all over Mumbai (and some even say all over the world - not sure how true that is).

We were never once hassled in the streets of Dharavi. We probably could have gotten away with a few snaps of the camera here and there. But I'm glad we didn't risk it. There would have been no way to catch any thief who could have escaped easily by running through the maze of backstreets and alleyways.

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