The one thing I knew I wanted to see in Mumbai was the Dharavi slum, one of the largest slums in the world, home to approximately 1,000,000 people; almost 55% of the people in Mumbai!
Upon arrival to my hostel in the Andheri East area of Mumbai, I noticed posts for guided tours through the slums.
Psshh. I didn’t want a tour. I wanted to explore on my own whim and meet some locals there who could give me the scoop. The only things I would miss on a tour was the safety aspect and the information from a knowledgable guide. I didn’t care though. That’s what google is for anyways.
Are the slums really that dangerous?
Will I be a walking target prone to mugging and harassment?
Possibly. Although, I used to volunteer in shanty towns in South Africa and I never felt in any danger. The key to exploring the slum is to do it on my own, with no other backpackers with me. The reason being is because I tend to blend in here a bit. I’m the same complexion as all these locals and don’t get bothered any where near as much as any of the “blonde haired, blue eyed” backpackers that would typically join my party during travels. My hair and beard has grown out a lot longer too which helps with blending in.
I was dedicated to exploring the slums without a tour guide, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have a buddy or two? Two buddies max! So I told my idea to Fin (England), another backpacker I met at my hostel. He was game to join.
And just like that my plan to “blend in” was out the window. But it’s okay. I don’t think it will be that bad.
I did some reading on the slum and if anything, it excited me more. It’s also the same slum where they filmed parts of Slumdog Millionaire. To take precaution, I dressed in my crappiest clothes and only brought a handful of rupees in my pocket. I kept some rupee notes hidden in my right shoe. I left my wallet, watch, and anything valuable back in my dorm. I debated on bringing my phone and ultimately decided to bring it. I’ll keep it as secure as I can.
Fin and I took an Uber to the outside of the slum in the afternoon of the next day. The plan was to be finished before nightfall began, otherwise we might get lost in the hundreds of alleyways in the mazes of the slum.
We entered into the narrow alleyways of what appeared to be the industrial area. Two people could not walk through side by side. Busy laborers, all of which were men, came and went carrying hunks of goods and chunks of plastic around and about. Wet litter and rodents took over the pathways that we thought would lead to the epicenter of the slum. We saw plastic being chopped into bits and densely packaged into tight boxes. Amazingly, the Dharavi slum is known to rake in millions of revenue from its vast recycling efforts even though India has no government waste management system or recycling program. Dharavi truly is a recycling phenomenon. We were barely given a glance, as the slum dwellers were mostly engaged into their duties. Eventually we stepped into what appeared to be the main street that cut through the slum.
We were in another world compared to the Mumbai we were used to. It was like a city within a city, except this city was bustling with the upmost of everything absolutely hectic-even when compared to the craziness of the outer Mumbai metropolis. Rickshaws and cars that were way too big to be driving through honked constantly and without pause. There were people of all ages everywhere around going in every which direction. Small groups of slum kids ran about, mostly barefoot, flying their skimpy kites. Stray, beat up mutts roamed the grounds, some laying in patches of dirt dead-smack in the middle of the road. Goats everywhere. It was dirty and as filthy as I imagined. Fin and I were in the middle of it, a bit rushed in the head by the scene of it all.
I read that it was frowned upon to take photographs, but to be fair, most of the photos of the locals are ones I took with their permission. Still, I was uneasy about pulling out my giant phone. One quick snatch and then I would lose the culprit to this elaborate maze. I was more careful than I’ve ever been.
We followed the main road to the edge of the slum walls. Along the main road is a bridge that takes you all the way on the other side of the slum. We decided to go up there and follow it. As we went up the metal stairs, a group of four kids came up to us with smiles on their faces. Four boys around the age of eleven.
They were full of ‘hellos’ and ‘namastays’ but their English was broken. I could barely understand them when I asked them their names. We made short chit-chat before I asked them if they could show us around. These kids would be the perfect guides! They can show us the cool stuff that regular tourists don’t ever go to. They didn’t understand my request, but after some hand gesturing, they understood and happily agreed.
“Come!” said one of them. And so we did. We followed them down the steps back into the main street.
We followed without question. They led us onto another bridge that took us just outside of the slum.
“Where are they taking us?” I asked Fin. Not like he would know the answer or anything.
The boys had a respectable English vocabulary but didn’t know how to put the words together into sentences. So most of the time, their communication was just a word or two at a time. From that we had to make sense of what they were trying to tell us.
“Beach!” said one of them as they pointed ahead. “You will swim?”
I guess we’re going to the beach, but I ain’t swimming. The boys were all about it though.
Once we approached the beach, we walked into a carnival that was being dissembled. This was the most beat up carnival I’ve ever seen. Still the boys were eager to show us and they asked some of the workers there if we could go onto some of the rides. Not to actually ride them, but to just go onto them. The worker looked at us and then gave a head bob which meant ‘ok’.
Afterwards, we walked onto the shore which reeked of sewage and piss. And just like anywhere else in Mumbai, there was trash everywhere. It was actually pretty sad to see. We walked closer to the ocean filled with India’s pollution. The boys went right in.
While we were there, one of the boys picked up a bag of gravel from someone that he intended to carry back to the slum. He slung it over his shoulders and carried it with all his might. It looked kinda heavy. We offered to carry it back for him but he kindly refused. All four boys took turns carrying the giant sack of gravel before they finally gave in and let Fin and I carry it back. I stopped to get water for myself and offered to get some for the boys but they kindly refused.
These kids are so self reliant and wouldn’t take anything from us initially.
They guided us through more of the slum before we paused.
I fully intended on giving a few rupees to a local we met that would show us around. I wasn’t sure how I would give money to these kids without causing a scene.
100 rupees equals to about $1.50 USD. That would be suitable for each kid. It may seem like nothing but 100 rupees can last a couple of days here. I brought the kids into a quieter alleyway as not to whip out my rupees in the public. I handed each kid a 100 rupee note and off they went. Not before they were arguing and bickering. I think a fifth kid came out of nowhere and took one of their notes. Still, it didn’t sit quite right giving a kid money. I much rather would have given it to the parents of their families. When I suggested that to one of them, he made a face-slapping motion with his hands, indicating his mother would slap him. I didn’t question him. I just left it as is as they ran off and waved goodbye.
Fin and I had to find ourselves out of the slum before it got dark. We had no idea where we came from either, so we just walked through the alleys of any one direction.
We walked through several residential and school areas where the kids rode their bikes past us back and forth, smiling and saying hello. As a matter of fact, the kids in the slum always said hello to us. The adults did not. But still the adults never came up to us and begged for anything, unlike the outside world of the slum. It’s crazy how the people here are less intrusive than the ones out in the open world.
We stumbled into what I believe was the women’s sector of the slum. Either that or the men were all out working. I deduced that based on the fact that there were dozens and dozens of women and children with no men in sight. Should we even be here? Fin and I, two adult men, were the only males among hordes of Indian women. None of them gave us a weird look. They just walked past us and went about their business. We could venture further into the sector but I wasn’t sure if it was rude to do so and plus the day was beginning to fade. We have to leave.
We rickshawed it back to our hostel, pooped from walking all day.
It’s strange to say but the slum was impressive. It’s what many people may consider an eyesore but it was definitely a sight to behold beyond its cover. The people there were hard working, busy souls who didn’t bother us one bit. I felt just as safe there as anywhere else.
But I wasn’t completely satisfied. I felt like there was more to see. I read up more about Dharavi once I got back to the hostel. Now that I was better informed, I needed to revisit.
A few days later Mischa, a backpacker I met in Goa came up to Mumbai wanting to visit the slum as well. I was able to revisit the slum and show him the ropes.
We went on a bit of a tasting spree, to pump some rupees into the community. Of course we had to try the chai tea here among others.
We spent more of the day exploring the sights, without anyone wanting to bother us. Everyone was busy doing their daily chore. Like tiny ants in a complex ant farm, they all had a vital role to play.
To My Fellow Eager Adventurists:
*The Dharavi Slum is definitely a sight to behold and what I consider a must-see. However, I found that most tourists opt for the priced guided tour as opposed to just walking in freely as I did. With the tour, know that most of the money you pay is invested into the slum community and you gain a wealth of information from a knowledgable guide. If you do decide to venture on your own, please be respectful. Try your best not to take photos and if you do, make sure it’s not intrusive. If taking a picture of a local, get their permission first. The slum dwellers were friendly and I never felt in any danger. The kids there will love to show you around! Don’t linger during the night hours where things could get dangerous, just like anywhere else in the world*