The Dehradun Express, Mumbai to New Delhi

You need to be an international scholar on the subject to attempt to explain the Indian Train system in less than a PHD thesis length of words, but here goes. There are about a million different classes. There are a million different ticket types. There are a million reasons why it is bafflingly still functioning yet THE most illogical system in the world.

I remember dedicating a day in the Philippines to trying to understand just enough to be able to book two ‘sleeper class’tickets on the 29h – 77 stop – wonder that is the Dehradun Express. It incidentally  runs at bursting capacity every single night, maybe as it costs us just £5 each. It was the single only ticket we could find. The distance can actually be done in 15 hours, but these tickets are sold out 4 months in advance, and then you enter into the whole arena of RAC tickets and waitlists. A subject which needs a whole blog of it’s own, so I won’t let it highjack mine.

Anyway, here’s what we learn:

‘Sleeper class’ is about 5 down the pecking order of tickets you would actually want. No bedding, no aircon, just bunkbeds in the aisles with the occasional stench of the toilets. Plus this space is not even yours to call your own. They oversell the seats for day passengers, meaning that during rush hour in the afternoons a nice family of 15 might stroll up and set up shop on your bed. Cosy. A book, a few games of cards, Heat magazine, 3 Cadburry Crunchies, a few hours of teaching Mark the Chinese dice game, and 19 hours of sleeping –  got us though. It was touch and go for a while.

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Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

Controversial activity of the day….an organized tour of Asia’s largest slum. Now you can throw out words like ‘bad taste, voyeurism and the evils of poverty tourism,’ but in actual fact you would have to take them back. It wasn’t really any of these things and if the similar one in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro taught me anything is that they can be really interesting ways to learn about a city and see a side you wouldn’t normally get to see. The company; Reality Tours  & Travel donate 80% of the profits to a community education centre which we visit, and all photography is strictly banned, which you have to admire really.

We walk for 2 to 3 hours, stopping at a number of industries and residential areas in the 1.7 sq km mass city within a city. Dharavi is often cited and studied for it’s innovation in businesses, with an annual turnover of around $600 usd. We visit the huge Dhobi Ghat open air laundry. If we dropped the contents of our backpacks into any given hostel or hotel in the whole of Mumbai, chances are our smalls would end up here to be scrubbed by hand and returned pristine the next day. The whole system works on colour coded tags which are sown into each garment, and mistakes are rarely made.

In Dharavi’s alleys themselves we visit tiny warehouses that are at the heart of most of the worlds recycling clean up. China and USA export vast quantities of their waste here. Go figure/insert you own scathing political comment here. We peak into dimly lit rooms of 5 generations of families working to sort plastics into piles for 12 hours and day, 6 days a week. As you could expect, conditions are harsh. This is however one side of it, like anywhere there is a hierarchy of jobs, the women baking poppadoms seem to have it best, as our guide Ganesh puts it “gossiping about everyone within the 1.7 sq km radius all day long.”

I had read about plastics and metal work, soap and pottery businesses, but perhaps the most shocking one is food. There are bakeries that export thousands of kg of puff pastries a day, sold to huge fancy bakeries across India and abroad. It’s all made here, which is something to think about when it reaches us in our fancy coffee shop on a shiny white square plate with a side of organic fruit on. Similarly is the leather industry. I won’t name the brand names just in case I one day get sued, but basically your $2000 designer wallet/handbag has been made here. And no doubt for pennies.

The residential areas are interesting, as Ganesh talks about housing programmes, and the lobbying of NGOs to change government polities to better protect the rights of long time residents. He also jokes about the fact that Muslims and Hindu’s live side by side in neighbouring quarters, and that bigger than religious differences, or the sacredness of using cow leather is something more important; the sacredness of money!

We see the expected and the unexpected. We walk through grime filled alleys, we visit houses that are only slightly wider than phone booths that are home families of up to 10, Mark accidently drenches his flipflop in a drain of very suspect waste. On the flip side we drink Chai at thriving communal coffee stalls, we shake hands with eager 10 year olds that are all in school uniforms and actually go to school, and see family homes with TV’s and recognizable signs of wealth. Everyone says hi, nobody begs. Of course we are definitely seeing the edited Disney version of life here. The tours have been operating for 6 years with the permission of residents and on the same fixed routes, but still you go away with a redefined notion of what a ‘slum’ is, and feeling of “it’s not what you think.”

Numerous newspaper articles and documentaries have said it before, and Ganesh himself leaves us with numerous similar stories. Those of Dharavi residents that work as cabin crew for huge international airlines, that own appartements that they rent our all over Mumbai. In other words, with means of escape. Except they don’t, they chose to stay and live in Dharavi. The sense of community, is seems, is hard to replace.

Colaba & Fort Area, Mumbai, India

This city of 13 million just got one more….Mark’s back! (Ireland, Surfers Paradise, Thailand.) So not only did the next three months just got more fun and lovely, but also the madness halved.

I quite liking the lists at the moment, so here are more oddities from the past three days now ive moved from Andheri into the heart of the city.

  • You buy a snack, you eat it, you hold the litter in your hand for as long as it takes you to find a dustbin? Not here. Here you get the kind offer of Mumbai’s residents to snatch litter out of your hand and hurl it onto the streets/out of the first available train window for you. And then nod pleased that they have done you a massive favour. I know it’s India but I just can’t do it! Bin it!
  • I fall hook line and sinker for the savvy little street girl looking filthy. She strategically placed outside McDonald’s, looking beautiful underneath the dirt, and holding an equally cute puppy with a faux diamond collar. I know I shouldn’t, but she asks so nicely. I buy her (and 5 of her mates) 15 rupee icecream cones. To then be complained to that they wanted chocolate dipped ones. Cheeky sods. Only original puppy girl says thank you.
  • Oh, and I buy what’s probably one of the oddest gifts of all time when I see a man stationed on Mahatma Ghandhi Road with the bold claim that “he can paint anything on a grain of rice.” It’s true. It takes 10 mins, he doesn’t even use a magnifying glass, and you get your own personalised message in a vile shaped key ring. As in vile of liquid not vile disgusting. It’s xmas presents 2012 sorted.

In terms of what else we squeezed in, Jenny (UK) Hannah & Tabea (Germany) and I visited the Leopold Café and Taj Mahal Hotel, then remember they were two of the sites of the 2010 terrorist shootings.  Also Elephanta Islands, a 30 min boat across the harbor famed for it’s stone temples and carvings. Which was d.u. double LL, dull. But as I’ve said before, I never learnt to steer clear of the ‘C’ word; Cave.

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

Blasts From The Past…

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