Slumdog Millionaires – Dharavi Slum Tour
When first planning our trip to Mumbai we did what any good, tech-dependent travelers would do, we headed straight to TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. We dove into the lists of must-sees, must-stays and must-dos to get a sense of how we should fill our days. While each site varied (slightly) in their recommendations, one ‘to do’ seemed pretty consistent – the Dharavi Slum Tour…but for some reason we weren’t convinced. If I’m being perfectly honest, it just didn’t sound like something we would enjoy. When I heard ‘slum tour’ I assumed it would be a day filled with sadness and despair that would leave us feeling ashamed and guilty…not the best way to kick off a 3 month tour of India.
After a couple days of wandering through the city, totally lost and overwhelmed, we craved the comfort of a guide who could help us make sense of everything we were experiencing. Still not keen on the slum tour we opted for Reality’s Market Tour instead. While the tour itself was ok the experience of seeing Mumbai through the eyes of a local and the opportunity to share notes with fellow travelers was invaluable. Most of our tour mates were on their way out of town and they all agreed on one thing, the Dharavi Slum Tour was the highlight of their trips. By the last market it was decided, we were going to Dharavi the next day.
As we made our way to the Churchgate Station I was still unsure of the decision. Was it wrong to make a tourist attraction out of a community, especially one that existed so far below what we considered acceptable living conditions? My ‘western’ guilt was hushed as we joined the group and our guide, Nano, led us to the platform. As the train pulled up I allowed myself to become temporarily distracted by our first Indian train ride. We lucked out and enjoyed a peaceful introduction to the rails since it was Sunday and the trains were pretty much empty. I was so grateful for this guided trial run since we’d be taking the train the following day to Dadar to catch our overnight train to Nasik. The train itself reminded me a bit of the DC metro, with the exception that the speaker system and ‘next station’ monitor were crystal clear (a feat NEVER achieved in DC). I’m sure on hot crowded days it’s a bit of a CF, but that morning it was a treat to escape the crowded Mumbai streets and enjoy the cool air as the landscape blew past.
Ten stops later we arrived at Mahim station and made our way up to the overpass. As Nano provided a brief Dharavi/Reality Tours 101 I took the opportunity to snap a photo of the subtle, most likely unofficial, ‘welcome’ sign. I won’t go into the whole story of Dharavi here, but there were a couple factoids that I found fascinating:
- It’s often called the ‘largest slum in the world’ but it’s in fact the third largest behind Neza-Chalco-Itza (Mexico) and Orangi Town (Pakistan).
- It is one of the most densely populated with more than 1 million people living in 535 acres, about 0.8 sq miles. (To put that in perspective the population of Manhattan is only 67,000 people per square mile).
- There is an active economy made up of 5,000+ businesses whose annual turnover has been estimated at over US$665 million. – More than 50% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums.
- The owner of Reality Tours, as well as most of the guides, is from Dharavi and 80% of the proceeds from the tours go back into the community through their Reality Gives Foundation.
- For more info on the tours and foundation visit http://realitytoursandtravel.com/. If you would like to read more about Dharavi you can visit the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharavi.
Once our introduction was complete it was time to enter Dharavi…
For most of us the word ‘slum’ elicits thoughts of dirt, crime and misery. However as we made our way down the stairs of the footbridge and entered the winding, narrow passageways that connect the community our preconceived notions were immediately challenged. Are there issues of overcrowding and poor sanitation (ie 1 toilet for every 1440 residents), yes, but we quickly realized that those facts stopped short of telling the whole story. Dharavi was a bustling, living community not some tragic wasteland. As we visited the various ‘neighborhoods’ we were met with smiles and laughter, playing children who wanted to show off their English and welcome us into their homes. The corridors were clean and homes were decorated with great pride, each window carefully draped with brightly colored cloth. Open thresholds allowed wafts of boiling curries and fried sweets to escape into the alleyways, while also allowing quick peaks inside to catch glimpses of clean rooms with TV’s and tiled floors. The ‘industrial’ section, while lacking in safety and health standards we often take for granted in the West, conveyed a similar sense of optimism and prosperity. The more than 5,000 businesses and factories that operate within the ‘slum’ further disrupted our initial prejudices of poverty and hopelessness. As we toured the plastic, textile, leather and pottery factories and learned of the goods exported all over the world we were amazed. Their entrepreneurial spirit, commitment to creating little to no waste (nearly everything in the slum is used or recycled) and resourcefulness left us in awe and disappointment by our own ignorant assumptions.
The point of this post is not to insist that everyone go on this tour, there are thousands of other people to do that for me. Instead I just wanted to share my experience and the amazing impact it had on me. I know there will still be people out there who insist that it is exploitive and touristy, and I am not here to convince them otherwise. All I know is that I am so grateful that we were eventually talked into the tour and I am equally grateful to all the people we met who let us spend an afternoon being introduced to the place they call home. Its experiences like these that make me appreciate the gift of travel and all that can be learned if you allow yourself to be welcomed in.
Enjoy this ‘walk’ through the Dharavi Slum…