This week we read our final update from our team in India team who have travelled far and wide – experiencing an array of diversity in the last two months.
At 8pm on May 21st, we carried our rucksacks through the dense night-heat to the bus that would transport us from the serenity of Udaipur to Mumbai – India’s financial capital.
The journey took us through the depths of the restless night into a pale, opaque morning. Mumbai loomed, grey-blue and impassive, over the ocean. Clouded waters churned beneath us as we crossed the Worli Sealink. The city was unlike anything we’d encountered in India: sleek black taxis took the place of tuk tuks; thousands – seemingly millions – of high-rise buildings obscured the empty sky; and slum-landscapes wavered in the heat, extending out to the horizon or pooling between skyscrapers and railways.
We found ourselves within one the following morning: the Dharavi slum, spanning an area of 2.1 kilometres and housing one million people. The train to Dharavi was open, spacious, and stopped so briefly at each station that only half the group made it – and only just – onto the first train. We gripped the ceiling-handles at the rim of the carriage, and watched the skyscrapers drift past in the sunlight.
Our preconceptions didn’t align remotely with the reality of the slum. As we stepped through the shaded alleys, over plastic-shards and bottle-caps, we expected to see poverty and listlessness, but instead were met by an astounding industriousness. Each room we passed was a small factory: soap-packaging, plastic processing, fabrics, leather, clay pots. Though these rooms were predominantly inhabited by men, nothing prevented women from working: the slum was free, supportive, non-discriminative. Its main road was wide and colour-strewn, pleasantly obstreperous, and thick with the scents of myriad spices.
Before leaving Mumbai we also stopped for a drink in Leopold’s, the famous restaurant heavily-featured in the semi-autobiographical novel Shantaram – which still had bullet-holes in the walls -, and the beautiful India Gate monument. Some of the group explored other areas of the city, including Victoria Terminus station, Mumbai hanging gardens, Chowpatty beach and Crawford market.
We woke early on the 24th, and re-loaded our bags into the van for another fifteen-hour drive. The powerful air-conditioning was an amazing relief, but many of us were ill, and the day crawled and blurred by in successions of images: of green agricultural fields, cows roaming the roadsides, and desert-like plains.
Waking in Goa was a surreal contrast to all our previous experience: we were again reminded of India’s bewildering diversity. We ran across the hot sands into the ocean, a universe away from the lofty, glacial landscapes of the Himalayas – and the cool peace of Mcleodganj, the dreamy gardens of the Taj Mahal, the ochre buildings of Agra. A strong sea-breeze washed over us, and the salt stung and healed the blister-cuts on our feet.
We walked along the shoreline and checked that the men sleeping there, their clothes sodden, were still breathing. We read, ate, and rested on the beach, beginning to process the two months of travel, and prepare for our goodbyes and the long journeys home.