Wednesday 28 February 2018

Inside Dharavi, Asia's Largest Slum

Courtesy of Reality Tours

If you've ever flown into Mumbai you'll know that there's no avoiding the third largest slum in the world, Dharavi, a sprawling mass of corrugated tin, cardboard and blue tarpaulin running alongside the international airport. Spanning more than 550 acres with a population of over a million people, an average of 15,000 of them share a single toilet, infectious diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis and malaria are rife and there are no hospitals. Many visitors choose to look the other way, disgusted by the perceived squalor and poverty.

Chowpatti Beach, Mumbai (January, 2016)

After reading Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts' stupendous semi-autobiographical novel I was captivated by the tales of protagonist Lin's time in Dharavi and watching Slumdog Millionaire years later only served to increase my interest. On the many occasions we've visited Mumbai we've seen the children of Dharavi enjoying themselves on Chowpatti beach and heard the squeals of delight from the rooftop kite fliers when we've driven past the slums but never thought of venturing inside. 

We're on the train!

When I first heard about slum tours I thought they sounded rather tasteless, imagining over-privileged Westerners ogling the living conditions and poverty of those much less fortunate from the comfort of an air conditioned car. How wrong I was! Reality Tours are award-winning, ethical tour company run by the residents of Dharavi with 80% of the profits going back into the community.

Churchgate Station

Joined by Brit couple, Tim & Annie, Emmanuel from Marseilles and Lucy from Paris we met a representative from Reality Tours at Churchgate railway station and were accompanied on the train to Mahim (the closest station to Dharavi). On disembarking we were introduced to our guide, graduate Raj, who had moved here with his family from Goa as a child. Together we crossed the railway bridge and entered Dharavi for a two-and-a-half walking tour.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Despite the poverty Dharavi has been described by the Observer as "One of the most inspiring economic models in Asia". Hidden amongst the maze of dilapidated shacks and alleyways so narrow you occasionally have to walk sideways, are around fifteen thousand single-room factories employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over an estimated £700 million annually. 

 Most of the small businesses in Dharavi are based on waste recycling. Slum dwellers of all ages scavenge waste materials from across Mumbai and haul them back in enormous bundles for reprocessing. Aluminium cans are smelted down, soap scraps from schools and hotels are reduced in massive vats, leather is reworked, unwanted oil drums are scrubbed and repainted and waste plastics are broken down and remoulded. I'll never forget one man rinsing out a mountain of Head and Shoulders shampoo bottles and shuddering at the ridiculous amount of waste plastic us humans create.

Over ten thousand are employed in the recycled plastic sector.

 Ranging from three thousand to fifteen thousand rupees a month, wages are well above the national average and although Dharavi has no health centre it does have banks and an ATM.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Reality Tours ask that visitors refrain from taking photos, although we were given permission to take a few pictures from the plastic sector roof, after being the subject of about a million selfies in Gujarat I could completely understand this. Most of the photos I've used in this post were either emailed to us from Reality or scanned from a set of postcards I bought from their head office. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Don't expect Dharavi to be all abject poverty, depression and deprivation. Unlike the favelas we encountered when we visited Brazil, here the atmosphere is positive, friendly and industrious. Every day up to five hundred economic refugees arrive in Mumbai, often escaping a life of crushing rural poverty. Most new arrivals have to sleep on the streets, to find a home in the slum is a step up the ladder. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

At every tiny workshop we passed we were greeted with welcoming smiles, namastes and cheerful waves. Raj seemed to know everyone. We'd ask what they were up to and he'd translate, bringing out everything from colourful plastic vegetable racks and bathroom tidies, wheelie suitcases, exquisitely tailored waistcoats, rotis and poppadums and probably some of the most gorgeous quality leather bags I've ever set my eyes on (find them HERE).

Courtesy of Reality Tours

I chatted to the manager of the leather shop and was delighted that, after I mentioning where we was from, he told me that Walsall was home to the finest quality leather in the world. If you're wondering, the leather produced in India comes from buffaloes and not the holy cow!

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Among the first to make Dharavi their home were the Kumhar (or potters) caste, originally from Gujarat.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

While we stopped to admire a large number of freshly made pots drying in the sunshine a large ginger tom decided to walk straight through them, causing two to topple over and disintegrate. That's the twenty-first pot he's broken this week, one of the potters told us, picking the cat up, placing it on his lap and lavishing him with love.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

And what of the living conditions within the slum? Homes consist of two single rooms, one on top of the other, with the upper storey accessible by a ladder on the outside. An entire family live in one room with cooking, sleeping and living all taking place in that single space. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Those rooms are immaculate with scrubbed floors and highly polished tin cookware neatly stacked on the shelves. 

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Running water is available to Dharavi residents for just an hour twice a day and is saved in large plastic vats stored outside each home.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

There's tiny hole-in-the-wall snack bars and tea stalls, barbers shops, fruit and veg vendors and corner shops.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Wherever we went bright-eyed, barefoot children would greet us, some high-fiving us & shaking hands, others shyly following us and running off giggling when we said hello. Outside one house were three little boys each grooming a tiny white kitten, they were thrilled to bits when I went over to look, excitedly offering me each pet in turn to kiss.

Courtesy of Reality Tours

The profits from the slum tours are ploughed back into Dharavi, funding education & recreational facilities for both boys and girls and have also built a community centre for residents of all ages to use.

Courtesy of Reality Tours
Although I didn't take these photos, the smiles we encountered on our tour were no different.

Courtesy of Reality Tours
Courtesy of Reality Tours

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Raj told us that moving to Dharavi was the best thing his family had ever done, the community was strong and supportive and it was impossible to feel sad or lonely with so many friends around. After the warm welcome we were given it made us reflect on who was actually better off, us Westerners with all our home comforts and space or the slum dwellers who existed in a single room with no running water but surrounded by people who cared for them.  

Courtesy of Reality Tours

Reality Tours run walking tours for groups of six or less at 9.15 am and 12.45 pm daily. 
Cost is 900 rupees per person (approx.£10) including return train tickets. More information can be found HERE.

If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll know how much Jon & I love Mumbai, the mere mention of the place gives me butterflies. The Slum Tour is honestly one of the most uplifting experiences we've ever had. 

Monday 26 February 2018

She's Eclectic - What I'm Wearing Today

I thought I'd give you a break from the travel posts today with a good, old-fashioned outfit post.

 Cold shoulder is very appropriate today as it's bastard freezing. Am I the only one who detests that term, what's wrong with plain old off-the-shoulder? Anyway, a sure sign that this style of top is, in the fickle world of fashion, dead in the water as I found this Indian-made embroidered number in the dregs of the winter sales for £3. No matter to me, most of my clothes are at least 40 years out of date - being last year's style is pretty much hip 'n' happening in my world.

My bag was a gift from Sarah, a dear Instagram friend and an insanely talented maker of beautiful things (she's on IG HERE and Facebook HERE). She made it from a tatty Indian dress, some block printed fabric and a vintage button and it's barely been off my shoulder since I received it. The belt is vintage Tyrolean, a present from Helga years ago. I got the quilted 1970s maxi skirt (American, I think) in a swap with a trader friend. It's so warm I don't even need my thermals underneath it.

The choker was a gift from Krista years ago, it's from the Hmong tribe, who originate from China.

To add to my multi-cultural outfit I'm wearing some handmade beaded earrings from Rwanda.

As the Beast from The East is imminent I'm wearing my vintage 1970s Saluki fake fur which I bought for £3 from a car boot sale about 8 years ago. I've given it a hard life in the time I've owned it, it's probably been to more festivals than your average hipster. The label says it's Winter Warm and it is. I haven't worn it for a while as, to be honest, I was a bit bored with it (but not enough to sell it on) but along with the bag Sarah sent me she added a pile of fabulous ethnic and vintage trims to the parcel- so I've pimped it up with some mirrored Afghan braid and some hot pink pom-poms from my stash and now it's a lot more me. I was happy to find these sock boots in the sales, too - there's been a lot around this winter but I have a hatred of pointy toes, these have far more Vix-friendly round toes.

I've added my trusty vintage Italian sheepskin hat (a gift from Christina years ago) and a pair of 1960s vinyl backed gloves robbed from the stockroom.

I'm taking my eclectic outfit off for a session in Wetherspoons in a bit where it'll no doubt be as colourful and multi-cultural as the clientele. Linking to Patti & the gang for Visible Monday and Judith, the Style Crone for Hat Attack #56.

More travel posts to follow - I need a reminder of that Indian sunshine.

See you soon!

Thursday 22 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Textile Heaven

Kutch is famed for its rich textile heritage so what better way to spend our final day than overdosing on them. Our first call was to the Living & Learning Design Centre (known as LLDC) in the village of Ajrakhpur, just outside Bhuj, a world class crafts & textile museum with an education and resource centre enabling the craftsmen and women of Kutch to interact with designers, learn about new designs and products to ensure that their work remains both relevant and marketable. You can learn more about the work of the LLDC HERE.

Photographs aren't allowed inside, which was probably a good thing, as Jon and I were able to fully immerse ourselves in the textiles on display and the incredible exhibition of costumes worn by the many tribes of Kutch. There were also some fascinating videoed interviews (subtitled in English) with representatives from the various Kutchi tribes, discussing their outfits and their way of life. We were sad to learn that the custom within many communities is that the clothing and jewellery of the deceased is thrown in the sea, buried or burnt, neither recycled or passed on.

I was interested to read a quote from a woman belonging to a Kutchi tribe where females stay indoors. Nobody has ever told us we can't go out, she said, our husbands say that we should, it's just that we don't want to be the first of our generation to do so. We want someone else to go before us. The weight of tradition can be such a heavy burden.

The women of the Rabari, one of many Kutchi tribes famed for their embroidery skills, used to start embroidering their trousseaux in their early teens. Their work was so intricate that the women were often in their mid-thirties before they were ready to marry. In recent years the tribal elders banned the women from embroidering their own clothes dictating that their work be sold. In an interview with one of the Rabari women she said I feel sad that I can't own the beautiful clothes my ancestors wore. I'm proud that my work is valued and that the money we make from selling our work supports our community but I feel that I've lost part of who I am by having to wear plain clothes.

The centre was only inaugurated in 2016 and is a wonderfully modern and imposing space. On the day we visited they were preparing for an arts festival, due to start later that day.

 Ramji wasn't available on our last full day so K provided us with another driver. Although he didn't speak a lot of English he was from Bhuj and so, when asked if we could see some traditional block printing he knew exactly where to take us......those of you with a fetish for fabric, look away now!!

Dr. Ismael Mohammed Khatri can trace his Ajrakh block-printing heritage back at least nine generations. This is just a small part of his warehouse.

We asked if it was possible to see where his fabric was printed so he hopped into our car and directed us a mile down the road. I expected a factory but we were taken to a village, with every adult resident involved in the process of block printing cotton -  while men stood over huge vats of simmering dyes, stirring away, women laid lengths of partially printed cloth out in the sun to dry, children played amongst the fabric, cows were tethered to gateposts and cats slept in the shade.

The actual block printing process took place in a large brick-built building with a corrugated metal roof. Unlike factories here in the UK there was no radio blasting away in the background, just the satisfying thud of wooden printing blocks against seemingly endless sheets of pristine white cotton - with the occasional chirp from a family of sparrows, who'd made their nest in gap in a factory window.

Dr. Khatri told us that it takes each employee three days to print a 100 metre length of cotton. That's why block printed cotton isn't cheap.

The factory supplies block printed cotton to some of the best known shops in the country, including the wonderful FabIndia where this fabric was destined, to be made up into women's knee length kurtas and bed covers. 

Dr. Khatri

Gives a whole new meaning to sun-dried!

The process was mesmerising. Again, sorry about my terrible accent - I can't stay quiet for a minute.

Needless to say, we popped back to the warehouse after our visit and treated ourselves to two scarves as souvenirs. I loved block printed fabric before, now I bloody adore it.

By now it was lunchtime so we picked up the driver's wife from Bhuj hospital where she worked as a nurse and went to their favourite basement canteen for a massive veg thali. The food was incredible and the company, despite the language barrier, was warm and lovely.

When we visited Manvi you may have noticed the Gujarati tie-dye shawl I wore. I was excited to find it in a 50p bucket in a charity shop and was intrigued by the process involved. Gujarati tie-dye is a lot more intricate than my teenage attempts with waxed string and marbles.

We asked our driver if we could see some tie-dye and ended up in the front room of a house in a nearby village. The householder explained how he sketches a series of dots and dashes on lengths of white fabric (either cotton or silk) and pays local housewives to sew around the dots, pulling the thread tight. The completed lengths of fabric are then returned where they're immersed in a tubs of vegetable dye. When dry, more markings and stitching are added and the fabric is dyed again.

Here's some of the completed work.

The chap wasn't interested in selling us anything, he was more than happy with a selfie!

We finished the day with a stroll around Bhuj. It's probably a good thing that Saturday was half day closing or I'd probably have bankrupted myself.

Everything you could possibly want including pom pom necklaces for your water buffalo and replacement legs for your charpoy.

I'd forgotten that I'd seen the fake ivory arm bangles on Bhuj market. Jon put me off by saying that they looked like onion rings.

It was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to K and the Devpur Homestay on Sunday morning.

But that wasn't the end of our adventures in Kutch. We had one place to visit before our flight to Mumbai. Run by the not-for-profit organisation Kala RakshaSumeraser Sheikh maintains an archive of antique textiles, a handicraft workshop, a museum and a fixed-price shop. Most of the participants are women from marginalised communities (like the ladies below) .

This elderly woman is suffering, like many professional embroiderers, from failing eyesight. She arrived as refugee from the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and has lived here ever since.

Kala Raksha employ her to make these beautiful patchwork chess pieces from salvaged fabric and also provide her with accommodation.

Such incredible skill. I was pleased to learn that the not-for-profit organisations that promote the skills of Kutchi embroiderers provide regular eye tests.

The antique textiles & tribal jewellery on display made me giddy with excitement. I bought a DVD from the shop called When Stitches Speak, an award-winning animated documentary (link HERE) which I'm looking forward to watching soon. 

I wanted it all!

Appetite for textiles sated we continued on our journey to the airport where, once again we were treated like rock stars, with the cabin crew meeting us outside the terminal, unloading Ramji's car and carrying our luggage for us. 

And that was Kutch! As you can probably tell from the profusion of posts we loved every minute of our week-long adventure. If you're interested in visiting you'll find the wonderful Devpur Homestay's website HERE and if you want any further information & advice about visiting the Kutch region of Gujarat please feel free to email me.

You'll find the whole set of photos HERE.

See you soon!