Mumbai is the epitome of a major City in INDIA; It’s loud, it’s dirty and it’s busy. To walk among the bustling metropolis can be a vicious onslaught on the senses, however, it is impossible to deny the remarkable energy that consumes the Island City. A significant financial district and the heart of India’s Bollywood scene, some even like to call Mumbai ‘The City of Dreams’.
From the hustle and bustle of the street markets; to the wheeling & dealing in the art galleries; the air of opportunity is everywhere. Historically, millions of migrants have flocked to the city with the hope of finding work & security. Sadly for many, the reality is a far cry from the fantasy they’ve envisioned. Ironically, ‘The City of Dreams’ possesses one of India’s highest poverty rates. A staggering 5.2 million people live in poverty-stricken environments; 42% of the cities total population.
As a tourist, it can be easy to mindlessly turn a blind eye to these numbers. We walk the streets of Mumbai and see the wealth of awe-inspiring architecture; we stay in iconic hotels such as the Taj Palace; and we eat at fancy restaurants within the CBD. But of course, this isn’t an accurate perception of the real Mumbai. Dozens of slum settlements can be found across the city, and you only have to walk the streets late at night to find thousands of people sleeping rough. I respect that not everybody wants these unjust statistics or realities waved under their nose; however personally, an imperative part of our travelling experience is to attempt to understand all sides to a nation’s culture. Even when it means some sides are harder to digest than others.
Are you an LGBT+ traveller? Check out our article LGBT+ Travel Guide for Mumbai.
OUR EXPERIENCE WITHOUT A GUIDE IN MUMBAI’S BIGGEST SLUM – DHARAVI
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A CONTROVERSIAL SUBJECT
When broaching the topic of visiting the slums during our time in Mumbai, we realised it was a controversial subject. We understood from online research, that it was possible to go with an organised tour; however, the idea of paying somebody to exploit poverty didn’t sit well with us. After seeking further advice from the owner of our hotel, he assured us that we would be safe to visit Dharavi slum by ourselves. Understandably we were nervous; however, we felt that if we wanted to do this, we should be valiant enough to go alone.
Dharavi is not only the biggest slum in Mumbai but one of the biggest in the world, with an estimated population of 1 million people. Despite the harsh living conditions, Dharavi beholds a thriving informal economy; equating to hundreds of millions of dollars. Subsequently, a percentage of the inhabitants are extremely wealthy but choose to stay within the confinements of the slum. Intrigued by these aforementioned facts, we anxiously set off to learn more about day-to-day life in the community.
ARRIVING AT DHARAVI SLUMS WITHOUT A GUIDE
Approaching Mahim Junction station, the shocking reality of the slum conditions hit us like a slap in the face. The structures of tiny tinned houses spilt out onto the tracks, while the pungent smell of overflowing waste was intoxicating. Upon leaving the train we looked around in bewilderment. The station was busy and we were getting many confused looks from passers-by. By this point, anxiety was kicking in and we began to have second doubts. There were so many what-ifs to consider. After much deliberation, we decided we hadn’t come this far to go back now. So we buried our thoughts and set off across the bridge to the slum.
If we weren’t already nervous, the piercing sound of firecrackers exploding in the distance was enough to solidify it. Alas, we continued, but before long we were approached by a group of children holding their hands out demanding ‘money’. Unintentionally, this behaviour can come across as intimidating, however, we rarely give in to such demands. In these circumstances, it is impossible to give to one without the other, and therefore we find it easier to refrain from handouts. The kids are opportunists, but they also know when it’s time to back off. At an attempt to avoid too much attention, we continued meticulously, and soon enough we found ourselves in the midst of the slum.
AN ATTACK ON THE SENSES
At first glance the harsh conditions are shocking. Tinned houses no bigger than your average living room, slot together as if part of some gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Home to entire families, the tiny establishments leave little room for anything but sleeping, and so residents overflow into the narrow streets as a living area. In the limited space where there is no infrastructure, mammoth piles of trash occupy instead; attracting with it an abundance of stray wildlife. Most unpleasant of all, however, has to be the local river. Due to a limited supply of toilets, dwellers are forced to use the river to relieve themselves. As a result, the entire neighbourhood is plagued by the suffocating smell.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
As we attempted to process our surroundings, the residents of Dharavi eyed us curiously. We did what comes natural and greeted them with a smile & Namaste. This seemed to break the ice, as before we knew it they had surrounded us; all welcoming us warmly to their home. Some families invited us to talk with them for a while and we were pleasantly surprised by our conversations. What we expected to be a struggling, poverty-stricken environment was in-fact a united community of people who work together to make the best of what they have. Incongruous to their situation, they spoke with pride in regards to their country. Furthermore, they were incredibly grateful that we had taken the time to visit India.
Immensely humbled, we said goodbye to our new friends. It was a brief encounter, but a meaningful one, and we continued to explore with new-found confidence. We weaved through a labyrinth of alleyways beholding doctors offices, schools, restaurants, barbers, temples and more. These discoveries emphasised just how much we’d underestimated the sheer size and development of the Dharavi settlement. Dharavi is a town of its own, even said to behold its own ‘King of the Slum’. The King and other senior representatives are appointed to help resolve any issues that may occur within the community.
No different to anywhere else in India, walking the streets is a spectacle in itself. Animals, families, hawkers, street markets, motorbikes & tuk-tuks create an organised chaos that is somewhat exhilarating. We watched on in apprehension as an entire funeral procession weaved through fast-moving traffic; carrying the deceased on a stretcher above their heads. Weird and wonderful people passed us by, walking with an air of compelling history. And locals worked together incessantly to keep the organisational cogs of the slum turning.
Overwhelmed by the raw action of slum life, it was soon time to make our way back. On our route to the train station, we passed through a number of apartment blocks. We later discovered that they were constructed as part of a government initiative, to help rehouse those living in slum establishments such as Dharavi. Although a positive start, it will take a lot more than that to help the millions still living in poverty-stricken conditions. Moreover, there is a desperate need for additional support to those living in these communities. Most still struggle to get access to clean drinking water and there is a dire need for more toilets. Despite various organisations attempting to help, the sheer size of the project makes it an arduous task.
A HUMBLING EXPERIENCE
On reflection of our visit to Dharavi, it is an experience that left us feeling incredibly grateful. To have this fascinating insight into a side of India that many do not see is a tremendously humbling experience. The people we met are an admirable example that happiness really does come from within you. Not from what you have. And the success stories of the flourishing economy, prove that you can prosper in the most challenging of circumstances. It took us some time, but we can now understand why even those who have made enough money to leave, choose to stay within the slum environment. It would be a culture shock to leave the united community of the slum, for the disconnected society that most of us live in today.
“Never be so poor, that all you have is material things…”
ARE ORGANISED GUIDE TOURS ETHICAL?
We have since learned that there are in-fact organised tours to Dharavi that are somewhat ethical. The guides are from slum backgrounds themselves and have the blessing of community representatives to conduct tours. Furthermore, they claim to donate a large percentage of the profits to charities to give back to the community. Whether that’s true or not, we would not say to refrain from visiting with a tour guide. It would actually be very educational and also eradicate the uncertainty of walking around blind. Conversely, we would also encourage you to go without a guide, for your own unique experience. Either way, if you choose to visit, remember to be respectful. These are human beings in their home, not animals in a zoo. Respect gains respect, and the locals will welcome you with open arms if they know your intentions are pure.
HOW TO GET TO DHARAVI SLUMS?
Cross the bridges from Mahim Junction station and you are in Dharavi… We stayed in South Mumbai, you can read our travel guide for more information on where to stay/things to do.
HOW TO GET TO MUMBAI
BY AIR – Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is the main airport in Mumbai.
BY TRAIN – Mumbai is connected via train from across the region; however, booking trains in India can be tricky. It is advised to book at least 3 days in advance, and we are more of the last minute types. You can book trains up to 6 months in advance using 12GO, Asia.
BY BUS – Mumbai is accessible by bus from a number of destinations across India. To check routes, timetables, and ticket prices we recommend using redbus.com or the Red Bus app. In our experience, they are extremely reliable. They are one of the only companies who will accept payment with an International card, and if you have any problems with your journey they are contactable by phone.
DHARAVI SLUM MAP LOCATION
WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH MUMBAI
As with most cosmopolitan cities, finding cheap yet suitable accommodation options can be quite a challenge. We arrived at the initial hotel that we’d booked for $15 a night to find ourselves in a very run-down part of town. After deciding that we didn’t feel entirely safe there, we made a booking with AK International. It was way over our budget at $30 a night; however, the rooms were nice, 24/7 security, the staff were helpful and the WiFi was good.
For more places to stay in Mumbai, check the latest prices here.
You can also check out this article for other popular areas to stay within the city.
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Well, that concludes Without a guide in Dharavi, Mumbai’s biggest slum. We hope you enjoy your time in this magical country. If you have any questions or feel we have missed anything, please reach out to us in the comment section below, through our contact us page. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram here where we share further travel advice & inspiration.
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Charlotte & Natalie x
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