India. A lot of people asked me: Why India? My initial response was: Why Not? In reality though, it was mainly because my friend, Julie, lived there for about six months and as I started looking at tours (because India would have been too much for me to do on my own) I realized that India would definitely be an adventure that would take me out of my comfort zone.
So, I booked at trip with Reality Tours. I found them through Julie who had been on one of their tours in Mumbai. When researching the company the cities on the itinerary were ones I wanted to go to, the price was right, and after a few emails back and forth, and one very anxious wire transfer (because I have been ingrained to never transfer money like that) I found myself leaving London Heathrow on my way to Mumbai.
On approach to Mumbai, the city was clouded in a dense layer of smog. I had been excited for a window seat, except I couldn’t see much as we landed. But we landed. I made it through immigration with no major hiccups (which had been the source of my anxiety for a the week leading up to the trip. And, an hour or so after my plane touched down, I found myself at the hotel and due for a nap. That night, I met the rest of my group (three others and our guide Nano) and we enjoyed our first dinner. Now, let me just pause to say that my parents would be so proud of me because I didn’t starve in India, which for a picky eater is an accomplishment in and of itself. After that first glorious dinner, we wandered back to the hotel, grabbed a beer and then I feel a sleep for a few hours until the serious jet lag set in and was up at 3AM.
We set off in the morning and saw the sights of the city, the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace, the University of Mumbai, and it was all fascinating. It is different than any city that I have ever seen before. It’s dense. The air, the people (the quantity of the people verse the area everyone occupied, not their personalities), there was something everywhere, there was no such thing as quiet. It’s a very different city.
After seeing all of the standout sites we were driven to Dhavari where we met Krishna.
Krishna founded Reality Tours about 14 years ago with their signature tour. The tour of the slums. Yeah, you heard me right. His company takes people from all over the world to one of the most misunderstood communities in the world. A place so densely populated that people are working and living on top of each other. The 520 acres that compose Dhavari are unlike anything I have ever seen, and will ever see.
Krishna is one of those people that you just want to talk to and learn from. He radiates a happiness that isn’t found in most people and it’s infectious. We didn’t get more than a few feet into the slum before he was calling out to people and vice versa. It seemed like everyone (okay, maybe not everyone), knew who he was and wanted to talk to him.
He first took us to the most industrial area of Dhavari. I had no idea that a slum could be industrial, I thought I was just a place where people lived, but that was first misconception. The first industry that we saw was the recycling industry. I knew from 60 Minutes that we (as in the United States) sent a lot of our recyclable waste to Asia, but until now I didn’t know exactly what was done with it. Turns out a lot of it is sent to Dhavari. It also turns out that there is a lot of labor involved to turn out used plastic to pellets to be used again. Breaking down the different plastic components, sorting, and grinding into small pellet, is all done by hand. It's mind boggling. Plastic utensils from airlines? Women sort through that in the open air. Plastic from old electronics? Men sit in a cramped room to break it down and sort by color. And after a process it our junk turns into something that is usable.
This one slum generates one billion dollars into the Indian economy every year. Because people needed to survive have found a way to generate business in the most unlikeliness of places. In addition to the recycling industry, there is textiles, machining, manufacturing, pottery, and probably a wide range of other products. We saw suitcases being built by hand, which was a far cry from the assembly lines that I think of when something is “Made in India.” We saw people making machines that were specifically designed for industry in the slum. It was its own industrial ecosystem. The human ingenuity to create this ecosystem is simply amazing.
As we kept walking through, we ended up meeting a mother that Krishna knew. She was probably a few years younger than me, but just like any mother, in any part of the world, loved her baby and was so proud of the life that she had created. We also saw the street sweepers who were cleaning up the city for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations to take a picture with us and show us how they were making their home beautiful. We met another woman from an NGO who was teaching the women in the community about proper nutrition. We also ran across a wedding celebration. Kids wanting to just say hi. People just like you and me.
As we ended the tour of the slum we somehow got engulfed in a parade, which I have no idea what it was for. Krishna told me to go dance with the women, and I did (abet VERY, VERY poorly). But it was just like dancing with my friends and family at a wedding back home. There was no language barrier, just people enjoying people’s company.
I believe that people are innately good, innately resilient, and innately strong. The people of Dhavari are no exception it was really a privilege to see their community.
PS: The handful of photos were courtesy of Krishna. I would encourage you to take some time to listen to his Ted Talk or visit Reality’s website. And if you find yourself in Mumbai or Delhi for the day, give them a visit!