Slum blog

I have never seen animals so happy in India. Pigs snuffling around in shallow filthy water flowing through the middle of the slum in Dehradun.

In places, rubbish has accumulated to slow it down and alter its course but the water is still managing quite a pace. There is a lot of rubbish. In fact, rubbish is this slum’s business. People will pick through piles of rubbish and sort it, scraping a meagre living from it.

From Bindal Bridge we watch as a skinny man hoists up on to his head a huge wedge of crushed cardboard, tied together with cord, and brings it up a steep dusty track to a waiting van which will take it away for recycling.

We see other adults emerging for the day and leaving the slum for the city, where they might be beggars, cleaners or vegetable sellers. Many children are left behind to fend for themselves or be looked after by older siblings.

With the Himalayas sitting very hazily in the background, the slum is waking up. Washing hangs around the lowest rungs of a large electricity pylon. Adults are sitting around picking nits from the hair of other adults. The small shops are open, selling strips of packets of crisps and sweets.

Some young children are half-naked, I presume because they are not toilet trained, and their parents cannot afford nappies. A young girl is squatting at the edge of the drop to the river having a poo. Shared toilets drain untreated straight to the river. Sanitation is the community’s worst problem.

An average home here has a family of five living in a basic room half the size of our kitchen back home.

Due to the numbers living in close proximity with each other, sexual and domestic abuse are rife, we are told. Incidents are reducing, more because of the fear of the consequences than because they think it is wrong.

Migrants came here from Bihar, seeking a better life. We can only wonder how bad it must have been where they came from.

There is no intention on the government’s part to move the people from the slums because they would merely displace them. Where would they go?

We accept a chai from a man who disappears into his dark hut to make a brew. The chai is the lumpiest we have ever seen (we hope/guess it is spices rather than shredded cockroach) and served in a cheap plastic cup which is warping with the heat.

The man kindly offers a plate of slices of plain white bread. It is humbling that he has next to nothing and yet he accepts no payment.

The work of the AASRAA Trust began here at the riverbed slum in 2009 in response to a crisis over the welfare of children. Today they introduce hundreds of underprivileged children to education, keeping them off the streets and introducing them to basic literacy skills. They run an anti-begging campaign, offer medical care, a good midday meal and nutritious snacks, and they have their own shelter homes too.

The work is wide-ranging and never-ending.

On a day like today, staff members will go to the slum to collect children to take them to a school. One bus fills up and another arrives to take some more.

Staff also keep an eye out for those who are missing from school, and will check on why. It is all too easy for the children to be kept at home for work tasks or to look after a parent, or simply because their own parents have no understanding of the need for education – because they themselves never went to school.

Dehradun is not a touristy town and this is not a tour organised by a travel company, in the way that we were shown Dharavi slum in Mumbai.

Rather it’s a personal visit to see for ourselves the work of AASRAA and see where my daughter Anouska volunteered three years ago. I will always remember when she phoned home on her second day in tears because she had seen the conditions in which the children lived.

There are 118 slums in Dehradun alone. To my eyes, this is in stark contrast to the rest of the city, which has an international reputation as a centre of excellence for education. The equivalent of Eton is based here. (You may remember the Channel 4 TV series Indian Summer School earlier this year in which five troublesome teenagers were sent to The Doon School.)

The vibrant young student population here is very evident – youngsters who are keen to learn and consider education a privilege.

One young girl who has learned the value of education is Himanshi, who we know as Mansi. She was four when Anouska met her and (due to her very difficult background) she was a shy, withdrawn child. She wouldn’t smile at Anouska for weeks. Once she gained her trust, however, she opened up and Anouska couldn’t talk about anyone else.

In a couple of weeks Mansi will be seven. She is a shining example of the success of the AASRAA programme to enrol underprivileged children into mainstream education. She is still very shy when we meet her and her older brother Himanshu. After all, why should she trust two old white strangers who turn up and interrupt her school day?

We have a brief chat through an interpreter and she tells us she would like to be a doctor. To one side we ask if that is realistic. Yes, her teacher says, she has the potential.

Shortly before we met Mansi, we went to her home in a different part of town where she lives with her grandmother. It wouldn’t be appropriate to detail her family’s history here, suffice to say it’s been a tough start for a little girl whose parents are no longer around, and it continues to be a tough life for the grandmother.

As she talks to us, she wells up and her hand goes to her heart. Even though she is speaking in Hindi, we feel every emotion as she says it.

She guesses at her own age, about 60, though I think she looks older. The average life expectancy for a woman in India is 65. She is illiterate.

David asks whether there is anything right now that would make her life better, thinking there could be something practical we could provide very easily.

She thinks for a moment, but very matter-of-factly replies no, it’s all ok.

But it is clear that her income does not match her expenditure – and her need to support her two grandchildren. As we leave, we give her some money to keep her going. It is much what we paid for our train ticket from New Delhi, but it means the world to her. She cannot quite believe it and she has to choke back tears.

She touches our feet as a mark of respect, but in return we give her a great big hug.

This story began with one little girl who captured my daughter’s heart. But it’s her grandmother who has captured mine.

*Please read more about the work of the AASRAA Trust here.

*****

We reached Dehradun by train from New Delhi. Once again, the train service is exemplary. It departs and arrives perfectly on time, it is clean and we are given an edible breakfast and a large bottle of water.

For once David and I are not sitting next to each other, but we are only two rows apart. There are some spare seats around but we are going to be making several stops picking up more people so we settle down where we are. (Read on below for his journey, quite different from mine!)

Thought you might enjoy some of my jotted observations made during the six-hour journey…

A couple are travelling with two young children. They seem to have booked only two seats between them. While the two seats to my left remain available, the man and young son sit there. He tries to change a nappy. He passes a drink across me. He passes the child across me.

A man (behind, right) coughs. Not just a polite cough but something deeper, wetter and disgusting.

A woman burps.

Someone starts snoring loudly.

Chai is served in individual flasks, with biscuits.

Two women arrive for the seats next to me. They insist on putting large bags under seats. My elderly grey-haired neighbour is very mismatched, pink floral top, crazy pattern bottoms, grey tank top, pink socks and flip flops.

She gets out what looks like a yellow bandana, ties it around her hand, seems to bless it, puts a floral scarf around that and keeps her hand raised. Maybe it is like worry beads.

Another belch rumbles out from a woman.

The woman behind me lets out three belches in a row. The first one transforms seamlessly into an exhalation of ‘ohhhh’. Not an embarrassed ‘oh’, just a relieved if slightly painful one.

After breakfast the belching begins in earnest, women all around me let it out as if in training for a new category in the Olympics.

The man behind does a combined cough/sigh in a strange way almost like he’s just been stabbed.

All I am doing is trying to read my book. And hoping it’s not the turn of farting next.

Breakfast has revived everyone and it seems that strangers are striking up conversations all round. Some women are having a funny chat with a man with a long greying beard and friendly face. He is sporting a black and white checked bandana.

To my left a woman comes out with a belch which rivals Elf… I nearly get the giggles.

Behind me the ‘oh’ belch repeats itself.

My neighbour puts her bobble hat into her camouflage handbag and gets out her smartphone to put on some Indian music. It’s strangely relaxing.

I glance over and smile and she smiles back. The music is coming from a video on YouTube which shows a baby-god with a revolving halo behind it and what looks like a parrot swinging on a banana. Her head starts moving to the music and her hand gesticulating.

Her socks have big toes. These are socks designed for flip-flops.

She crosses her leg, ankle to knee, in a way only an Indian can. If I hadn’t seen her face I might have thought she was 20. The other foot taps to the music.

We establish that she is going to Haridwar.

A breakfast tray crashes to the floor. A little girl to my right, left alone for two minutes while Mum goes to the loo, looks up with a ‘It wasn’t me’ look. She leaves it there. Mum returns and she leaves it there too.

The train empties station by station with not many new passengers, leaving it blissfully quieter and calm.

I might even try the loo now, something I resist as long as I can.**

 

David’s journey went like this…

I live in an island 45 miles square. Our beautiful Railway Walk is the last reminder of the steam train that crossed the island many years ago. For that reason, or maybe just because I am a nerd, I love trains. Particularly dirty, old Indian trains.

Despite this train’s relative antiquity it is clean and comfortable. We weren’t able to get seats together and when I took up my position in the middle of three seats I only had a Granny-Ji on my right to talk to. It soon became obvious that as she did not speak a word of English and I only know two words in Hindi, chai was more likely than chat.

Just prior to take-off, a young girl of about 20 claimed the seat to my left. As we departed the station, I busied myself looking at photos on my iPad and she started reading a paperback written in English.

When chai was delivered, I politely passed her tray to her. When the breakfast arrived,  ditto. She thanked me in English. I continued to look at my photos and before long her curiosity got the better of her… In perfect English ‘Where are you from?’

Throughout our travels this question has been asked many times by the friendly locals but explaining the tiny Crown Dependency of Jersey (closer to France but definitely British) has been a protracted mission usually met with a blank stare and the obligatory head wobble.

This time, iPad at the ready, I touched on Maps.me and with a pinching motion was able to show my island home in between France and England.

For the next four hours we chatted on and off about many different topics from travel, to politics, arranged marriage, religion, toilets, WiFi, head wobbles, Indian manners, queuing.  We spoke about women’s emancipation in a still patriarchal society and about the appalling caste system which, though often denied, is alive and well in India.

Bharvvi’s older sister is getting married in two weeks’ time, an arranged marriage and when it is Bharvvi’s turn to marry, her parents will want to choose her husband. In India when a daughter gets married the parents will often go into huge debt to throw an ostentatious party that can last for days. Elaborate costumes, horses, catering, photography all because ‘everyone else does it and we have to been seen to do the same or face shame and ridicule’. Then there is the payment of a dowry… still very much alive and well. The newly-weds will be expected to live with the groom’s family and there will be many demands on their income.

The purpose of Bhavvi’s journey to Dehradun is an interview process. She hopes to persuade the Department of Defence that she is worthy of their scholarship. Higher education has to be paid for in India and a scholarship is her only hope of realising her dreams.

Hopefully she will succeed in her educational aspirations but she tells me that before she reaches 30 her parents will select a husband for her and she will be expected to forgo her career to keep home and produce a family, as per ancient tradition.

My new friend was kind enough to seem interested in my family and my recent travels.

At one point, probably as a result of feeling obliged to look at my 20,000 photos, she fell asleep and being of a certain (advanced) age I put my jacket over her. When she awoke she thanked me for the use of my jacket. I replied that my daughter is probably about her age and I hope that when she travels alone, people are kind to her.

Bhavvi is an intelligent, articulate and well educated young woman. She speaks excellent English and is interested in the world around her. We agreed that India, the place of her  birth and the place I love, is in transition. Its problems are many, huge and seemingly insurmountable. But her generation are the hope for India.

*****

**Talking of toilets… it was World Toilet Day on 19 November.

It gives us a chance to reflect on the fact that although more Indians than ever before have access to a toilet, at least 522 million people in this country still defecate in the open. Better sanitation reduces the incidence of diarrhoea, mostly spread by faeces-contaminated water. Diarrhoea is the second leading cause of death in children under five.

We have encountered four kinds of toilet in India – the western loo, the Indian squat toilet, a combination of the two so you get what looks like a squatting ledge but at a toilet seat level, and (worst of all really) the western loo which has no seat.

At every single room we have been in, whether it’s a hotel, guest house or homestay, the shower has been in a wet room, meaning that the toilet inevitably gets wet. You always have to take time to dry the seat first.

Indians do not like the use of toilet paper. They prefer to use a jet of water, claiming it is more hygienic.

In our homestays in Madurai, Udaipur and Dehradun, no toilet paper was provided nor was it forthcoming. In Madurai we couldn’t find any on sale in the town, so we had to make do. You had to time things so you could have a shower immediately afterwards, or you would have to use the power hose on the wall – we think it has two purposes – one instead of a toilet brush, the other instead of toilet paper. You just have to remember to then have a towel to hand.

The seatless toilets are the worst (for a woman). You hover at first, but can’t relax enough to release. So you dip to a point where the minimum amount of flesh meets the porcelain, enough to get a result, before hovering again.

Most toilets ask you not to put toilet paper down the loo. It is so automatic for us that I still often forget. And if you happen to lift the seat, most toilets will release a dozen mosquitoes into the air.

The award for the best toilet in five months (I am not expecting it to be beaten):

Marriott Hotel in Panjim (Goa) when we gatecrashed. It was in an outdoor subterranean toilet block, which was also the changing rooms for the pool. Two immaculate toilets, toilet paper, wonderfully scented hand wash and soft towels. I could have stayed there for an hour.

In second place… the black marble toilet of the Royal Opera House in Mumbai.

Worst loo: There haven’t been too many really bad ones, not like 30 years ago. One at the back of a temple in Sri Lanka smelled particularly dire. Luckily I didn’t need to stay long.

Another, I needed to lurk a little longer, if you get my drift. It seemed to be the only place to go at Marari beach (Kerala). It was an Indian squat toilet and it wasn’t exactly clean but when you gotta go, you gotta go. So I went. I stood up, mortified (if not a little amused) to find that I had missed the hole. I had a bit of spare toilet paper to encourage it over the edge but not enough. (In India, things are never as… um… solid.) I looked for the traditional hose on the wall, that’s what was needed – some high-pressure water. Except there wasn’t one. Just a small plastic jug in a large plastic bucket. I swished and tried to get as much ‘pressure’ behind it as I could. Eventually I had to leave it. No worries, I thought, no one has seen me. I came out to find a man waiting for his 20-rupee payment. It looked like this was the toilet for his family home.

Favourite toilet moment:

At a motorway service station in Sri Lanka, we had to pay 20 rupees to go in. A woman stamped a little ticket and handed it over. David looked at her wryly and said: ‘That’s not enough to wipe my arse, is it?’

Just another day in India

David has been told off three times this week. (By people other than me, I mean.)

We were standing in the blissful cool of the air-conditioned ATM booth, waiting for someone to finish their transaction. In Jaisalmer we had used an ATM where they could fit 10 people crammed in close proximity in one of these booths (they know no personal space when it comes to queuing). But in Pushkar, a security man emerged from a side panelled door (you wouldn’t know it was there) to say ‘Only one person’.

David gave him his look and said ‘I am only one person’.

The man repeated it, we pretended we didn’t know what he was saying, because we were enjoying the temperature and we knew we weren’t going to mug the other person.

The security man just left from whence he came. Some security man he is!

Later that day, we walked along the ghats which surround the holy lake of Pushkar. Photography is prohibited. Even though David wasn’t taking pictures, a local man started shouting at him just because he had a large camera round his neck.

What they mean is, don’t take pictures of people bathing in the ghats. Fair enough. After all, it’s a sacred site. Hindus should try to make a pilgrimage here at least once in their life.

But plenty of people, Indians included, continue to use their mobile phones to take selfies all the time and they weren’t being told off, even in the busiest areas.

You also have to take off your shoes and, as we were making a circuit of the lake, we carried ours with us. When we sat to enjoy the view, David put his shoes on the floor. Horror of horrors, it was on what must have been the first step of the sacred bit.

Three men in matching T-shirts were marching along carrying a large bin. They picked up David’s shoes and were about to put them in the bin. Luckily we got them back pretty quickly, apologising for our error.

The men marched on to where an elderly lady was sitting. They literally grabbed the flip-flops off her feet, threw them into their ‘sin bin’, shouting and making a fuss. I couldn’t believe how rude they were, particularly to an older lady who had clearly meant no harm.

***

Our guest house in Jaipur has an open kitchen. I use the term loosely. It’s a simple area for preparing simple meals.

Shelves are metal, the kind you would use in your garage. The cupboards are like old grey metal lockers, with the appearance of an old filing cabinet.

The cage-like structure around the rooftop is designed to keep monkeys out.

Breakfast time is always interesting. We try to keep it simple. It goes like this:

Fried eggs, just one piece of toast, please. Black tea. Cold milk separately.

‘Porridge milk’ (as per the menu). Black coffee. No sugar.

The chef, wearing a small black pork pie hat, gets to work. The fried eggs are done straight away, and then left to sit behind him. Not on anything to keep it warm.

The toast is put in a grubby toaster.

The tea is produced. Cold milk, please.

The eggs and toast (three slices) are brought to the table. Butter and cold milk, please.

The chef gets distracted while heating a pan of milk for the ‘porridge milk’ and it has burned, so he throws it out and starts again. But he has run out of milk and shouts down through the central atrium to the floors below for more milk.

David is wondering if he will ever get his coffee. There is a kettle in our room but there is no kettle in the kitchen. The second burner on his two-burner gas hob goes on. Water is heated, and he adds a tiny sachet of Nescafe coffee into it.

Finally, David gets his coffee. And eventually the porridge is delivered. And I get the milk for my tea.

David asks for sugar. No sugar in the coffee, sir, no sugar.

Can I have some sugar? (It’s for the porridge.)

I have given up waiting for butter and have eaten the toast.

A mouse scurries from the kitchen in through the open doors of Room 306.

A woman in a sari arrives to do the washing up. There is a small sink in the corner in which a surprising number of plates (from last night’s dinner) have been soaking. She puts them on the floor to sort them out. And she washes the dishes by hand in cold water with no Fairy Liquid (or Indian equivalent).

They are left to drain on an equally grubby low table next to the (unlidded) bin.

A mouse (is it the same one?) runs around the dusty plant pots (containing faded artificial flowers) behind us.

The man who has helped serve breakfast is also the receptionist. He helps himself to the rest of the coffee in the pan and a piece of toast. Tables and chairs are left where they are, not lined up neatly after use.

We can hear the high-pitched hum of the electricity, the traffic from the main road is not too prominent, and the goat in the courtyard below (tied to a tree but otherwise friendly and well looked after) is bleating. She has fabric tied around her udder presumably to catch milk or stop other goats from helping themselves, sort of a milk nappy.

The courtyard is already awake with the sounds of children playing and mothers washing stainless steel dishes.

Yup, it’s just another day in India.

***

We posted another parcel home the other day. (See previous blog post about the joys of sending parcels from India.)

While we waited for our parcel to be sewn up in muslin, we sat on a step opposite enjoying watching daily life unfold in this small non-touristy side street.

The young man next to the sewing shop was preparing his shop for business. He had lively chanting Indian music which he would occasionally happily join in with. As everyone in India seems to do, he was using a small brush to sweep away the rubbish from outside his shop, leaving it either in his neighbour’s territory to the side, further in to the middle of the street, or into the drainage channel at the kerbside.

He whipped his display cabinet to get the dust off and used newspaper and water to clean the glass frontage. Then he threw the newspaper into the road.

The sewing man paused to have a chai from a small paper cup, which he casually threw into the street afterwards.

This is just what happens here.

The water delivery man arrives in a battered old van. He puts one blue barrel on someone’s doorstep and removes the empty one. Cows pass by, mingling as they do with motorbikes and pedestrians.

We were sitting on someone’s business doorstep. A man comes and stands next to us. He brings up a load of sputum (a great guttural sound which brings it from the pit of the stomach, surely) and spits on the street right next to me. (A tuk-tuk driver spat the other day, making me swerve in the back seat to avoid collision.)

Once our parcel was sewn up, the man offered to take us to the nearest post office. Why not, we thought. So we hopped on his motorbike, all three of us, parcel balanced on the handlebars, not a helmet in sight, David holding on at the back for all he was worth. Any of the bumps or potholes could have sent him flying.

At the post office, not only do they not have pens, marker pens or duck tape, they also don’t have queuing systems or courtesy.

Two young women just walk in front of us, which starts our sarcastic comments from behind. I am sure they understand English – most Indian women their age do.

Once we have dealt with the man behind the counter, we say thank you. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t say a word. He just continues to look down at some paperwork and with that we walk away, David muttering ‘Pleasure doing business with you.’

A couple of days later, our sarcasm reaches new heights when beggar children are in our face before we have even got out of a tuk-tuk. We had arrived at a temple and a couple of scruffy children had their hands out, demanding ‘money’ and ‘chocolate’. It must be the first words they learn.

No, sorry, it’s not your day, we say. Go to school. Get a good job. We talk and talk at them, but continue to say no. They are persistent and irritating and we tell them so, short of saying ‘fuck off’ which, sorry to say, they sometimes drive you to.

Today, one young girl, who could only have been five or six, came up to our tuk-tuk in very heavy traffic and asked for money. She nagged for a few minutes until the traffic moved – and then she moved down the queue. She was unaccompanied.

***

We have taken to driving the relatively short distances between towns in Rajasthan.

On the journey from Jaisalmer to Pushkar we needed a stopping-off point, so we chose Osian, on the grounds that it had temples which on TripAdvisor are getting five stars. The fact that they are not on the itinerary of the main tourist routes tells you something.

It was very much a locals’ place, which in some ways was refreshing, admittedly. But there is really one one hotel in the town and that was where we stayed. Nothing wrong with the room but there was no wifi. Coping without wifi for 24 hours was a true test indeed! Luckily we didn’t have to make any urgent bookings for further travel.

We looked around for any cafes with wifi and found nothing.

We visited the temples. The main one was remarkably spoiled, by cages for queuing systems, cables for electricity, and ragged fabric for shade.

Elsewhere, next to an ancient site with a ‘protected monument’ sign next to it, was sprawling rubbish.

Anyway, taking a car can be quite relaxed, if you ignore the craziness of other Indian drivers.

An example being:

Picture four lanes heading in the same direction. They are all your side of the road. In the UK you would have (from left to right): hard shoulder, slow lane, middle lane, fast lane.

Here, at one point this is what we had (from left to right):

Motorbike coming towards us, us ‘undertaking’ a lorry, large lorry, car overtaking.

I enjoy the signs we pass, misspellings everywhere… Dormetri, Resturent… Biffe and Neight College… And signs for places like Hotel Decent… Terminal Cum Pumping Station… A town called Dudu…

One young man has three children on his motorbike, they all look like they are under five. We pass a few lorries and tractors which are so laden with hay that they just look like super-sized haystacks with wheels. Surely they couldn’t have fitted on one more straw without the vehicle collapsing.

Despite the evident basic way of life in the villages we pass through, the children always look so smart in their brown and beige uniforms and everywhere are red signs for ‘Airtel 4G, the smartphone network’. They stand out because they are not yet faded or covered in dust.

***

Another way of Indian life that we have noticed in Jaipur are the joys of their plumbing system. We have to walk through what we fondly call Piss Alley to get to our guest house. Our room here has the whiff of wee from its toilet at all hours. David tells me that it is because they have no S bends. The mistake on the first night was closing the toilet door. The smell in the morning is then even more concentrated.

S bends. It’s not rocket science, is it? Funnily enough though, they can do that. They have a space programme but they have not yet worked out sorting out toilets, electricity, water and rubbish for those on earth.

And finally, an area of growing frustration for us is finding ATMs that work. Many hotels and businesses only accept cash. And yet only about one in four ATM attempts are successful. We go round in circles trying to find one that works.

Sometimes one card works but the other doesn’t. Today, only one transaction in four attempts was successful. It drives us up the wall.

Ah, we were right. We love India!

Next stop, Dehradun.

(Sorry, again – no pictures – wifi too weak – another frustration!)

Diwali in the desert

Although Diwali is the festival of light, really it has become the festival of noise (which for India is saying something).

All around our haveli in Jaisalmer, we have non-stop firecrackers and fireworks (some are so loud it’s like a bomb has gone off). So it is nice that we are spending the main day of Diwali (like our Christmas Day) in the Thar desert.

We are with two other couples and we are sitting on simple beds around a camp fire as the sun goes down. Our two guides have whipped up a thali, complete with rice and chapatis, and served them with a chilled beer.

Then I notice them bring out the chocolates. The box makes me think of Ferrero Rocher. I don’t even have time for a reality check (in India? in the desert?) when I realise that what they have produced are some fireworks and sparklers.

We all have a bit of childlike fun making shapes with our sparklers, while the Australian male helps with the lighting of fireworks (not always as easy as it seems with Indian products).

Although we create a little noise it is brief and we return to our peace. The air is still, everyone settles back into a thoughtful silence as we stare at the flames from the fire or at the carpet of stars above us, which seem to get closer with every passing hour.

One couple return to the haveli by jeep, leaving four of us behind. Our beds for the night are open to the elements. We are on a basic bed frame, with incredibly heavy layers of blankets. We do need them as the temperature drops to 16 degrees – easily half the daytime temperature. Because of the contrast, it feels colder still.

Never before have I minded struggling to sleep or waking in the night. It is magical indeed to open your eyes to the view of the night-time stars with no light or noise pollution. One time I turned over, glanced up, and saw a shooting star, one of many we saw that night.

Sunrise was beautiful and before we knew it, we were on our way back to our haveli – but not before we met some camels.

Are you sitting comfortably?
(Keep reading to the end for our views on the Pushkar Camel Fair)

In Jaisalmer it seems that every haveli or tour agency is offering camel desert safaris. In the morning we saw a small group of tourists riding camels back to the village. We later spoke to one couple staying at our haveli who had done this and they said they had been assured beforehand that the camels were well looked after – and they verified that appeared to be the case.

They explained that the camels had been allowed to wander off at night – with certain restrictions. They had a small bit of rope around their front legs, preventing them from walking further than 3 or 4 km. So in the morning the guides had to round them all up, causing their group some amusement as they waited.

As we are on a journey towards veganism, talking about the ethics of camel riding has been taking up quite a lot of our mealtime conversations.

Everyone we have spoken to has been ok with it. We Googled it and didn’t come up with any clear controversy that said it should be avoided at all costs. Indeed, camel-riding still consistently gets five stars on outdoor activities in Jaisalmer on TripAdvisor.

The conclusion would seem to be summed up by this: Choose your tour company carefully. Camels should be in good condition, properly fed, watered and rested – though I am not sure how exactly you can do this before you book. You can ask the right questions – but I suspect most tour agencies will give you the answer you wish to hear.

Camels – ships of the desert – are domesticated animals and have been for 2,000 years. (That doesn’t mean it’s right, I hear someone argue.)

For hundreds of years they have been used to transport goods across the desert. (But we have cars and lorries to do that now.)

These are relatively poor people, who cannot afford vehicles – or vehicles can’t go where the camels can. (Ok, that’s the reasoning for using camels in their ‘day job’. Why should a tourist ride a camel, when they can ride in a jeep as an alternative?)

What are the ethics of a tourist riding a camel? Is it any different to riding a horse – with the caveats that the animals in all cases should have proper care, food, water, shelter and rest?

There will be some (including the organisation PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who argue that you should not ride any animal full-stop. But I think that most rational people would accept there is a middle ground.

Maybe one day we will look back and think that no horse should be ridden for human pleasure. After all, they too have to go through a training process, just like camels do.

We were able to get close enough for photos of the camels in the desert. You cannot get away from the fact that the camels have pegs through their nose, meaning that their human can control them, getting them to follow on rope or getting them to sit and stand at the right time.

Ideally, pegs would be put in under anaesthetic and with due veterinary oversight. I am pretty sure that wouldn’t have been the case here.

While the camels were being saddled up, there were many layers of covers and cushions put on and straps under their belly. So far so good.

It was when the saddle was put on (which was pretty heavy in its own right) that the camel grunted and grumbled. Being no expert on camel communication, I concluded that it was a bit irritated by it.

As we discovered, it’s all very well trying to do your research on the spot by asking the drivers questions, but their English is limited. You can’t get a full conversation with them, though it is clear that this is their livelihood and it makes a lot of sense for them to care for their camels.

We saved ourselves the discomfort – mental and physical – and hopped back in the jeep for the fast, bumpy, sandy, sweaty ride back to the haveli.

David adds…

Most of the poorest communities we have met during our recent travels have a relationship with animals unlike our western tradition. We keep our beloved dogs and cats as companion pets who are often viewed as one of the family. In Vietnam and Cambodia, with their long traditions of poverty and near starvation, people have until recently been obliged to eat whatever you could get your hands on… and that includes cats and dogs.

In the west, as much as we love our dogs, we think nothing of eating equally sentient pigs and cows. The scale of intensive farming to satisfy our lust for meat has engendered the most infamous crime against nature which rivals genocide and war for its barbaric cruelty of millions of animals. Yet I feel we are in no position to judge those who have not enjoyed the choices we have. People here breed livestock to feed their families. Unlike we smug westerners, they cannot pop down to Waitrose to buy organic, ethically sourced vegan ready-meals.

The indigenous people who live in the villages on the edges of the Thar Desert are some of the poorest people in a poor country. In this harsh climate their lives are a constant battle for survival.

Some make enough to feed their families by facilitating camel rides. The villagers we met seem to take good care of their camels who they know are essential to their livelihood and very existence.  No matter what we in the west may think about using animals as ‘beasts of burden’ or worse, as tourist attractions, we have to remind ourselves that we judge from a very privileged position.   Farmers in the UK spend hundreds of thousands on tractors, harvesters and other industrial farming machines. This is not an option for subsistence farmers for whom one year’s bad harvest due to adverse weather can destroy families and communities.

Certainly tourists have fed much of the cruelty to animals which in many places is fuelled by greed and ignorance rather than necessity and now it is the more enlightened generation of tourists who must vote with their feet and via social media to bring an end to some appalling abuses; dancing bears, caged and drugged wild cats, whales in fish tanks and elephants who have witnessed the cold-blooded murder of their mothers to then suffer the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse known as Pajan… the process by which the baby elephant is cruelly ‘trained’ to endure a life of servitude and abuse.
Maybe camels and camel-riding will be the next thing that tourists will have to think twice about. Our next stop, Pushkar, is famous for its camel fair which is being held this month.

Camel Unfair…

The Pushkar Camel Fair is held from 15-23 November this year. Luckily we will be out of town by then but preparations are already well under way and plenty of people have laid out their stalls (there is every bit of equipment and adornment you need for camel-keeping), three Ferris wheels are up, and hundreds of camels have arrived.

Each year, around 200,000 people converge on this small town (right near our guest house, as it happens) and, according to Lonely Planet, they bring some 50,000 camels, horses and cattle. There is serious business to be done, before it becomes a strange mix of sideshows, including snake charmers, children balancing on poles and ‘visitors v locals’ wrestling matches.

We took a walk around the dusty showground, fairground and camel-parking area, four days ahead of the start of the event. It was not a pretty sight.

It distressed me to see two beautiful horses tied up in a tent – where a man was swinging a heavy hammer to knock in some more tent pegs. The horses were clearly terrified by the noise and could merely shy away, as far as their six feet of rope would allow. The man was oblivious.

In terms of camels, I would have expected that if you were here to sell, you would have healthy specimens. But they are not all well kept, that’s for sure. The ones pulling heavy carts laden with humans are not in the best condition. The ones taking tourists for rides around the grounds were not too bad.

But it was the ‘back’ area where people have parked their camels that distressed me. Some have been painted and decorated. One, we believe, was having a peg put in its nose and it was clearly unhappy about it. One was being moved – and a child no older than eight was needlessly thwacking it with a stick.

Another was being walked – and a different child started picking up stones and throwing them at its back legs. Again, absolutely no reason. The camel was walking with no fuss, being led on a harness and rope. I said ‘no’ to the boy twice. He did it again and looked back. I shook my head. He stuck his tongue out and backed off.

We are not going to change a culture that has had this kind of fair for hundreds of years. For many, again, it will be their livelihood. But what I came away wishing more than anything was that someone would please educate Indians about caring for their animals. They can keep camels, horses and cows for their livelihood – but for God’s sake (whichever one you want to believe in), be nice to them.

Is there no organisation in India which could set up several stalls here at the camel fair and spread the word about why it is good to be kind to your animals? Speak in their language, speak in a way their culture and religion will understand. It surely must be possible.

The trouble with being more aware of animal rights, we have learned, the more it hurts.

Next stop, Jaipur.

(Sorry, no pictures until later… Wifi not strong enough!)

 

Cheeky beggars

Up until now, we have been surprised by how laid-back Indian drivers appear to be. Yes, they are always hooting and they don’t follow rules of the road like we do but they seem to have their own system.

Basically this is the rule: Give way to anything bigger than yourself. So that works for buses, lorries, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. You know your pecking order.

Other than this, it’s every man for himself. Unless you’re an animal. Water buffalo, wander as you wish. Cows, walk or sit where you like. Foolish dogs, sleep in the middle of the road, why don’t you…

Mainly, the driving we have seen in recent weeks has been on slow roads. Traffic cannot go too fast because of the state of the road. Potholes, construction work, rubble, it’s all there. But on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur, we spent some of the time on a two-lane highway where slow lorries hogged the outside lane.

One minute our driver was overtaking on the left, the next minute on the right, and then occasionally there would be a barricade in the road with incredibly little warning, either put there by police to slow the traffic or put there to allow roadworks (there will be women in saris carrying concrete on their heads). The equivalent roadworks in the UK would have about a mile of warning cones. Here, you’re lucky if there are three cones before the hazard is underneath your front wheels.

Right in front of us, two large lorries found themselves side by side at the same speed. One wouldn’t give way to the other. They got scarily close to the point that I gasped, thinking it was accidental. And then I realised they were doing it on purpose.

One wouldn’t give way to the other and one of the drivers was deliberately trying to force the other off the road.

The other retaliated and pushed back. Then a third lorry somehow came up and got involved and stopped (causing us to stop) – and the driver jumped out brandishing a stick.

At which point our driver pulled round to the left on the stony hard shoulder and we carried on our journey, safely out of the way.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in a car where we needed to get to a restaurant on the other side of the two-lane highway. Our driver crossed over in a gap in the central reservation, and proceeded to drive on what was the hard shoulder – in the opposite direction to the oncoming traffic. In England, you would be vilified. Here, no one batted an eyelid. They didn’t even hoot!

Indians like hooting. It must be their favourite pastime. It’s even painted on the back of most vehicles. ‘Horn OK.’ ‘Horn please.’

(You may remember Mohammed, the taxi driver in Mumbai. We liked him because he never used his horn.)

But Indians are surely oblivious to the sound. It all becomes white noise. One driver we know hoots at every corner, even when he has not looked the other way. It’s as if he thinks that a hoot means he can proceed.

Tuk-tuk drivers pass vehicles and pedestrians with inches to spare. They don’t stop if they see something coming. They might slow down but they otherwise just keep going until people squeeze past and somehow, if everyone breathes in, they manage it. It’s as if every customer has told them to step on the gas because their house is burning down. I’m sure no one is in such a hurry.

We had the best tuk-tuk drive into Jodhpur on our arrival. It was busy at 5 pm, and everyone was hooting. And our young tuk-tuk driver, who may or may not have been to tuk-tuk driving school, was for a while on his mobile phone. I was getting worried as I thought he was texting when I realised he was putting on Indian music on his speakers. To be honest, it really added to the atmosphere, as we whizzed in through the crowded Sardar Market past the Clock Tower and into the alleyways of old Jodhpur.

During the day, the market is alive with people selling all kinds of things, from Diwali stickers and firecrackers to brightly coloured scarves and sandals. The area around the Clock Tower is touristy but initial prices are designed to let you haggle. Today I picked up a large piece of fabric (almost too big to be a scarf) for 100 rupees (approx £1). The price had started at 500. I hardly even tried!

But of course where there are white faces, there are inevitably beggars. Many scruffy children approach you, often tugging on your clothes to draw attention to themselves.

They indicate that they are hungry.

We were approached one morning by three girls. Admittedly, they did look like they could do with a decent meal. Instead of giving them a 10-rupee coin, we gave in to their requests for chapati. We took them to the roadside omelette stall and ordered them an omelette each. It cost more than giving them each a coin, but it was a far more satisfactory outcome all round.

You do have to make a judgment call each time you see a beggar. Some we ignore, others we acknowledge. One such was a particularly disabled man outside a rural temple we had visited. I was pleased that David had given him something, because I realised that we were both going up to the street dogs and the street cows to say hello, and yet it would have been all too easy to ignore the human being.

The man was delighted by our gift, which was little more than the cost of a cappuccino back home. He kissed it and said thank you by touching his heart.

Other beggars are less grateful. One young girl didn’t want to accept a slightly torn 10-rupee note (we made it clear it was that or nothing). Another, who had followed us for way too long, didn’t seem to think that a couple of small coins was enough. Cheeky beggars!

As I say, you do sometimes have to ignore beggars and we don’t tend to give them the time of day when an area is crowded. If you give to one child, you’ll find that 20 more suddenly come out of the woodwork. You also don’t want to be getting a wallet out, exposing where you keep your wallet and making yourself vulnerable to a thief.

It has become a bit of a routine each morning, sorting out 10- and 20-rupee notes and other coins. We also take biscuits and cakes from our very generous breakfast, ready to hand out to grateful hungry children. We don’t have to carry them for very long.

 

It’s funny, many people here in Jodhpur seem to have the same hobby.

The other day, we were walking and talking to some boys who had tagged along. They were practising their English.

‘What’s your hobby?’ they asked. So we mentioned photography, pointing to the camera.

‘What’s yours?’ we asked. ‘Football? Cricket?’

No, it turned out to be collecting foreign bank-notes. Of course! We didn’t have anything to give them, and probably wouldn’t have put our hands in our pockets in this instance anyway.

Earlier the same day, as we were walking up a tiny back street to the fort, we said Namaste to an older man standing in his doorway. ‘Where are you from?’ is the question we have been asked more than any other this year.

‘England,’ we say. Ah, England, his favourite. Of course. ‘Very, very good.’

And before you know it, he is talking about his sons and how one of them loves history. And oh look, within arm’s reach by the front door, is his foreign bank-note collection in a small photo album.

David doesn’t see it as begging by any other name, but the cynic in me says otherwise.

We have, after all, been advised by our haveli owners to be wary of people chatting to us. They tend to be over-friendly and will say they are best friends or brothers with the haveli owner in order to gain your trust somehow.

Fortunately, nothing bad has happened yet. In fact, we don’t think (touch wood) we have been scammed once in our travels. Over-charged, definitely, but not scammed.

Next stop, Jaisalmer.

Medication for the soul

It was the story of the staggering street dog with maggots in his head that brought us to Udaipur.

We saw the two-minute video on Facebook once we were already in India and we were lucky enough to be able to factor in some time to visit Animal Aid Unlimited, whose mission is to rescue and treat the street animals who have become sick or injured. An important part of their work is education and inspiring a community to protect the lives of all animals.

Primarily we came for the dogs, but we have been surprised by how much we have been touched, literally and spiritually, by other animals.

One of the first things that most volunteers will experience is bottle-feeding the calves. My first one was a pure white calf, with the softest hair you can imagine. She nuzzled in to me, gulped down her milk, and came back for more. She stayed afterwards for a cuddle, her milky breath in my face.

In the enclosure with these orphans is a fluffy baby donkey and some friendly goats. One day, as I tried to leave the enclosure, one of the goats stood in the way so I stopped to say hello. (You are always saying hello to the animals here.) He promptly put his front hooves on my chest, because he wanted to reach the leaves in the tree.

One of our jobs in the day is to ‘give love’ to the sheep and brush them. Some allow this, but there are two young brown ones who are not so sure. To be honest, sheep have never done much for me. This is probably because I have never got to know one. Usually they are skittish and run away, and their coat is hard and wiry so they are not actually that nice to touch.

But there was my first lesson. While I was sitting amongst the calves one morning, a sheep came over to say hello. It is always nice when an animal comes to you for attention, rather than the other way around.

I duly said hello. And she looked me in the eyes. There is a moment (I am sure other volunteers will agree) when you seem to communicate with an animal, when you acknowledge something special, and you just stay with it for as long as you can. You know it isn’t really personal, but you like to think it is.

The sheep stayed there for a chat and a rubdown. And I loved it. I was surprised by how gentle a creature she was. I also never cease to be amazed by how many animals here are open to trusting a human being again, despite what has happened to them… the donkey who has been beaten about the face (a court case is pending), the cow who has had acid thrown on her, the dog that has been tied up with wire around her jaw for so long that she is permanently scarred…

And then you get another lesson when you find the courage to sit next to a huge water buffalo or brush the flank of a super-sized bull. In the cow and donkey sanctuary in the lazy early afternoon heat, we get to brush the animals. I don’t think most of them really need brushing, but it’s a good way of bringing you closer to them – and they seem to like it.

When a young (but still impressively large) water buffalo comes to you, it is very special indeed. Their skin is tough, on the back of their wrinkly necks the hair is long but thin. They like being brushed, much like I imagine they like having a bird on their back to pick off the bugs.

The one I am drawn to has a small tuft of white hair on her head and she is called Flower.

There is a large bull who is interested in being brushed. At first, when he walks over, I shy away, especially as he tends to shift others out of his way with his horns. Eventually I realise that he is just jealous, so I pluck up the courage to brush him, and he stays there happily until he has had enough and just ambles off.

The sanctuary area for cows and donkeys is a peaceful place. It has plenty of room for the animals to relax. When they are standing still or lying down, you don’t see their disability. It’s only when they move that you notice the amount of limping and hobbling, or where limbs are missing. Most donkeys have one if not both front ankles bandaged from where they have been tied up for too long.

They are still, however, very capable of leaning on those two front feet if they need to give a swift kick from the back, to any animal that mildly irritates them.

There is another area where cattle and donkeys are recovering, it’s still the ‘hospital’ and ‘accident and emergency’ area for these animals. One cow has a lot of bandaging around its head. One day we see the staff changing the dressing. The large hole where the eye socket should be is astonishing but the animal seems not to be in pain when it is cleaned. We understand that maggots have already eaten the nerve endings.

In this part of the sanctuary you can sit with a dying cow. In India, cows are sacred and it is against the law for one to be put down. All that staff can do is ease their suffering with medication.

One black cow is brought in with a badly broken back. She is lying in the shade on a black plastic mat, where she is kept as comfortable as possible. It is only a matter of time.

And, if volunteers have the time, they can sit with her. David sits with her for quite a while, stroking her head, talking gently, reassuring, and batting flies away.

It is a humbling and moving experience.

It seems deliberate on the part of a large black and white horned bull that he sits himself right next to her. At one point he licks her face. We don’t think they were brought in together, we have no idea whether this was empathy, but I hope she felt comforted by his presence.

She is not there the next morning.

Despite having emotional moments with cows, sheep, goats, water buffalo, and even a donkey, my favourite times are with the dogs. You can quickly establish a rapport with a dog and I find myself returning to the same disabled dogs in Handicapped Heaven.

There are dogs who have lost limbs, most of them have lost the use of their back legs and they are either dragging them behind them or they have been amputated. There’s one, Deepak, who has only one and a half legs. He gets about all right. He is a handsome dog, with quite thick rusty brown fur.

Then there are the ‘ugly dogs’. It’s what they are called for identification purposes but everyone knows that they have even more beautiful souls and they are so friendly. But you can see why they might have been rejected by people. They might have a long tooth protruding forwards, or a misfitting jaw, or no lower jaw at all, leaving the tongue to flop out and get covered in sand when they are lying down. I sit with one dog in the corner, who responds immediately to being touched. Her haunch starts moving like she is scratching her ear, though there is no leg there.

I scratch her ear for her. The haunch keeps moving.

Another dog, with longer fur (God knows how they cope with this heat), just rolls over in the sand, inviting a tummy rub. He is so inviting that you find yourself playing with him like you would a normal dog, a bit more forcefully and a bit more fun, and it’s only later you realise his back legs are not functioning.

We have been shown how to give them a lovely soothing back massage and how to rub their shoulders – it’s where most of them will carry their tension from having to lift their bodies and compensate for their disabilities.

Later in the week we are introduced to the area where it is not known for sure yet what, if any, diseases the dogs are carrying. We have had our rabies injections so we are allowed in, but you have to exercise more caution. Somehow the reward here is even greater.

Sitting for ten minutes with a dog who is in a small gated room for his own protection while he heals really feels like useful work. You feel like you are making a real difference to their day. Some wag their tail and you know you can relax with them. Others don’t have a tail that can wag any more.

Some have ‘lampshades’ on, the plastic cone on their heads to stop them from licking a wound. One white dog is so nervous of me that I cannot touch him. But he is ok with me just sitting, chatting. It seems perfectly natural to be telling him about my rescue dog back home. I change his matting and leave him just a bit better than he was ten minutes before.

When you see the progress of most of these dogs in videos on the Animal Aid website, you realise just how resilient they can be.

You go home sweaty, dirty, having sat in the sand, or had a dog in your lap, pee down your front, dried milk splatters from the calf-feeding, a big smile on your face, and your heart bursting with love.

You are in a place of healing, though we suspect that humans get as much as, if not more, healing than the animals. One volunteer described it this week as ‘medication for the soul’.

Personally, I have never been more ‘in the moment’ and present than right here in Udaipur.

Please take a look at the video which brought us here.

To read more about Animal Aid Unlimited, or to donate, please go to their website. You can also read there about their education programmes and how they return street dogs back to the community where they live.

*Deciding to go vegetarian was a decision we made before our visit to the sanctuary but these last two weeks have certainly confirmed that it was the right decision for us. 

One crisp packet

It’s bothering me. One simple orange crisp packet. It’s nestling under a railing, stuck there between the white rail and the green wooden boards of the deck of a boat.

We are heading towards Elephanta Island, about an hour and a half’s journey from Mumbai. There’s a family opposite us, mum and dad, a set of grandparents, and two children, a girl of about eight and a boy of about two.

The children have been happily sharing a packet of crisps. I don’t think much more of it. The mum peels a small orange and they share it out. Without a thought (and without a care as to who might notice) throws the peel over the side of the boat. Although it is not something that I would do, I reason that, ok, it’s biodegradable and my mind wanders to other things.

There are dozens of commercial boats moored off the city’s coast. It’s an industrial stretch of coastline in the hazy distance. The boat is noisy and makes a slow plodding progress towards the island.

I can’t help noticing bits of rubbish floating in the sea. It’s perhaps not as bad as I thought it might be, but still you get the occasional area where it is huddled together, presumably herded by some underwater current, and it becomes more obvious.

The girl is doing as her mother does. She picks off little bits of pith and throws it over the side. Then I see her tearing up a piece of white paper and sprinkling it over the side like confetti.

Paper, I think. At least it is not plastic.

The mum tries to throw a piece of paper overboard but it is light enough to be lifted by the wind straight back at her and back on the boat. She sort of shrugs her shoulders.

And then I spot the crisp packet. It is sitting there under the railing. It is the one that the kids were holding a short time before.

I am willing it to stay where it is or to be carried by the wind further on to the deck. I will pick it up myself if it heads my way.

A passing boat causes a bit of wash and spray comes up. The only person to get wet is the mother in her blue sari. She laughs it off but her seat is wet and she comes and sits next to me, with her sleepy younger child dozing off on her shoulder.

Karma, I think.

And then I notice that the crisp packet is not there any more. I shift position to see if it is on the deck but I can’t see it. I am quite perturbed that it has unnecessarily gone into the ocean.

I want to say something. I want to nudge the grandfather, who was next to me earlier, to say ‘Please teach your grandchildren not to throw litter in the sea.’

I think about conversation starters, how I can start talking to him and bring it up. He may not even speak enough English.

How do I say something without sounding patronising or offensive? In India, you can be sure that it would attract the attention of all the other people on deck.

What would you do?

The signs, as you walk from the boat up the hill, read ‘Keep your Elephanta clean’. There is rubbish everywhere, over on a sad small beach area, down the side of the food, drinks and souvenir, stalls, along the rocks at the side of the jetty, derelict boats, a large cow with its head in the bin which it pulls over leaving contents to spill out.

cow

At the top of the hill is the World Heritage Site of Elephanta Caves. It’s a beautiful area of ancient rock temples, now inhabited by monkeys.

Security guards and members of staff sit lazily in the heat. Near one, I make a point of picking up two large plastic bottles from the ground and put them in the bin, almost in front of his nose.

We see several monkeys carrying plastic drinks bottles, which they steal from tourists. You can’t blame them for learning that they can get a nice drink of water. Maybe they are acquiring a taste for Pepsi.

One young monkey, scraping around in the rubbish pile, is chewing on a piece of plastic.

We reckon you could teach the monkeys to return the empty bottles to the many rubbish bins before you could teach many of the ignorant humans.

*In other news, the caves are well worth a visit!

The City of Dreams

I am sitting in our hotel room in Mumbai. I am not very good at working out its square area, but there is plenty of space to move around the double bed.

Since I got back here after visiting the Dharavi slum, I have been looking at the space I have here, something which doesn’t even start to compare to what I have in my own house back home.

If this was an area in the Dharavi slum, it would be divided into two or three smaller units and likely house two or three families of five or six.

It’s been a mind-boggling day, visiting the slum with Reality Tours & Travel. We chose them because they promote responsible tourism and put 80% of profits back into social programmes. They were running slum tours before the film Slumdog Millionaire.

‘Slumdog’ was loved by millions around the world, but not in India. Here, they thought it portrayed the Dharavi slum only for its negative side – filth, squalor, dirt, crime. The term ‘slumdog’ is also derogatory, suggesting that the residents here are the lowest of the low.

Dharavi 1
Picture: Reality Tours & Travel

Reality Tours have a strict ‘no photography’ policy so as to preserve the dignity of people living here and so they don’t feel exploited or invaded by tourists gawping at them. Admittedly this is strange at first but totally understandable. You really don’t want this to be like a human zoo.

One million people live in an area of just two square kilometres. Just to put that in context, in the (relatively urban) parish where I live (St Saviour, Jersey), there are 13,500 people in nine square kilometres.

As we arrive, we can see some high-rise blocks of flats (within the slum area) called, with no hint of irony, Evershine Meadows.

Our tour starts with a walk through the commercial district. Dharavi has its own vibrant economy. People are working in dark rooms in what to us look like Dickensian conditions. Recycling is the biggest industry. Here, they recycle plastic bottles, they sort plastics into different colours before melting them down and selling off the new components.

The fumes from burning things like paint pots are acrid. The heat in the semi-basement where bakers are churning out breads and biscuits is intense.

Most factories around the world are proud to put their label on, ‘Made in XXX.’ You don’t see ‘Made in Dharavi’ because people wouldn’t buy the foodstuffs if they knew it was made here.

Many immigrant workers arrive here, the City of Dreams, having left wives and children behind in rural areas, and they work long hours in a dark dirty room. What shocked me most was hearing that they all sleep in this same room.

The hide-tanning area is distressing for someone who has only this year turned vegetarian. Another penny drops and I know that I will never again buy leather. Most of the skins here, from sheep and goats (not cows as they are sacred) feeds the European and American market in the form of bags, purses and jackets.

In another area potters are at their busiest, preparing for Diwali next month by churning out thousands of little clay pots to hold candles. They will be sent around the country.

As we walk past the open sewer, our guide explains that sanitation is the biggest problem here. Very few homes have their own toilet. Some neighbourhoods have public facilities but the people have to pay each time.

There are sleepy dogs and skinny cats. Surprisingly we see only one rat and that is a dead one.

Some homes are made of concrete, others are more ‘shanty’ with corrugated roofing. The eye-opening part is walking down alleyways where the sun will never shine. They are so narrow that they are one-person wide. No room for passing someone, you just have to wait, or give way to the man who has a sack of concrete on his head.

There is mud and rubbish on the floor, water pipes to trip you up, and cables dangling overhead. A ragged piece of cloth serves as a front door.

Electricity and water supplies are available but are often limited to certain times of day.

Some people are doing quite well. Those who arrived here first have a bit of extra space, and many rent out upstairs rooms for a bit of extra income.

Women are washing clothes, scrubbing them on the floor, or cleaning out their stainless steel pots and pans.

There are stern-looking barefoot children, in grubby clothes, but there are also children in pristine school uniforms running around playing and laughing, and saying hello.

Dharavi is Asia’s largest slum and one of the densest populations in the world. 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in slums – by which is meant they illegally inhabit land owned by the government.

This visit was certainly not about taking selfies in the squalor. It was much more about the fascinating economy of a city within a city. There are about 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi.

The slum is the most literate in India, with a literacy rate of almost 70%.

Our guide said that people here are considered middle class – many men commute to work in other parts of the city. No, he explains, the poorest people in Mumbai are the ones who are homeless on the streets.

*More reading here.

*We are very aware that we can only just touch the surface here. There are two other fascinating parts of life in Mumbai which we have witnessed this week – the dhobi ghats and the dabba-wallahs.

The ghats, built during the British Raj, are where all of Mumbai’s commercial laundry goes. 7,000 people handle half a million items here each day. They pride themselves on not losing an item. All the hotels and restaurants send their sheets and table-cloths here.

The dabba-wallahs, about 5,000 of them, are the men who bring homemade lunches in to the city. They collect them from outside the city and bring them in on the train and can be seen at a couple of stations, emerging to transfer the lunchboxes onto bicycles and on to offices. A mistake is made about once in six million deliveries! If you haven’t seen the film The Lunchbox, I recommend it.

More reading here.