What a first day in India! As it’s 12:17 as I put fingers onto tablet keyboard, it is now almost exactly 24 hours since I arrived into the country and it’s been pretty wild. The morning started off slow, quite literally, as the omelette breakfast that was advertised on the menu as taking 15 minutes took almost an hour. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised; Christine already has been warning me that “Arab Time” and “Indian Time” share a lot more similarities to each other compared with “Western Time”. The food was quite tasty too – white buttered toast, a spicy omelette with onions, peppers, and cilantro in it, and a creamy coffee. The hotel staff told me (correctly) that a rickshaw to the Andheri train station would cost about 50 rupees (the driver took my sixty and didn’t offer my change but I was feeling generous and let him keep the equivalent of a dollar), but my first heart pounding moment was that I couldn’t find the danged ticket booth. I walked up and down the platforms twice, over the arching bridge connecting them, and even interrogated a bookish-looking young guy (I operated on the assumption that they would speak English several times today, and haven’t been wrong yet) as to whether we just provided the 5 rupee fare on the train. Nope – there was a ticket booth, I just had to find it, which I finally did, buried around a corner behind some billboards for popcorn and snacks. Half of the time during this search, I had been dogged by a sad-looking girl, who had to be between 5-7 who was holding a baby in her arms. She would tug on my arm as I was walking, and if I stopped to puzzle over the ticket kiosk’s hidden location, she immediately fell to my feet and started touching them, then touching her forehead. For the first few minutes I gently and sadly told her in English “no money, no change, I’m sorry” (and I really didn’t; all I had was 1000 rupee bills left in my pocket from the ATM).

With ticket in hand and a few small change bills in my pocket, I walked triumphantly back to the platform, and happened to see the same girl standing with a woman that I assumed was her equally poor mother. I proudly handed a 20 rupee bill (the equivalent of 4 train tickets halfway across the city or a couple good meals) to the woman, and walked onto the train. Suddenly a swarm of children surrounded me, chorusing “money mister money mister money mister” over and over again in some sort of eerie high-pitched drone. I thought I’d be safe on the train, but they followed me onto the train and proceeded to continue to touching my feet. The gruff looking Indian men around me, young and old, looked rather embarrassed and they tried to shoo the children off me. “Mister,” they said, gesturing to the children, then to me, and then pantomimed a “tsk tsk” motion. “They go then.” I saw the little girl with the baby, and gave her a 10 rupee bill, and the girl next to her a 5 rupee coin, then showed them my empty change pocket. The littler one pouted at the 5 rupee coin, and pointed at the 10 bill in her hand. “Wasn’t that your mother back there?” I asked in exasperation. “No mother mister, no mother” was the response. But the train was leaving, and the kids melted away, the men shaking their heads in irritation in the direction of the beggars and flicking their newspapers open. And beside a few stares from new people getting onto the train, I was mostly ignored for the slow, clanking ride to Mahim station.

The doors were never shut, people were literally hanging out of the door like the enjoyed the natural “air conditioning” it provided (headless to the huge signs in English and Sanskrit warning of the fact that this was an electric train that used 25,000 volts to run) and a massive rush of humanity shoved silently to get on and off the train at every stop. A group of young students in uniforms came on the train about 15 minutes into the ride, a couple of them produced some little cymbals and bells, and they all begin singing a rhythmic upbeat song in either Hindi or Marati (the local state language – I can’t tell the difference of course). They sounded pretty good too. I was watching carefully to see how early people got up from their seats (if they were the 30% like me who had gotten on at the end of the line and gotten seats; most people were standing and crushing into the aisles and doors) and was able to leap out at Mahim, just as the train started moving.

At Mahim, I met up with my new tour guides and tour group – Nilesh, our young guide, a couple of Australian women named Steph and Anita, and a Hollander named Bart. The rain had been drizzling nonstop all morning, and we splashed over the uneven cracked pavement a bit north of Mahim towards the Dhavari Slum. Nilesh worked for a group called Reality Tours, the only Dhavari touring group that was a registered NGO and gives back 80% of all tour income to the slums to run schools for children, job-education centers for adults, and nutrition/sexual health schools for expecting mothers. Nilesh was a small fellow with shaggy black hair, a trim little goatee, and twinkling eyes. He seemed to enjoy his work quite a bit as he led us first through the commercial section where they recycled the garbage that Mumbaites leave in heaping piles all over the city, stitched together garments for factories, and make bread for both personal sale and for restaurants. The recycling part was particularly interesting – Nilesh told us that the slum was one by technical name only – the 1km clump of land was government owned, but for a hundred years squatters had been throwing up first metal, then concrete shanties and houses and starting small businesses in them. But the Indians are resourceful people – although many of their devices look ramshackle by Western standards, they are masters of working with what they’ve got. We got to see the rooms were bales of crushed lawn chairs, CRT monitor bases (I knew the plastic from the screens we actually pay to get rid of at the University were getting reused somehow!) were stored, and the rooms were large metal machines ground them into pellet form and where those pellets were stored so that Samsung and LG could buy them from the slum laborers and reuse them into making smartphone bodies. Just think – the next time you hoist your plastic-bodied phone, remember that it was likely touched by an industrious team of Indian workers in Mumbai. Their pay is measly though – 8 rupees per kilogram of plastic, and 5 for the same weight of paper. I compared that to Jordan in my head – when I was there, a laborer could make 20-30 gersh (50 cents or so) for a kilo of paper. That’s over triple the price. We even saw the rooms where the grinding machines were being welded, put together, and painted, and smaller rooms where smelters were making their gears. Now that’s local business.

Then we crossed the street into the residential area of the slum, which is defined as “not having any toxic manufacturing processes happening in it” My poor sandals, already in beat up shape from Thailand and Malaysia, probably won’t survive this trip between the constantly pouring rain and the trudging through industrial waste water. Children ran around us now, cheering hello over and over again. Nilesh patted one on the head and told us “these kids won’t beg from you, they see that I’m with you, they see the tour guide logo on my shirt, and they know that your visit is improving their life here.” And he was right – not a single person begged money from us in all of Dhavari. Nilesh had told us that these were a proud hardworking people who didn’t want to feel exploited, and in fact they wanted to share their hardworking lives with western tourists. Photography was understandably forbidden in the entire slum while travelling with the Reality Tours group – ever since the area was used as the background for the massively successful Slumdog Millionaire movie, the residents were irritated with tourists tramping through and photographing their poverty, and Reality certainly wasn’t going to contribute to that.

Nilesh showed us a government-built bathroom, one of around 70 in the 1km square since none of the shanties had their own, that was shared by 1,200 people every day (the slum is the most densely packed part of the densely packed city of Mumbai). It was actually fairly clean looking, all things considered. He showed us an empty shanty apartment room that his company had rented to give us a sense of the size that a family of four would pack into – about a 10×10 meter space, with a black slab in the corner for food prep, a shelf on the wall for glasses/plate storage, big shelves near the ceiling for sacks of grain, and a plastic roll in the corner that would become a bed for a family. In the other corner, a stall with a lowered floor and a cloth in front of it was a shower. “This costs 2-3 thousand rupee a month” Nilesh intoned solemnly, to our gasps. He explained why – most of the laborers in the commercial section of the slum, making only 250-350 rupee a day were migrant laborers from the poor villages around the city. They just slept in the shops with their machinery. The residents of the slum, though, were able to get into the city proper and get jobs as police and rickshaw drivers – two entirely separate groups of people, united by using the slum towards a means for their personal end. Also, the slum was a prime piece of land, close to huge amounts of potential jobs – prices were raised significantly above what things were actually worth – location, location, location.

We stopped by the Reality training center, where we met Suresh, the well-spoken young English teacher, a computer instructor and a self-worth counselor (both women). I asked Nilesh and Suresh whether they ever hired foreign computer teachers as volunteers – quite casually, of course. They did not, and the curriculum was pretty simple – teaching the young adults Word, and Excel, how to use a web browser, and how to make an email account and check it. I’d much rather the teaching job went towards a smart young woman in Dhavari then ‘outsourcing it’ (oh the irony though) to an American who certainly didn’t need it the way she probably did.

Back at their main office, we gladly and happily paid the 600 rupee tour fee and most of us bought a couple trinkets or two as extra donations and support. I met the organizations current CEO, an American woman about my age named Steph as well. Although she hadn’t founded the organization – she took over a half year ago from the founder, who wanted to free up his time to work on new projects – my fellow tourists and I all agreed that if the tour was any indication, she was doing a great job of running things. I signed up for the evening’s “street food tour” as well. At this point, my lack of sleep was starting to catch up with me, and I believe I might have napped on one of the benches for a couple hours before we started the food tour.

The food tour involved another train ride, this time to Chowpatty Beach with its rows of numbered vendor carts and stalls. The wind was blowing in a way that seemed to suggest that it might rain yet again soon, and sure enough, it started a few minutes later. But the food that our guide, Ahsem directed us too was so tasty that we almost didn’t notice the huge raindrops starting to splash down on us yet again. We had puri, kufti ice cream, and a buttery paste (there was literally chunks of butter melted into it) made from tomatoes and onions. A couple of people in this group were vegetarians, and the group leadership Steph and a few of her friends had decided to join us as well.  Ahsem even went above and beyond his call of duty (perhaps because his boss was on the tour, heh) by taking us to his aunt and uncle’s house so that we could chat with them in their 10×30 singe room – the cost to buy for the elder Ahsem had been around 600,000 rupees. Once again – location was playing a major roll in the pricing of the apartment by the building’s owner.

The rain continued ceaseless for 5 hours, even as we walked about first the through Hindu hot food section of town, and then an hour later in the more densely packed Islamic sections. Women in hijab and niquaad were everywhere, as were the brains, heart, and kidney of goat, sitting on a silvery tray in front of a bald and silver-bearded sheikh.

Ahsem was able to find me one last taxis as the rain roared down us at the end of the tour, and although we narrowly missed being clipped by a semi and doing some clipping ourselves of pedestrians on the way, my feeble fasp of “closest train station, whatever it is” was apparently answered when we arrived at Grant Road station. I paid my 10 rupee trip and got onboard the next train, and although at first I thought I might have a trip in which I didn’t end up chatting the entire time, that changed when at the next stop a slim woman with an angular face got on board and started blessing everyone. When I heard her speak in a ladyboy-ish ducklike voice as she intoned her blessing, I knew it was one of the people I’d been told about – the hermaphrodites who roam the train stalls asking for money and blessing (or cursing!) people in return for the small rupees. I gave her 4 rupees worth and the person blessed me in the duck voice. Then the guy next to me had been watching me, and he asked me if I was superstitious and believed that if the dual-gendered shamans gave out blessings in life to those who gave them a tiny bit of money, and that they were cursed if the money was refused. These people, called hijira, are basically abandoned by their parents at birth or at a young age, and aren’t given any government services either, not even a national ID card. “No one accepts them,” my seatmate told me. “They have to survive on their own. Hundreds of years ago these people were revered as Shamans but now often have to exist on the margins of the city, blessing people for spare change on late night trains.

The fellow on the train, whose name was Luxpur, found out that I was going to Anjali Inn, and the friendly guy somehow managed to find a young Indian couple in our train car who were going right past my hotel. “We will take you with us on our way out of town, happy to help” the man, Digamber, told me. On the rickshaw ride home though, with the three of us crammed into a very tight rear squeeze as the rain poured around us, he seemed to be interested in getting to know me better. “Zach, you had to take so much vacation to take this trip! What if you had control of your own destiny? Send me an email tonight and I’ll let you know about some amazing wealth management plans that will allow you to live completely free of the system within 5 years.” His wife gazed at me nodding, with shining happy eyes. “We just came from a conference with the fellow who started the program we follow!” I casually asked how much the conference had cost them to attend and how many were there. “Only a hundred rupee a piece, and there were over 1,500 people there!”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Digamber that it sounded like he was trying to naively pull me into a pyramid scheme, but now, back in my room, I’ve sadly put his eagerly proffered business card aside – I know that if I were to email him, I’d soon be getting tips about how I too could live off the rat race wheel in just 5 short years. He and his wife seemed so excited about their future, though.

After they dropped me off (and refused my offer to split the taxi ride (“you are a guest of India, please think nothing of it!”)) I found out by accident that Bart and Anita, two of my fellow travelers from the morning slum tour, are in my same hostel with me! Unfortunately they both leave the area tomorrow, but another Australian was sharing their barracks dorm room with them, a friendly fellow named Scott, and he’s keen on joining me for a train ride down to Colaba and churchgate station tomorrow to see if we can take a ferry to Elephanta Islands. Even if the ferry is shut down do to this crazy rain (it’s still going outside my window!) and Elephanta isn’t an option, Colaba is supposed to be a good area for tourists, so it will be fun either way.

I’ve fallen asleep several times as I write this, and although I was planning to put up some pictures, I’m too exhausted to carry on any more tonight (also I apologize if you find any typos or spots where I’ve randomly changed subjects; my fingers actually fell asleep pressing and holding the keys down several times.) I hope that I’m able to get up nice and early tomorrow and meet Scott!