It’s been a while since my last “WAGs abroad” post, but I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in India, where the husband (I’m now a ‘W’ rather than a ‘G’!) is playing for Ranchi Rays in the Hockey India League so here goes with edition 3.0…
After a slightly cramped overnight flight from Heathrow, I arrived at Mumbai Airport. My first task was to find my driver, who I’d been told would be waiting for me. ‘Should be easy enough,’ I thought. Rookie error. I emerged from the arrivals hall to see approximately 150 taxi drivers holding identical-looking signs with tiny writing. Twenty minutes and several text messages later, we figured out my driver was actually waiting in the car park (and his sign didn’t have the right name on anyway…)
Anyone who has been to India will know the rules of the road take some getting used to. In reality, ‘rules’ is a loose term. Pedestrian survival requires bravery, confidence and a bit of luck. You become used to the constant sound of car horns, four lines of cars squeezed across two lanes, drivers weaving through impossibly small spaces (sometimes literally impossible – every vehicle has bumps and bashes), and the random appearance of handcarts and cows on what seem like major highways.
I began to almost enjoy the craziness of the Mumbai roads, but even rush hour on the M25 seemed quite tranquil when I arrived home, and I felt unexpectedly warm and fuzzy at hearing the gentle, reassuring bleep of a pelican crossing.
So other than three fascinating paragraphs on the road system, what else can I say about Mumbai? It is noisy, colourful, vibrant, smoggy, cricket-obsessed, warm, dirty, intriguing… and for a weedy westerner like me, it requires fastidious use of hand sanitiser gel. While I could appreciate the grandeur of the Gate of India and the Taj Hotel (built during the Colonial era), when you look beyond the architecture and the chaos, it is the people that make Mumbai a beautiful place.
I only had three full days in Mumbai, and having already spent much of my life at hockey pitches and in hotels, I wanted to try to see “the real India”. Relatively intrepid traveler that I am, I still had to make sure I did this safely and authentically, and I was lucky enough to stumble across a brilliant company on TripAdvisor (details below). My first guide, Salman, picked me up from our hotel and my adventure began.
Our first stop was Sassoon Docks. When we arrived at around 9am, circles of women in colourful saris were crouched picking prawns and had already been hard at work for hours alongside the fishermen, truck drivers and crushed ice traders since before first light. We wandered past big piles of squid, surmai and ‘Bombay duck’ (a local seafood delicacy that bears no resemblance to the bird) being squabbled over loudly in Hindi and Marathi.
Next up was the Cuffe Parade Laundry – a large outdoor laundry where specialist washermen soap, scrub and rinse everything from trousers and shirts to saris and bedsheets. Thousands of items are washed every day and the work looked surprisingly physical – going here would certainly be an eye-opener for anyone who grumbles about having to hang up a few socks and pants after pressing a couple of buttons on an electric washing machine. (As a bit of a Monica, I fully appreciated their awesome laundry skills.)
A short drive later and we found ourselves at the Arthur Crawford Market, a famous open bazaar selling a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, spices and (live) animals. I spent five minutes having a variety of spices shoved under my nose to smell, but I finally managed to convince the persistent vendor that I was sorry, but I really wasn’t going to take a 3kg pot of vindaloo powder home with me.
We explored the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (this is the train station in Slumdog Millionaire) before going to watch Dabbawalas deliver lunchboxes. This is an amazing hundred-year-old system where wives cook their husbands’ lunches and send them out for delivery via a complex four-part chain of ‘Dabbawalas’. (I can’t really describe it properly other than to say it makes Amazon Prime look a bit amateur… but this article explains how it works if you want to know more.)
Salman hesitantly asked whether I’d like to experience the famous Mumbai local train. I agreed straight away and he looked happy, if a bit surprised. The safety record on these trains is pretty horrific, but it wasn’t as if I was going to sit on the roof and I backed myself not to fall out of one of the always-open doors (which provide air conditioning far more effective than that on the Central Line).
We got on at Churchgate Station and rode north. Two stations before alighting an outrageous number of people simultaneously decided they could all fit into our carriage and I experienced what Salman described as a “free body massage” (don’t worry, it just means being squashed in the crowd – nothing sinister) before jumping out of the moving train and heading to a local restaurant for a traditional Thali.
After lunch, Salman introduced me to Oves, who was to take me on part two of my tour – a walk around the Dharavi slum. This is the third biggest slum in the world, and the second largest in Asia: approximately one square mile in size, home to one million people (including both Salman and Oves), and it generates an incredible US$1 billion per year.
The industrial quarter is busy and efficient – plastic, scrap metal, aluminium and cardboard recycling occurs to an unbelievable degree. Textiles, soap, leather and pottery are the other main areas of commerce. I was lucky enough to see many of these industries in action and the people waste nothing, work hard and fast, but still find time for a quick smile or a hello.
Oves had asked me to avoid pulling a face if I saw or smelt anything bad, but to be honest I was so busy trying to take everything in that this wasn’t difficult. However, as we walked past the open sewer that divides the industrial quarter from the main residential area and flows directly into the sea, I did make a mental note that a cooling dip at Chowpatty Beach wouldn’t be a good option.
We walked around the residential area through a series of narrow passageways. It was dark, the stone floor was unstable and even at my limited height (Oves actually mentioned this and I’d only just met him?!) I had to duck under low-hanging metal sheets and loose wires. The air was thick with heat and spices and cooking, and the occasional waft of sewage. Children playing hide and seek wriggled past me as we walked through the maze, sometimes hesitating to say, “Hey lady,” and give me a wave or a high five.
Large extended families cram into tiny huts to eat and sleep. Different religions live alongside one another in harmony. Each house has its own electricity meter and slum postmen somehow know their way around to deliver the monthly bills. The water is only switched on for three hours in the morning and three in the evening. There is a tiny cinema, an Internet shop and a school. It’s another world – not a sad place, not a dangerous place, just a very different one.
I can’t do this experience justice in this post, but going to Dharavi was genuinely amazing. The lives of the people there contrast so greatly to my own (and to those of most people who will read this), but the community is vibrant, resourceful and friendly. I didn’t really ever feel unsafe in Mumbai – except while trying not to get run over – but in many ways I felt safest of all in the slum.
On the last night of my trip, I finally fulfilled my WAG duties and watched Ranchi Rays take on local boys Dabang Mumbai. I was ushered into the VIP section, which basically meant a seat rather than a wooden bench and waiters constantly offering me “fish balls” during penalty corners and at other particularly inopportune moments in the match.
The game itself was pretty cool to watch. The atmosphere ebbed and flowed, but the fans danced, cheered and waved flags throughout. Ranchi were 3-1 up, but conceded a double-points goal with 30 seconds to go, so it finished 3-3. Perhaps not the highest quality game I’ve ever seen, but a fun experience to be adopted by the Ranchi fans next to me – and better than the other draws the team have had since – both 0-0! I’d have been pretty upset to go all the way to India and not see a single goal.
In summary, this was not your average WAG trip. If I get another chance to go, I’ll waggle my head Indian-style, pack my dodgy Aladdin-trousers/comfy shoes combo and take on the complex Visa process without a moment’s hesitation. Incredible India: beautiful chaos.
Big thanks to the Ranchi Rays management/sponsors for arranging my flights and accommodation, and for making me feel like part of the team!
If you ever go to Mumbai, please check out ‘Be The Local Tours and Travel’. They offer several different tours and you’ll be guided by a friendly, insightful local from Dharavi who knows the city inside out. This is their website.