Mumbai: Ummmm… bye!

I’m leaving Mumbai later today to go to Pune but let me tell you about what I’ve been getting up to.

Rich pickings

Walking along Colaba Causeway to eat at Leopold’s Cafe (for anyone who’s read Shantaram…) and a beggar lady in a beautiful sari starts saying to me, “Madam, I need rice for my children to eat”. She walks just a little in front of me. I try to shake her off by stopping but she sees me and soon catches on. It’s a narrow street and there’s lots of people. At one point I stop abruptly and a boy walks into the back of me. I hug my bag to my front. I stop again and he walks into me again and the lady catches his eye.

He’s trying to pickpocket me! They’re setting me up! The buggers! They fail.

“Madam, a slight problem in your room”

I come back to my vastly improved hotel and the guy on reception stops me saying the above. He opens my room door and explains that, while I was out, part of the ceiling collapsed directly over my bed. There’s a huge hole covered from above by a sheet of MDF. “We change the sheets and clean. Everything ok?” Hilarious.



I go on a tour of Dharavi, Mumbai and Asia’s largest slum. It’s where some of the Danny Boyle film was shot and it’s amazing.

Five of us and a guide spent the afternoon walking through tiny dark alleyways with kids squeezing past us, peering into workshops only to see a room full of guys in string vests smiling back at us, and standing on rooftops surrounded by mountains of plastic split by colour. The slum is home to one million people and covers only 174 hectares. It originally was swampland but people have been living there since the 1840’s.

What impressed me most was how organised it was. There are distinct areas for different industries including clay pottery, plastic recycling, metal can recycling, leather and handbag-making, and heavy industry with sparks flying. The residential area is separate with the divide marked by a rather smelly river. Unemployment and crime is low although diseases such as cholera and malaria keep the numerous health centres busy.

We watched bakers producing goods to be eaten as far away as Afganistan and men behind old singer sewing machines making leather jackets to be sold by the brand ‘Lee’. The recycled plastic is used in electronics by companies such as Samsung. The guide quoted these companies to demonstrate the quality of the work carried out in Dharavi. Their company profits must be astronomical.

We learnt that tax evasion is the biggest crime and that each toilet is used by over 1000 people. The average income is around £1.50 a day and, due to demand, it costs around £50 a month to rent a tiny room. There’s often four to six people per room. In this space they cook, eat, wash, sleep, watch TV and often have the internet. And I thought my studio flat was small.

The tour was carried out sensitively and you didn’t feel that you were intruding – or that you weren’t welcome. No photos were allowed and 80% of the tour cost goes towards local community projects. I’d highly recommend it. Visit for more information.

And finally…

It’s Navratri here in India. That means nine days of festivities in streets covered by canopies of fairy lights. It celebrates the Hindu goddess Durga and ‘Navratri’ literally means ‘nine nights’ in Sanskrit. Each night, different forms of the divine mother or ‘Shakti’ or ‘Devi’ are worshipped. It’s a big deal in Mumbai.

People dance every night to live bands and I even heard Ganga Arati, taking me back to my Sivananda teacher training on the banks of the Ganges. We had to chant it twice a day. There’s a wonderful atmosphere.

See you in Pune, the land of Iyengar yoga and the sex guru Osho!

Welcome to India

I have just spent my first night in Mumbai. This is my fourth time visiting ‘the motherland’ but I think arriving in India is always a bit of a shock.

My flight landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule at just after 11pm but any advantage dissipated when I saw the queues after the luggage collection belts. Every piece of luggage had to go through a scanner and flights from London and Dubai had also just landed.

Cue well-dressed London types obviously there for work muttering and stomping plus mustachioed Indians returning from stints in Dubai standing way too close together whilst lugging huge well-labelled bundles wrapped in plastic sacking and metres of rope.

You’ve got to love an Indian process. Indians certainly do.

I told my prepaided taxi man that I was going to the Salvation Army guesthouse in Colaba and typically he said he didn’t know it. Even when I said the road name, there was a distinct lack of comprehension. So off we set for Colaba and I hoped for the best.

The thing I will remember about the journey were the hundreds and hundreds of people I saw sleeping on the streets – at the side of the three-lane motorway, on traffic islands, on pavements and shop fronts. They were even asleep outside entrances to mammoth glass and steel office buildings. Call centres?

There were entwined couples snoozing, groups of ten or 20 people lined up along pavements, and children huddled against their parents. Some slept on newspaper, others on cardboard or matting and some had pillows of clothes.

It was the sheer number of people on the streets that overwhelmed me. I remember seeing people sleeping on a grass verge when my Dad and I were getting an early morning train to Shimla a few years ago but it didn’t compare to this.

My taxi was typically honking his horn every five seconds and lorries were steaming along but they all looked dead to the world. Their clothes were dirty and very shabby and they needed a good meal.

I directed my taxi driver to the guesthouse (slightly ironic) and he dropped me off by big wooden doors. I knocked and a grumpy Indian bloke opened the doors: “We are full.” I explained that I’d emailed and reserved a room and I showed him an email on my iPad.

Turns out there were no double rooms left so he gave me the key for a family room and went back to bed: “You change room tomorrow morning.”

The place was like a nineteenth century asylum. It was 1am by this point and my footsteps echoed up the stone steps. The ceilings were high and the paint was peeling off the walls.

I found the door to my room – tall double doors sealed with an ancient padlock. I turned the key, slid the bolt and the doors creaked open. I had to get my torch out as I was scared to go into the dark abyss.

I was greeted by five metal rusty bed frames, peeling paint, crumbling plaster, old mattresses, a sofa that you’d only see as fly-tipping at home, and biro scrawled over the walls. The bathroom light didn’t work which was probably a blessing as wires stuck out of the stained yellow walls. It was a hovel. A pile of crumpled sheets sat on a mattress. I had no idea if they were clean or dirty. And they had burn holes in them.

I mean, I’d read online that it was hard to find budget accommodation in Mumbai but I was paying £12 for this privilege. Let me put that into perspective – the plush dorm at The Sanctuary on Koh Phang An cost half the price.

I started thinking about bed bugs and had the brainwave to put my yoga mat between the mattress and the sheet. Check-out was at 9am but I think Usain Bolt would have had trouble keeping up with me this morning.*

I found a place nearby and I now have views of the sea, the Gateway of India AND it’s cheaper than the madhouse.

I’m now sitting in an air-conditioned cafe earwigging young Indian women with pearl earrings having business meetings over coffee.

Welcome to India indeed.

* Had to Google who won the 100m at the Olympics. So out of the loop…