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India: Dharavi, Recycle Your Opinion on Asia’s Biggest Slum

We were running late. OK so we’re always late but this time we were stressing hard-core. Let’s just say that in India, and Mumbai in particular, the commuter railway is best avoided during “peak time” unless you’re a professional wrestler with the patience of a saint and a degree in rocket science. But that’s for another post.

Today we were on our way to perhaps our most anticipated stop in the city. We had booked a tour of Dharavi with Be The Local Tours and Travels. Regular readers will be aware of our feelings towards tours. We dislike them. Immensely. And can honestly count on few fingers how many we have enjoyed, we much prefer independent travel. For many reasons but most importantly, we like to see and do things at our own pace and in our own way. Sure it’s great to have a knowledgeable guide and of course it’s nice to meet other like-minded travellers but for us, tours can be risky. So you could say booking this particular tour was a very rare move.

For those of you thinking that the name Dharavi sounds familiar, you may have heard it on various BBC news reports and documentaries. Funnily enough you have most likely visited it yourself, in a virtual sense because Dharavi is the setting for the blockbuster movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

As an aside we would like to just get this out of the way from the get go; 1. Only two scenes from the movie were actually shot here, 2. It’s NOTHING like it’s portrayed in the popular Hollywood film and 3. For the rest of this post, and our lives, we will be referring Dharavi as a neighbourhood and/or community, not as it’s commonly known… a slum.

Do us a favour and close your eyes. Now think of the word ‘slum’ – what images do you see? Our minds cannot help but allow the derogatory term to depict a dangerous, disgusting shithole where poverty turns people into criminals and where us privileged outsiders pity those born into the world. Yet how many of us have actually visited a ‘slum’ and how do we truly know if our visions reflect the realities. God damn Hollywood.

This is not our first visit to a ‘slum’. In fact ‘slum’ tourism is hugely popular when it comes to certain countries from India to Brazil and even Africa. It’s something we encourage every single person to be aware of as not all ‘slum tours’ are respectful nor ethical in a sense.

Visiting Rio de Jainero back in February 2018, we had taste of the affluent Copacabana beaches and party hard city. But as our eyes peered towards the tall mountains stuffed with what are known as shanty houses, we felt that we had not seen the real Rio unless we visited a ‘favela’ (the term in Rio that also means slum). We had heard that there were tours to visit the favelas but during our two weeks in Brazil’s most famous destination, we were lucky to be staying with our dear friend Alex who was born and raised in Rio but had lived and worked in Dublin. He took us to visit Favela de Vigidal and we loved every minute. Welcomed, comfortable and in awe at the community spirit, our perceptions quickly changed.

However, our feelings towards slum tours remain the same. Majority of the tours that visit the favelas in Río for example, we have to disagree with their approach. Tourists rammed into cars, their fancy DSLR cameras in hand, driven around like a safari allowing those who have grown up so far from the ‘slum’ world to gawk and learn how ‘others’ live. Taking pictures without permission and staring into the lives of those who have no choice to tell them ‘no’. It’s invasive. It’s hugely disrespectful and it’s not exactly helping the community in any way. Now, forgive us if there are some agencies sprouting up that are using these tours to better the lives of those living in the favelas. But our research and the opinions we’ve heard say otherwise and so we do not encourage these zoo-like slum tours. It’s embarrassing, ask yourself how you would feel? Please, do your research, and ensure the tour agency you book with has a hugely positive impact on the community you are visiting. If it’s profit only, walk away. It’s not worth it.

Back to India, the word slum is hugely disrespectful for the people that live in Dharavi. It perpetuates a horrible prejudice and stereotype. Something each of the one million population suffer every day of their lives. And this is coming from the horse’s mouth. So it’s officially time to drop the word from our vocabulary.

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Proud To Be A Local

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, late. We arrived to a small coffee shop across from the Mahim train station, a busy station that links Dharavi to the rest of the city and its 23 million population. A train journey that should have taken us 30 minutes but turned into one and half hour thanks to the Mumbai madness, we finally arrived sweaty and slightly embarrassed to meet our guides Razak and Mustafa, or Raz and Musa as we were told to call them. Our flushed and stressed selves were awkwardly apologetic for holding up their time. Their big smiles flash with humour and their relaxed attitudes immediately put us at ease. They demanded we chill and even encouraged us to grab a coffee “have you had breakfast yet?” Raz enquired. We envied their patience and calm demeanor, our first impressions blown away. Today was going to be fun.

Standing tall in his mid-twenties, Raz is the perfect poster boy for the Be Local Tours and Travels company. Seven generations of his family come from Dharavi. He knows all to well the prejudice associated with being born here. He tells us some personal stories of how it has affected him and his life. From school to university, applying for jobs and hiding his identity from the rest of the world. He admitted he has had to lie on applications to even land job interviews, noting his address as Mahim East, a different suburb that borders on Dharavi but whose name doesn’t carry the same stigma. Despite it being no more than 1km from Dharavi.

He recalls how, as a fluent English speaker, he will always be shown respect and called “sir” until someone finds out where he’s from, at which point the “sir” disappears at lightning speed. You can feel the emotion as he tells us, even though he tries to remain cool about the whole thing. We felt angry for him. We admired him.

Contrary to the label placed on him by society, Raz is charming, funny and extremely hard working. He has three jobs, he tells us. His goal is to look after his mother who at a very young 34 years old, has worked hard to encourage her two sons to achieve their dreams. His father has passed and so his mother became the sole earner and a single parent. But Raz no longer wants her to worry or work. He wants to repay his mother for all she has done for their family. It’s his turn to be the man of the house.

Three jobs. Tour guide, teacher and accounts manager in Citibank where he works with North American companies and so has to keep their hours. He’s not a qualified teacher but he is highly intelligent and skillful that he is in a position to offer extra classes and grinds for a number of children in Dharavi. He sees potential in the future generation, potential that not everyone saw in him. His determination to crush the stigma and break the chain is adamant in his words. He’s the kind of gentleman you want your son to become and admits that his neighbours encourage their children to look up to him. “Be more like Razak” they would say. Hell, we want to be more like Razak. He sleeps only four hours a night from Monday to Saturday “but 16 hours on Sundays” he jokes. His face so young, the effects of his hardworking life have not yet taking its toll. However his eyes screamed for sleep. Did we mention Raz is also a student himself? Yep. As well as his three jobs, Raz is currently finishing his Masters in Business. Lads, watch out for this guy. He’ll be running the country soon enough. Or at least we’d welcome him to come and sort out Ireland for us. We all need to be more like Raz.

With him is the quiet but extremely smiley and attentive Musa. Raz’s apprentice of sorts. You see after nearly a decade, Raz is getting ready to leave the Be Local Tour and Travels company because he’s not a student anymore and let’s face it, he doesn’t have enough hours in the day.

Musa, also tall and slim, his mop of jet black hair styled to complement the sparkle in his eyes. He is knew to the gang, and today he was in training. Watching and listening to Raz, Musa also speaks excellent English but his confidence is yet on par with Raz. Something that his new job as a Dharavi tour guide will quickly improve. He’s kind, he’s funny and his mere presence injects such high spirits. He took us under his wing, making sure we crossed roads safely warning us about incoming tuk tuks and dangerous obstacles. He brought our attention to points of interest and included additional information to make the tour even more informative. He became our mammy and daddy for the day, his caring personality would make any mother proud. In fact we had such a urge to meet his own and congratulate her on rearing and outstanding member of society.

Be The Local Tours and Travels was set up in March 2010 by school friends Tauseef and Shaan as a means to make a little money to help them subsidise their college fees. As we mentioned before ‘slum tourism’ has always been popular, but when Slumdog Millionaire hit the big screens everyone from A list celebrities and even royalty wanted to see the community in action. Tour agencies cropped up but not all of these agencies offer what Be The Local Tours and Travels do.

Firstly, the tours are ran by local people. Young local people. As young as 18. To see the neighbourhood through local eyes is such a honour for us, but to know that our presence is bettering their lives makes this tour all the more important. Our money is going to their education. Our interest in visiting Dharavi, not to gawk or hope that our imagination was correct, but to prove our thoughts wrong and be introduced to something the world won’t stop and take a moment to realise.

Yes. This is a poverty stricken area, a vicious cycle created not by the local community, but by us. And by us we mean those who live outside of their world. Whether lower, middle or upper class, we are so detached that we either pay for a tour to catch a glimpse or completely disregard it from society altogether. All of us who discriminate and disallow people from a lower standard to step into our world and potentially better their lives. Instead of benefiting from their outlook and views we build a wall and ensure they never break from their circle. We define them because of their address and assume they’ll do nothing but harm if we mix.

Excuse our language but what a load of bullshit. Shame on us. More power to them. And today, we write this blog to help remove that stigma, to change opinions and to also encourage tourists and travellers alike to think smart, travel ethically and approach with the utmost respect for people who are not any better or worse than us but are, well, people too.

The launch of Be The Local Tours and Guides was successful. Both Tauseef and Shaan hold third level degrees, speak better English than us two native speakers, and ooze confidence. Instead of quitting when they achieved their goal to pay for their education, they decided to help some of their fellow peers by training them as tour guides and offering them them jobs.

Fast forward nearly 10 years later and they’ve advanced from working with their laptops on sacks of grain in a store room to having their very own office in the heart of the neighbourhood with 21 guides under their watch, and even more in training.

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What we found most fascinating was how the guys recruit the trainees. The aim of the company is to use only locals and only those who really need the help. According to Shaan, the families in Dharavi tend to be quite large and not very wealthy so they can’t afford to send all the kids off to college. Many will go into a local trade based within the community with no room to improve skills or climb a career ladder. Instead they will forever earn $100 a week in exchange for about 70+ hours of work. And that is their future set.

Be The Local Tours and Travels strives to help kids who want something more, but whose parents cannot afford to send them to high school, never mind college or university. However becoming a guide doesn’t only suggest making an income, each trainee spends minimum three months working alongside an official guide. In their shadow they learn how to deliver tours to such a high standard. This helps improve both their spoken English, the ability to communicate with anybody from anywhere, and most importantly their charisma and confidence. A trait and skill every employee yearns for.

They don’t take on any and every student but choose specific trainees based on their current situation. For example, if a student is only looking to earn a bit of extra cash and treat the job as a hobby more than a stepping stone towards a better future, unfortunately the guys cannot justify hiring them. Instead they focus on those who need their help, and urgently.

“It’s more important to take in a kid who needs to survive rather than a kid that needs a new phone” explains Shaan.

Usually they recruit guides between 16-18 years old, but will make exceptions based on the individual circumstances. Raz himself joined the company at just 14 years old and says it “changed his life”. Through the eyes of awed foreigners he has found a new pride and appreciation for his neighbourhood. Once full of shame and worry to admit where he was born and reared he now wants to shout and tell everyone that he’s from Dharavi “with my head held high” he smiles.

We had yet to even enter the world of Dharavi and already we felt an instant connection. Attempting to skip through incoming traffic Raz shares the best tip to surviving the hectic Indian driving skills “remember, always walk like a cow and don’t panic”. A piece of advice that has honestly kept us alive while we travel through India.

Stopping at the entrance of Dharavi main street, Raz begins by asking us what we think when he hear the word slum? This sparks one of the most fascinating conversations we’ve ever had. He tells us he hates the word, it conjures images for him of a human zoo, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He touches on the movie Slumdog Millionaire and the effect it has had on Dharavi’s reputation. You can feel his frustration as he tells us how the word doesn’t affect the place itself but rather the lives of the people who live there. That is why he prefers to use the word neighbourhood.

Raz segways seamlessly into a quick history lesson on the origin of Dharavi. Mumbai, originally Bombay, was made up of seven islands. Due to increases in population and urban sprawl Dharavi went from being a village on the border of one of the islands to being the center of Mumbai and a key location for Mumbai’s economy.

Originally a fishing colony Dhara means “loose soil” and Vi means “us”. Translating to The “first people to work on the loose soil”. As Mumbai grew, so did the Dharavi community and today, you can find up to 570,000 people living per square kilometre. It’s easy for the mind to seek all the problems that must entail but surprisingly this neighbourhood knows how to make such a populated area work. Even in terms of the crime rate, which once stood at a pretty low 10% has dropped to onto 2% within the last ten years, a fact that Raz, Musa and Shaan are super proud of. You see, everyone knows everyone here. Think of it as one large team and every member is the ideal team player.

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Around 60% of the Dharavi population are immigrants from other parts of India who have come here looking for work. Dharavi is fruitful in its employment there is enough work for everyone, even those who were born thousands of miles away. This community only knows acceptance and it really stands to them. Villagers travel across the country to earn $10-$15 for a 12 hour day in Dharavi, as opposed to $1-$2 for the same amount of work in their own town. These immigrants live in small homes above their work place, their employees taking great care in their workers supplying wages, free accommodation and subsidised money for food and healthcare.

Did we mention that there is no such thing as homelessness in Dharavi? And as visitors we can confirm this, in fact we noticed it! Like we said, there is enough work for everyone.

Fully equipped with 28 places of worship from Hindu, Jain and Buddhist temples to mosques and churches, there are a number of both public and private schools, hospitals, cinemas, ATM’s, bakeries, police stations and political parties; “everything but a disco” jokes Raz. It’s like a city within a city, he proclaims as we cross the bridge from Mahim into Dharavi and then BOOM the world instantly changes around us, and suddenly our eyes aren’t big enough.

Men stand around Chai (spiced-tea) stalls smoking and laughing as they avoid the harsh glaring sun. Multi-coloured Saree-clad women dripping in ornate jewellery carry giant baskets of varying contents balanced dangerously on their heads. People shout and bargain and cook and shop among the scent of fresh fruit, exotic spices and a hint of cowshit (we are still in India after all), we glanced at each other, we’ve fallen in love with this community already.

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As we walk slack-jawed down the street, Raz points to a small doorway in a plain concrete wall with a poster outside in Hindi,  “any ideas what this is?” his eyebrow perks. It’s the local cinema, a small darkened room with plastic garden chairs placed in front of medium sized TV which hangs delicately on the wall. This is where people come to watch sports games or the latest movie releases. Showcasing his wonderful humour Raz once again jokes that in India ‘copyright’ means ‘a right to copy’ referring to the fact that they get the latest releases at the same time (or earlier) as everyone else by illegally downloading them. Sure we’re all guilty of that!

Dharavi’s Industrial Evolution

Our first official stop on the tour is in the industrial area. Recycling to be exact. Yup, you heard us. It turns out that the primary industry here in this “dirty slum” is recycling; everything from plastic to cardboard and glass. Turns out Dharavi recycles over 40% of Mumbai’s waste… DAILY! Mumbai is so dependent on this neighbourhood that if Dharavi stopped working for just one day, the waste generated would cover an area three times its size, that’s roughly 8 square kilometres.

Through recycling and it’s other enterprises such as textiles, manufacturing and baking, Dharavi generates a staggering $800 million USD annually, 30% of which goes to the government in taxes. And yet still they are sneered and discriminated against. What a joke. We find this so hard to comprehend. They should be the local heroes! They ARE the local heroes.

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Raz walks us down one of the many “plastic” streets where hardworking men, pumping of sweat in the midday sun toil away to make money and keep the streets clean for the very people that despise them, the irony is not lost on us.

One of our favourite aspects of this tour is that no photos are allowed. The company refuses tourists the chance to snap workers, families and children out of respect. We were duly reminded when entering the industrial area where Raz politely asked us not to take any photos. He explains that the people here are proud of themselves and their image, like all of us really. And obviously to have their photo taken while they work, covered in dirt from the manual labour, full of sweat and against deadlines, to take a photo will return what some imaginations desire, that typical “slum shot” of them at their worst, physically.

These images only perpetuate the idea of poor and dirty locals, which again, is so far from the truth. Ask yourself, do you want some stranger taking a photo of you while cleaning your house, stressed while doing your job, or of your child out playing?

“Of course they are dirty and sweaty” he explains, “they work hard in dirty jobs, that doesn’t mean it’s how they live, and it most definitely is not how they want to be seen”. Never a truer word spoken, Raz.

Suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by hundreds of bulging sacks piled maybe 10 to 15 feet high. They are all full of plastic, at their base a man stands in front of two buckets of water and two large strainers filled with plastic chips. “He’s washing the plastic” Raz answers our inquisitive expression.

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He proceeds to give us the break down of the plastic recycling and how the trade itself works. Its easier to explain it all to us first and then show us because we won’t really get much of a chance to stop for questions once we are among the recycling units. Remember, while Dharavi is huge it’s also compact and we certainly don’t want to get in the way. It’s manic and he moves quickly, as does the neighbourhood.

“Side!” A worker yells in English as he expertly negotiates the narrow alley with a huge bundle of God knows what occupying the space between his head and his shoulder. We move swiftly out of the way. This place is like an organism, all the pieces work together with precision and each worker and aspect of the trade depends on the other.

Let’s take a closer look and try our best to explain how the recycling industry works:

It all starts in the landfill. Where the government collects rubbish from all of Mumbai’s residents and separates it into recyclables and non-recyclables. They then sell the recycling materials to the Dharavi community – this is where the government’s involvement stops.

Every morning truck loads of the recyclable material arrive from the landfill. It’s separated from the other refuse at the landfill by, you guessed it – the locals!

Once it arrives in Dharavi it’s separated into grades and colours by the “separators”, who then sell it on to the next unit to be shredded. From here it’s washed and further separated by another unit and then passed on to be melted down and turned into pellets which are then sent to be exported all over the world where they are used in everything, literally EVERYTHING that has plastic in it.

Look around your home, look in your handbag, glance at your car, check your hand! There is a 99.9% chance that the plastic surrounding you originated right here, in Dharavi.

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We move swiftly through the alley getting a quick look at each of the processes as well as more smiles and waves than we ever thought possible before moving on to the textile area. Here we are shown the units that wash and dye fabrics, units that cut the fabrics into shape for clothing as well as units that are solely responsible for making collars, cuffs and trims for clothing. A gentleman gestures us in and hands over a beautiful shirt and begins to show us which parts of the garment were his with a huge proud smile on his face before asking “which country” and sending us on our way.

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We pass a small room where men sit nonchalantly making hard shell wheelie suitcases, this prompts our cheery guide to tell us that a lot of these items are commissioned by big brand companies, which is amazing for the people here as its a steady stream of high(er) paying work but all the deals have to be done through a third party as even the products that come from here have a stigma attached to them.

People from outside the neighbouhood, and even the country, would complain and petition that items were made “in a slum”, and that these poor people are being taken advantage of. But what these people don’t realise is that the locals depend on these orders for their livelihood. Raz lists a couple of the brands but asks us not to mention them for obvious reasons, but what we can say is you’ve DEFINITELY heard of them, and most likely own about two of these brands!!

Our path leads us past the bakeries where the smell of fresh baked chapati bread (thousands are made here daily to be used in restaurants and guesthouses around Mumbai) and the sight of men kneading huge mounds of dough makes us linger hungrily, unfortunately the free sample is not a thing here yet!!

Dharavi’s Residential Area:

“Are you ready for some adventure?” Asks Raz with a hint of giddiness. “OK! Once we go in don’t stop you’ll cause a traffic jam. Watch your head and mind your step. If you have any questions remember them and I’ll answer when we get to the other side! Here we go”.

Raz turns into a hole in the wall like something from a Harry Potter book and we trail after him like a row of baby ducks following their mama. The alley is not tall enough for the average person to walk through without stooping and as we stroll down we are overwhelmed by the dense concentration of people and houses in such a small area.

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To our left and right we pass front doors that open into one room “houses”, each containing what looks like generations of families. In between the doors are stairways / ladders that ascend to similar homes on the next two floors up. We reach a junction and find a shop selling the usual fare as well as samosas and chai (spiced tea). As we round a corner we pass a group of men who have found and slotted into a tiny flat space for a smoke and a game of cards.

A few more flashes of colour and Cheshire-cat-like grins whizz by and then BOOM! We emerge into daylight in one of the more modern, less densely populated residential zones. Some of the older residential areas like the one Raz had just shown us are over 150 years old. “You can tell from the census markings on some of the doors” he says.

The newer areas, he tells, us are not as cramped, but for example some of these areas have communal bath and toilet complexes. This is not due to a lack of money or resources but rather a lack of the one commodity that’s in short supply here, space.

Raz asks how much we think it would cost to buy an apartment in Dharavi and at his invitation we all start hurling random guesses until he leaves us all open mouthed by telling us that a 600 square foot apartment (that’s not big) here will cost you $500,000 USD. That’s right, half a million dollars, they are right in the heart of Mumbai after all!

So why don’t they sell up and move on? A damn fine question, and one that we launch at Raz. The answer is simple. This is their home, it’s all they know. Inside its confines is a community, a single organism where there is no class divide, no caste system, no segregation, no prejudice, no unemployment or homelessness. Here they are safe from judgmental eyes.

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The reality is, they are happy here. It’s the rest of society that thinks “poor people, how can they live like that?”. But even if they had a million dollars, a nice house and a flashy car, to the rest of Indian society they would still be branded as less because they come “from a slum”, discriminated, judged and branded, so they choose to stay, they choose happiness,… wouldn’t you?

Raz points out a hideous high rise building, like a block of flats. It is the reason, he explains, that people don’t want to sell their land to the government or the developers. This block of flats was built with the permission of the residents of the small area it occupies. They were promised luxury apartments in exchange for surrendering their land. They did not get what they were promised. You see the government and the developers, like always, are only interested in the short term monetary gain. They want to tear down Dharavi and build monstrous high rise buildings. They don’t see that this place is literally cleaning the rest of the city, they just see the almighty dollar.

Thankfully, all of the properties in Dharavi are the legal property of the occupants (in the majority of cases). This means that without their consent there’s not much the government can do, except engage in a smear campaign against the neighbourhood and its residents, which unfortunately is the case according to Raz.

We finished the tour off by visiting a few more of the industries in the area including leather makers, copper corner and pottery alley before standing chatting to Raz and Musa for about 30 minutes. We didn’t want to leave but we had taken up too much of their time already. We exchanged numbers and hugs and went on our way.

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Did we run for our lives from this dreadful place!? Nope. We had a delicious lunch in a local restaurant, wandered about, chatted to locals and visited parts we hadn’t seen yet. We chugged on a beautiful mango juice and took the train back to our hostel. Not only was this super informative and utterly life changing but we’ve promised the lads that we’ll be back to visit.

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A promise we kept 5 months later. When an invite from Shaan, the bossman, popped into our Whatsapp asking should we ever pass Mumbai we must come back and explore more of Dharavi. It was an offer we couldn’t turn down and so made it our business to travel back to Mumbai where we were met by Oves and Toban, two Be The Local guides who have been working happily with the company for over 4 years.

A little surprise tour, Oves took us around Mumbai on Be The Local’s ‘Off The Beat Tour’ which we highly recommend if you want to see Mumbai like no other tourist. Full of quirks that make Mumbai extremely unique, introduce yourself to the true identity of India’s ‘City of Dreams’ and learn about the age-old fishing poet, the DabaWalla Tiffen Box carriers, the open-aired laundry – introduced by the British – and so much more. Let’s just say this is a tour we could talk about all day but this one, we don’t want to spoil for you. Go in with as little information as possible and have your mind continuously blown at the weird and wonderful.

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Mumbai’s Open Air Laundry, The Biggest in the World!

High from learning all about Mumbai’s lesser known side, Oves took bus back to our favourite neighbourhood in all of India, our beloved Dharavi. This is where we met Toban, who invited us for a super chilled stroll where we recapped on our learning and asked even more questions. We didn’t think our heart, bursting at the seams, could give any more love to Dharavi but man were we wrong.

Invited to meet Toban’s strikingly beautiful family, we got to help Mammy Toban prepare and cook chapati while marveling at the inside of their home. It was so much bigger than we imagined and expected from only seeing the exterior. A long, steep, blue ladder leading to the third floor, Toban’s grandfather emigrated to Dharavi many years ago and purchased the ground floor property for only 2Rs (this doesn’t even exist in euros!) at the time.

Their new family home, as the kids grew older and grandchildren started to arrive, the family bought and built another two-storeys, the maximum for any high rise extensions here in Dharavi. Legally. A family occupying one three-storey home, each floor acting as an apartment to house a son, daughter, grandchild, in-law, grandmother, uncle and anyone who knocks on the door. This is a family who adores guests, treating us like kings and making us feel as comfortable as our own mother’s would.

One large room, with a small balcony overlooking a Hindu temple and a mosque, this is where the family both cook, sit, relax, sleep and live. Their air-drying washing hung across the ceiling and a small door beside the kitchen opened into a bathroom. This is a fairly modern home and so they had the opportunity to build a small bathroom. Something that majority of homes don’t have in Dharavi.

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Our Home From Home

A beautiful silver, silk mat was rolled onto the floor while plates and bowls full of delicious vegetarian food quickly made its way over, covering its hand-stitched design. Altogether we gathered and sat around the food, plates swapped hands as food was piled high. Mamma Toban ensuring we ate as much as we could while Toban and Oves shared with us the tricks and tips on how best to eat with your hands, Indian style.

Bellies and hearts full, we demolished the potato and vegetable dish, rice, chapati, dahl and pickle. And as if that wasn’t enough, out comes a bowl of kheer, a sweet milk pudding with vermicelli noodles and spices. The most delicious desert we’ve had in a very long time.

We jokingly gestured we were ready for a nap after all that food. And of course Mammy Toban was ready to roll out blankets so we could do just that. It’s these simple little actions why we love this community so much. Their home is yours. Their door always open. Their mum ready to feed you. Their family members ready to help and teach. Their love for each other infectious, and their hospitality like no other.

We first arrived to Dharavi as strangers. Curious to learn and be educated on this forward-thinking and truly loving neighbourhood. However we left feeling like we had a home from home. Family and friends who we could always call upon, visit and enjoy.

And that’s the beauty of this place. To outsiders and the ignorant it’s seen a poverty-stricken slum. But it is those people we pity. Not the residents of Dharavi who have discovered a society that the world should thrive to adopt. A community that is accepting, helpful, loving; where everyone lives in harmony no matter their religion, race, caste and history. And to top it all off, it’s an innovative, zero-waste space. Where skills and creativity are like nothing we’ve seen.

It’s a home. A home that always has its doors open and arms wide ready to invite you in and make you feel like you belong. But be prepared. While you will eventually leave, your heart will forever stay.

We cannot recommend Be The Local Tours and Travels enough, these guys will show you the true heart and soul of Dharavi – and of Mumbai! The best part? Know that your money goes straight into the pockets of these young students, who not only strive to obtain a qualification, but work to end the stigma and encourage pride among the Dharavi locals. For a full list of their availble tours, click on over – HERE.

Another massive thanks to Shaan, Oves, Toban, Raz, Musa and all those we met. For allowing us into their world and leaving us with such love, pride and a home to always return to. Thank you, guys x

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Legends x

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Katie Hogan

Author Katie Hogan

I’m a self-diagnosed wanderlust sufferer who fell victim to the travel bug.As someone who has yearned for the freedom to travel for as long as I can remember in 2017, I decided to quit my dream job, run away from the "marriage and baby" queries and trade the societal life for a life on the road.Now, I spend my days wandering through the unknown, being nosy as hell while sharing stories, building websites, helping others plan their backpacking adventures, writing, filming, snapping and reminding myself to shut up and stop talking every now and again.

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