Words and Images: Adam Guy
I was on an overnight train from Goa to Mumbai when I had a bit of an epiphany. I was lying on the top bunk of a non-AC sleeper carriage. I’m 6’3 and the bed definitely wasn’t. I had my oversized backpack wedged under my legs because there was nowhere else for it to go, and my smaller day bag was being used as a makeshift pillow. The ceiling fans buzzed just above my head and the carriage was loud and full of people. The basic, functional aesthetic, the metal bars over the windows, the wipe clean blue plastic mattress. It all kind of made me think of being in prison. It was not a comfortable way to travel. But I didn’t care, because I was loving every minute of it. For me that’s what travelling is; that’s exactly what it’s about. It’s about seeing the world from a different perspective. It’s about putting yourself in a situation that you would never normally be in and taking it for what it is. There are times when you’re going to be looking at an amazing view, or you’ll be swimming in an ocean so warm you could stay in all day. Or someone you’ve just met will invite you to have dinner with his entire extended family for no other reason than very generous hospitality. But there are also times when you’ll be ripped off by someone who saw you as little more that a walking dollar sign, or you’ll get sick because you took a gamble on some street food that looked so good at the time. It’s all part of the experience.
“India has a powerfully chaotic energy that can either excite or overwhelm. It’s the sort of country you will either love or hate; you might find it charming just as you might find it unmanageably intimidating”
But if travelling is about experiences then one of the most lasting ones I had during my time in India was a tour of the Dharavi slums in Mumbai. I had some reservations before hand. The word “exploitation” came to mind; I had an image in my head of strolling around in a big group of tourist taking photos of poor people like it was some theme park attraction. But it really wasn’t like that. We were asked not to use cameras and there were only a couple of people in the group. Our guide was a young student who lived in the area he was showing us. He ran some free lessons for locals in a small classroom above his home and the money we gave him went to help fund that. Once inside the slum I think the thing that struck me the most was how industrious the place was. The whole area is essentially split into residential and business districts. As we walked around the business section we were shown into numerous different buildings, all of which had purpose. In one room three men were sat on the floor sorting bits of old plastic. Everything from casings for outdated computers, to toys, to air conditioning units. All the things we throw away were being sorted into piles based on plastic type and colour so that they could be melted down and re-used. The men lived in the space beside where they worked, which wasn’t exactly homely, and they had to walk a few minutes up the road to get the nearest toilet.
Other local businesses included potteries, leather works, and even steel mills. There was obviously zero concern for health and safety. A room we were shown had metal being melted down and there was a large open furnace taking up one corner of the room. The air was so thick with metal dust that it had me covering my mouth for the few seconds I was there, but none of the men working had masks or any type of protective clothing. It’s no surprise that the average life expectancy in the slums is below 60 years.
But Mumbai is a long way removed from the mountain top tea plantations in the north, or the golden Goan sands. The things about India that will stay with me long after my tan has faded are the scale, the intensity and the contradictions. There are beautiful shorelines and amazing beaches but at the same time, seeing all the sick looking, mange ridden stray dogs walking near the sea is something I could never get used to.
“I had an image in my head of strolling around in a big group of tourist taking photos of poor people like it was some theme park attraction. But it really wasn’t like that”
The calming and inspiring sunsets over places like the temple ruins of Hampi in Karnataka are enough to temporarily help you forget that there are streets piled with rubbish just out view. Then there’s the constant noise of car horns and petrol engines. The cows strolling around in the middle of cities, or sat relaxing on crowded beached like they don’t have a care in the world. And the people, so many people. It’s a big country, which is lucky because 1.2 billion is a big number. India has a powerfully chaotic energy that can either excite or overwhelm. It’s the sort of country you will either love or hate; you might find it charming just as you might find it unmanageably intimidating. I spent three months there and it was barely enough to scratch the surface. But it’s safe to say I’ve never been anywhere that has had that kind of effect on me. It’s a cliché to say I came back changed; that during a few weeks backpacking around India I somehow “found myself”. So instead I’ll just say that I did see some beautiful things as well as meet some amazing people, but that I also came back with a new appreciation to having had the luck of being born in a country with a free education system and a functional national health service.