Mumbai in 5 star hotels. Let’s call it: “India light”.

I flew to Mumbai to meet my girlfriend Michelle, who had business in India for a few weeks. This pulled me out of the world of cheap little hotels and into the international standard I was also used to when I travelled for work. What I was not expecting was that the official airport taxi driver did not know where the hotel was. He asked two other drivers and they didn’t know either. He drove off and stopped at a little office near the exit of the airport and emerged apparently confident. We did get there. This often happens to me, especially when I stay in very small hotels. I usually look on Google map and find the nearest important business, hospital or park as a reference. But I never thought to do that for a 5 star hotel.

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I mean this is the hotel! 37 storeys tall, on top of probably the poshest mall in all of India! Michelle’s theory was that people who stay there would never set foot in an Indian public taxi. She certainly didn’t. The hotel sent a car and driver. In the high-end malls we visited, very few Indians took taxis. They would not walk to the parking, but rather to the exit, cell phone in hand, and their driver would pick them up. Due to the salaries for low-skill work in India, basically if you can afford a nice car, you can afford a driver.

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The mall was connected to two smaller malls (not as fancy, but OK), and the space between them had been fenced off. This meant that once you went through security screening to get into one, you could go to the other without further screening. In other places in India, we experienced the annoyance of having to go through 3 airport-like security screenings in 10 minutes. But I am not complaining, as the threat from Islamic terrorism is always very high in India.

We did go for a walk to buy some beer. Of course the hotel had some, but the markup was about 1,000%. In fact, the prices were the same as in any 5 star business hotel in the world, despite being in a country with such a low cost of living. It was similar to the time I stayed with a friend who was on business in Bucharest. Since alcohol is taxed in India, the markup was not even as much as for the food. Basically, for the price of a bowl of soup at the St-Regis, I could eat 10 meals in India. Maybe 20.

198---03This is what liquor stores typically look like. Rules differ by state, but the ones I saw tended to be Government-run. They are mostly as creepy as this one. You can’t go inside and you order through iron bars. Uninviting is the mother of all understatements and you really feel like you are doing something wrong by going there. “I’ll have a pound of heroine please”. They are also generally scammy and will quote inflated prices to foreigners.

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If something goes wrong in your life and you end up in India, you should know that it is the only country in the world that has a system of “Maximum Retail Price”. This is a beer I was sold at a much larger such government store, where you could walk in. The clerk didn’t take it from the main fridge but reached under the counter and gave me this one. The small piece of label missing is where the price is written. The next day I went back and the same thing happened. I asked for one with the whole label and then I did what I never do. I made a gigantic scene. It was rush hour at the liquor store and here I was, slamming my fist on the counter, screaming vulgar insults at the clerk at the top of my lungs. He was quite petrified – not sure by what feeling – trying to pretend I wasn’t there, even though other shoppers were in stunned silence themselves. I have absolutely no doubt that I embarrassed myself more than anything else. But: a) I couldn’t care less. b) It was fun. c) He gave me my 20 Rupees back from the night before.

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Then I realized the mall had this store! Probably the nicest liquor store in India. I think it was called Living Liquids, but the LED sign changed to a Bud advertisement when I took the picture.

I loved the Palladium Mall. The great thing about it was that it was located in a business district, not a touristy area. So if you spent the money to live there, you could avoid a lot of the unpleasantness of India, without isolating yourself from Indians. You were just around wealthier Indians. I mean look at that place: there are young woman walking around alone! You would never think you are in India. I would lounge in Starbucks reading the news while Indian women chatted and teenagers studied for exams. And at the table next to me, an elderly businessman was giving feedback to a young manager about the plan she had come up with for some business meeting. I pretended to keep reading the news while I listened in and discovered the differences and similarities of how to pitch something to a potential business partner in India vs North America. My most pleasant moments in the country.

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Speaking of wealthy Indians. India is not an export based economy like China. It is based on domestic consumption and there are lots of expensive import tariffs. So imported goods are not cheap. This lame looking little package of cranberries at the mall’s supermarket retails for 1,400 Rupees. That’s US$21! Michelle paid $6 for a small avocado.

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Mumbai has a lot of impressive colonial architecture. I KNOW!!! If you zoom in, you will see 2 women in this picture. Weird, but I swear this is in India.

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The Gateway to India, the most famous structure in Mumbai. Here seen from the side, because the front is full of touts and I didn’t feel like going. It was built to demonstrate the majesty of the British Empire and is where British Governors would first land in the country. More recently, in 2008, it was where Islamic terrorists from Pakistan landed before going on a massive killing spree.

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So I also did some terror tourism, walking by the Taj Mahal hotel, where 31 people were killed. The damage from the fire seems to be all gone. In total 166 people died in 11 locations. Nine of the terrorists were killed and one was captured and hanged in 2012.

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The popular Leopold Cafe, in business since 1871, where I had coffee with a German tourist I had just met. On the second floor, they chose to keep some of the traces of the attack.

Mumbai being more touristic than the previous cities I had visited, I joined 2 organized day tours while Michelle was working.

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The first one was a visit of the Dharavi “slum”. I use the quotation marks because by local standards, it hardly looked like a slum to me. Not dirtier, with running water and some toilets. I have no pictures to show you, because the tour company does not allow photography. You can find some of theirs here. This was my first experience of the controversial trend of “disaster tourism”. Exploiting people’s misery? Perhaps, but given that it is done respectfully, nobody seemed to mind our presence.

The company uses most of the profit to run a school teaching computer skills and other things I don’t remember. Some of the homes are very, very small and some streets are so narrow you can barely see the sky. But still, not that bad.

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Certainly a lot better than the standard of the countless people living on the railway tracks.

What is more difficult is seeing the working conditions of some people. This is very dependant on the nature of the work. All jobs require long hours and low pay, but if you are sorting bits of plastic all day, you have it a lot better than the people whose job involves a process producing toxic fumes. Needless to say, such workers have no protection whatsoever.

The unfortunate thing is that these workers do not have homes in Mumbai. They live, cook and eat in their workspaces. Their homes are in the countryside and they are only in Dharavi for about 9 months a year. During the rainy season, it is impossible to do recycling because after washing, the plastic must dry on the roofs. Moving around cardboard, animal hides and other things in the rain makes them unusable. So the workers go back home to help with crops and other things. They earn 150-200 Rupees a day, less than $3. There is absolutely no competition for labour, because all industries are monopolies. One man owns all the metal drums refurbishing shops. Another man owns all the cardboard recycling shops, etc. Since India has no control over population growth, the supply of impoverished unskilled labourers is infinite, so the working conditions will probably not improve in my lifetime.

The impressive thing is the complexity of the industries. After sorting, the plastic goes in big grinders. Incredibly, the grinders are locally made, from raw materials (maybe not the motor). Some shops make suitcases that look exactly like anything you would see in your local shopping mall.

You could just go to Dharavi on your own, but you would miss most of it. The tour takes you inside the shops, on the roofs, etc. Plus you would probably get lost in the maze.

Satisfied with the tour, I booked another one, called the “Local Transportation Tour”. They take you to various sites using trains, buses, trams, taxis, rickshaws. I was interested in the sites, but I felt silly being taken on a bus as if I couldn’t just do it myself. I mean I took the train to the starting point in the tourist area, and the first “activity” was to take the train back to where I started!

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As I mentioned in my last story, the trains are not very safe, in part because they run with the doors open. People aren’t hanging out because the train is packed.

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They do it even if the train is empty, because admittedly, it must be pleasant to have the wind in your face. Of course, just like riding a motorcycle without a helmet, it is more pleasant than smart. On average, 10 to 12 people die in train accidents in Mumbai, per day. According to Michelle’s driver, people complained that many times when they took the train, they had to walk around a mangled corpse that had been removed from the tracks and dumped on the platform. The transportation authorities agreed to hire a few ambulances, so that the bodies would be removed within a few hours instead of staying there all day. I asked the tour guide if closing the doors would be an option (I omitted the last part of the question “… like they do in every other country in the world!”). He found the suggestion almost ridiculous. “Oh no. That feels too claustrophobic. People would never accept that.” The part about people dying doesn’t appear to matter or to require a solution.

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People also die by being pushed on the tracks. When a train approaches, the people going down the stairs start pushing against the people trying to go up. The people on the extremities often fall on the tracks and, since obviously a train is coming, they become statistics. This phenomenon happened to me maybe 30 seconds after I took this picture. Not a close call at all, but it was obvious how a little more pushing and standing a little closer to the track could have sent me on the rails. Waiting for the crowd to clear is impossible at rush hour, because by the time these people all go up the stairs, another train has arrived. By the way, this picture was not taken at rush hour.

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One of the stops, the huge Dadar flower market. This is a bulk market for resellers and the picture shows you less than 5 or 10% of it. If you guessed based on preconceptions, you might think this could be the one place where a lot of employees would be women. As you can see, you would be wrong.

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The Dhobi Ghat, apparently the world’s largest open air laundry. To show you all of it, I would have needed a helicopter. This is just a small section. I believe it is owned by the government. Washers pay a small monthly rent to use one of the concrete “tubs” and live in an adjacent shack. If you click to get the full size picture you can see some of them at work. But at that time of the day, I think it’s drying and ironing time.

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This is what I most wanted to see. A phenomenon unique to Mumbai and only possible because the trains have cargo cars. These are dabbawalas, lunch delivery men. They are identified by their white hats. They pick up lunches made by suburban housewives and bring them to collection points. Once organized, they are delivered to downtown collection points by train.

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Then they get sorted out on the sidewalk and delivered to workplaces. An amazing 200,000 lunches are delivered every day by about 5,000 dabbawalas! (I read many numbers, some as low as 100,000, but still) Although all these men, who are from the same sect in a particular region, are illiterate or functionally illiterate, they have an incredibly efficient coding system and make almost no mistakes.

After lunch, they collect the dabba (lunch box) and return it to the home. I know this seems to make no sense at all, but it does, for the following reasons.

1) For whatever cultural reason, many men prefer home cooked meals. And although I am speculating here, I guess they don’t like leftovers.

2) Rush hour in the trains is painful. Carrying stuff in your hands on top of it is surely not fun.

3) Trains have cargo cars, so the dabbawalas can easily carry the lunches after rush hour is over.

4) The service is very cheap because they make only $120 per month, and the train costs almost nothing to take. A few cents. If they had to take buses, it wouldn’t work because the tickets are too expensive. Just to remind you of the extremes in India, that means that if they managed to save an impressive 17.5% of their salary, at the end of one month they could buy that small pack of cranberries at the Palladium Mall.

5) Because of the size of the city, it takes many men an hour or two to get to work. If they start at 8 and leave at 6, to cook a meal from scratch, the wife would have to get up in the middle of the night.

So, men with OK jobs pay the monthly fee, $9-15 per month, depending on distance, and 5,000 men make a living doing something unique and weird. Honestly, observing them was totally underwhelming. There is no processing centre or any such thing. Just a very large, decentralized network. Reading about the system is very interesting, but watching a few men sort out a hundred boxes in a single place does not do justice to the whole affair.

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Our tour ended by getting dabbas delivered in a nice park in the touristic south of Mumbai.

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Not going to get Michelin stars anytime soon, but it was good. Not all meals are home cooked, some come from caterers, like this one. Of course, depending where you are from, you may be not be used to eating it with your hands. Nice Serbian woman, if you are reading this, thank you for that spoon!

And now, I will tell you about the worst part of my visit. I planned a 33 day itinerary, on a 30 day visa. Really dumb. You may wonder how an experienced traveller makes such a beginner’s mistake. But the fact is, because I am blessed with a Canadian passport, I am actually not that experienced with restrictive visas. Where I need one, it is usually a formality. And although there are exceptions, like China or Russia, most places with restrictive visas are places I would never want to visit, like Equatorial Guinea or Pakistan.

My first thought was to ignore the problem and pay the fine. But it turns out that you can go to jail for that. Obviously, that would never happen, because I would rather fight it out with the cops and die in a blaze of fire rather than spend one minute in an Indian jail. Leaving early meant abandoning Michelle for half of the vacation we had planned. In another country that might have been a disappointing option to consider, but in India I considered it for about a billionth of a second. For work related reasons, she couldn’t leave the country and get back in, so vacationing somewhere else was not an option. That left me with only one option; make a visa run. India has lots of neighbours, but they are not exactly places to make a visa run to, as they are very restrictive themselves, like China or Bhutan, or, hum… slightly uninviting like Bangladesh and Pakistan. Bangkok was the obvious choice, but the last minutes flights were too expensive. So I went to Nepal, a country that I really like, but at a time I knew it would not be good to visit.

Spending hundreds of dollars to leave a country I hate and go to a country in crisis, all so I can come back to the country I hate for more a week later. Wonderful.

#India 

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