Hocus-Pocus in a Hand-Crafted ‘Hood 

Day 87: Mumbai to Hospet
The bunk bed creaks like an arthritic exoskeleton beneath me, thwarting my attempt to pounce to the floor cat-like, undetected. I tumble to the ground past my bunk mate, push a straggled lock of hair out of my eyes and look down. Nice. I’m already dressed. Tiptoeing past my snoozing dorm roomies, I brush my teeth in the shared bathroom, throw my pack over my shoulder and motion to Marnie that I’m heading to the cafeteria on the floor below. She enters the dining hall ten minutes later. Free breakfast tickets in hand, we follow the line-up to the meal counter and exchange our stamps for a plate with three pieces of white bread, butter and jam packets, a boiled egg, and a banana. 

“Is this delectable fruit preserve house-made?”

We’re feeling comedic this morning. 

As we check out of our hostel downstairs, we ask reception if they are able to book us a bus to Hospet. Wait ten minutes, they say. Then the booking agent will be open. Ten minutes? After three days of failed, character-building attempts to book it on our own, ten minutes is a laugh, a giggle, an anecdote. But after twenty, we go next door to a trendy restaurant called ‘Social’, and order a couple mochas while we wait. The manager comes over to help us with the wi-fi. We ask if they can book bus tickets. 

“You can do it yourself,” he says simply. “Just use Redbus.”

Within twenty minutes our seats are booked. We’re going to Hospet today! Good thing I didn’t waste a couple hours in an Indian Starbucks yesterday flirting with an anxiety attack aquainted by the horrors of online transit booking. Good thing.

Our server drops off our mochas and turns to Marnie. 

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Yep. SO cute.

“You’re so cute, ma’am.” His Hindi accent is endearing.

My lessons in patience are not over, and it is clear I have not yet mastered the virtue as I feel near tears again while trying to post a blog that won’t upload due to shotty wi-fi. The spoiled, ‘first world’ child in me whines and latches on to a bad mood like it might conjure up the perfect internet signal. My brow is furrowed in a grumpy fold and my voice is a snappy bark. We leave the restaurant, but I’m having a hard time shaking my bratty mood. Marnie lets me stew undisturbed in my toxic bubble as we make our way to the train station. We have some time before our bus to Hospet leaves. But the confusing streets only agitate my imploding tantrum. I know Marnie is trying not to laugh as I stomp around like a lost five-year-old at the Spinach Fair. 

“Dayna, let’s just grab a cab. It’s not a big deal.”

Of course, she’s right. 

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The wind smooths out the crinkles in my forehead as we stick our heads out the windows of the taxi cab; we’re rolling through the city, flying on overpasses and zipping between skyscrapers. The road widens and our cabbie comes to a stop. 

“Dharavi,” he says. 

We’ve reached our destination. Dharavi, located in central Mumbai, is considered the third-largest slum in the world, and home to a million people. 

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We’re almost bulldozed as we cross the street, narrowly avoiding pancake-status. Both our bladders are distracting us from everything save for a place to empty them. Asking around, a man from a shop leads us down a teeny alley, around a corner and to a building with a row of toilets behind a curtain. The public washroom. They’ve been well tended to, and are, in fact, cleaner than the majority of bathrooms we come across daily. Back at the main road, we turn down an alley, which is also well kept. It bustles with people and kids; little shops and fruit stands are abundant. The streets are swept. Where are all the poop piles and pee puddles so prominent in the pictures we paint of the poor? Delhi and Varanasi both lived up to a ‘developing country’ standard more than this ‘slum’. There aren’t any cows or goats roaming, just some street dogs. Every few hundred metres, there are dumpsters, overflowing and surrounded by heaps of trash. Dogs dig in the garbage. In a huge dusty field, a group of kids kick around a soccer ball. 

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We buy some bananas from a vendor and continue to walk through the neighbourhood, but something is missing. Something feels different here in comparison to every other place in India we’ve been thus far. There is no staring. No ogling. Not even curious glances. Not one person approaches us or yells at us to buy whatever it is they are selling. No one stops to ask us where we are from or where we are going or if they can have a ‘selfie’ with us. The only ones who do take note of the foreigners are a few kids, who stop to wave hello. One person asks us for money–a man with an ox on a rope leash. We say no, and watch him go from door to door, asking his neighbours for money.

It feels calm in this city-within-a-city. Relaxing, even. But we don’t have much time, and this is but a small taste of a sprawling mega-slum and, like any urban apple, there are the good parts, and there are the less good parts. We just may be in the nice part of town. The nice part, where dwellings are constructed of currogated tin and brick, of concrete and stone. Some sturdy and painted turquoise, some flimsy with open fronts. 

And everybody is busy, everyone is doing something. Cooking curry, drying papadums in the sun, burning incense, selling clay pots, eating dosa, eyeing silk scarves, trying on shoes, sewing pants, sipping chai, playing ball, laughing with friends, transporting bananas on their heads.

There is a sense of pride here. These are dignified humans, living their lives in a hand-crafted ‘hood. These are not ‘slum-dwellers’. 

We go back to the main road and sit on a bench with a couple cups of chai

“India is like The Burrow,” Marnie says, referring to the Weasley family’s spellbound house in the Harry Potter series. “It’s all held up by magic.”

On the cab ride back to town, our driver asks for a ‘selfie’. We’re not in Dharavi anymore.

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We have time for a good meal before we have to make it to our bus, so we stock up on couscous salad and beer shandies before grabbing our bags from the hostel. A forty minute cab ride takes us to Sion E. No one seems to know what Sion E is exactly, and we definitely don’t. But then some dudes eyes light up in recognition and he leads us into a building and to a second floor office. We stumble in–sweating and panicked, thinking we’re late–to a room with five men in dress shirts who look like they’ve been watching paint dry all day. 

“Sit,” they say. 

We do. A trickle of sweat sticks my shirt and back together like a hot glue gun. Eventually one of the five men leads us to a cube truck which has the appearance of a milk and haystack delivery vehicle. He motions to the back. Marnie and I crawl in the box and sit on big square-shaped things covered in rough fabric. Haystacks, probably. We bounce around and wave to the drivers behind us through the open back. 

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An old Cambodian friend sees us off. She’s so sweet.

The little milk truck stops on the side of the road ten minutes later, right behind a big fancy bus that looks like a rolling disco party. Double beds line the floor, canopied by a second layer of double bunks. Wine coloured curtains provide velvet privacy in each section and the walls sparkle with an iridescent silver-flecked coating. We are thrilled. 

Sprawled on our plush bunk, gazing out the window, we talk and marvel at the smoke outside and the smoggy skies and the intensely diverse state of the world. I write a scene about two sisters getting dressed up to go out but end up fighting over their dead mother’s lipstick. 

The bus stops once for a break. The jolt wakes us from our bed and we zombie out into the night to relieve ourselves and buy bananas. 

As the bus rattles through the inky Indian blackness, we sleep in random increments, each troubled snooze bookended by the lurching tilt characterized by sharp corners in the road. Even when jerked awake, my eyes stay shut tight. Maybe if I keep them closed, we won’t die before we reach Hospet. 


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