Note: All photographs are owned by Reality Tours and Travel. I received their permission to use the images in this post.
I am driving down the highway, and the radio waves begin to tune out. I cannot hear the melody anymore. I am transported to a familiar place, and the sounds of excessive motorbike honking ring through my ears. I am suddenly hustling to weave through the crowded, dusty streets of Bombay, trying to keep up with my host father and the rest of my group. My stomach is churning heavily, and sweat is dripping down my face. When we reach our destination, we are greeted by a young, cheerful man named Balaji. He introduces himself as our tour guide for the next two hours, and we begin the “tour”, trepidation glistening on each of our faces.
We trek forward into a crammed community. The first few minutes of the tour are a blur. I witness every pair of eyes we meet engage mine. I look away, but they do not. Out of discomfort I hook arms with my friend for support and we move on through what feels like an old alleyway, but truly what is a moving, operating street.
The next thing I know I enter a building and am clinging to a rickety rung ladder as I slowly climb my way to a distant roof top. Someone helps me up, and I immediately glance down at my weak feet and trembling knees.
I am barely standing on this rusting scrap metal shanty rooftop. I look up from my trance and see a community– hundreds of thousands of Indians, living and working in poverty. Further down the horizon, on the outskirts of this city slum, contrasting skyscrapers represent the one percent, India’s most elite. It is literally the richest of the rich looking down upon the poorest of the poor.
The breeze carries a strange scent of what I make out to be a mixture of masala and sewage. I breathe this air anyway, letting it fill my lungs to the brim.
I should be concerned about falling through the roof, about the possibility of my knees buckling or even just slipping and sliding off that near edge.
But none of that matters. I am consumed by the scorching burn and pounding in my chest. I notice my heart is racing so fast that I almost can’t feel it beat anymore.
I cannot begin to grasp the littered landscape that lays before me. I have never witnessed such a low quality of living. In the U.S., I even grew up below the poverty level. I thought I knew poverty.
My wonderment is kindly interrupted by Balaji. “This is Dharavi,” he declares.
Moments later Balaji begins to rattle off facts, and my jaw subtly drops. He tells us the population of the Dharavi Slums will never be known, but it’s estimated anywhere from 300,000 to 1 million people live in this one-square mile area in Bombay. This makes it Asia’s largest slum. I learn Dharavi is unique; it’s more than just a home. He teaches us about Dharavi’s thriving economy; it has about every industry you can imagine.
I find myself peeking into rooms where a dozen people sitting behind sewing machines in dim lighting examine me, all while never stopping the movement of their sewing needle. I watch as they craft backpacks, purses, blenders, clothing and even make some of India’s most favored snacks. These rooms are smaller than my bedroom.
When I see this, I think one word: Sweatshop.
But before I can dwell on this, Balaji boasts about the industries and the products they make, how these products are shipped all over India and even to other countries. He explains the working Indians are filled with pride to say they made these products right from their home.
In another area of the slum, men are recycling and melting aluminum into bars. When I step into the recycling room, I immediately notice the air, extremely thick and pungent. Moments later, Balaji shares, “This air is very toxic to breathe.” Instantly, I burrow into my sweatshirt, hoping some clean air has survived down here.
The men working here breathe this air for hours every. single. day. They don’t wear masks, goggles, or gloves. Balaji adds that the workers are provided with this protective gear, but they never wear it, because it slows them down. They need to work fast to make more money for their families in hopes to increase their quality of living. But guess how much those men make doing this work?
Their weekly wages are not even as much as I make in one hour.
I follow Balaji through winding corridor-like walkways. It feels like we are lost in a labyrinth. My toes and my Birkenstocks are wet from what I hope is water. A whisper in the back of my mind breathes, “It’s likely sewage.” I say nothing and trudge on.
We pass by a community bathroom, which thousands of people are expected to share every day. Balaji frowns and shares that oftentimes people won’t bother traveling to the bathroom. Instead they will just do their business in the streets.
Meanwhile Balaji is advising to watch my head, because electrical wires hang every which way above me. I’m on edge, worrying I might not notice a wire and get zapped, but my fear still cannot override the feeling in my gut about the poverty surrounding me. These wires are necessary for people to tap on for electricity. They can’t just flip a switch or plug a device into an outlet whenever they please. These dangerous wires are actually a life source for them.
As we move along, I greet the innocent eyes of little children following me with curiosity. I must look very strange to them with my blonde hair and blue eyes. I look for less time at the adults. The wrinkles on their faces and their overworked hands show they are less naïve about the world than their children.
This is their reality. It is not low quality of living to them, it’s just… their life. This is their normal. Many have families and find jobs that they are proud to have. They can find happiness, and they make the most of their lives. Dharavi is all they know.
We reach the end of the tour, and Balaji bids us farewell. I begin to reflect on the overwhelming last two hours of my life, on the feeling in my gut, in my heart, in my throat, and even in my eyes, that I cannot simply shake.
• • • • • •
I clear my head, and I’m back on US highway, nearing my destination. I try to shake the feelings (mostly guilt) that remain from this memory, but they stay with me. We are all human, and I wonder how the world got to be so unfair and unkind. Then I remember the most powerful take-away I have is the feeling of gratitude. An immense heaping of thankfulness for the life I have. Dharavi taught me to never take my privilege for granted.
Additional details on Dharavi:
There is a charge for tours. Eighty-percent of the after-tax profit from tours goes to their sister company, NGO Reality Gives, which creates education programs in areas such as Dharavi.
I also would like to mention no cameras were allowed out of respect to the people living there. I am very thankful to have received permission to use these photographs, which are owned by Reality Tours and Travel.
For more information about the Dharavi Reality Tours, click here.
I also would highly-recommend the Hungry Partier’s take on his tour of Dharavi. He recorded more factual information and also has video footage to share.