Mumbai/ Neighbours

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Mumbai, a truly cosmopolitan city, modern, feeling surprisingly safe compared to the rest of India. Stepping outside the hostel, I laughed at the British influences- surely back in kings cross. The same grand architecture formed the Victoria train station, as red buses and black and yellow taxis past by. Walking through the city international brands, superstores, boutiques, art exhibitions and street art would emerge. The streets of Bandra, dotted with Hipster style coffee shops, Where come night gaggles of young people take to the rooftops, downing shots and dancing to a mix of western and Punjabi music. There is a different sense of freedom here, young couples holding hands along the promenade, women walking alone and at night, mixed groups socialising. 

Whilst you can see both the lifestyle and attitudes of the west are adopted, there is still a distinct sense of India. The vibrancy of the street food, local dress and winding alleys of open workshops and markets are never far from sight. 

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Amongst the development in the city, what emerges is the extreme differences in wealth and poverty, whom sit next to each other as neighbours. 

When you think of poverty in Mumbai, your mind takes you to the slums. Confined communities living in what we would consider hard conditions. The truth is they are not the poor ones it’s the families who line the streets, homeless, begging. Cardboard sheets lay the ground next to the back road of parks, where young boys in the whites practise cricket, looking into the others who sit in the dirt staring out blankly. Speaking with people who live their they have become accostumed to this way of life, passing each other by, living together, sharing the city together. Where developers have bought slum land and developed properties wealthy families will live next door to a slum family. They may walk the same streets, but their paths of their lives are so different. 

Mumbai/ The heart of Mumbai

A man’s scolding stare burns through me. He stands fragile,  bend over, hand on the rail, looking deeply, his heavy eyes tracking us with intrigue, as we make our way down the railway bridge entering the slums. At the foot of the bridge my gaze wonders the horizon, unsure what is about to be unearthed under the sea of corrugated tin roofs. 

Walking along what is known as the business section of the slums, people hurrily rush pass conversing loudly, trucks squeeze their way through the narrow passages, as mopeds whiz past chopping you up. This was much like most streets in India. We take left past a local store and a small cinema playing the cricket and latest Bollywood films. Turning into the alley the atmosphere changes, confined, dusty, darker. Peering through open doorways sat workers. Small rooms where they huddle closely in the heat, breathing in toxic fumes as they wade through the worlds waste to make a living. The slums recycle over 75% of the cities rubbish, including rubbish from countries like China. Rag pickers will collect plastics from resteraunts and hospitals, left over soap from hotels, Coke cans from the streets; selling them to the scrap dealers who in turn will sell these to the manufactures in the slums. Each dark doorframe reveals another trade. In one sunlight cuts through the thick white floating dust, two silhouettes figures throw large plastics parts into a grinder which churns out chunks of plastic. To be melted and turned into pellets, resold to factories around the world.

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Through another you can feel the heat outside, as your eye is drawn to the bright orange flames of the furnace at the back of a dark room, men melt down cans, pouring them into molds to create alliminum bars. Opposite lies an open space, where suitcase are being thrown and caught again on an assembly line of men sat on the floor. Wheels being hammered in, zips attached.  A hive of energy, each square meter being utilised steaming out noise, smoke, heat- not quite the factory setting you think of when you see ‘made in India’. It’s no surprise though that most who work here will die by the time they hit their 50s, with no concern for their safety they breathe in the toxic fumes, giving many lung cancer, so they can take home the 9,000r to their families each month. 

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Though the conditions are indeed shocking, what stuck me more is the resourcefulness of the people. Here lies communities of people who literally are taking everyone’s trash and finding ways to reuse it and sell it back. Even left over soap from hotels was being melted and mixed with pigments to make black soap, to be used to clean dishes. Just think what could be achieved if we found a way to truly recycle everything efficiently, to be less wasteful. 

Moving away from the work quarters, Fireescape style ladders hang above us, as faces peek from above hanging over the edges of windows. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a young boy, who face wouldn’t leave me. He was sat on the metal framing, an opening window behind him stacked with biscuits. He sat quietly smiling, organising the packets neatly ready for someone to buy them. His tiny arms, and shallowed face from severe malnutrition didn’t look at the packs with desire or lust, just happily helping out. The deeper we go, other small children run past the winding path ways running around your legs, jumping the puddles and minding the pitholes along the cracked concrete. They run in their uniforms to school, singing, pigtails swinging.

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By this point the passage ways are no wider then half a meter, at times forcing me to duck under protruding arch ways (bearing in mind I’m only 5’2- it was getting clostraphobic) Imagine walking through here at night, already it was so dark in this maze of alleys, doorway after doorway lined tightly one against the other. Behind a curtain you can see in, in what be only 35sqm, no bigger than my bathroom at home lies an entire family. Kids drawing, mum washing the clothes in a bowl. 2 elders lying down. Before we can really think about the crammed conditions,we hear drumming getting closer. The alleys open up into a small courtyard, people fill the streets laughter, gold, glittered sparkling sarris. We had walked into a wedding, the bride locks eyes with me, her wide smile inviting us in. She grabs me hand twirling me into the rythem of the music. These people were so happy, full of life.

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Of course it was a wedding people usually are, but we came to learn about the strength of the slum communities. Yes, these people work in unpleasant and unsafe conditions and life in confined spaces, but comparatively to many others in India they have good reliable jobs, a place to live, the support of their neighbours, security, homes. Many of the people who have earn a good living from the slums have property outside, but they rent them out and chose to continue to live in the slums; they say they miss being part of such a close community. The people here make the most of everything they have and value it, something most of us could probably step back and do. 

 

Goa/ The sun, the stars, the moon

Close your eyes, hear the crashing waves, the salty breeze over your face and the sun dancing on your skin, warm…burning. Relax. Goa, is not like the India I had been seeing. Flooded with expats and tourists it is very much a holiday destination. Beautiful beaches, sunsets with cocktails, beach huts on the sea front with waves to awaken you. After a month of the intense chaos, it was a very much welcomed calm.

Much of India post 9pm is a no go zone- bed time or time to spend with your family. However, welcome Goa the heartland of the original acid hippies. Go to the north and you will find yourself in a Malia type strip of constant nightlife, party goers and sytrance, or enjoy as I did the calmer south side. Star gazing, with beers a fire to gentle house or fun stumbling through the jungle at Leopard Valley to some serious beats. Enjoy the mixed crowd of ravers from Indian holiday makers wanting to lose their minds or the nodding of the old school hippies, shaking their grown out locks.

 

 

Hampi/ A prehistoric journey

A roller coaster of dirt tracks, slipping off the recliner bus chairs, questioning how the bus suspension was still in tact, the cold dusty air hitting your face. The 13 hours spend on our semi sleeper bus to Hampi, one may have thought that the bus at some point transformed into Fred’s dino car, particularly when you step out into a skyline of huge stone boulders, tall trees and eroding steams. As you walk along seeings signs, beware of leopard, do not jump in lake- crocodiles!

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Hampi is protected by UNESCO as one of the civilisations it is a world heritage site, with temples and accent ruins. On one side of the river you can explore the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire of the 7th Century.But take a trip across to the other side and risk being lost for days on hippie island. A row of hostels, sit against the paddy fields and rock boulders. Backpackers, blazing slumped on cushions looking out to the views. Swimming in lakes by day and climbing the rocks by sunset, guitar in hand, spliff in the other. Feeling like I may become James Franko in 127 hours, falling down the gaps, I lept anyway to join the singsong and watch the sunset over the ancient city.

 

 

Wayanad/ Nature is King

img_3083-1Bus stop chos, stampedes of people pushing for a place on the bus to get us out of the city. Fighting our way through, we sit tightly for the next 5 hours, the dusty hot air starts to become cold and crisp as we ascend through the hairpin bends up to Wayanad national park. With waterfalls, spice fields, tea plantations, lakes, local tribes, you can spend days get lost in nature. Spending some time with a local family, we cooked dinner picking the spices and vegetables straight out of their back garden. Hitting a papaya out of the tree and learning the best way to slice open a coconut for its milk.

The family also own a pepper plantation, employing the local tribes to pick the pepper pods for them. The government supplies the tribes with food, clothes, so we are told the money they earn goes mainly towards alcohol. Booze and alcoholism being a common problem in India.

16585392_1300701019976004_5142240416514441216_n1The most popular resident however in Wayanad are the elephants! The kings of the land. Driving slowly through the main road which takes you to the next village, you will entered their land. Doesn’t matter if your walking, a car or a bus the elephants are boss. Get to close and they will not be afraid to charge at you knocking over your car, as we nearly experienced. These are wild, untamed elephants who make paths for the rest of the families of deers, rabbits, peacocks… though we didn’t quite get to see how they play with the tigers!

Kerella/ Kochi/ Mixing it up

Having an Anglo Indian background on my Mum’s side, I had always thought of the Portuguese blood in me to be really random. However coming to Kochi, a melting pot of background and international influences, this is not the case. Aaron, who ran our hostel was in fact of Indian Portuguese descent.

Over the years Kerela had been run by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British. So today walking the streets you will pass a Catholic Church, sat next to the Jewish synagogue, whilst having a Dutch breakfast in a hotel of Portuguese architecture, looking out to the fisherman, who are still using the Chinese fishing nets to bring in the days catch.

As a result the state of Kerela is 40% catholic, and many locals we met had European names, Joseph who ran the Portuguese museum or Susan and Paul who gave us a cooking lesson. There is a distinct international feel in Kochi, a mix of architecture, artsy boutiques and cafes, it is an example of one of the many places in India, that really doesn’t feel like India or at least your expectation of it. With such a mixed history, the turn of each country could be stepping into many a country.

Auroville/ Finding another way

auroville-3Situated just outside of Pondicherry in South India lies Auroville. A self sustained community for those who ‘thirst for progress and aspire to a higher and truer life’. Back in the 60’s a French lady, known a the Mother, believed that as humans we have a greater purpose to develop our souls, to evolve. She believed that ‘man is not the final goal- is evolution of particles, dinosaurs, monkeys, just for us to create a washing machine?!’ Taking learning’s from Sri Aurobindo, ‘man is a transitional being, we are here to find the great passage towards a new being’. They believed that the power to do this comes from within, the consciousness, the power of the spirit. Auroville therefore was created to aid this purpose, with all focus being on developing and evolving the conscthe-motheriousness. A place for human unity, where no nation or person had ownership. Peace and harmony and the concern for progress triumph over the satisfaction of desire, please and material enjoyment. As a gesture of such unity, in 1968 the inauguration of Auroville brought representatives of 124 countries and 23 Indian states together, each placing a handful of Earth from their homeland at the center of the town. With this the the first Aurovillains would plant trees, turning the once baron land into the forest which is now home to 2,500 permanent residents from over 50 countries.

Having heard many positive things about Auroville I was intrigued to see how the community worked and if I would leave with intentions of abandoning my London lifestyle for something much different. Being dropped off by my taxi driver in the middle of the forest, I wondered through the trees, feeling slightly like I had entered ‘the beach’ unsure what I would find. Past a map carved into a stone and convergence signs, I found a collection of tree houses where I would spend the next week. Here lived around 20 people, including two families with young children. Walking around there was the main community kitchen, where everything was recycled, the power run by the solar panels in the center, the toilets all bio compose. There was also a bakery and a horses stables which generated business for the owners.

Evergreen was situated on the edge of Auroville, so first things was to get myself on to a moped to get around the sparse city.  Auroville was designed into five sections, a green belt for environmental regeneration, a cultural zone for artistic, cultural and sports activities, the international zone for celebrating the diversity of cultures, the industrial zone for the generation of money and the residential zone. The center of all of this the matrimandir, the soul of Auroville, designed to be a cosmic meditation space. Despite being told on arrival by an aurovillain ” I don’t know why tourist would come here”, there is plenty to do. Each week a community ‘new and notes’ is issued, outlining discussion points, notices and a schedule of activities from yoga, meditation, tree climbing, talks, dance, pottery to name a few.

Everything in Auroville is designed to develop the consciousness, so creativity is valued. The Auroville school system too encourages one to develop and nature their true soul, giving the tools to learn rather than being taught, teachers are but guides. They do not want to encourage competition and the scoring system that we understand, but one of collaboration. Similarly, they elect key representatives to work with the Indian government to run Auroville, however it is believed that everyone should serving the divine consciousness and community, rather than looking to create their own titles and hierarchy. Similarly, money is not used. As nothing is owned, everyone is expected to volunteer to the good of the community, encouraging a gift economy, creating an equality among the people.. Though as volunteers they then earn auro points, arguably creating a currency in its own right? Essentially, that focus’s on the outer- materialism, titles, grades, should be ignored, it is the development of the inner being that will accelerate change.

As I talked to people they were all very much creative types, looking for a different way a different way of life. To do better by the environment, spend more time doing the things they loved then being a slave to the system. There is certainly a lot to be said by this, to gain perspective on what is actually necessary, what truly brings value to your life, who to enrich your life and those around you. Though in practice, there are certainly some challenges, Auroville at times felt very culty, for a group talking of human unity it didn’t always feel very accepting, and having talked to some long term residents they explained how insular it can be and how you can become stuck there. One man explained having invested all his money in building a house on the land, he now has no way to leave as he has no ownership rights and therefore no equity in outside society. This aside though, I do think a lot can be learnt from the ambitions of Auroville and would encourage anyone to spend some time there.

 

Kerala/ Alleppey/ The backwaters

A tropical palette of colour meets your eyes in the backwaters of Alleppey, ‘the Venice of the East’. Luscious rich green grass of the paddy fields line the still blue water ways, hovering palm trees, dotted yellows and reds of growing fruits and birds. Passing the wider canals, you see the house boats, steaming through. People partying, others reclining. Taking a turn into the smaller passages, weaving our way past villages. Women knee deep in water at the foot of their houses scrubbing clothes, their neighbour washing the silver thali pots, bubbles around them as we miander down. Turning the corner, a boy is sat, knees by his head, toothbrush in hand rinsing out his mouth in the waters. The canals are their way of life. The waters rise above the surrounding land, so man made islands have been build in between the paddy fields. However each year they must be prepared to be flooded as the waters rise. One mans told us if his friend who one night when asleep in bed, stirred, his hand falling from his chest tumbling open to the floor, but to his surprise his arm went straight into water. Jumping up in shock he looked around to see his house flooded just inches below the height of his bed! We were told however- no problem, he has an upstairs, so they just move everything! It is accepted that every year this will just happen.

One benefit however of the water is it makes for perfect conditions for growing rice. Their main source of income, second to tourism. Families will harvest the rice and sell it to the government at a fixed price to be shipped abroad. The government however also supply the local farmers with reduced pesticides, so they can grow more and I turn sell more to the government. The issue being that the pesticides flood to the canals that people feed off, wash, clean, drink. As a result the canals are being over grown with weeds, green flowers which we struggled to paddle through and I often got slapped in the face by as Pen towed harder throwing them back my way! However in spite of this there is opportunities for people to work and gain and income from the land, and the waters create a beautiful serene environment of calm, very different to much of India.

Kolkata/Back to the roots

No blacks, no Irish, no dogssc0031f51c02-1. 1958 Britain and they were not tolerant of diversity. For my Indian Grandfather marrying my Roman Catholic Irish Gran, this was not an easy time to be a mixed race couple. Yet somehow 5,000 miles across the ocean, they were able to find people who were willing to do just that, accept. A first class passage, 18 days with a 7 month old they would arrive in Bombay. After a night in a hotel they boarded a sleeper train, with blocks of ice to keep them cool. Lally, my gran, describes her first impressions of Kolkata, the heat, the noise, the smells; taking weeks to adjust to it, but the people embracing them with open arms -black, white, you were greeted with smiles unlike the racial abuse they had suffered on her ‘home’ land. Despite my grandparents arriving just after the 1956 constitution, when Indians took back the land, uniting to create an Indian government, Kolkata was still very open to expats. For over 200 years the British had ruled from the colonial capital of Kolkata. 

For the next 7 years they would meet 8 other couples; all English/Irish wives who had chosen to live in India to be with their husbands, whom they met studying in the UK. Here they would raise families, embrace the culture, enjoying the Indian way;  how you would greet someone, respect your elders, the importance of community and family, their respect for books and education. 

Walking around today, seeing the streets my dad grew up on, you can still see the British influence, St. Paul’s church, the Victorian and Albert monument, his catholic school – Don Bosco. Most recently the current mayor has gone as far to declare Kolkata to restored to London, building a mini Big Ben and filling with street with Oxford Circus type lights! As you can imagine many people are not happy about how the tax money is being spent, whilst under English influence Kolkata may have been a place of power, but becoming London is not the way, let it be celebrated for its own beauty and achievements. 

Varanasi/ Staring death

 

Hindus believe in reincarnation, that after death our spirit, an atman, can be released to be reborn as any living being, to learn again in a search for enlightenment. The gods as a gift, gave the river Ganges so that once your ashes have been scattered into the holly water, the rebirth cycle can end. As a result Varanasi has become the holy land where the old come to await death and the dead come to be cremated. Coming from a western background, where people do not want to talk about the death and it is very much a hidden closed subject, it is a stage experience to watch the burning of bodies in public. To publicly share such private, intense moments; to be sat next to a man grieving as he holds back the tears, face in hands looking out on the steps to his  burning brother. There are over 300 cremations held every day, and it is the only place where it is allowed to set cremation fires all through the day and night. Seeing so many bodies burn and to so openly deal with death does make you think more about the fragility of life. 

Families will bring the bodies of their loved ones here, they purchase the wood and set up the fires in the two designated ghats. The bodies have been cleaned and depressed in fine clothes and then wrapped in a clean sheet. Often some of the holy water  from the Ganges will be poured in their mouth as the last drink to cleanse them. Next the eldest brother will place a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased, the funeral pyre will then be lit, the fire believed to purify the soul. After this there will be days of mourning, the men will shave their heads leaving just a small amount of hair at the back as a sign that they are in mourning. Women do not attend the cremations, as in the past women have thrown themselves too into the fire in grief. Today, they are believed to be there too emotional too attend, an example of a still very male dominated land of inequality.

Among the cremations you will see people bathing in the water, praying and even drinking it. At night boats flock in, gathering around the daily Pujahas, the echos of prayers, bellowing bells chime as the fires burn around you and small candles are set afloat on the river. Thousands of hopeful prayers floating down the stream hoping to be answered, among the scattered souls.