This post is written by Cindy Ryan about her arrival back in Mumbai to join DWP.
I watched the small screen embedded in the seat in front of me, tuning in to see where I was in the world. When the tiny airplane on the diagram was over Pakistan I started to get excited. Flying long hours has a way of dulling the senses and nullifying the destination. I would soon be back in Mumbai, in the heart (or bowels, depending on perspective) of the city. Once the flight touched down at the Chatrapati Shivaji airport and I disembarked, it was clear that I was finally back in India. A mix of sweet and sour smells and a breath of sticky, hot, dusty air confirmed my arrival.
After a breakfast of vada pav (Indian version of a burger), I was excited to get to the slum and reconnect with the community that Kane spends so much time in. Minding myself on the chaotic roadways while trying to cross the street was my first reminder of the intensity of this city of 18 million people all going somewhere at the same time.
Excited to see the new space that Kane and Ashley and the entire slum community have cleaned of garbage and human waste, I was taken aback by what I saw. When I was in Saki Naka 6 months ago, this area was an impassable wasteland. Children played in the garbage and everyone slogged their way through the mess to get from one end of the slum to the other. I only ventured up to the garbage, not willing to wade through the mess in flip flops. Ashley and Kane have done the impossible and ignited this community to believe that anything is possible, clearing away tons of garbage to create a space to sit, play, work, ride a bike, kick a ball, play cricket and hold ceremonies. The backdrop to this space is the wall that hems in the area from the office buildings on the other side. At least a football field long, it has been painted by artists from all over Mumbai and Maharashtra. This space will transform the way the people in the community interact now that they have space outside of their tiny tin homes and cramped laneways.
This end of the slum contains homes cobbled together with bits of tin, patches of wood, and ripped tarp. The homes face each other across a narrow laneway, a slippery, patchwork quilt of broken pavement, brick, loose stones and milky sewage. Kids watch the human traffic on the pipeline out of small windows while their mothers snap the dust out of sleeping mats.
I didn’t meet the people in this part of the slum, (a Nepali neighbourhood) on my last visit so I have been busy drinking chai with new faces, and hearing stories full of sadness, some of hope and being warmly welcomed into their homes many times a day. The first twenty four hours in the slum community I am ‘careful’ with what I eat, dirty little fingers don’t get near my mouth, and I try to find shade even though I have applied SPF 60 sunscreen liberally over my exposed parts, which in India amounts to my face and forearms. By hour number 25, I have given in and gotten dirty and dusty and I don’t think about a shower all day.
As I walk the laneways, the children hand me bits of rice, stinky garlic/lemon/lime powder or the seeds from a pit that takes them an hour to smash open with a rock, all from stained, grubby, sweaty little hands. I happily accept their sweet offerings and eat every bit so as not to insult their generosity. We share bottles of water, Indian style. (No lips touch the bottle. It is poured into open mouths from above and is an ingenious way to share!) They sneeze and cough and spit and walk barefoot over rocks and debris, their brown skin dusty and grey from layers of grime. In the mornings, small children sit in groups, stoking small cooking fires with bits of plastic and shards of wood, the thick smoke curling and winding it’s way into my lungs. We arrive at the slum early, before the children are fully awake and it gives us a reprieve for an hour before they start swarming, cajoling, singing, dancing, and being curious about everything. They are all remarkable and resilient. A fall off the pipeline only amounts to a slight interruption in their day.
I am reminded how there is no privacy in the slum and often not much dignity when dealing with problems. There is obvious levels of hierarchy linked to home ownership, the caste system, immigrant versus Indian, and yet there is remarkable harmony. A snotty nose is wiped using the hem of a saree or the bottom of a t-shirt whether the child is related or not. When I feel the need to wipe a nose, which is often, I bring out my pre-moistened hand wipes and manage to clean their whole face. The kids know I carry a small pharmacy in my bag (tea tree oil, bandaids, hand-wipes, toilet paper, tylenol, sunscreen) and are eager to have a chance to use some of the magic potions. Scabby arms, bruised legs, and cut foreheads have been mended by me, although I’m fully aware that none of these kids require my particular brand of mothering. They are warriors in an urban jungle while I tend to curl my toes in my flip-flops to keep them from making contact with the ground.
Slowly, I become less clean, less westernized, and I have started to take small sips of water that is handed to me in every home, but not without wondering how many minutes it will be before I regret that decision. I sit on the ground, allow the kids’s hands to explore my face with fingers that inevitably end up in my mouth, I wash babies bottoms after they have peed on me under taps in the laneways and enjoy the wonderful food I am served in every home. Although I am not willing to have my hair dyed black (one of the women wants to do this for me!!), I feel comfortable here and every day I shed more of the westernized preconceptions that every traveller packs with them and enjoy the human experience of being wrapped in the warmth and hospitality of this special community that Kane is so at home in.
I am so glad to be back.