Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Christopher (see below post) and I spent a three-day weekend in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the largest city in India and one of the largest in the world. Mumbai has an official population of 19 million, and seems to me like New York (financial epicenter) and LA (entertainment epicenter) combined, except that over half of the people in Mumbai are desparately poor and live in slums. It was a pretty wild combination of sights, sounds, smells, and people, and I loved that there was something going on 24/7. It made Bangalore seem like a sleepy little town.

The most interesting thing we did there was tour a slum area called Dharavi. With over one million people, Dharavi is Asia's biggest slum. In 2003, the UN reported that one billion people - or 1/6 of the world's total population and 1/3 of the world's urban population - live in a slum, with that number expected to rise to TWO billion over the next thirty years. Increasingly we find that the rural poor are migrating to cities and becoming the urban poor, which has pushed the state of urban housing to crisis levels. While possibly a more urgent concern than ever before thanks to rising urban populations, slums are nothing new. A slum is created when a bunch of people with nowhere to live - always poor, often immigrants - begin squatting on some undeveloped piece of land, usually that is public. Often, the government will respond by blustering and making threats and trying to kick people out for a while, before conceding the land and offering minimal legal protection and facilities such as running water and electricity.

Mumbai's situation is especially interesting. The government passed an act in 1995, which offered an amnesty of sorts to existing slum areas. Those areas could remain, and basic utilities would be installed, but future slum-dwellers were guaranteed nothing. Therefore, in communities like Dharavi, you see buildings that pre-date 1995 and are equipped with running water and electricity, as well as those that have been illegally added since and have no facilites. Dharavi, in particular, is in trouble because what used to be an undesirable piece of land on the outskirts of Mumbai is now prime real estate located between two rail lines in the heart of the city. There is a scheme underway to allow private development in the area, with provisions for those slum-dwellers who have been there since 2000 (the 1995 crew and then some) but none for the thousands and thousands of people who arrived since. Hence, we will likely see a mass upheaval and migration of poor people to some new slum on what is now the outskirts of the city, and the cycle will begin again.

Dharavi is not a frightening place. It is filthy and crowded and the living conditions are abysmal, but the streets are orderly (sort of), people are productive, and industry abounds. In fact, Dharavi's total yearly export amounts to $665 million. There are many neighborhoods within Dharavi, each of which is devoted to some type of industry. We saw potters, tanners, women making papad (a spicy cracker thing), and people sewing garments and luggage in back-alley sweatshops. The largest industry in Dharavi is manual recycling, and we observed the process of cleaning, melting, dyeing, and reforming plastic waste into small black pellets which are sold to manufacturers by the kilo.

Cameras were taboo on our tour (and for good reason), but I found images on the internet that reflect exactly what we saw and I want you to see them, too. Credit for these photos goes to a variety of sources; ask me if you really want to know which ones.

Dharavi is mostly one- and two-story buildings with a few high-rises resulting from failed government redevelopment schemes.

Houses are made of anything and everything. The ones in the picture above are patched together with corrugated metal and tarps.

Garbage and raw sewage are everywhere. I can only imagine what it looks like during monsoon season.

There are lots of informal (and illegal) electricity-sharing schemes between the pre- and post-1995 homes. You can purchase from your neighbor enough electricity for a lightbulb and television for, say, 200 rupees per month (five dollars). Same thing goes for water.

Many times, entire multi-generation families will share one- or two-room dwellings. The entire community of one million people is located on a one square-mile plot of land, so it's safe to say that it's pretty crowded.

These workers are recycling cooking oil cans. They wash the containers and steam off the labels before selling them back to the manufacturers. Besides cooking oil and plastic, workers here recycle aluminum, cardboard, and glass.

Within Dharavi, there is a community of Muslim tanners that immigrated from Tamil Nadu - a state on the other side of south India. Here they are laying the processed animal skins out to dry.

The potters' quarter - known as Khumbarwada - is one of the more affluent neighborhoods within Dharavi. Some potters make up to 10,000 rupees per month, or $250.

Round-the-clock sweatshops are everywhere. We saw people making garments and luggage for 80 or so rupees per day - far more, however, than they earned in the rural communities all over India from which they emigrated.

Despite the squalid conditions, life is just life in Dharavi. Children go to school, people worship and celebrate, and families do all the normal family things.

There are something like 26 Hindu temples, 12 mosques, and 5 churches within Dharavi. (Those numbers are off the top of my head; don't quote me.) With a few notable exceptions (such as the 1992 riots between Hindus and Muslims that swept Mumbai), Dharavi's diverse residents get along remarkably well.

Seeing the bit of Dharavi that I did had a big impact on me. It's overwhelming, it really is. It's hard to confront a world where, within the same city limits, some people are spending $500 on one night in a hotel, and some good and very hard-working people don't see that much in a year. I think most of us would like to “do something”, but don’t really know where to start. Take this with a grain of salt as I'm no expert on social change, but I think it starts – and ends – with every person’s own heart and mind. You may find yourself overhauling urban housing policies in Mumbai someday, but it’s far more likely that you will have a more subtle impact. That’s okay, though, because the cumulative impact of many caring, knowing people adds up to a lot – more even, I think, than the impact of a few people who are hell-bent on drastic change. We owe those few people a lot, but we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook because we’re not among them. And even those movers and shakers need to make sure their hearts and minds are in the right place. So what can we do? We can remember to be so grateful for what we have, we can stay informed, we can consume thoughtfully and share freely, we can pray for peace and equality, we can take care of the people we love, and we can try to be very, very broad about who it is that we love.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Okay, fine.

Wow, it's been a while. Things are well here in India. I've been busy. I keep meaning to update this blog, but this weekend I saw something in Mumbai that I really want to tell you all about, so it finally compelled me to write. First, though...

I've been getting a lot of flak from people who saw my profile on Facebook change to "engaged" and think I haven't spilled enough juicy details of my life lately. (Will someone please remind me how we caught up on all the gossip before the advent of the Facebook Relationship Status?!) I never meant for this blog to be all about me (more like all about my experiences in India), but I guess it is kind of a crazy story and deserves at least a brief telling. By way of explanation, let me just transcribe a conversation I've had about 50 times this month.

Me: ...well, actually I'll be going back to the States at the end of the summer.

Them: Oh really? How come?

Me: I'm getting married at the end of the year.

Them: Oh wow! Congratulations! I didn't even know you were dating anyone...did you meet him in India?

Me: Um...yes.

Them: So who's the lucky [or unlucky, depending on your perspective] guy?

Me: His name is Christopher.

Them: So is he Indian?

Me: No, he's American and also from Seattle.

Them: So he's working in India also? For how long?

Me: Actually, he lives in Mali, West Africa.

Them: Oh.

Sometimes they get sidetracked by offering congratulations at this point, but sometimes they stare blankly, in which case I keep going.

Me: We got engaged when he visited me in India last month.

Them: That is so great! So what is Christopher doing in Mali?

Me: He's a volunteer with the Peace Corp.

Them: How long has he been there?

Me: Almost two years.

This is where they stop to try and add all the pieces up and think, "Hmm...both from Seattle, but he's been in Mali and she's been in India. If he's been there two years, that's a pretty serious long-distance come I haven't heard about this guy before? I thought she was dating people in Seattle before she left for India. Wait, didn't she say they MET in India? I'm confused." At this point I usually put people out of their misery and clear things somewhat up by saying...

Me: So actually we weren't dating all along. Things started to get pretty serious long-distance, and he came to India to visit and everything fell into place and we decided to get married.

Then if they're really bright they'll say...

Them: Wait a minute. Didn't you just say you met in India?

Then I have no choice but to say...

Me: Okay. So the whole story is that we met online last summer while I was still in Seattle and he was halfway through his stint in Mali. We began this amazing correspondence, talked nonstop for months, and fell in love before we'd even met in person. Then, he came to India last month and it was as great as we knew it was going to be and he asked me to marry him on our second day together.

By now people are usually stammering for something to say, usually some variation of...

Them: Oh my gosh! That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard!!!


Them: You're bloody crazy. You know that, right?

So that, folks, whether romantic or really bloody crazy is the true story of how I met Christopher. The answer to your second to last question is December in the Seattle LDS temple, and the answer to your very last question, which I realize I will never, never, never live down in my whole entire life is... Baby.