Here I am sitting among boxes as I wait for the packers to remove our final belongings as we prepare to leave Singapore. It’s been an experience, mostly wonderful. We came here as refugees – from the emotions surrounding the loss of our daughter Louise and the wish to mourn in a private and fulfilling way, by adventuring and ringing the changes. The deep sense of grieving never goes away and, as I have said many times, time is NOT a healer; but it is possible to fill your mind and your heart with happy experiences that take the raw edge off that insistent nagging realisation that every day you wake up is another without her. Continue reading →
My two boys are away heli-skiing in Canada, something the poor old hip won’t allow me to do at the moment, so what better plan than to have a girls’ jaunt round Tamil Nadu with my India-loving friend Hilary? As she lives in Abu Dhabi it’s only a short hop for the both of us. Continue reading →
A few days ago I outstared a tiger and gazed into the blue eyes of a leopard. For the past seven years my friend Cindy and I have been trying to find the mythical blue-eyed leopard of Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, only to find he has moved to India. Seriously, the blue-eyed leopard is extremely rare and seems to be found only in India, which is where we came across Nilu (blue in Hindu) and his yellow-eyed twin, Pilu. Continue reading →
Thought we needed to see Pickle again – where else but on my lap?
The past 10 days have been rather depressing, waiting for things to happen. I feel like I’m in a waiting room – for death. Morbid I know but limbo land is no fun. Two weeks for radiotherapy to start and another three months until the first scan, which will indicate whether the cancer has spread. And in trying to maintain a brave and smiling outward face while struggling with inner fears, the bigger things can be put in perspective but it’s the little things that get blown out of proportion and are very upsetting. So if I ever explode at something minor, it’s not that thing that is the problem, it’s the wider challenges I am facing.
On the plus side, I have been doing some nutritious cooking (Tom Yam soup, steamed chicken, fish curry, and now about to go Japanese) and have been to the movies twice (12 Years a Slave and The Railway Man – see what I thought on http://www.vickyatthemovies.net). I also had a moment of inspiration and exchanged my lovely red-hot mini for a slightly newer, automatic mini cooper. But black and not so dashing. Today I drove to the hairdressers at the O2 centre, where I had some good therapy: thank you Joe and Eli! Mani/pedi next week!
The metallic black mini Cooper 1.6
My friend Cindy in Mumbai has sent me a book on yoga for cancer, and I am determined to learn how to meditate and do some simple poses. I think it will help. My physiotherapy – Pilates – is energising and I now have my own wobble board and special exercises to add to my sit-ups and weights. It’s quite hard work though; Tommy was most amused when he took this picture.
On the wobble board!
My mobility is improving daily and the pain is diminishing, so I have almost stopped taking the tramadol and paracetamol, only taking any when I feel pain. But for some reason this week I have been getting exhausted and energy levels are low. My weight seems to be going down and then regaining the 55kgs, whatever I eat. I find this worrying. Of course I am angsting about the impending radiotherapy, and now the little insidious niggle of the histology results and the mental picture of those nasty little cancer cells whizzing round my body. It’s all about keeping my immune system high so I continue with the healthy diet and exercise; I’m sure feeling down doesn’t help though. I am learning it takes (too much?) energy to be upbeat, cheerful and superwoman. My new resolution is not to let anything or anyone annoy me. Challenging!
Two appointments at the Marsden this week to make the cast for the radiotherapy and then to do the scan and make the aligning tattoo marks on my leg. The cast is necessary to keep the leg in place so that the rays can be directed to the exact sites for treatment. I go into the ‘mould room’ and lie on a flat operating table; I feel like a fakir on a bed of nails! Then my leg is elevated but only supported by the ankle, and they heat up a large sheet of plastic in a bain marie, which emerges like a giant gelatine leaf, and which the technicians then press round my leg until it is a snug fit. All sorts of adjustments are made and then a wait for it to harden. Meanwhile my leg is in agony as there is no support for it and of course I have no calf muscles so the quads are in overtime. They make a small spongey cushion to place just above the knee to help, but it’s not terribly effective. Sadly I am not allowed to photograph.
Back the next day for the scan. By the way all these appointments run on time. Another cheery bunch of staff. Back on the bed of nails, but with a large scanning machine and my instrument of torture is fitted. Oh dear, it needs adjusting! I am dreading they may have to re-make it but, no, they can heat it up and stretch it. It is then stuck down by Velcro to the plastic sheet with an outline of my measly leg drawn on it; more Velcro has been attached to hold the mould in place. Simple but clever. But all this fiddling around is taking its toll and my leg feels on fire, and we haven’t even begun the scan. By this time, I am wracking my memory for my yoga breathing (alternate nostrils) and counting and observing my breath to try and make the pain go away. It passes the time at least.
It’s not over yet though, as they have to make a couple of tattoo marks to align the cast. Blob of black ink followed by some scratches – not at all painful, although they have to re-do one of them. At last, it’s all over, 45 minutes later. I’m told that the treatment won’t be as long. I hope not, as I don’t think I could take that pain daily for 6 ½ weeks!
My pin-prick tattoo, with remnants of marking pen
To add insult to my injuries I get ripped off by the cab home; and when I go on the C11 to my physio, no one gives me a seat! Wah!
On a positive note, to counter all this misery, I have booked myself to go to Cyprus for 5 days – air miles in business class – to stay with lovely friends Penny and Mike, who will pamper me and cheer me up. She has been through it all – surgery, radio and chemo – so knows where I’m coming from.
Arriving back in Mumbai this time feels like the welcome embrace of a dear friend. To start with, there’s Mehtab to meet us at the airport, despite the late hour, and we’re staying with Cindy and Guy, whose flat in Bandra is now more like a museum filled with objets from the Chor Bazaar.
Diwali flowers at Cindy and Guy’s flat
First things first, though: its Ross’s birthday on Saturday, so we take him on a whirlwind tour of Mumbai. First stop the Gateway to India, where we are mobbed by kids all dying to be photographed. We take Guy and Cindy’s Christmas card shot for them (here’s a sneak preview).
Christmas card for Mr and Mrs Thomas
Posing rather against her will…
While brandishing my iPhone, an annoying German man quips, ‘Ach, I see you don’t like your phone’. Seeing me looking very puzzled, he continues, ‘It will be stolen if you don’t put it away’. Stunned by Mr Busybody all I can muster is Smartass, as loudly as I can. For the record, I have had absolutely no trouble on the streets of Mumbai, despite wandering around the Chor (Thieves) Bazaar with £250 of Rupees in my handbag!
Fresh fruit stall at the Bombay Gateway
Bustling crowds at the Gateway
It’s a holiday atmosphere, the weekend sandwiched between Diwali and Muhurram (Hindu and Muslim New Year respectively). The crowds are vibrant and surging, massive balloons pepper the maidan, all manner of children’s toys and trinkets are laid out on the ground, and food stalls are doing a roaring trade. Overcome with all this busy-ness, we repair to the cool bar of the Taj, showing Ross the memorial to the terrorist attack on the way.
Cindy with her British High Commission deep throat in the Taj foyer
But what is this? Big excitement, Prince Charles is also in town and staying right here! Cindy bumps into a mate who’s on the consular staff and he tips us off to a photo opportunity in 20 minutes when HRH leaves the hotel…we are the only people here apart from security, but my photos unfortunately are not that good (the downside of only using an iPhone for this blog!).
Aha – here is HRH at last
This is as close as we get – but its pretty close although he dashes past us on the wrong side of the flower arrangement!
No visit is complete without scouring the Chor Bazaar. Our haul includes two heads: a 3-headed Vishnu from Karnataka, ‘600 years old’ – yeah right, Ifram; a serene Buddha from Uttar Pradesh and a lovely bronze bull, cast using the lost-wax technique.
Our new three-headed Vishnu
Cindy and her new billy goat friend
Stripping a car down to its component parts in Chor Bazaar
Sunday we become wannabee watchers at the Four Seasons brunch – the Veuve flows freely and we certainly get our money’s worth. Delicious assorted Asian cuisine too.
Cindy before we had several bottles of Veuve Cliquot…
The highlight of the trip is, undoubtedly, becoming Cindy’s teaching assistant for her weekly session at a charity in the red light district, providing a safe haven and educational stimulus to the daughters of prostitutes. We spend all morning preparing our two sets of activities, one for little ones 6-12; and the other, the over 13s. Cindy has come up with a basic mobile for the younger group, so we cut, colour, stick and decorate our prototypes; and a much more elaborate photo frame, made out of ice lolly sticks, for the older girls.
Doing our prep…
We arrive in the heart of the brothel area, passing several ladies getting ready for their evening. A woman will be kidnapped or trafficked, held in a half-way house, gang-raped and taught in her job until subservient, and then sold to a brothel in Mumbai, owned by a man but run by a former prostitute. For two years she will not be allowed out, but kept in a cage; later she gets some freedom, by which time she has nowhere to go.
Cindy getting down to work, kids looking on with rapt attention
The average age of a working girl in Mumbai is 14; she earns R20 (20p) per John and probably sees 20 a day. She has to pay for everything – bed, food, laundry, water, using the loo…not to mention her purchase fee, so she can never repay and be free. HIV is rife, as is glue sniffing and drug taking. Many have children: birth control would seem an obvious ‘investment’ for the owners of the girls, but it seems that unprotected sex, despite the unwanted results, adds a premium…Interesting that Ifram, the Chor Bazaar shop owner said, ‘You should tell those girls to have safe sex…all this disease is no good’. To which we replied: ‘But it’s the guys who want the unsafe sex….’. He just waggled his head in that very Indian way.
The charity is a tiny two-story room, filled with the sound of piping voices and girlish laughter. Namaste Teeecher! greets us as we arrive. Upstairs we squat on the floor in a room where you can’t even stand up, and the girls crowd around, eagerly grabbing the ‘ones we made earlier,’ while we try and explain what to do. English is rudimentary, but the gist is communicated through other helpers.
I never knew I could still cut and colour…
Cindy has warned me that all the glitter and sparkles will be in hot demand, and indeed it’s fascinating to see little strips of diamanté bobbles being secreted under toes! Nothing has prepared me for these delightful girls, all clean and brightly dressed, polite until their enthusiasm erupts into avaricious hoarding of crayons and sparkles – a little fight breaks out in one corner, scissors are banned so we have a lot of work to do!
Photo frames made by the older girls
But the overriding take-away is of enthusiasm and attention to detail: the concentration of the colouring in, the precision of choosing the sticker that’s just right, applying the flowers and glitter to the frames, all punctuated by the high-pitched screeching of Teeecher! Teeecher! to get our attention. Every finished item has to be admired and photographed, until honour and pride are satisfied.
Very proud little girl
As we leave we are accosted by a Nepalese prostitute, with a small Buddha-like baby, shaven-head with a big red bhindi. The Nepalese are at the bottom of the pecking order, and she is off her head: staggering about, exhorting us to take her baby, while smiling beatifically. It’s a sad reminder of the reality of the streets.
The red light area as we leave our teaching session
Taking photos is frowned on and mine are checked…this is in case the girls can be identified in the schools they attend. The stigma of their origins would put an end to any hopes of betterment. So the majority of the shots make it impossible to identify individual girls and I have kept the charity’s name secret. If anyone wants to donate or volunteer, contact me privately and I will put you in touch.
Chorty Billie almost too grown up to play with mice..
Master Dizzy Rascal Thomas, check those eyes….
So the four days pass quickly; Cindy’s street cat – you might remember her from the last blog – Chorty Billie (meaning little cat) has now become a sleek madam; she has been joined by another little chap, Dizzy ‘Rascal’ Thomas, who is equally naughty and has one blue and one green eye!
Mumbai remains an enigma of a city: so much poverty, but so much energy, activity and striving for betterment, even if only to survive the life on the streets. And humour. Where else can you drive past a street vendor twice in 15 minutes and have a conversation in sign language, explaining why you’re going round in circles? It’s a complete juxtaposition to Singapore and a reminder, as we watch the devastation of the Philippines (the island we dived on in August, Malapasqua has been devastated), that SE Asia is a continent of many cultures, faces and diversity.
Off to the mosque in Chor Bazaar
The Bell Temple in Bandra
Detail of the bells
Posing kids, they simply love it!
Guy sitting it out at Ifram’s shop…
Old man feeding the goats
Denim/indigo dying shop
Goats will eat anything
Cindy feeding her dogs
Street people receiving a free meal courtesy of benefactors
The middle class take their Sunday morning exercise while the poor wash their clothes
trousers laid out to dry…what commercial business has its stuff washed in THIS water???
Cindy and Ross in the Bollywood Walk of Fame
Ross with a new mentor
Cutting into the biryani – its encased in pastry
unwrapping the perfect biryani
Chorty showing off
A fine cow takes to the centre of the road…
Madame la vache takes centre stage
Queuing up at the vet for DIzzy’s first jabs
we are queuing outside…
Roadside stall with lovely fresh veg – until we saw a dog pee on them!
Master Dizzy nThomas
Ross, Cindy and Guy at Bombay Gateway
A rat in Chor Bazaar – alive! we saw loads of dead ones too
Little and large
The older girls concentrating on their picture frames
Who would turn down a week in Shanghai, staying in a suite in Le Meridien in the centre of town, with free cocktails in the Club Lounge every night? And almost all paid for by the company…the only snag, as accompanying spouse, is that you have to fend for yourself during the working day. And in Shanghai’s heatwave – each day registering between 38-40 C – that’s quite daunting. Especially when half way through you get food poisoning, rendering each expedition a major feat of planning.
A Selfie of us all, true Chinese style! Love you Jess!
Following my own guideline number one for a successful ownsome trip – go somewhere where you have a chum – here we were lucky to have Louise’s dear friend and neighbour from Clapton, Jess Lehmann, in Shanghai on a WPP scholarship and working for Ogilvy. Firmly ensconced in the French Concession, Jess has become an expert on Shanghai eateries and tips on how to make the most of it. Like having
Amazing grace and agility on display
an after-work foot, neck and shoulder massage, which is de rigeur in Shanghai I learn. Or knowing which of the Acrobat shows we should go to; we went to Circusworld, (no animals, honest). It was truly spectacular but its staging clunky and low budget. And pretty unsafe, not many safety nets or wires in evidence, and seven motorbikes in a wall of death is pushing it! But the spontaneous joy of all the children was uplifting just as the noise in the theatre was unceasing.
The extraordinary skyline on the Bund
Having had a grand reunion on the first night and a delicious meal (probably the best of the trip – but there will be a separate food blog so no more on food here), suitably primed and raring to go, on the first morning I foolishly set out to walk to the Bund, the famous promenade where all the finest merchant buildings of the early 1900s are found. Shanghai was a freeport and it attracted traders from all over Europe,
Chinese tourists taking the air…note umbrellas
and after the Russian Revolution there was an influx of rich Franco-Russian aristocrats and Jews; and again during the Second World War. Sadly all my efforts to see the synagogues and the Jewish museum were thwarted by lack of time, high walls and heat.
Victor’s art noveau cafe in the Peace Hotel
Sticking to guideline number two, have a clear plan, I had my Lonely Planet neighbourhood walks guide, so resolutely set out to follow the North Bund route, melting all the way despite the breeze, which turned my brolly inside-out (Chinese always shield themselves form the sun with a brolly, as I did, until I found a stall which sold straw hats and a fan!). A fine iced coffee in Victors, the art nouveau bar at the Peace Hotel set me to rights.
The mobile hat lady who saved my life
Rather deterred by this experience, I thought, aha, guideline number three now – take a tour! The afternoon therefore found me on a bus tour, with only me, the guide and a driver in a posh car. Despite some good ‘sights’, I soon discovered that in Shanghai the sole
Reclining Jade Buddha in Jade Buddha temple
purpose of a tour is to take you to places where you will be parted from your cash…so the Jade Buddha Temple (jade effigies); Confucian temple (tea, although the tea ceremony thrown in was delightful and I wavered and bought some fine ginseng oolong, chrysanthemum and jasmine teas,
Confucius Temple, a haven of tranquillity amidst the skyscrapers
where the flowers unfold – interestingly all teas can be topped up at least 7 times so they are good value!); silk factory (silk quilts and clothes); pearl factory (pearls) and so on!
The tea-lady – well it was a ceremony in fact, note unfolding jasmine blossom in foreground
In between all this hard-sell, we managed to take in various points of interest; the French concession, the house where the first Communist Party Congress took place in 1921, and some streets in the old town, where the little stalls were preparing their snakes, bull frogs and all sorts of other indescribables for their fate. Most of these houses still have no running water or lavatories, and you can see slop buckets being carried to and fro or left out to dry, as I saw the following day on another old town wander. There are in fact very few old alleys left intact, but on our superb sidecar tour (a joint activity, and highly recommended!) Sammy from San Diego took us inside some of the shared tenements, where the tiling is pure early 20 century, there are communal washing and cooking facilities, and intricate
Preparing for the onslaught – or slaughter should I say
Snakes and bullfrogs at the ready….
Old house with shared washing facilities
and shared cooking facilities, note old furniture ad floor tiles
carving and old furniture is gathering dust and decaying quietly. Soon all these will go the way of the rest – knocked down for mega apartment blocks.
Rather jaded (haha) by this commercialism, I decided to spend the next couple of mornings wandering about by myself. Due to the heat, almost all of the normally crowded places like the YuYuan Gardens were practically deserted,
so I enjoyed ambling around, taking in the serene Chenxiangge nunnery; winding streets; food markets; the Bubbling Lanes; the house where Mao stayed when he first came to Shanghai in 1924 (fascinating photos); the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market
The Chenxiangge Nunnery
(not for the faint-hearted, although these are all destined for pets, including cicadas,
Cicadas pre-packed to be played with by children – a sort of rattle, I suppose.
they are kept in very confined spaces; one hesitates to wonder what happens when they get past their sell-by date).
should you want to choose your cricket…these are alive!
Gorgeous kitties in the market
Talking of pets, dogs really are a fashion accessory here – not uncommon to see dogs with little shoes on, and men in particular mince around with tiny lap dogs on long leads – Chihuahuas, schnauzers, all shorn of body hair. Nothing can beat the pink-eared poodle that whizzed by me in her mistress’s motorcycle basket though.
Gambling in the park…
In the afternoons, more gentle local walks down the E Nanjing Rd, round the People’s Square, past the Park Hotel, watching young and old playing cards and Go, gambling furiously (illegal in China), taking in a strange exhibition celebrating 10 years of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Typical street in Old Town
A vertical garden, very popular, in the Peolpe’s Square
Talking of Art, also visited the area known as M50, a hub of Shanghai art galleries. Apart from it being broiling and impossible to get a taxi back, it was a disappointing expedition. I know Chinese art is big ticket these days but, with one exception, Yang Xiaojian, I found it tacky in the extreme.
The Bubbling Well Lane, 1930s and very picturesque
So how easy is this to do by yourself? Well, it’s fine if you have a concierge or friend who can write down all your destinations on various pieces of paper (don’t muddle them up though, as I did at one point!); then the taxi driver takes you to where you think you are going. Often it bears no resemblance to where you believe you are headed, so quite a lot of ingenuity is involved to locate yourself as you are unceremoniously dumped on a busy pavement, somewhere…
This was the start of my off-piste excursions….through an old archway, so enticing!
Can’t resist showing you a Tang horse
Then there’s the safety issue: having been told Bali was perfectly safe and was then promptly victim to an attempted mugging, I was slightly wary. But here there are so many people, it’s a safety in numbers feeling. The only time I felt slightly on guard was when I went off piste in the old town, pursuing exciting food stalls, and found myself in a down-at-heel area, surrounded by labourers and unsmiling bare-chested men, no women in sight. So I upped the pace and headed off in what I hoped was the right direction (it was!).
Bet you never knew about Tang camels?
At the weekend, Ross became free, so as well as our side-car tour, we visited the Shanghai Museum, tastefully arranged with riches galore – bronzes, porcelain and intricately carved jade. Not as much as in Taiwan – but then, as the Chinese will tell you, Chiang Kai-Shek stole the best
pieces! We also enjoyed an early morning trip to Zongshan Park to see the elderlies doing Tai Chi, despite the fact the place was a building site, so we decamped to the much more tranquil Jing’an Sculpture Park.
Jing’an Sculpture Park
It made me think about modern China, seeing so many old people enjoying Tai Chi, in contrast to the large numbers of mainly young people at the completely renovated Jing’an Temple – it was only rebuilt in the past 10 years, and in the Cultural Revolution was converted into a plastic factory before being burned down in 1972 – who were enjoying throwing coins into the vast cauldron, rather as you would at a slot machine.
The elderlies doing Tai Chi in Zongshan Park on a Saturday morning
Consider that in 2007 40% of Chinese people were under 40 years old; and 20% under 15 years of age; therefore half the country has grown up NOT KNOWING Mao (and the percentages will be higher now). Then remember that most middle-aged parents will not have been in a car or had access to a private phone until well into their 30s. Look around you in the heaving streets (Shanghai has 24 million inhabitants and is the largest city in China) and all you see is people glued to their tablets and androids; every sight you go to, click, clunk, whizz – the sound of camera phones (one woman I saw in the Shanghai museum was taking snaps of every single porcelain exhibit!) taking photos and selfies, fingers posed in the ubiquitous V sign. Jess tells me that digital companies are having to re-strategise how to make money from mobile technology as no one phones or sends texts anymore. Fascinating stuff.
on the side-car in the French Concession
And now suddenly Buddhism and Confucius are back in fashion, having ‘disappeared’ during the height of the Revolution. It must be very confusing. Cynics say that adherence to these old customs can be expedient for business – certainly the monks were pocketing their red envelopes with alacrity at the cleansing ceremony we witnessed in the temple. I don’t think that’s what is meant however!
The Nine Nos, just to remind you this is an authoritarian state! (Don’t do this, Dont do that!)
The cleansing ceremony at the Jing’an Temple
Take the one-child policy, largely misconceived in the West (it appears more damage was done at a local level by over-zealous implementers than the policy actually set out) as there were always exceptions – for instance for the 54 minorities; now if two single children marry they are allowed to have more than one child.
There is, no doubt, a major concern about the aging population and the in-balance of men and women.
A slop bucket drying in the sun, a reminder of how everyone lived and some still do…but not for long I guess
Add to this the modern Chinese phenomenon of the Superwoman – she does not want to marry and have children, but wants to have a mega career and be super-rich and successful. It’s a big problem for the government, along with the Four Es, as Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it: China has four main challenges – economy, environment, energy and endemic corruption and, in many ways, they are linked.
There is little doubt that on the surface China is booming, consumer goods are everywhere – no self-respecting Chinese middle class girl would buy a fake Louis Vuitton – and surfing the net is an addiction. However, there are restrictions on what you can access as I found when trying to write this blog – even with the hotel VPN which allowed us access to google and twitter,
Wells are still in use for washing water in some areas of the French Concessionwordpress crashed every single time.
wordpress crashed every single time. Yet there is a concern over the level of creativity compared to the other Asian tiger, India. While naturally entrepreneurial, recent history has rendered the Chinese very good at following orders and beavering away, but less so at taking the initiative. So which of these two will win out in the end remains to be seen.
Can’t have a blog about China without Mao making an appearance – this is at the house he stayed, in 1924
Experts say that China is – successfully it would appear – managing the expectations of the young by carefully balancing their economic aspirations with a modicum of control. For that reason it is unlikely that you will see a Chinese Spring or another Tiananmen Square in the near future.
Exquisite jade funerary disc, between 10-12,000 BCE. Amazing
The next blogs will describe our outing to Tongli Water Town and all the food we ate.
Ancient carving in the old town houses
in the side car with Sammy
Jing’an Sculpture Park
Bronze drinking urn
Pottery dog, very old
Bund at night
a serious game of Go
More gamblers in the park..
row upon row of porcelain bridfeeders
not forgetting the fishes
Cage upon cage of gold finches and other birds…
The roiling carp, greedy things
Man feeding HUGE carp in YuYuan Gardens
Typical street in Old Town
The house where the first Communist Congress met in 1921
Mumbai is certainly a city of contrasts. From the moment I arrived and saw Katherine Boo’s airport slum as described in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, it was impossible to escape all the pavement dwellers and beggars. The wretched of the earth, Frantz Fanon called them. It is heartbreaking to see hundreds of people camping on the streets, cooking, eating, sleeping, playing, and even laughing and joking. And yet a recent survey shows that Mumbai is ranked 6th in the world’s billionaire cities, with 26. Probably the richest of these is Amitabh Bachan or ‘AB’ as he is fondly known, who has built the most expensive tower block in the city – just to live in.
AB’s monster billion dollar apartment dwarfs everything around it
Then there’s the Bollywood aspect. Everyone is star-struck: queues of people mob Shah Ruck Khan’s house (just below where I stayed at Bandra); he is the most popular star in the world – his fans run into billions, as does his fortune!
extras – or starlets? – on set
When we came across a film crew on the sea front, the traffic (including us naturally) stopped to see who was there. ‘Ah that’s Abhay Diol – not a big star yet’ observed driver Mehtab, as we were chased away by officious security guards. I think he meant on Shah Ruck Khan scale as his bio reads as a major success story for a 37 year-old!
the sewer that features in Slumdog Millionaire, running out of Dharavi
My week in Mumbai would not have been complete without a visit to Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia and where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. We went with an NGO Reality Gives (www.realitygives.org), who invest 80% of the fees charged into projects to help women and children in particular, to provide schools, medical advice and care (especially on childbirth, birth control and disease). We are allowed into the slum only because we are with the charity – as a result there is a strict no photo policy although friend Cindy as a three-tour veteran is allowed to take surreptitious shots so long as she doesn’t look through the viewfinder…so some of the photos here are taken from waist height and through pot luck!
Our 19-year-old guide, Deya has his own sad tale: mother desperately ill and he was being laid off the next week, prior to the monsoon. Life is tough in India.
After an early breakfast at Leopold’s, made famous by Shantaram, we met our fellow visitors, a South African couple, the Butcher of Hermanus and his wife, both died-in-the-wool Afrikaners; totally uneducated and therefore interesting they had chosen to come. Many comparisons all day to Khayelitsha…of a rather superficial nature it has to be said.
the dhobi ghats
Our route to the slum took us via the dhobi ghats where the city’s laundry is done by 5000 migrant men in tiny booths, earning $3 a day; and the red light district where we craned our necks for prostitutes, obvious through their fancy clothes and heavily-made-up faces. 9 am is a little early for a working girl, however, and those we did see were camera shy.
We learned that a girl is bought for Rupees 30-40,000 and then spends her life trying to repay her buyer with her work. With a fee of as little as Rupees 250 a time it can take forever, and their forever is now about 39 years old. HIV ad AIDS is endemic; we learned from a Canadian woman, who works with their children, that they have had to give up on the mothers as they are simply not interested or able to be helped.
snapped these two shy prostitutes
But their kids at least have a chance, although once the stigma of being a prostitute’s child is known, they often have to change school.
Deya knew his stuff all right and the facts are incredible. Dharavi is over 170 years old and was built on a mangrove swamp; it covers an area o175 sq km and is home to over 1m people. As 55% of people in Mumbai live in a slum it is not surprising that Dharavi contributes $665m to Mumbai’s productivity a year, thorough 10,000 businesses. How? You might well ask.
Plastic being sorted on the roof ready for melting down and being made into tiny beads for re-selling
If you have read Boo’s fascinating account of life in the airport slum (Beyond the Beautiful Forevers) you will know that recycling is the key to it all. It seems all Mumbai’s waste (in fact 80% is recycled) arrives in Dharavi – bottle tops and aluminum for smelting in giant vats; plastic – not just bottles, but chairs and large items are made into tiny beads and are put in enormous sacks; paint tins are painstakingly stripped of labels and scrubbed; iron is put in cauldrons over a furnace and is made into ingots. All of this is carried out in dingy, airless rooms, with toxic fumes and no mind to health and safety.
sorting the aluminium
Sitting in a sea of plastic recycling
The workers are peasant farmers from Uttar Pradesh who migrate to the slum for 9 months of the year, returning only during the monsoon for planting. They work 12 hours a day, eat and sleep in these cells, leaving only to defecate, either in one of the disgusting public loos, or in the ‘air-conditioned’ toilet in the mangrove swamps. Plastic workers earn $2-3 per day; the iron crushers $4. But with 2012 seeing the worst drought of recent years, these men have little choice if they are to support their families and buy seeds for the planting season. The rate of suicides in agrarian communities caused by debt has never been higher.
There are other industries too – cloth dyers, potters, tailors and tanners – the largest leather works in India is in Dharavi.
Leaving the industrial area for the domestic quarters seemed like a relief – at least we were not being roasted by open fires and by the sun, which was burning in the high 30s. First we entered the Muslim area, where there were home industries such as bakeries (supplying the whole of India and even exported!) and a disgusting black soap made from unmentionable ingredients judging from the smell. But the streets were narrow, over open sewers and, in some cases, completely dark. Kids were everywhere, including a smiling but severely handicapped boy who reminded us of ET, with bulging eyes and shrivelled legs. He was being lovingly cared for by his older sister.
The elder siblings are often the carers
On the odd street corner there was a tiny shop, its plastic glittering in the dark. We wound round and round until we came to an open area – which was in effect a rubbish tip of smouldering, stinking detritus, with young boys playing a boisterous game of cricket and some even younger kids playing shop, making little pies out of dust and piling them high. Facing on to this nightmare were the public loos; the smell was stomach turning.
Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking rubbish heap
On, on we went, stopping to step over two dead rats, over open sewers, alleys awash with rubbish and stagnant water, pausing by the slaughter house which even the Butcher declined to enter – the smell of rotting and recently killed meat proving too much for him. ‘I don’t actually kill the animals – I only cut them up’, he told us.
Muslim boys on their way to Friday prayers
Now we were in the Hindu area, houses slightly larger – these are the homes of the millionaires we were told. Larger than the standard 10sq meters, which rent at $60 pm or can be bought for the equivalent of R1m (£12,000), some had several floors. ‘The millionaires are happy here as the authorities don’t come; they don’t pay tax, and they choose to live here because of the sense of community; many have lived here for generations,’ Deya told us. In fact only 4% of the population pays tax, but some of these guys probably should!
Bicycles are about all that can pass in the streets
The Hindu women’s home industry is papadom-making, rolling them out after expertly snipping just the right amount from the long dough sausage using a toe, one hand and some string. Then they are put out to dry in the sun. While we watched a small girl decided to squat over an open drain and do her business, right next to the drying papadoms; father then came to rinse her off – meanwhile she started helping herself to some of the drying condiments. ‘These are sold all over India’. Yikes! Never will I eat one again without ascertaining where it is made. We were all rather revolted by this episode it has to be said. But it is normal life in Dharavi…
Pots drying in the Gujerati area
Ironing is a profession
From there we made our way through the Tamil area, which was mostly shops, including those selling alcohol and, finally, to the Gujarati potters, who are churning out earthenware water and milk containers on their wheels, which are then baked in extremely hot kilns. Again a cottage industry.
It’s hard to describe the vibrancy of it all – the people milling around, the naughty children giving you high fives: ‘Hi, Hi,’ they all shout and wave as we wander by. The women, whether in Shalwar Khameez or sari, looking colourful, but most appear careworn and tired, either thin or with the obesity of poverty. I am not surprised – a woman’s life is very hard, whether on the street or in the slum. They are hugely outnumbered by men, and seem to have an endless supply of children who all need looking after, and all of this in addition to their work.
goats are everywhere; ghee tins on right ready for recycling
Animals are everywhere – goats, chickens, cats, rats – dead and alive; the occasional vicious dog rushing at us. Satellite dishes abound, and many houses have TV blaring out at us. In modern India it is a must-have for family life, and brightens the lives of the generations who share one small room, complete with a washing area and a cooking area, leaving room only for nose to tail sleeping.
Dharavi is an extraordinary place, a city within a city, self-sufficient in all ways, with no need for its dwellers to leave. But it is unsanitary and filthy, a poisonous hive of activity, however much its inhabitants purport to love it.
PS I added a few of Cindy’s nice shots into the Gallery – thanks Cindy for letting me use some of your photos for this blog. It would have been dull without it. And thank you for being such a good hostess!
outskirts of Dharavi
a rather wider slum street
narrow streets – Cindy
narrow streets – Cindy
great sacks of plastic waiting for recycling
incoming plastic for recycling
hello you old goat!
burning rubbish on the outskirts of Dharavi
Kids playing ‘shop’ on the stinking open rubbish dump
The Butcher of Hermanus and me listening to Deya explaining recycling on a rooftop
A common sight on the busy Mumbai streets
Sunset overlooking the Haji Ali Mosque
Sunset at Chowpatty beach
Koli ladies in their colourful saris arriving from Elephanta island
Yes, here I am in Bandra, overlooking the homes to the stars. Shah Rukh Khan – ‘the world’s biggest movie star’, according to the LA Times – has a house just below me, Sachin Tendulkar is to the right, and just there is young John Abraham’s swanky revamped ‘bungalow’ as they call houses here, facing on to the Bandra Bandstand and ‘Walk of the Stars’. We even saw a film in action -m see photo gallery!
But the real Bollywood star is Chorti Billi Chomal of Bombay – my hostess Cindy’s rescued street kitty who is as bewitching and beguiling as any Indian actress. As Cindy says ‘She is the story of how a little bit of love and affection can make a huge difference.’
Cindy is animal-mad and she has a pack of regular stray dogs we feed on Bandra beach.
Cindy with her street gang
This solo trip has been a bit of a cheat, as I have been staying in a gorgeous –internally anyway as the exterior is swathed in bamboo scaffolding precariously erected by men with no harnesses before our very eyes – Bandra apartment with sea views, thanks to Cindy and Guy who have moved here for three years.
Having a driver here is compulsory, so Cindy and I have been whizzing round, visiting the sights – South Mumbai and the Gateway to India, the Taj Hotel where the bombers massacred so many people; Leopold’s café of Shantaram fame, Chowpatty beach, Chor Bazaar (Thieves Market) with its hotch potch of looted temple antiques, knick knacks and fine furniture and, of course, the shops to stock up on kurtas and, in a fit of impending domesticity, some table mats, napkins and dishcloths for our new Singapore apartment!
Cindy at the Gateway to India
old houses in the Chor Bazaar
Aladdin’s Cave – Chor Bazaar the shrine we were ejected from, brined fish in foreground, what a pong
sorting the fish
The highlight of my excursions (apart from the visit to Dharavi slum which is the subject of the next blog) was a visit to Versova beach and its Koli fishing community. Waiting for Cindy, who had an appointment, and with a couple of hours to kill, Metab took me, first, to an Islamic shrine, where we were expelled, amusingly, for him entering a women-only area! Ironic really – and he is a Muslim!
Then we happened upon some women sorting and flaying brined fish, ready for drying. They need the fish during the monsoon when no fishing is possible. The smell of the rotten fish was quite overpowering, yet these women seemed immune, as did their children. Welcoming smiles, but the pretty girls were abashed at being photographed.
two shy girls
Next stop Versova port itself, accessed through winding alleys, which we would never had found without the help of the local bobby. Charming and helpful, he observed to Metab that not all policemen in India deserve their terrible reputation. I have to agree in this case; at first he even refused the 100 rupee tip I slipped into his had as we left.
Metab with the friendly policeman
We were lucky: the larger fishing vessels, which travel for 3-4 days into richer waters, had just returned to port. Skinny, strong men were carrying plastic buckets overflowing with fish, several varieties of prawns, squid and crabs off the boats and up the beach where they were transferred into waiting lorries. Not a block of ice in sight – and again the stench of the fish in the midday sun, combining with rank sewage and general beach detritus was overwhelming. Not sure I would rush to eat seafood in Mumbai…nor papadoms after I saw how they are made in the slums, but more of that in the next blog….
Indiaaah! Here we are again! Arriving late at night, whisked to Westin Mindspace Hotel – it is after all in Hitex City, Silicon Valley of the east, Gateway to the North/South depending where you are from, or just plain Cyberabad – along a toll road and with NO traffic!
Second good news is fab hotel with see-through bathroom and comfiest bed ever slept in. Zzzzzz
After delicious brekkkie of dhosa masala – death for la bella figura but unmissable – we decided to go the whole hog and get a guide and a driver for the day. Enter Mr Kumar! Small and skinny, with a luxurious moustache, he gave us all the important facts on Hyderabad as we negotiated our way out of Jubilee Hills, the Beverley Hills of India.
In a nutshell, Hyderabad and Bangalore (our last stop in India, not my favourite place, see previous blog) vie for 5th largest city (8m people) and hi-tech accolades. Hyderabad might just win being Microsoft’s largest centre outside the USA and hosting major firms such as Facebook, Novartis, Accenture, Amazon, IBM, Verizon, etc etc. It is also much more pleasantly laid out and not quite so huggermugger as Bangalore.
What attracted us is its history – partly gleaned from William Dalrymple’s White Moguls – which goes back to at least 11th century, with the old capital Golconda (see below), source of the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The new capital transferred to Hyderabad in 1591 with the building of the
Charminar by Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah…and our first stop. Extraordinary building in middle of bustling square which, by midday on the Saturday we were there, was chockablock. Being the Muslim centre, burkas in abundance. Fabulous views from the top. Having been a Muslim-ruled centre under the Nizams until Partition, Hyderabad still boasts a Muslim population of 35% vs Hindus with 50%.
Ayurvedic hospital seen from Charminar
‘Oh yes, India is a secular country, no problems,’ opines Mr Kumar. But later, when he feels at ease with us and we talk politics, as all Indian love to do, he gets very excited. ‘There is too much democracy in this country. We are too nice to the minorities. Hindus only have 2 children in the family and Muslims have 10! They are killing us for no reason. We Hindus are peaceful people. Pakistan is influencing them. Look what happened there where the innocent Indian man [bomber] was killed in prison. Here we spend crores [a crore = 10 million] of Rupees on arresting the Bombay bombers and we hang them. Legally! In Boston they just shoot them!’
The mildest of men, once he got going, he was unstoppable. A BJP supporter and avid Hyderabad separatist – the BJP has undertaken to make Hyderabad into a separate state should they get in in 2014: ‘The problem is the politicians, they are not interested in doing things outside their own constituency. So there is no progress. We hate Congress, only one family ruling in India since 1947 [with one small break in 1989], all Brahmins, only 15% of the population. Caste is a big problem and getting worse. When Dalits come into power they still have no social position or respect. Even if they have money.’
30 years later, buying some wedding bangles
Then on foot to the Chowmohalla Palace via the Laad Bazaar, or bridal bangle market, with everything the Indian bride could need for her wedding. Gold, glitter, glass galore.
Elegant buildings are set around courtyards with fascinating museums reflecting the life and times of the Nizams of Hyderabad, including a
pillared Durbar room with enormous chandeliers, and a collection of marvellous vintage cars and motorbikes.
The grand Durbar hall at Chowmahalla Palace
Before the heat (40C) dissolved us completely, we managed to locate two tiny and unsung attractions – the Badshahi Ashurkhan, a Sufi shrine with mosaics from 1595, but sadly unloved and uncared for, as was the Purani Haveli, now in the grounds of a girls’ school, the Silver Jubilee museum of the 6th Nizam created to show off all his gifts – silver of course – and which houses the largest walk-in wardrobe in the world at 73 sq m! Can you believe he wore new clothes every day of his life, and gave all his used clothes to the poor?
16 century tiles, Persian style in the Sufi shrine of Badhsahi Ashurkhana
Hyderabad is the home of biryani so to sample this we went to Paradise, a four-story food court buzzing with families on a Saturday night. We were sprayed by a fine mist throughout our meal – we were sitting outside – but our dinner (R 1050) cost less that 2 glasses of post-prandial wine at the hotel!
Tandoori kebabs and biryani at the Paradise
The next day and Mr Kumar escorts us to Golconda Fort, along with a very detailed description if its history. I got confused so you can look it up. The current structure was built by the first of the Qutb dynasty, starting in 1518, on the site of an ancient mud brick fort. It reminded us of Great Zimbabwe, an impressive structure, set over an area of 40 sq km, built of hand-hewn granite blocks, slotted together with no mortar. Here we have grand halls of justice, zenanas, royal audience halls, all linked by steep steps, which we toiled up in 40C. The views of Beverley Hills and Hyderabad in the distance were stunning and worth it. Practically the only tourists there, the place was nevertheless teeming with Indian visitors, picnicking, playing badminton in the sacred portals, and leaving offerings at the various shrines. Also asking us to pose for photos with them! Never have I been in such demand….
Ross and Mr Kumar at Golconda
The staircase up to the Fort
From there to the Qutb Shahi tombs, the only necropolis in the world where all members of a single dynasty are buried, comprising 7 tombs of the Kings and numerous hangers-on, including the founding female, Queen Hayat Baksh Begum, and Quli Qutb’s wife, after
Tomb of Queen Hayat Baksh Begum, wife of founder of Hyderabad
whom the city of Hyderbad is named, and who was daughter, wife and mother to three of the generations of rulers. Based on Isfahan, the tombs incorporate onion domes, Persian and Indian motifs: they were decorated with majolica ties and precious stones, all now looted, but the ornate plasterwork remains and the granite will last for infinty.
Detail from Quli Qutb Shah’s tomb
the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad – tomb of Mohammed Qutb Quli Shah, the founder of Hyderabad
Again, a spectacular sight, Quli Qutb’s tomb being likened to the Taj Mahal of Hyderabad, but like all Indian monuments covered in litter and badly maintained. No hope of UNESCO status till they sort this out, I’m sure. Mr Kumar says the problem is that Central government allocates funds but these are outsourced and huge cuts are taken along the way so the resulting money spent is pitiful. In his wise words, ‘Politics and bureaucracy are the problem of India.’
Three little friends who wanted to chat
Ross at Golconda
Tomb of the first King, who built Golconda
arty photo at Golconda
The royal way down – the kings were carried in palanquins
Cool arches at Golconda – 16 century
Detail of plasterwork at Golconda Fort
The Purani Haveli, or Nizam’s silver Jubilee Museum – seen better days
The neglected Sufi shrine of Badhsahi Ashurkhana
16 century tiles, Persian style in the Sufi shrine of Badhsahi Ashurkhana
Taken for the luscious plait!
Most ladies wear burkas in the Muslim quarter
Saturday hustle and bustle by the Charminar, centre of old Hyderabad
In the Laad Bazaar
The guest quarters at Chowmahalla Palace
40 C in the shade at Chowmahalla Palace
Outside the armoury at Chowmahalla Palace. The iron chests are British
Sitting on bench in the courtyard of the Bangalore Palace
Bangalore is India’s 3rd largest city, IT capital and has a population of 8.5m. As one of the top 10 entrepreneurial hubs IN THE WORLD you might expect it to be Hi Tech City but, no, it is a sprawling hotch potch of ugly buildings interspersed with slums and clogged by horrendous traffic. When you think it used to be a hill station, a green and cool refuge from the sweltering heat of the Deccan plains, home of Tippu Sultan, and was laid out with wondrous gardens and Mogul buildings, you want to weep.
In role as accompanying spouse, was herded into back of plane while husband sipped champers in the front, but on arrival found ourselves in 5 star hotel; alas much advertised infinity pool empty of water (victim of playing over-exhuberant Holi), so had to settle for 3 mornings in gym with personal trainer Ramesh, who certainly put me through my paces while watching a Jackie Chan film; a massage and pedicure; and then to while away the hours by sight-seeing toute seule! Any down time spent reading and cataloguing Mama’s letters – now up to mid-1946, but only one mention of my father so far, whom she married by the year-end! its very exciting, actually, like reading a novel….
Not normally a shrinking violet, and put off by recent press stories of rapes and general nastiness, decided to act the Memsahib and take a car and driver because it had a) aircon and b) driver who spoke English! In fact I made three sorties and learned a lot about life in Bangalore: for instance, there is only water for 2-3 hours per day; one driver comes 90 kms daily by train to work, leaving at 4 am; despite being predominantly Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities live happily side by side -‘its all politics’, that most road accidents – of which there are surprisingly few – only happen when drunk, and usually at night; on the other had the standard of English is distinctly ropey and it took me ages to work out that all these ‘world’ things meant simply ‘old’! Acha!
Branded in sandalwood!
Rather liked this inscription
candle for Louise
Off to Shiva temple, where led down dingy, dark and pee-smelling corridors with display of linga temples in India, compete with mechanised snakes, buffaloes and even the Lord Shiva himself, waving at me…very tacky indeed. Head branded with sandalwood, lit a candle and threw holy sticks on fire, and circled a shrine three times, for Louise; and said lots of prayers as urged by various priests.
The priest relieving me of my wealth!
The old Parliament building surrounded by wire fencing!
Then to 400 year old Bull Temple complete with huge eponymous granite figure – again advised by priest to make donation for ‘good luck’. Hmmm. Drove around for hours at snail’s pace, glimpsed various Churches and the historic National Parliament building (why does traffic always speed up at crucial moment, or huge bus/lorry get in the way?), the Vidhana Souda, surrounded by wire and fences so invisible – see pathetic attempt at photo.
Highlight was Bangalore Palace, still with resident Maharajah (offshoot of much grander Mysore Palace family). Took some illegal photos; a soap opera was being filmed which was fun to see.
Looking down on Soap Opera action!
Determined to get some lovely new kurtas for me and shirts for Ross, driver instructed to find Fabindia…oh no, here is much better ‘local’ shop, guess what, run by Kashmiris! I have every sympathy for the poor old Kashmiris, but they seem to have a baksheesh deal with all drivers in India; the next day ditto!
Moody passerby as I snatched a pic of B’s oldest church
Finally I found Fabindia within 10 minutes of our hotel (wah!), and very pleased with my purchases. And bought some spices to take back to Singapore.
My jolly spice seller
So now to the big rip off! Frustrated by driver on day one not allowing me out much – ‘nothing to see, too expensive’ etc etc, decided as such an expert of Botanical Gardens, simply had to see the Lal Bagh (red gardens), second largest in India at 240 acres, with a replica of the Crystal Palace glass house, famous rose garden and trees planted by heroes ranging from QE2, to Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
The Glass House based on Crystal Palace
Slightly nervous on my own (wasn’t sure what to expect) and concierge no use at all in 5 star hotel – I had read there were buggies that you could go round on, they said not, and best thing to get a guide, driver would organise. So after an hour in standstill traffic, arrived, found guide, who said he would charge R550 for 30 mins and R1100 for the hour. Driver said this was right (crumbs, I thought, it’s a small fortune in India, but what to do?). Agreed and he took me off, and started the old sob story about parents being ill, the while picking flowers and leaves (strictly forbidden I noted) and was rather objectionable. Anyway he showed me round, insisted on taking loads of photos of me ‘say cheese!'(some here for you to laugh at) and then pounced on me to pay him when least expecting it…fumbling with money I ended up giving him just about all I had as he was breathing down my neck and could see what was in my purse. Wah, wah, wah! What a fool! I felt intimidated though…and then had to stop on the way back to get some more cash from an ATM as a tip for the driver!
in front of ancient Silk Cotton tree
‘May’ tree in bloom, early; we call these flame trees in Africa
Still feeling furious and writing blog to exorcise this demon…
Not sure I will come back to Bangalore; it is not India’s finest monument to development, in fact it is distinctly depressing seeing all the huge malls, apartment and office blocks going up everywhere, and now, having done my homework and read Dalrymple’s Age of Kali and Tully’s India in Slow Motion (both out of date but recommend), feel thoroughly disheartened by all the corruption that goes on, everywhere, all the time e.g. the lack of water, planning permission, half-finished metros and flyovers everywhere, just to name a few obvious ones), and the gap between rich and poor simply gets wider…nevertheless India is a fascinating place, so much energy, lovely people (on the whole!) and I am returning in one month, to Hyderabad and Mumbai…
Hideous shopping mall – one of the smaller ones btw