Another overdue update. Internet has been tough to get a hold of with any measure of consistency while traveling. As I write this, I’m finally stateside on Amtrak from Newark, having taken 11 flights, a sailboat, multiple trains, bus, rickshaw, and lugged camera gear for many kilometers, all totaling somewhere over 29k miles in all. This update could be 50 pages long, as that’s about how many I’ve probably written in my journal since the last update on here. I don’t think I’ll keep your attention for quite that long, though it’s an epic for sure.
My last day in India was unpredictably intense. Timbrel got quite ill and had to go to the hospital so I traveled to Hyderabad to Mumbai alone with a flight in the middle. She is safe in the U.S. now and healthy thankfully, but it was stressful leaving her in that shape and then also going somewhere very different alone. The price of everything immediately went up because of my skin, and at one point in the day, a bunch of kids tried to open my camera bag and take my gear in a really crowded area, at the Gate of India. I was keeping an eye on everything and chased them off, then spun the backpack around to my front. I was down to one, sort of working, camera that required manual focus most of the time.
After a 5AM drive, a short flight, I checked into what was apparently a five start hotel for the night, going through a thorough security scan of my body, bags, and the car that delivered me, just to get into the lobby. After checking in, I walked through the Dharavi slums, one of the largest slums in the world. I hired a guide but part of the deal was that I wasn’t permitted to photograph out of respect to the people who live there. Using a social photojournalism stance, I still tried. Believe me, it wasn’t going to happen anymore than it did. I took a few images after the guide left from outside of the slums that I haven’t shown anywhere. My afternoon experience there warrants a book in itself. Watch Slumdog Millionaire if you want to get a gist of it, and I’m told by many without ceasing to read “Beyond the Beautiful Forever.” February looks like a slower month, so maybe then.
I was shocked to learn that nearly everyone in Dharavi has a job, including the children. Workers earn a flat rate of about 200 rupees a day, paid by the government, roughly $3 USD, through recycling hard plastics, metals, and refining it for resale, all sourced from the trash dumped outside of the slums from Bombay. Workers wash, sort and shred plastic, from computer monitors to BIC pens, in very poor conditions. The worst was watching young men cast ingots of aluminum wearing open toed shoes in unventilated, dark buildings.
There are 10,000 businesses in this slum of 1 million people, living in an area 1.5 times bigger than Central Park in Manhattan. 1500 people share one toilet house, 3 for men, 3 for women, leading into open sewers, bringing immense disease anytime floods occur. Attracting many people who can’t find work elsewhere, anyone moving or born in Dharavi after 1995 is considered an illegal resident by the Indian government. The guide I hired works for an organization that supports a school and educational programs in the slums, and 80% of their revenue goes to support those activities. Hence the need to not exploit with photographs. There’s much more to share but I need to keep something back for possible stories I write.
To get to Dharavi, I had to hire a car with an all day package, 8 hour package from the hotel. The price was outrageously high but I didn’t have much choice. The slums took about three hours to cross on foot, through the narrow, dark alleys underneath low hanging power lines. That left five hours for the driver to take me around the city to photograph significant places in India. He drove me through the city and dropped me off to park the car at the Gate of India by an artisan store, where he said he would meet me inside. He knew the names of the people outside of the store so I knew this was a game. I went inside and was immediately offered tea and had my own personal shopping assistant, who reminded me at every corner how good of a friend I was, how light my skin was, and how every person in my extended family deserved an expensive, beautiful gift. It was almost enough for me to want to lay the guy out. I left most of my spending power at the hotel to go through the slums which got me out of a horribly gouged sale, around 320% over normal price, in the end.
I hadn’t eaten that day and it was around 5 PM, and having been quite sick, Indian food lost all appeal to me. I requested we stop at McDonald’s for something fast and safe. Well, I went in and came out to a small boy begging for food. I got in the car, and he stood outside my window. I don’t really like french fries, so I gave him half of mine, and he was on his way. The driver, meanwhile, was busy bribing his way out of a ticket for stopping in a no parking zone, something he fully knew when we arrived, and said he wasn’t going to do. A small girl approached my car begging for food. She was probably 7 years old. This really got to me, so, finished eating, I gave her the other half of my fries through the window. She reached in to take them, politely, then suddenly went to grab my drink out of my other hand. I rolled up my window and we were on our way.
A few blocks later, a girl around 13 approached the car with a child in her arms begging for money at an intersection. I knew she was part of a larger begging system where money is funneled into someone else’s hands, and when she realized I wasn’t going to give in, she smacked the window and spun around with sheer attitude that she couldn’t get me. This was the real tourist experience, finally reaching me, now that I was a westerner alone in India. Ever street has their own tactics, some streets it’s having a child on your arm, others a cane, or a crutch, and everyone begging does the same thing. It’s fairly obvious when someone is in true need. I only gave money one time, to a man who wasn’t begging. He had no legs from the thigh down, his stumps were wrapped in what looked like rubber tire tubes, and his job at the petrol station was to put air in tires. He asked for nothing, but was humbly willing to work.
We finally made it back to the hotel after a visit to Ghandi’s house and driving through Mumbai along the Arabian Sea, an area that felt like Chicago but in a much more undeveloped setting. The hotel food made me quite sick, and I had a long flight to Sydney ahead of me the next day, so I spent the evening resting, packing for probably the 8th time. On the drive to the airport, the driver asked how much time I had, and he fully intended to stop at an artisan shop he knew along the way where I could buy many gifts for family. His pitch was extremely reminiscent; experience kicked in and I made sure he got the point that I needed to be at the airport. I arrived at the airport and my exploitation finally came to an end on this trip.
My next post will be on Sydney and New Zealand; I’m quite seriously working on an exhibition gallery for that work specifically, stay tuned for more details! Questions, please use the comments below! Thanks for reading! -Jordan