I am not sure why I chose to go to India and did not do any research prior to hopping on the plane to New Delhi but as soon as I arrived I knew I was in for a long and eye-opening 3 weeks. The first week I stayed on the main bazaar of New Delhi which was an experience in itself. As soon as the Uber pulled out of the airport, the traffic was chaotic, the Indian rickshaws were squeezing by cars and the cows were aplenty on the side of the roads.
The first 24 hours in New Delhi broke my heart in half. I quickly learned that these people did not have much and how grateful I am to be living in America. Within the first day of arriving in India, my hostel owner took me on a guided walking tour through the streets of New Delhi and Old Delhi. This tour will be forever engrained in my memory.
Observations from the Old Delhi walking tour:
- People and kids begging for anything they could get their hands on. After giving out all the bananas I purchased for myself to the kids on the streets, I realized I couldn’t even try to make a dent in helping everyone who needed food or money to live on for the day.
- The streets were absolutely filthy with trash lining them, animal blood running down them, dog poop smeared down the streets and the stench of urine on every corner.
- Apparently, the local butcher shops kill their animals that they are going to sell that day in the streets where everyone walked. More times than I could count, I was hoping over animal blood or dog poop in the streets.
- Most of the kids who were begging for food, money, clothing, etc looked like they had not had a shower or a place to sleep for the last couple of weeks. Their clothes were stained and torn up. It was incredibly sad the conditions that the kids were faced with every day. On one corner while I was alone, 4 kids in very beat up clothing had approached me with tears in their eyes begging me for money. All I had to give was my PB & Banana sandwich that I made myself for lunch and my breakfast bar.
- Grown men were showering in the middle of the dirt streets with murky, dirty water. Another horribly sad thing to witness as I wondered when their last hot shower was, if ever.
- On any given street during the day and evening, there would be a group of 10-30 people sleeping side by side on the sidewalks. I thought homelessness was bad in NYC and Philadelphia but what I saw in New Delhi and Old Delhi didn’t even compare. I would also pass many rickshaw drivers sleeping curled up in their vehicle before scouring the town to give people rides.
- Cows and goats are everywhere on the city streets chained up with little room to walk around. Even though they worship the cows, they are living in such horrible confined spaces it saddens me to see such cruel treatment for their animals that provide for them.
Below are some pictures I found on the internet of what I experienced, I unfortunately, did not take any pictures during my walking tour because I couldn’t bring myself to capture these conditions.
After the culture shock and crying myself to sleep, I decided to find research about the poverty that India is faced with every day and why their government won’t step in to help these people. Some fun facts I found that helped me wrap my head around this that you might find interesting:
- In 1960 India had a population of 449.6 million people (US had a population of 180.7 million) and by 2016, the Indian population almost tripled to 1.326 billion people (US has a population of 332 million). As you can see India has WAY TOO MANY PEOPLE living there. They continue to double their population at a rapid pace.
- The World Bank estimate that 33% of the population (437 million people) are living on $1.25 or less a day
- India’s Census Bureau reports that 65 million Indians are living in slums or houses unfit for humans due to lack of access to clean water, non-durable housing, insufficient living areas and a general lack of sanitation
Within a week exploring the different slums, the towns and the small cities, I started to get a sense of how incredibly fortunate I am to be living in the United States, taking hot baths, being able to drink the water from my sink and being able to wear clothes without holes in them. It truly saddened me to see how other people live their lives on a daily basis. Trust me, not all parts of New Delhi were like this but since I love to take the path less traveled and walk around the cities, I ran into a lot of poverty that I had never witnessed before. On a happier note, these people were such hard workers! You could see that the rickshaw drivers and the Indian women and men who worked at the markets were giving up every hour of their day to make ends meet for their family. While the men and women who worked at the markets would sell different goods such as spices, fruits, meats, clothing, etc from sunrise to sunset, you know that they were collecting, growing and making these goods after the markets closed.
Before leaving New Delhi, I met some new friends and met up with some old friends. When I arrived, I knew Momentum Worldwide had an office in New Delhi and a colleague from NYC hooked me up with a couple girls who worked at the New Delhi office who gave me a guided tour for the day. Vaani and Bhumika were the absolute best tour guides around New Delhi and we had so much to talk about regarding our positions and work at Momentum Worldwide as well as my travels around India. That day we went to the Red Fort and Qutub Minar (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites). As we walked around the grounds of the Red Fort, Vaani and Bhumika taught me some of the history around this prestigious palace. They also mentioned that the Kings who would live in these forts would live here with their wives that they captured from their battles. Every new territory that the King would conquer, he would gain a new wife. They told me that one king back in the day had upwards to 300 wives!! I could never imagine keeping 300 wives happy as a King, now that’s a lot of pressure! After walking around the massive grounds of the Red Fort, it started to make sense why there was so much land and buildings – the King had to house all his wives and children here. When we toured around Qutub Minar, the detail in the sandstone and marble was impeccable, as pictured below. It was interesting to learn that the pillar was actually two stories taller but because it got struck by lightning hundreds of years back. It was such a wonderful day exploring New Delhi with new friends and I hope to keep in touch with Vaani and Bhumika when I get back to the states! I was also fortunate to meet up with one of my old colleagues, Rachel. It had been nearly 2 years since I had seen her, partially because I moved away from Philadelphia and went to NYC, but that was the perfect reunion. It was so amazing to have someone from home with me to share some stories and enjoy a wonderful dinner with. It was also great to meet her new colleagues who were there executing a medical conference!
After a week in New Delhi, I decided it was time to explore the Golden Triangle and head down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I stood in line as the sun started to rise to beat the crowd in to see the glorified Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world. As soon as I passed through security and was able to get on the property, I was simply blown away by the beauty. As I got closer, the temple was not the only thing that was stunning, the inscriptions in the marble were mesmerizing. The entire ground that the Taj Mahal was built on was simply gorgeous. As you enter the Great Gate, you step out of the bustling city of Agra into the majestically and serene world of the great mausoleum, Taj Mahal. After taking a couple pictures in front of the reflecting pools and the symmetrical gardens, I finally got to the marble staircase to enter the Taj Mahal. When I walked around the Taj, I was taken aback by the great beauty of this mausoleum and the details in every square inch. Everything about the interior of the Taj Mahal and the exterior is elegant and exquisite. I could probably write a novel about the beauty, but I will let my photos talk for me.
After spending a couple hours at the Taj Mahal, I worked up an appetite for some authentic Indian food. I have forgotten to mention until now the love I have for Indian cuisine now. I have never been a big curry or Indian fan but through a lot of trial and error, I found some of my favorite Indian dishes and drinks! I absolutely love the Sweet Lassi (yogurt smoothie) and would order one any chance I got. I also loved trying the different Thali dishes that I found around India (some were too spicy for me and some were perfect), their butter Naan was my first obsession (delicious thin crust bread) and any type of Kofta (fried balls with vegetables, meat or cheese in it) soon filled me up during every meal.
In order to complete the golden triangle, my last stop was Jaipur where I had a day there until my flight to Mumbai. To make the most of my day, I booked a 6am train from Agra to Jaipur so I could get there by the early afternoon to sightsee. Unfortunately, no matter how much you plan ahead, you cannot foresee the delays that the Indian Railways will hold. Luckily for me and the 2 other American’s I met at the train station, our train had been delayed 8 hours – yes, I had gotten there at 5:30 am for the 6 am departure and our train finally arrived at 1 pm. What made matters even worse was that none of the ATM machines in Agra worked with my American Express card to take out cash so I was scrapping coins together just to eat breakfast since I thought I would get to Jaipur in the afternoon. So I went the entire morning and afternoon on the train with only eating a small samosa to hold me over until I could find an ATM in Jaipur. Finally, we arrived in Jaipur at 7 pm where I walked with my bags to my hostel around a mile away to drop them off and look for an ATM. By this point I only had a small samosa for breakfast and a yogurt the night before for dinner so I was famished. After placing my bags at the hostel and asking him if I could pay for my night’s stay after I found an ATM, I searched the town. For the next 3 hours, I walked around the streets of Jaipur trying every ATM machine without any of them working with my card – never travel with an American Express card (I was because my Visa debit card was stolen in Thailand). At 10:30 pm after walking around for hours and 13 ATM machines rejecting my card, I felt absolutely helpless and homeless and extremely hungry. I sat down on a sidewalk and just cried my eyes out for a good 10 minutes before I picked my stuff up and decided to head across town to look for more ATMs. I really thought that I would be homeless that night and starving until I got to Mumbai where they accepted American Express more frequently. Finally, at around 11pm, I reached an ATM and prayed that this one would be my lucky one and I finally was able to withdraw 10,00rupeeses! Hallelujah! I finally had money to buy food and pay for my stay – I went to the closest shop and bought some cookies, a cold water and a piece of bread. After that experience, I seriously could not imagine what these people experience on a daily basis trying to provide for their families and living on the streets. I think that was the first night I prayed in a long time and something good happened to me. Also I forgot to mention this but I wouldn’t be so desperate for cash if someone had not taken 5,000 rupees from my wallet the previous week. Thinking about this now, I can just add this to the number of experiences I faced while in India and traveling abroad.
By 11am the next morning I was already landing in a new city full of new opportunities. As our plane was landing on the Mumbai runway, I noticed 3 or 4 miles leading up to the runway were thousands upon thousands of slums. I had a week and a half left in India and was ready to explore Mumbai as well as relax in Goa. The first day in Mumbai, I took a ferry from the Gateway of India to the Elephanta Caves. While I was on this 1 hour ferry ride to the cave site, there seemed to be a school field trip during that time. I think every single one of the 25 kids asked to take a selfie with me. Since the Momentum girls told me not to take pictures with people, I decided to keep that rule alive. I unfortunately declined all 25 selfies but I saw that the children were trying to take pictures with me anyways – I really didn’t understand the fascination. It seemed wherever I went in India, people were always asking for photos, I really felt like an alien or a zoo animal. Finally, after an hour of dodging pictures, we arrived! I decided to take a nice walk up to the caves and the cannons. This cave was a bit different than the ones I saw in Laos mainly because there were carvings in the stone to represent different Indian gods. The main centerpiece to the Elephanta Caves (pictured below) is the entrance of six columns which opens up this cave. It was intriguing to walk around and notice the different sculptures made out of the rocks within the cave. I also hiked up to see the two big cannons that were placed on different sides of the mountains. I am not sure when these were used but they were absolutely huge! Also I met a woman who lives on this island in the elephanta village. She was nice to talk to but kept trying to sell me her stale coca cola which I kept insisting I did not need since I brought my own water. As I was departing, I waved goodbye to the village workers, the monkeys, cows and the goats!
The next day I boarded the 10 hour train to Goa (only costed me $5!), the gorgeous beach area down south of Mumbai. Luckily I had an American older couple traveling with me and we talked about their daughter, politics, traveling and sports. They were wonderful and even bought me lunch while I was sleeping. Since I took the train from Agra to Jaipur, I knew not to wear that many clothes since the trains didn’t have AC and it was around 98 degrees outside. The train ride was gorgeous and tiring. Once I finally arrived in Goa I walked around and grabbed a salad from a restaurant around the corner, this was my first salad in 2 months and I was thrilled! The next week in Goa was spent on the beaches reading, getting harassed by people who wanted to take selfies with me and exploring the different areas. I decided to rent a moped for a day and travel 2 hours south to the number one beach in south Goa, Agonda. The journey there was quite interesting – dodging different traffic cops, going through a parade in one of the cities and then spending an hour on windy roads up a mountain but I finally made it to Agonda Beach and boy was it worth it! It was stunning and I practically had the entire beach to myself with one family begging at my feet for some water, food and money. I spent the rest of the day there swimming in the ocean, taking pictures and reading my book. Last but not least, I was in Goa for Holi, the festival of colors! I was excited to be celebrating one of Indians cherished holidays in their country. Some girls and guys from the hostel dressed up with our bathing suits and white t-shirts and ventured out to a beach bar that was celebrating this special day. It was so fun to watch all the kids get so excited to play with the colors and wish everyone a “happy Holi”! That day we met some great people, had a lot of laughs and left doused in all different colors…. which took days to get off my skin. Our Holi festivities were a bit tamer than up North, where the entire city shuts down and people with bags full of color congregate in large groups and start the color wars.
4 books and 10 podcast episodes later, I hopped back on the train to head to Mumbai where my flight left for South Africa the next day. Before my flight left, I had enough time to explore the Dharvi Slums, the largest slum in the world. My tour guide, Furken, has grown up in these slums and leaded me on a 3 hour tour around where I learned more than I ever could reading a textbook and really saw how intricate these slums really were. The Dharvi Slums were also shot during the filming of Slumdog Millionaire and many people who live here hate that their home was represented in such a way (even though it is the truth) and that these filmmakers made millions exploiting their home to the world. During this tour, it was an eye-opening experience for me as my last stop in India and really allowed me to appreciate these slums and have a positive look on them. Here are a couple quick facts about the Dharvi Slums:
- About 1 million people live within 1 square mile, making it the most densely populated area on planet earth
- The average wage is between $1-2USD per day, yes that’s with 8-10 hours of hard laborious work!
- Dharavi is the most productive slum in the world. It’s over a billion-dollar industry
- There is an average of 1 toilet per 1,450 people, this is probably why men urinate in the public in the rivers and between houses
- 60% of the families have lived in Dharavi for 60+ years
- The average life span is under 60 years old, due to disease and health concerns
- The slum is divided into communities by religion, with 60% Hindu, 33% Muslim and 6% Christian and 1% other
- Many businesses generate million dollar incomes (USD)
- Only men are allowed to work in the factories
- The Dharvi slums are extremely organized and have everything that a family needs to survive
After learning these quick facts, I was intrigued to start my tour and walk around to see the schools, the “factories”, bakeries, playground, residential “houses”, etc. This specific slum is split up into two parts, the industrial part and the residential part. We started our tour on the industrial side where there are the small “factories”, bakeries, markets, etc. In the industrial side of the slum, there are over 7,000 different businesses and 15,000 single-room factories that are filled with workers, tirelessly working without AC in 90+ degree weather. While touring the small “factories”, Dharvi reuses all of their material to produce something new. They have hundreds of bags of trash collected from the south all the way up to Mumbai where people sort through it and put it in different piles for aluminum (think soda cans), paper (newspapers, office papers, school books, etc), plastic (utensils, buckets, audio tapes and VHS tapes), leather (bags and shoes), etc. Once they sort through all of the trash and put the respective items in their piles, they take these items to the designated factories where people clean them, break them down, remove the hazardous pieces that cannot be used to remake something new and sell them. It is an intense process that takes multiple men and factories working together but its incredible how they reuse everything that comes into their hands.
The next part of the tour was the residential side where the schools, “houses”, playgrounds, temples and shops were. Each home and living area were very crowded and you had to wiggle your way through small alleys to get to the front doors. While peeking into some of the “houses” I noticed mats laying on the floor where 8 people would lie down to sleep next to each other and cover the entire floor space. It really made me appreciate living in America for the 100th time since I have been in India. Looking at this living arrangement as an outsider, kids were happy to play in the dirt playground area barefoot, pee on the sides of buildings, sleep on dirt floors and drink contaminated water so I should be thankful that I even have a bed to lay in at night with a pillow. This whole experience was shocking to me but put a lot into perspective and again allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for everything that I have back home and that I work hard for.
Trust me, after this 3-hour tour I felt humbled to be amongst the Dharvi people and honored to see how hardworking everyone is and how this community just works despite all the complications and illegalities. I don’t think of slums in a negative light, especially not how Slumdog Millionaire portrayed this one. They are works of art where people get by on the bare minimum and are still as happy as you and I because they don’t know what it is like to have the luxuries that we are all given at birth living in the United States.
I did not feel like it was respectable to take pictures of people’s homes and workplaces but I found a couple images online that was exactly what I saw first-hand to give you a glimpse of the Dharvi life.
Overall it was a long 3 weeks in India with many challenges, tears, eye opening experiences, majestic buildings and learnings but it’s made me appreciate everything that I have from the clothes on my body to the clean sheets on my bed. So I leave you with this, take time to enjoy the simple things in life and never take for granted what we were all given at birth.
Next stop, South Africa!