Of the five days I spent in Mumbai, my favorite was the one I spent in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum. Let me start with the obvious – no one does this. Normal travelers do not choose to spend the day in a large urban slum, walking around, meeting locals and taking photos. I just really need to keep life exciting and if something looks interesting and isn’t going to kill me or ruin me financially, there’s a really good chance I’m going to do it.
As I mentioned in the last post, during my time in Mumbai I was staying in an AirBnb in Bandra, a popular middle class suburb. I was really happy with that choice, and the time I spent hanging out in that area was another high point of the trip, but I was also interested in seeing different sides of the city and meeting different types of people. Walking around Dharavi was the most unique and potentially interesting thing I could think of to do on that particular day.
With about one million people living in an area of just two square kilometers, it’s one of the densest places on the planet. Obviously, the people there are very poor, but they are not homeless or starving. For the most part the adults have jobs and families and the children go to school. While the colors and pattern is different, Dharavi has its own rich fabric of everyday life. This mesmerizing human tapestry, with its endless variation, is why I travel.
I can imagine that strolling around a Mumbai slum alone, motorbiking around Southeast Asia (with poor roads and worse drivers), visiting poor areas of Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities and some of the other gazillion things I’ve done while wandering this world may strike many readers as dangerous, and they are probably not things you would personally do. When I tell my friends and family about travel experiences like this, there’s definitely a mix of “Wow, that’s cool” and “Oh my god, how dangerous”.
In my travels I do avoid things that are actually hazardous. Honest. I just think that common ideas about what is dangerous are often based more on emotion and not a rational assessment of the actual risks. In reality, most of the scary experiences I’ve had while walking this world have been in bad areas of American cities, where poverty, drugs and easy access to guns are a potentially explosive mix.
While we often fear things that are not inherently dangerous (travel, starting a business etc.), we sometimes don’t take reasonable precautions with everyday activities that are potentially hazardous (driving, for example). Here in Saigon and in other parts of Southeast Asia, you see people take extreme risks in their driving (passing blind around a curve, texting while riding a motorbike in heavy traffic, family of four on a motorbike, no helmets on the children).
Then those same people make extremely cautious professional and financial choices (selling juice from a cart beside the road, keeping money and gold in a family safe and calling that a financial strategy). To my mind, you want to do the opposite – be careful with things that can actually kill you (cars, to start), but take some thoughtful risks with things that are potentially rewarding and, as long as a few simple precautions are taken, have virtually no chance of killing you or ruining you financially (travel, a new business venture, long term investments etc.).
People fear the wrong things.
Almost all of the dicey situations I’ve found myself in while traveling and living abroad have been road safety issues so I’m really, really careful with cars and motorbikes, whether as a driver, a passenger or a pedestrian. Here in Saigon and in my travels, I spend absolutely no time worrying about so-called “radical Islamic terrorism” and a lot of time thinking about how to safely cross the street. If you text and drive, stop it! You’re doing something much more dangerous than I’ve ever done.
I think that the reason visiting a huge Mumbai slum alone sounds dangerous is that the people there are poor (I heard that the average income is about $175 USD/month). But poor and dangerous are two very different things. In my experience, when people are poor it’s usually because their options for making a living are limited, either by their own choices (playing it too “safe” with work and money is actually quite risky!) or their environment (they’re not exposed to more attractive options).
The people I encountered in Dharavi were working jobs that were quite hard and in some cases hazardous (treating leather, recycling plastic or aluminum, sewing suitcases together by hand). All this means is that their work is not particularly lucrative, and these are not professional choices that you or I would make. It doesn’t at all mean that they are dangerous. The people I met in Dharavi were the usual mix of curious locals, friendly street vendors and smiling children I encounter in my travels everywhere. In six hours there I never felt unsafe. In fact, because most of the streets were too small and crowded for cars, it’s probably one of the safer places I visited in India (where the only potentially dangerous thing I personally experienced was the traffic).
Don’t get me wrong, before embarking on novel experiences like this, I do think carefully about whether it’s safe. I just try to make the decision based on a clear-eyed understanding of the actual risks and not irrational fear. For instance, before motorbiking the famous Mae Hong Son loop through the mountains of northern Thailand, a number of people told me that this was dangerous and tried to talk me out of it. None of these people had actually done it though, so to understand the real risks I read a number of blogs by people who had done it before. It turns out that the reason for the dangerous reputation of this route is that the mountain roads are really curvy and people drive too fast. There are in fact a lot of accidents on the roads, but almost all of the potential risks can be mitigated by safe driving so I decided to do it.
Here’s how I did my due diligence before visiting the Dharavi slum alone. The night before I’d joined a Mumbai street food tour and I asked the experienced local guide (with the excellent Reality Tours) what he thought of my idea. He’d spent years leading tours in Dharavi so I had a high level of trust in his opinion:
Me: I’m thinking about going to Dharavi on my own [not with the popular tours of the area his company offers]. Is that dangerous?
Guide: [decisively] No, it’s definitely not dangerous. I’m just worried you’ll get lost.
Me: [laughing] I have a local SIM card and Google Maps. I never get lost.
Based on this short exchange, I had already decided to go. Like I said, if something seems interesting and isn’t going to kill me or ruin me financially I’m very likely to do it.
Here are my favorite photos of my day in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest slum, and the 3rd largest in the world.
A Local School