Being an American Tourist in Mumbai


I think that the biggest culture shock that Emmi and I have experienced in Mumbai is getting stopped constantly to have our photo taken. People approach us frequently and ask; “Can I take a selfie with you?” and then a line of people who also want a photo with us forms behind them. We’ve also experienced people sneakily photographing us at restaurants, or walking in front of us while facetiming someone to show us to them. It can be endearing when little girls ask us for photos, excited by our willingness, but all in all it has been a conflicting experience.

I often felt overwhelmed or like a zoo animal when people screamed at me to look at different cameras so that they could take a selfie with me. It was hot and sticky out and I would be trying to take in a breathtaking landmark, or to talk to Emmi. While at first it was flattering and frankly incredibly funny, I began to wonder what the hundreds of people who took photos with us would do with the selfies anyways, would they post them on Facebook and say that we were friends? Would they look at it and think back on that fleeting moment? Or was it to say, look, I met/saw someone with light skin?

Many of the people who stopped me specifically would ask “What are you?” I’m ethnically ambiguous with olive skin and loose curly hair and nobody seems to be able to guess that I’m half-Mexican and half-American. Rather, random strangers approach me and ask “Are you Indian? Are you Asian? Are you Middle Eastern? What….are…you…?”

Then it hit me why we were being photographed. We were only being stopped for photos because we have lighter skin than the people in India, which is terrible for a number of reasons. It shows how having light skin is idolized around the world, and it subsequently shows the negative effects of westernization.  I don’t support that idolization of white skin. In fact, it makes me feel very sad. So while it can seem funny to have people quite literally chase you down the street for a photo, it also brings into question the residual effects of Westernization around the world.

The Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

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My words will never suffice to explain the day I had yesterday, but I will try my best to do the experience justice. When I left the country, I knew one thing for certain; I wanted to be exposed to the truth of the world. Sometimes the truth hurts, but I refuse to turn the blind eye and be ignorant. I want to feel the weight of the world because I, like everyone else, am responsible for its condition.

Yesterday Emmi and I decided to take a tour with “Reality Tours & Travel” of the Dharavi Slum. We chose Reality Tours because they donate 80% of their profits to the community and because they seek to expose the reality of Mumbai. They also do not allow pictures to be taken during their tours out of respect for the people in the communities we visit. We met our tour guide Rakesh in Colaba and began the tour with a drive through the red light district in Mumbai.

Although prostitution is illegal in Mumbai, authorities tend to turn the blind eye. 90% of the prostitutes in India are trafficked from neighboring states within India, while 10% come from neighboring countries like Bhutan and Bangladesh. They target poor families from low income states by telling them that they will send their daughters to important jobs in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai.

According to Rakesh, they target girls as young as nine years old. These girls are then sold to brothel lords for around 50,000 rupees, or around 800$ a piece. The girls are locked alone in a room for days, or weeks, or months, or until they are brainwashed- and if they won’t comply, the brothel lords threaten to kill them. They are forced into believing that their only chance at living is to sell their bodies for around nine and a half dollars per “session.”

As we drove down the streets of the red light district, I saw dozens and dozens of worn out girls sitting on the curbs outside of crumbling buildings with their backs hunched over. None of them had light in their eyes. Although they were cloaked by colorful saris, they had been robbed of their bodies. I wondered to myself what it would feel like to have my body stolen from me repeatedly, every single day, with no means of protecting myself… and in that moment my heart broke.

After our drive through the red light district we headed to the Dharavi Slum, the third biggest slum in the world next to Neza in Mexico city and Orangi Town in Pakistan. 11 million people in Mumbai live in slums, or more than half of the city’s population. The Dharavi Slum houses approximately 1 million people. It is also known as the slum where the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was filmed, but I promise you that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ doesn’t do it justice. We were lucky that our tour guide Rakesh had been born and raised in Dharavi, so we got an insider’s perspective.

We began our tour in the business district of Dharavi and as soon as I stepped out of the car, toxic fumes filled my lungs. I could smell burning rubber and toxins in the air and my sensitive skin began to itch immediately. We followed Rakesh through a narrow passageway between the cramped corrugated metal buildings. Men covered in soot balanced stacks of flattened plastic and cardboard on their heads as they sweat profusely and as I peered into open doorways, I could see men slaving away at their work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. In some of the rooms, men slept face down on cardboard, utterly exhausted. Many people smiled and shook our hands as we walked through their workplace. Small and frail children followed us down the filthy little alleys, watching, confused, as we passed by them.

I was walking around in a daze and not a single thought or judgement crossed my mind until Emmi grabbed my arm and whispered “Isabela, this is SO intense.” For a second my brain didn’t process where I was or what I was seeing, or why things were this way, and I felt confused by Emmi’s comment. But as we continued walking, a strange sensation overwhelmed me and I felt tears sting in the corner of my eyes. It was intense. It was so intense, and it hit me hard. I had never seen anything so intense in my entire life.

It was sad to see the world in such conditions. It was heartbreaking to see how little the Indian government cares about the people in the slums. To know that children had to grow up inhaling toxic fumes, living in their own squalor, without the promise of education. To see how hard people worked for so little money. At the same time, it was exhilarating and empowering to see that these people were thriving anyways. Dharavi runs many successful businesses including recycling cardboard, plastic, and tin, and making pottery and leather.

 We followed Rakesh through an open shack, up a couple of unstable ladders, and onto the roof of one of the slum buildings. From up top, we could see hundreds and hundreds of roofs with trash bags piled on top of them. Dust and cardboard blew around in the humid hot air as Rakesh told us about Dharavi’s thriving business enterprises. He showed and explained to us how plastic palettes were made and recycled. In the distance, we heard an eerie and beautiful call to prayer and Rakesh told us that within the slum both Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully.

After seeing the business district, we were taken to the residential district of the slum. People took my hand and children touched my legs as I walked through the filthy passageways, trying to avoid stepping on sharp objects. Everyone said “hi” to us as we passed and little girls asked me for rupees. It hurt to say no. The homes of the slum were small and lacking light. None of the homes have bathrooms, instead, there is one common bathroom area for 15,000 people. I thought to myself that the next time I was consumed with my own problems, I would think of Dharavi, and how people managed to be happy there regardless of the conditions in which they lived.

Then there was the pottery district which was beautiful, and regarded as the “rich” district of Dharavi. The families there had more money. We watched as men jumped and played in large pools of clay, and women painted intricate designs on the hardened pots. It was a beautiful sight to see and I felt utterly confused by how I was processing the experience.

Dharavi was a beautiful place, rich in culture. It’s people, though lacking some basic resources, were kind, hardworking, and to at least to some degree, they were happy. They had chosen to make the best of the neglect and poverty with which they were faced. They smiled as they sweat through their hard work. They lived an existence that would break me, but they were resilient and happy regardless. I felt no pity, only admiration. Humans are incredible. I felt thankful for everything that has been bestowed upon me, and I will never forget the truth of Dharavi. I will never forget the profound love that I feel for Mumbai.