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Of Slumdogs And Sickness...

19th-21st January 2012

sunny 35 °C

And I've driven across deserts driven by the irony, that only being shackled to the road can ever I be free- Frank Turner

They say that a traveller "must possess the ability to make an extravagant fool of one's self". At the hostel in Varanasi I certainly accomplished this whilst ordering breakfast and in rapt conversation with my two fellow travellers at the next table. One was Nepalese, the other Swiss and they were both great guys. When our orders came, I promptly forgot what I had ordered and proceeded to eat the Nepalese guy's pancake, only realising my mistake upon I saw the surprised look on his face when he was presented with my porridge. Fortunately he was too polite too say anything!

After breakfast I visited the museum at Banaras Hindu University, the 2nd biggest university in the world at over 16.7 square kilometres! I enjoyed plenty of banter with students, who had come to visit the museum after completing their exams, telling them that after exams in the UK, students drink until they can't stand. Talk about a contrast in cultures!

Now, some people travel for the history of a place. Others travel for exotic beaches or interesting food. Some will go to explore family history and heritage. I wanted to visit Bhopal because it was the site of a 1984 gas disaster! Widely cited as the worlds worst industrial catastrophe, on 3 December 1984, a Union Carbide Corporation pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked around 32 tons of toxic gases, including methyl isocyanate gas which led to the worst corporate disaster to date. The official death toll was initially recorded around 5,000. Many figures suggest that 18,000 died within two weeks, and it is estimated that around 8,000 have died since then of gas-poisoning-related diseases. The horrible thing though is that the tragedy occurred because the volatile gas was not stored at the right temperature and was easily preventable. The reason for this negligence? To save $80 per day. Now a virtually compulsory topic on all university business programmes, Bhopal is a prime example of corporate greed taking precedence over human life.

Upon arrival in Bhopal I found a busy city with some really good food, some bustling market places and some impressive pollution. I say impressive because it's hard to believe a city could become that polluted if it actively tried. Please believe me when I say that visibility was as low as 50 metres in some places. On the plus side it did have some great unspoilt wildlife and I took full advantage of this by riding a bicycle I rented from a man in a loincloth round the 5km city zoo. A kid wanted to ride it and I told him that he could take it up the path and back again but not to go any further. He then cycled up the path and promptly disappeared from view and I became slightly irked and worried about what I was going to say to the loincloth man. "What happened to my bike?". "Err well a small Indian child stole it. Sorry!" Fortunately the child returned 25 minutes later and I scolded him although I don't think he understood anything I said.

The next day I was back on the train again, this time to Mumbai. On the train I met a very nice middle aged Frenchman by the name of Rafael. In the course of our conversation he told me he had been ill the day before and I boasted that I had not been ill once since arriving in India. An hour later I heard a voice in my head and our internal dialogue went a little like this...

Voice: Hello Omar.

Omar: Hello The Voice

Voice: Omar, Do you remember the last time I spoke to you?

Omar: No

Voice: Ah well, you know what I'm about to say now don't you Omar

Omar: Yeah, yeah I think I do...

Voice: I thought so... Well Omar, you have approximately 20 seconds to get to the bathroom at the end of the carriage before you project the contents of your stomach forcefully on to the man sleeping opposite you.

Omar: Thanks The Voice. (runs down the carriage).

Voice: Good luck Omar.

For the next 20 mins I vomited in to the sink accompanied by horrific and in some cases simultaneous bowel movements. I did not eat again for almost 24 hours.

The next morning (and mercifully feeling better) I headed for the hostel and Rafael came with me as he had nothing better to do. We shared a dorm with 4 other dudes and all get along great. That afternoon, a few of us went to see some 1900 year old caves just outside Mumbai, which were impressive as they were man-made and hollowed out of the hill with intricate sculptures of Hindu deities carved into the walls.

The next day, 7 of us lads from the hostel went on a tour of the Dharavi Slums, made famous/infamous (depending on your perspective) by the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire". The people of the slums that we spoke to, understandably aren't too thrilled at the name chosen for the movie and now I think about it, I can see why. They might as well have called it "Poverty Stricken Rich B****" although I don't think that name would have won 8 Oscars. The Millionaire aspect of it however is no joke. The slums generate over $650 million every year through collecting Mumbai's waste, recycling it and selling it back to the cities corporations. However, I don't know where this money goes as the people there are still clearly very poor. We had a short, lively match of street cricket with some local children and smashed them decisively. Who says Indians are good at cricket?! The thing that really struck me about the slum however was how happy all the people were. In the 2 hours we were there, I didn't see 1 miserable person. It makes me wonder if we really have any idea what life is about in the west. Now I'm not going on some "you think you got problems" rant, but when you see people living in metal shacks, with no electricity or running water, with 6 small, ill looking children and goats wondering into their straw filled "bedrooms" in the middle of the night, it does make you wonder, "what do I really have to be unhappy about?".

That night we head out for dinner to a local veg restaurant. Not knowing what anything is, 4 of our 5 boys order the same Paneer on the grounds that one of them thinks he had it once some place else. When the dishes come, they are huge and we all stare aghast at the task we are about to undertake. The other lads barely manage half of theirs each and sit and watch as I clear my plate. I feel like I'm in the circus. On the way home we go in to an ATM (they have physical rooms for machines here to give you more privacy) and discover that Stephen Hawking has a new job reading the options. (Stephen Hawking voice) "In which denominations would you like your currency"... "would you like a receipt for your transaction?". Oh how the mighty physicist has fallen. Poor Stephen...

Only 3.5 days left in India as I write this and I'm still having a great time, but am also craving a steak and a fry up when I get home (hint hint Dad) ;) I aim to do one more edition before leaving , summing up the last of my travels. Miss you all as always and thanks for reading...

Posted by OmarInIndia 04:33 Archived in India Tagged caves varanasi mumbai explosion slums bhopal sickness delhi_belly banaras_hindu_university slumdog_millionaire gas_disaster

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