Next on the agenda was a short train ride to Trivanderim, near the Southern tip of India.
When on the platform waiting for our train, I was reminded of the scene from Slumdog Millionnaire, where the main actor calls for his lover “Latika!” as the train rolled in. But oh my goodness, the train was filthy (to be honest, disgustingly dirty would not be an overstatement) but we expected it so we dealt with it.
We went through bottles of hand gel and kept our shoes on, held our breath in the loo (you call that a loo?). I can tell you we were all very pleased to reach our destination and disembark.
Hats off to the Indians who bear the commute regularly!
The sea-side destination was lush and tropical, but the sea was very dangerous. A fellow guest had her face smashed, nose broken and badly cut while swimming at the hotel beach, so we spent the next 3 days drenched in perspiration, looking longingly at the sea, but not daring to go in.
Our family took it in turns to have “Delhi belly” – which in hindsight still makes me laugh out loud. The cramps seem to catch you by surprise, when you least expect it, and you have about 20 seconds to find a toilet and all of us would laugh knowingly when the next one was afflicted, with that “oh oh” look on their face, running off with clenched buttocks.
The night before the Royal Wedding (Wills and Kate) the hotel was struck by a tropical storm, it was horizontal rain and rolling thunder. The result was that there was no cable TV, so we huddled around a dinosaur computer trying to stream the wedding – but it was stuttering, stopping and starting and at this point I felt like I was losing my sense of good humour. Watching the Royal Wedding, it dawned on me that although a South African at heart, there is so much of England we’d miss.
It was at that point I realized I was feeling quite homesick for London and it was a bittersweet realisation, knowing we were not going back.
The next day we packed up and asked for our laundry back (they brought it to us drenched) so we packed our wet washing and flew to Mumbai – for our last 2 days in India – a 2 hour flight away.
On checking in to the next hotel in Mumbai, we realized to our dismay, that we had left all our passports with the check in staff in Trivanderim hotel!
By now we knew that this was going to be a HUGE challenge, on a Sunday, with Monday being a public holiday and no courier service. Even getting your laundry done, or a cup of tea, was a challenge, so imagine trying to get your passports from one place to another with so many people all nodding it’s possible, but actually not meaning it at all (sideways nod means yes and no!).
I would like to commend the staff at the Marine Plaza Hotel in Mumbai for going the extra lengths to save our sanity and getting our passports to us in the nick of time for our next international flight!
While the passport drama was going on, one of our daughters (there is always one!) seemed to turn into a miniature version of Mrs Hannigan from Annie. Finally her sisters owned up to what had happened (she drank her dad’s vodka-orange), and we poured gallons of water down her throat and kept “shushing” her at dinner. Funny, but not!
We organized a tour guide to take us around Mumbai. The heat was a sweltering 40 degrees and we wilted while taking in the city sites. We combed the street markets and historical sites, and passed the Silent Gardens (this is where the Sufi believe that their dead should be gifted back to nature and bodies are put out for vultures).
We squashed into the smallest of smelly, tiger print seat taxis and once again held onto our hair while roaring around a bustling city.
There were so many crazy moments, where all we could do was laugh at the madness (and sadness) of the situation in which we found ourselves.
What I was looking forward to the most was the visits to the open air laundry. People working in the heat, hand-washing or stone washing jeans by the dozen. What an incredibly tough, labour-intensive work in the beating sun, day in and day out and paid so very little. Children live in the slums near the laundry and get schooled in small makeshift classrooms or spend their days begging.
We were struck speechless by the abject poverty – yet the determination to stay alive by the millions of slum dwellers in Mumbai.
I don’t think it is a common sight for a Western family with young children like our’s to wander the back streets of Mumbai. I would understand that if tourists armed with cameras taking pictures of their struggle, could be met with hostility (we were warned), but in our instance, the presence of our children opened doors for us. We were even offered a meal of chicken feet!
At the end of the day, we were parents, and so were these people, and the kids all spoke a common language. Curiosity. The little slum kids gawped at our children and our children gawped back – bewildered by what they saw and often fought back tears.
I think the visit to the slums of Mumbai were one of the most humbling lessons in life for us all, a chance to see beyond the bubble in which Westerners prefer to live – and to admire the fighting human spirit that when it has to, keeps us alive. Whether you are 4 or 84.
Once again, as so often happened during this trip, at the end of the day we found our family unusually quiet and reflective. Each of us trying to process what we saw, trying to make sense of the human suffering.
We left India with an open mind and a humble heart.