Within minutes, my eyes are stinging and I can tell without even looking that they are red and watery. Sitting on the back of a rickshaw, Suzanna from the NGO Sahaara Charitable Society had met me at my hotel and we were now on our way to her office. “We are going to the largest slum in Asia,” she tells me. “Excuse me?” I yell back, over the traffic’s loud roar. “The slum I am taking you to, it’s the largest in Asia, you know, the one from Slumdog Millionaire.” I stare around at the bustle of people and vehicles around me. “Oh, ok,” I say, unsure of an appropriate response.
About 45 minutes later, my ears are ringing, my eyes are still watering from the smog and my body is tired from holding on tight, we arrive at her tucked away office. She brought me here to meet with the founder of the organization and I quickly find myself facing an older Indian man who is eager to tell me all about Mumbai. In fact, he gives me an entire PowerPoint presentation about the city, and then continues to describe the work he has set out to do in the slums. Arthur is his name, and was educated at a top Indian computer engineering institution. Most of his colleagues, he informs me, went on to work in the U.S. at Microsoft or Google, but he chose to stay around and attempt to “gift dreams” to the 8.5 million people living in Mumbai slums. Arthur also tells me that his other fulltime job is looking for a husband for his daughter, as arranged marriages are still very much part of the culture here. He says since nowadays women are at least allowed to approve of their future husband before the marriage, his daughter has rejected all of the men he’s chosen for her so far. I laugh to myself thinking about what it would be like if my dad had to find a husband for me.
After Arthur and I exchange emails and say goodbye, Suzanna and I are back on a rickshaw headed to meet her colleague who will take us to the slum. We hop off at the local train station, just minutes away. Unable to find her friend, Suzanna and I wander through the mobs of people trying to find a common meeting place. We walk under a dark bridge, naked children crawling over their sleeping parents, vehicles screaming by, trash everywhere. On the other side of the bridge, a small group of young adults playing drums is walking towards us. The noise gets louder and louder and combined with the honking and traffic noise, is nearly overwhelming. Soon, the drummers are upon us – I’d argue that they were actually following us. I can’t help but laugh, thinking about how much I wish someone from my world could see me right now standing helplessly amongst an Indian marching band, dodging oncoming traffic, 3 minutes from the largest slum in Asia.
We finally walk back under the bridge where we find Suzanna’s colleague. All three of us get back into a rickshaw, which doesn’t start right away, and we sit and wait while the driver fixes his engine. Shortly after we get moving, we stop and hop off and I’m led down a small road into the slum. Everything and anything is happening all at once, but we quickly take a turn down an even more narrow walk way and then dart into a tiny room full of about 20 children no more than 5 years old. They all stand to greet me and say “hello teacher” – most of the children have huge smiles and reach out to shake my hand, but two of them sit on the floor in tears, terrified by my presence in this small room.
I sit and watch them do their counting and an adorable little boy stands up to sing, “I’m a little teapot” just for me. A crowd of people forms around the door of this small room to see the “visitor.” I sit and talk to them, although most are just learning English and my questions have to be translated. I teach them how to say “Seattle” and it’s just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Finally, the kids get restless and we set them free to color. Speaking to the director of this project, I understand some more of the challenges facing this slum. It’s not that they can’t take on more kids, she tells me, but that many parents won’t send their kids to school because they need them to work. If the kids are older, they may choose not to go to school because the media often convinces them they can skip school to become a movie star instead. Finally, she tells me, of the kids that are here now, many face insurmountable challenges outside of the classroom and will most certainly drop out. Lack of nutrition, care, clothing and safety are the main concerns for these tiny, endearing faces right in front of me.
It’s time to leave and I say goodbye – I’m overwhelmed thinking about how these little ones are no different than those I used to teach in Madrid, yet they have so much to overcome in their young lives. There are two or three children that don’t hide their emotional scars, and at just five years old they already appear to feel invisible to society.
We walk out of the “classroom” and back into the reality of the slum. I walk with my eyes forward, pretending to be unaffected by my surroundings, afraid to attract any more attention than I already do. Reaching the street, we hop into another rickshaw until we pull up next to a taxi driver, who, through a mix of Hindi and head shaking, agrees to take me all the way back to my hotel for 500 rupees (~$10). We both pull over and I get into his taxi and say goodbye to Suzanna. I’m so thankful for this experience that she’s given me – it’s certainly one I will always remember.
The drive back is hot and long. It’s about 1PM. I contemplate all that I just saw, heard, and smelled. I didn’t eat breakfast and I’m physically more hungry, thirsty, dirty and tired than I’ve been in a long time. Thinking of the suffering I’m watching all around me, I’m able to curb my physical sensations as I wonder, as I usually do, why is it that I’ve been given so much? How can there be such hopeless suffering when there are an abundance of resources all around? I know that these questions are impossible to answer; I also know that some people living in that slum are happier in their lives than many people in this world who have so much.
I make it back to my hotel about an hour later. In my room, I wipe off my face and black residue remains on my towel. A little refreshed, I head out again across the street to a vegetarian restaurant where I quickly inhale some vegetable curry and roti. My hunger, exhaustion, filth and distress all have an end, but for so many others, it never ends.