Thursday, 21 March 2013

India: day one

The day finally came for me to fly out on my next ‘flying winemaker’ expedition. This time I’m off to two places I have never been before: India and New Zealand. 

My journey started in Bordeaux and before long I was on the BA flight to Mumbai, India. This may sound like a strange destination but, yes, they do make wine … very good wine, I am led to believe. It’s harvest time, now so what better way to see than to find out for myself? 

After a nine-hour flight I arrived late Monday night to a stinking hot Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji airport. And after everything getting x-rayed five times, I was in a tiny taxi headed for the hotel.  I awoke early the next morning to sunshine and a blue, smog-filled skyline of what seemed like endless construction.  Breakfast was good and a very Indian affair: idlis (puffed rice cakes), thick pancakes with fresh green chilli, tomato and coriander called uttapam served with medu wada (dumplings) and Sambar (a red curry soup).

Libby’s brother Pete and his girlfriend Steph are currently living and working here in Mumbai so I decided to go and meet them in Bandra; about a half-hour rickshaw  ride south from my hotel. Sounded easy.  

After reading a chapter of my ‘lonely planet’ and boldly walking out through the front doors of the hotel I was (to be truthfully honest) not quite fully prepared for the next 40 minutes.  I chose carefully (not) from the 3000 rickshaws that wanted my rupees and was suddenly in the back of half an oil drum. It was being towed by a complete nutter through a gigantic chaotic jumble of fast-flowing and wriggling busses, taxis, cars lorries, motor bikes, bikes, people, dogs, cats and cows all obsessively trying to overtake one another, no matter what it took, life included.  The deafening sound of horns certainly kept you awake (as I later learnt was the objective) and I was in the thick of it. 

Talk about a white-knuckle ride! We dodged, scraped, braked, accelerated, screeched and beeped our way through the craziest and most impossible video-game-like scenario for a mind-aching, palm-sweating, 30-minute ride. Beats any fairground waltzer and it’s only a pound a go!  It’s a good job Mumbai has a population 16.4 million as the driver almost ran out of people to ask where exactly the address was that he had so confidently known when I got in. But hats off to the guy; he got me there in one piece with quite envious skill, determination, aggression and luck. Sorry I didn’t take any photos.

Steph works for Reality Tours: a fantastic organisation that has developed tours of the slum area called Dharavi, pouring profits back into Dharavi. An incredible 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in its slums and Dharavi is the biggest. In fact, Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia, being home to over one million people, crammed into just 1.75 square kilometres!  

However, life in Dharavi is pretty normal in the way people pay their rent, their bills and go about their daily business, despite the conditions. A city within a city, as it is known, with a staggering US$665 million annual business turnover.  How? I was fortunate to find out. 

Sunny, a native of the area, gave me an absolutely superb detailed – and at times rather uncomfortable – tour of Dharavi. I learnt the slum population is actually made up of many religions working together, but then living in their own religious groups. Each sector of the slum is responsible for a certain business type such as the plastic recyclers, the leather tanners, bakers, textile workers, steel, pottery and aluminium recycling. 

We were led carefully through this fascinating warren of streets. Behind every door and window people were working away at their trade in horrific working conditions and without any protective clothing. Every square inch of space is used and even when we went up onto the roof tops, we found another level full of people stacking, drying plastic, sorting and collecting. People here will work a minimum of 12 hours and many sleep, eat and work in the same room alongside the machinery.  

We continued our walk, snaking through each section and then into the residential quarters. Here each tiny living space houses six people and although most have electricity and (un-potable) water – with the aid of an electrical pump – there are no toilets. It is estimated that there is one toilet per 1400 residents which is quite appalling.  However, with the city bursting at its sides and the increasing price of property for sale and rent, plus the ongoing corruption, the slums are becoming the only option for many people.  

This tour certainly changed my perspective of what a ‘slum’ is and if it is at all possible to put the poverty aside for a second, the residents’ sheer graft, hand skills and innovation should be a message and inspiration to us all.  I will also remember forever the beautiful colours of the ladies’ saris; the bright flowers hung on drab objects; the children playing marbles; the tiny photo gallery and education centre; and the mothers and infant daughters rolling and drying poppadoms in the baking sun on up turned wicker baskets. No photography is allowed out of respect to the people, but if you’d like to learn more visit

Pete, Steph and I headed back to Bandra where they live to go for a few beers and a bite to eat and I have to say, amongst the madness  of this city the Indians are very funny indeed. First bar was a very lively, upstairs room where we had a few beers (no wine here) and some poppodums (I now know where these come from) toped with onions, tomatoes and chillies. The second bar was the automobile themed Totos, with cars hanging from the ceiling and so on. However, the bartenders and waiters outfits made it look like we were in Mario Land! Genius. (I think the moustaches might’ve had something to do with it too).  But there was wine here, and on tap – oh yes! And a choice: either a sparkling Italian red or a sparkling Italian rose, apparently the new in-drink for young Indians. 

For dinner we tried a small restaurant and had:
Papdi Chaat (meaning to lick: a North Indian fast food; crisp dough wafer on which various ingredients can be placed. Ours had tamarind chutney , yogurt and chilli)
Bhuna Gosht (Mutton red curry)
Baingan barta (roasted aubergine, mashed with coriander, mustard oil, coriander and chilli)
Panner Tikka (skewered and grilled Indian cheese)
Batata wada (coriander/green chilli chutney)
Very good indeed, and washed down with a bottle of water.

And yes the taxi ride home was as bad, if not worse, as the way in as it had the added thrill of being dark.

What a day! Tomorrow an early start for a three-hour drive out to visit Sula Vineyards in the Indian wine capital of Nasik.

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