Although at home I’m definitely an early riser, there is a limit to how early I enjoy waking up every day. When traveling though, that comfort zone is routinely pushed, but always for good reasons. That good reason in Mumbai was so that I could join a very special tour offered in the city, a chance to see the city wake up and to experience what daily life is like for the millions who call this mega-city home. I was traveling in India with luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent, whose Tailor Made Journeys go well above and beyond what one would ordinarily expect from a tour. No, instead they create any number of special moments and experiences, all designed to bring the traveler closer to the destinations they visit and in Mumbai, that meant meeting my guide at 5am to drive out to the city docks.
Joining a local tour guide specializing in the before sunrise experience, I was excited to discover a side to the city not many tourists take the time to explore. The goal of the tour organized by Abercrombie was to share with visitors the real Mumbai away from glittering skyscrapers and Bollywood. The local guides love their city and, from experience, that love is infectious.
The first clue that I was in a fish market was the smell, it seemed to permeate every fiber of my being. Although it was still dark out, the daily fish auction was already in full swing with potential buyers lining up as soon as the fish were offloaded from the small boats. This is a daily ritual in Mumbai. Every morning hundreds of people from around the city descend on the docks to get a good deal on the freshest fish available. Some work for hotels and restaurants, but more common are merchants who resell the fish to customers throughout the city and its suburbs. But the hustle starts early and I had to be on my toes to avoid being overrun by hand trucks laden with all manner of fishy products. I was there to see for myself the daily business of the Koli people, who traditionally are fishermen. Dumping bucket after bucket of fish, the work seemed never-ending, but I knew I was just watching the end of their work. It’s not an easy life by any stretch of the imagination, but is one these families have undertaken for generations. But that was only the start of my morning adventures in Mumbai.
The Side Hustle
The first day I was in Mumbai my guide stopped, looked at me and pointed off to a man with a large basket in the market. She said, “His job is to wait to see if people shopping need help in getting their goods home. That’s why I refuse to believe there’s not a job in this city for someone who is willing to work hard.” I thought about that statement for a long time, but it only connected with me that early morning in Mumbai. The tour, essentially, is a tour of the many different jobs millions of people perform every day. It’s not their sole occupation, it’s just one of many different ways in which they try to make ends meet and improve their lives. But it gave me a better insight into the scenes unfolding before my eyes and certainly a greater respect for the people I met along the way.
My favorite of these was the group of men known simply as the newspaper sorters. Every morning, thousands of people around the city spend hours sorting through newspapers in at least 7 different languages, organizing them into stacks to be distributed. Not speaking the languages represented, they must instead simply recognize the script and place the correct papers in the correct stacks. Not an easy challenge and the group I met with were spread out across the sidewalk and nearby streets, papers everywhere but with a strange sort of rhythm to the sorting. A nearby chai seller was brewing up cup after cup of hot tea for the sorters, offering me a taste before I left for my next stop that morning.
From milkmen to meat distributors, fruit and vegetable markets and the omnipresent flower trade, I saw all of that and more on my morning adventure, delving deeper into the underbelly of Mumbai than I ever thought I would. Ultimately, that’s the real value to this tour. Sure, it’s interesting to see the various jobs, meet some amazing people and even enjoy a few snacks along the way. But the real beauty of the tour is seeing a side to Mumbai that most tourists don’t take the time to explore. Mumbai has a lot to offer from museums to leafy parks and important historical sites. But for me, I learned the most about the city on that dawn exploration, veering away from the touristy stuff and into the heart of the city and those who call it home.
We ended that morning on a neighborhood cricket pitch, bizarrely busy for 7am in the morning. It was packed with people of all ages, out and about trying to improve their skills. I admit, I don’t understand either the rules or the appeal of cricket, but even I couldn’t help but become entranced by the matches. Nearby a group of young boys were training for a sort of yoga using more gymnastic prowess than I will ever possess when, not for the first time, I was humbled by the magnitude not just of Mumbai or India, but the world. It’s impossible for us to mentally understand what 1.3 billion people looks like, much less the lives behind those numbers. But that morning I began to appreciate just how many stories are out there, how many people live their lives diametrically opposite to mine. It’s that feeling of exploration and learning that for me is the most valuable in the travel experience, and it’s one I thoroughly embraced during my far too brief time in Mumbai.