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How I Spent My Christmas Completely Lost In The Mountains

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As much as I love Christmas, I felt a lot of pressure about where to spend my holidays while in India. I wanted to be somewhere cool and special for it, but I had no clue where. I found Mumbai not to be too celebratory in those regards.

I’ll just chill at the hostel and let something fall into my lap.

Thus entered Navneeth, who delivered an unexpected adventure right onto my lap!

Navneeth is an Indian on travel in Mumbai from Hyderabad. I saw him over a couple of days at the hostel, but never spoke to him until the 22 of December, just two days before Christmas Eve. We made general, friendly chit-chat. Then he popped the question.

“Would you like to go on a hike with me and a friend over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?” he asked.

“Where at?” I asked.

“A place called Fort Torne, just outside of Mumbai.”

Never heard of it. I already had my laptop open and google image searched Fort Torne. The photos were amazing!

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My answer to him was a definite “heck yeah!”

“But I don’t have any gear…” I began to tell him. “I have a pair of hiking shoes, but no camping equipment.”

“My friend who lives near there will have extra stuff for you,” he said.

Perfect.

The plan was to bus it over to Pune, just three hours east of Mumbai during the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Then, his friend will meet us there and drive us over to the start of the Fort Torne trail. From there, we will hike in the evening to the summit and spend the night under the open stars and wake up on Christmas Day to one of the best sunrises one could ever witness.

The only issue I had was my rumbly tummy. The food in India has been great but I’ve been having to run to go number #2 a lot more than usual lately. As soon as my stomach unexpectedly began to grumble, I literally had two minutes to find somewhere to “drop the kids off” otherwise I’d soil my pants. Luckily, the bus ride to Pune was rumble free.

We arrived in Pune much later than planned. Navneeth was busy running errands before our bus trip which delayed us by a few hours.

“We just have to wait for my friend to meet us,” Navneeth said.

Good, because my stomach began to rumble again. I needed to find somewhere quick but there was no toilet in sight! It was night-time, so I snuck in someone’s backyard and popped a squat under the cover of darkness. Whoever wakes up and comes in this yard tomorrow is gonna find a very unwelcoming surprise. I had to do what I had to do. Besides, there is shit all over the place in India from all the stray dogs and cows anyway.

When I walked back to find Navneeth, he was already joined by his friend.

“Hi!” I said to him. “I’m Daniel.”

“Hello, I’m Bop-It,” he said.

Like…Bop-It?

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“No!” he laughed. “Bapat.”

Bapat indicated that we had a problem. Since we arrived later than planned, he warned us that it was too dangerous to hike at this hour (Midnight) because of leopards.

“Leopards!” I said in somewhat disbelief. “Really, leopards??”

He wasn’t kidding. The highest concentration of wild leopards in the world are right here, just outside of Mumbai.

“We’ll have to sleep a couple of hours in the temples at the bottom of the mountain and then start the trek at 3am,” he said to us. “Just to be safe.”

Leopards? Temples? This sounds like something straight outta Indiana Jones  🙂

He wasn’t kidding about the temple part either. Down at the base of the mountain was a community of temples and shrines we could dwell in. They weren’t exactly made for sleeping but it provided the cover we needed I suppose. Bapat pulled out a few thin mats and laid them on the floor of a small and suitable temple we found. He then opened up a few thin blankets for us to use. Thankfully I brought my travel pillow. We set our alarms for 3am and tried to get some shut-eye.


But it was just too cold.

I barely got a wink as I shivered in my cocoon of shirts and jacket layers. Navneeth barely got any sleep either. 3am came faster than we wanted, but not before a group of ten other trekkers came and disturbed us.

Ten local Indian men, all suited and ready for a hike found us sleeping, woke us up, and suggested we hike with them. Larger numbers means lesser chances of leopards mistaking us for food. Plus, at least one of them had to know the correct way up.

We gathered our belongings and followed the group of ten out of the temple grounds into the foot of the mountain. A stray dog found us and began to follow our pack. It was completely dark but we all had torches at our disposal. Bapat, who’s been to this mountain years before looked confused.

“I don’t think this is the way,” he said. “None of this looks familiar.”

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Our group of thirteen scattered about for a bit trying to find the correct path, but with no success. It seemed like each guy found what they thought was the correct route, but no one could agree on which. Navneeth and I stuck with Bapat.

“Let’s go this way,” he said to us.

We split from the confused group of ten and separated ourselves from them, going forth on our own as originally planned. However, the stray dog decided it was best to follow us as well.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Bapat led us through the thick of the night along half-assed trails. I mean, they were barely trails that guided us through overgrown grass and quick jaunts of forest. Then the trail would disappear and we’d have to find another route. At least it wasn’t cold for the time being. Hiking up and down warmed me up.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We tracked and backtracked on a consistent basis. It was pitch dark outside and we couldn’t see anything more than a few yards in front of us. We wandered for two hours going every which direction until we came to a few trapped dead ends. Where the heck do we go?

Bapat was growing a bit frustrated but no one blamed him. It was way too dark and there was no visible path. The dog continued to follow us without hesitation.

We stumbled upon what appeared to be a small farm, kept by one tiny home just on the forefront. Bapat paused and we decided it’s best we find a place to rest and wait for some daylight, otherwise we’d continue to wander around aimlessly in the dark. We found some hay and soft dirt scattered on the ground just outside the tiny home. We fell on top of it and tried to get comfortable. We stuck together, in the rare chance a leopard did appear. This was gonna be a cold night.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Suddenly my tummy went rumbly. Not right now!

I didn’t make aware of my situation to Navneeth and Bapat but instead, I grabbed the toilet paper out of my bag and casually excused myself for a bit. I walked among the farm field to a log I found where I could pop a squat. To say it was the creepiest poop of my life would be an understatement. My mind went crazy and heard crunching leaves and weird noises as I was doing my business. This would be the perfect opportunity for a leopard to come get me. I quickly buried my toilet paper and went back to the others to fall asleep.

Not much longer after, we heard footsteps nearby.

Was it that group of ten? No, the footsteps we were hearing was the work of one being.

Was it our dog? No, he was right here huddled beside my right leg, loyal as ever.

It turned out to be a very old lady, who spoke a language only Bapat could understand. I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying to each other, but it was in a tone of the utmost formality. I noticed Bapat occasionally referring to her as “maushi”, whatever that meant. The elderly woman would often point to a pile of rubble out in the middle of her crops as she spoke to Bapat. Then she disappeared back into her home.

Bapat told us that in that rubble, underneath the tarp was a pile of old wool and blankets we can rest on until daylight. Then in the morning, Maushi would point us in the direction to the summit of Fort Torne. It’s too risky to continue during the night. We were way off path.

We pulled the tarp off the pile of wool and blankets and plopped down onto its softness. Yes, this was perfect and a lot more comfortable than the temples down below. Maushi came back out to us with a few blankets she brought from inside her home to help keep us warm through the chilly night. We set our alarms for 7am.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

It’s Christmas morning and I’m lost in the mountains, sleeping outside on a pile of wool and hay, on some elderly woman’s farm, with a couple of random Indians I barely know along with a stray dog who won’t leave my side.

I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere nearly as interesting at that moment.

The sun began to show itself, but the three of us were too lazy to budge. We’ve been trekking all night. We awoke, covered in random debris of straw, dirt, and dead leaves.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Maushi was already wide awake, working on clearing some dried bush near crops just down below us. She pointed Bapat in the direction we should be going. Thank you Maushi for your kindness.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

At this point we realized we wouldn’t make it to the summit of Fort Torne in time. Navneeth had a flight to catch later in the day to Hyderabad. Bapat estimated we only had a couple of hours of trekking before we had to turn around, in order to catch the bus back in time for Navneeth’s scheduled flight. So we proceeded to ascend as much as we could, as time allotted.

Fort Torne Trek

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Although we weren’t near the summit, the views surrounding us were absolutely stunning! The early sun cast a gradient of pinks, oranges, and blues in the distance, showcasing the perfect backdrop to the valley of mountains that circled us.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

The creepy hike at night turned into a delight during the day. Sunil Wakde followed us along playfully. Who is Sunil Wakde? It’s the name Navneeth and Bapat decided to give the dog who remained loyal to us. I’m not sure where they got that name from but whatever. He must be really hungry and thirsty.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We ventured upwards for about an hour and spotted a motorbike just beyond the tall grass.

“What is that?”

A few more parked motorbikes popped up on a perfectly paved road. Turns out this is the road that we began on last night but went on an alternate route because it wasn’t familiar to the others. Why wasn’t it familiar? Because this road was newly paved just recently. Before, one had to hike their way all the way up to the top but now with this new road, two-thirds of the hike can be driven up to.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We laughed at our mistake. Our alternate course turned out to be interesting at the least. Still, we continued up, hiking to around 11:30am. We came to a halt and decided we should turn around, in order not to get to the base too late. On the way down, just a few meters below, were a mother and daughter who lived on Torne, in what appeared to be the most beat-up lemonade stand in the universe.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

“We gotta try some,” Navneeth said.

“What is it?” I asked. “Lemonade?”

“It’s Limbu Paani.”

The woman poured some water out of her tin canister into a bowl and added what looked to be a squeeze of lemon and some sugar, and poured the contents into three tin cups. We each took one. I watched Navneeth and Bapat chug theirs down. I held mine in my hand, unsure of whether to drink it or not. The water didn’t look boiled or anything. I didn’t know where it came from. I’ve been careful with the water since I arrived in India and this just looked suspect. The others assured me it was fine and so I took a sip.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Limbu Paani is kinda like lemonade except it’s not good. I wasn’t sure what the heck it was and my instincts told me to stop drinking it. I gave it to the others to finish it off. We continued on, but instead of the beaten path, this time we chose to go down the paved road which took as all the way down to the temples and shrines we began at the night before.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

We found an empty restaurant at the base where we decided to get some quick breakfast.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

My goal was to find food and water for Sunil Wakde, who followed us all the way up and down. There wasn’t anything around I could use as a bowl to pour water, so I snuck a cup sitting on one of the empty tables and filled it with some of my water. Sunil nearly drank half my water bottle! The others told me that I shouldn’t use the cups to feed the dogs because the dishes here aren’t washed very well.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

I figured as much already.

We walked back to the car and began our drive back to Pune, completely satisfied with our morning. Goodbye Sunil Wakde.

My stomach began to rumble again and thank goodness it was now instead of while being on the toilet-less bus!

That would have been a horrible way to cap off one of the most unorthodox, yet satisfying Christmas’ I’ve ever had.

Fort Torne India Hike Adventure

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The Curious Kids Who Led Me Through The Slums of Mumbai

 

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The one thing I knew I wanted to see in Mumbai was the Dharavi slum, one of the largest slums in the world, home to approximately 1,000,000 people; almost 55% of the people in Mumbai!

Upon arrival to my hostel in the Andheri East area of Mumbai, I noticed posts for guided tours through the slums.

Psshh. I didn’t want a tour. I wanted to explore on my own whim and meet some locals there who could give me the scoop. The only things I would miss on a tour was the safety aspect and the information from a knowledgable guide. I didn’t care though. That’s what google is for anyways.

Are the slums really that dangerous?

Will I be a walking target prone to mugging and harassment?

Possibly. Although, I used to volunteer in shanty towns in South Africa and I never felt in any danger. The key to exploring the slum is to do it on my own, with no other backpackers with me. The reason being is because I tend to blend in here a bit. I’m the same complexion as all these locals and don’t get bothered any where near as much as any of the “blonde haired, blue eyed” backpackers that would typically join my party during travels. My hair and beard has grown out a lot longer too which helps with blending in.

I was dedicated to exploring the slums without a tour guide, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have a buddy or two? Two buddies max! So I told my idea to Fin (England), another backpacker I met at my hostel. He was game to join.

And just like that my plan to “blend in” was out the window. But it’s okay. I don’t think it will be that bad.

I did some reading on the slum and if anything, it excited me more. It’s also the same slum where they filmed parts of Slumdog Millionaire. To take precaution, I dressed in my crappiest clothes and only brought a handful of rupees in my pocket. I kept some rupee notes hidden in my right shoe. I left my wallet, watch, and anything valuable back in my dorm. I debated on bringing my phone and ultimately decided to bring it. I’ll keep it as secure as I can.

Fin and I took an Uber to the outside of the slum in the afternoon of the next day. The plan was to be finished before nightfall began, otherwise we might get lost in the hundreds of alleyways in the mazes of the slum.

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We entered into the narrow alleyways of what appeared to be the industrial area. Two people could not walk through side by side. Busy laborers, all of which were men, came and went carrying hunks of goods and chunks of plastic around and about. Wet litter and rodents took over the pathways that we thought would lead to the epicenter of the slum. We saw plastic being chopped into bits and densely packaged into tight boxes. Amazingly, the Dharavi slum is known to rake in millions of revenue from its vast recycling efforts even though India has no government waste management system or recycling program. Dharavi truly is a recycling phenomenon. We were barely given a glance, as the slum dwellers were mostly engaged into their duties. Eventually we stepped into what appeared to be the main street that cut through the slum.

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We were in another world compared to the Mumbai we were used to. It was like a city within a city, except this city was bustling with the upmost of everything absolutely hectic-even when compared to the craziness of the outer Mumbai metropolis. Rickshaws and cars that were way too big to be driving through honked constantly and without pause. There were people of all ages everywhere around going in every which direction. Small groups of slum kids ran about, mostly barefoot, flying their skimpy kites. Stray, beat up mutts roamed the grounds, some laying in patches of dirt dead-smack in the middle of the road. Goats everywhere. It was dirty and as filthy as I imagined. Fin and I were in the middle of it, a bit rushed in the head by the scene of it all.

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I read that it was frowned upon to take photographs, but to be fair, most of the photos of the locals are ones I took with their permission. Still, I was uneasy about pulling out my giant phone. One quick snatch and then I would lose the culprit to this elaborate maze. I was more careful than I’ve ever been.

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We followed the main road to the edge of the slum walls. Along the main road is a bridge that takes you all the way on the other side of the slum. We decided to go up there and follow it. As we went up the metal stairs, a group of four kids came up to us with smiles on their faces. Four boys around the age of eleven.

They were full of ‘hellos’ and ‘namastays’ but their English was broken. I could barely understand them when I asked them their names. We made short chit-chat before I asked them if they could show us around. These kids would be the perfect guides! They can show us the cool stuff that regular tourists don’t ever go to. They didn’t understand my request, but after some hand gesturing, they understood and happily agreed.

“Come!” said one of them. And so we did. We followed them down the steps back into the main street.

We followed without question. They led us onto another bridge that took us just outside of the slum.

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“Where are they taking us?” I asked Fin. Not like he would know the answer or anything.

The boys had a respectable English vocabulary but didn’t know how to put the words together into sentences. So most of the time, their communication was just a word or two at a time. From that we had to make sense of what they were trying to tell us.

“Beach!” said one of them as they pointed ahead. “You will swim?”

I guess we’re going to the beach, but I ain’t swimming. The boys were all about it though.

Once we approached the beach, we walked into a carnival that was being dissembled. This was the most beat up carnival I’ve ever seen. Still the boys were eager to show us and they asked some of the workers there if we could go onto some of the rides. Not to actually ride them, but to just go onto them. The worker looked at us and then gave a head bob which meant ‘ok’.

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Afterwards, we walked onto the shore which reeked of sewage and piss. And just like anywhere else in Mumbai, there was trash everywhere. It was actually pretty sad to see. We walked closer to the ocean filled with India’s pollution. The boys went right in.

 

While we were there, one of the boys picked up a bag of gravel from someone that he intended to carry back to the slum. He slung it over his shoulders and carried it with all his might. It looked kinda heavy. We offered to carry it back for him but he kindly refused. All four boys took turns carrying the giant sack of gravel before they finally gave in and let Fin and I carry it back. I stopped to get water for myself and offered to get some for the boys but they kindly refused.

These kids are so self reliant and wouldn’t take anything from us initially.

They guided us through more of the slum before we paused.

I fully intended on giving a few rupees to a local we met that would show us around. I wasn’t sure how I would give money to these kids without causing a scene.

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100 rupees equals to about $1.50 USD. That would be suitable for each kid. It may seem like nothing but 100 rupees can last a couple of days here. I brought the kids into a quieter alleyway as not to whip out my rupees in the public. I handed each kid a 100 rupee note and off they went. Not before they were arguing and bickering. I think a fifth kid came out of nowhere and took one of their notes. Still, it didn’t sit quite right giving a kid money. I much rather would have given it to the parents of their families. When I suggested that to one of them, he made a face-slapping motion with his hands, indicating his mother would slap him. I didn’t question him. I just left it as is as they ran off and waved goodbye.

Fin and I had to find ourselves out of the slum before it got dark. We had no idea where we came from either, so we just walked through the alleys of any one direction.

We walked through several residential and school areas where the kids rode their bikes past us back and forth, smiling and saying hello. As a matter of fact, the kids in the slum always said hello to us. The adults did not. But still the adults never came up to us and begged for anything, unlike the outside world of the slum. It’s crazy how the people here are less intrusive than the ones out in the open world.

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We stumbled into what I believe was the women’s sector of the slum. Either that or the men were all out working. I deduced that based on the fact that there were dozens and dozens of women and children with no men in sight. Should we even be here? Fin and I, two adult men, were the only males among hordes of Indian women. None of them gave us a weird look. They just walked past us and went about their business. We could venture further into the sector but I wasn’t sure if it was rude to do so and plus the day was beginning to fade. We have to leave.

We rickshawed it back to our hostel, pooped from walking all day.

It’s strange to say but the slum was impressive. It’s what many people may consider an eyesore but it was definitely a sight to behold beyond its cover. The people there were hard working, busy souls who didn’t bother us one bit. I felt just as safe there as anywhere else.

But I wasn’t completely satisfied. I felt like there was more to see. I read up more about Dharavi once I got back to the hostel. Now that I was better informed, I needed to revisit.

A few days later Mischa, a backpacker I met in Goa came up to Mumbai wanting to visit the slum as well. I was able to revisit the slum and show him the ropes.

We went on a bit of a tasting spree, to pump some rupees into the community. Of course we had to try the chai tea here among others.

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We spent more of the day exploring the sights, without anyone wanting to bother us. Everyone was busy doing their daily chore. Like tiny ants in a complex ant farm, they all had a vital role to play.

Amazing.


To My Fellow Eager Adventurists:

*The Dharavi Slum is definitely a sight to behold and what I consider a must-see. However, I found that most tourists opt for the priced guided tour as opposed to just walking in freely as I did. With the tour, know that most of the money you pay is invested into the slum community and you gain a wealth of information from a knowledgable guide. If you do decide to venture on your own, please be respectful. Try your best not to take photos and if you do, make sure it’s not intrusive. If taking a picture of a local, get their permission first. The slum dwellers were friendly and I never felt in any danger. The kids there will love to show you around! Don’t linger during the night hours where things could get dangerous, just like anywhere else in the world*

Happy Adventuring!