Misadventures In Mumbai

The following excerpt is translated from Hong Mei's new book The Farther I Walk, The Closer I Get To Me, which follows her one-year backpacking journey across India, she is the first Chinese female on record to do so. Hong Mei and travel photographer Tom Carter will be speaking together at Shanghai’s M Glamour Bar on 14 September.

Like a caravan of camels, the motorcade of police cars and paddy wagons snakes slowly through the meandering alleys of Dharavi, the world’s largest slum. Tom and I are in the back of one of the wagons, staring forlornly out of the barred window. Locals peer in to catch a glimpse of the captives – us! We are on our way to an Indian jail.


A few days earlier

We arrive in Mumbai in good spirits. We came up by train from the white-hot beaches of neighbouring Goa, along the coast of West India. From the palace-like Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, we hop onto a bus to Colaba district.

We check in to the Salvation Army Guesthouse, the cheapest accommodation in Mumbai. There are other guesthouses, but they are terribly small and filthy. The only other option is unaffordable five-star hotels.

We spend our days wandering Mumbai, taking photos. At dusk, we sit on the front steps of the Salvation Army, sipping ice cold Slice and reading White Tiger. Touts approach us. “Hey man”, a cool Indian guy in reflective glasses says. “You want to be in a Bollywood movie”? He has our attention, but knowing touts, we proceed cautiously.

The next morning, at the meeting spot, there are fifty other foreigners also waiting to be Bollywood stars. Turns out, we are all just extras. They bus us out to DY Patil Stadium. We expected singing and dancing and glamour, but it’s just a movie about cricket, India’s favourite sport.

Nine blonde backpacking boys from our hostel are chosen as the cricket players. Tom is disappointed; he’s not blonde, and actually passes for Indian because of his Goa tan. However, he is the tallest and, surprisingly, selected as the tenth player and given a cricket uniform. The other extras and I are sent high up into the empty stadium seats. In post-production, they will digitally multiply us into 60000 spectators.

Beneath the scalding sun, we watch from the distance as the “team” films and refilms a single scene of the fake cricket game. The film’s star, Shahid Kapur, dives to catch a ball and wins the game. Tom and the other extras run to embrace their hero.  The vainglorious Mr Kapur stops the shooting to fix his hair. He does this every five minutes. This is not an exaggeration. Months later, in Delhi, we watch Dil Bole Hadippa! Tom’s appearance is mere fractions of a second. Shahid Kapur’s hair looks fabulous.

The next day, the touts find us again. We fall for it and meet at the Gate of India for our next Bollywood acting gig. It’s just a Samsung cell phone commercial. No dancing. The star is Aamir Khan, we’ve seen him on posters all across India for Ghajini and, later, 3 Idiots. Tom and I are relegated to playing tourists in the background. In the afternoon, we are sent to a studio. The extras are directed to stand around Mr Khan in a prop subway car. I’m right in front of him! My heart thumps. I steal a snapshot and the director yells at me. When we see the commercial online later, Tom is there, but only the top of my head; I’m too short!

With the 500 Rupee payment from our Bollywood debut, we book a “reality” tour in Dharavi slum, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. No photos are allowed. Tom is dissatisfied. Now that we know how to get here by train, we go back to the slum the next day, unescorted. Tom insists on photographing the patchwork of corrugated metal rooftops from a high vantage point. We walk into the grounds of the highest nearby apartment complex. I wait in the stairwell while Tom walks up to the top.

A man interrogates me. “What are you doing here”, he shouts. “Who are you with?” I wonder where Tom is with distress. He finally comes back downstairs. Some mean men lock the gates of the front door and won’t let us leave the building. They accuse us of trespassing. They are all shouting at us. “Pay us or we will call the police”, they say. We won’t pay.

The police come. Not one, but an entire convoy of cars and paddy wagons. Sirens and lights fill the slums of Dharavi. Is this real? Are we in a Bollywood movie again? We don’t know if the police are arresting us or saving us! “I’m so sorry baby”, Tom says. “This is my fault”. We don’t let go of each other’s hands. They bring us to the police station and request our passports, then start filling out paperwork. I’m Chinese! For the first time in India this concerns me. I could be deported…



India Through Chinese Eyes

Travel photography, bilingual talk and book launch with author couple, Hong Mei and Tom Carter.

With her debut travelogue, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me, author Hong Mei becomes the first Chinese woman to backpack across the entire Indian subcontinent.

Alongside her husband, travel photographer Tom Carter, the couple deliberately selected off-the-beaten path regions and survived on an extremely limited budget as they drifted for nearly one year across the length and breadth of India.

From 4pm on Sunday 14 September at Shanghai’s Glamour Bar, Hong Mei and Tom Carter will be debuting their new book and discussing the transforming nature of independent travel while presenting a photo slideshow of India’s brilliantly diverse life and culture. An inspiring event for solo travellers as well as families!

RMB 75 (includes a drink). The Glamour Bar. 6/F, 20 Guangdong Lu, near Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu. Tel: 6329 3751. Web: www.m-theglamourbar.com