A City Within a City


When we think of a slum, a few issues immediately come to mind: poverty, high population densities, poor sanitation and infrastructure, etc. It does not occur to us that a slum can be an incredibly self-sufficient environment where community and industry thrives. Families living in slums are multi-generational, having a legacy that reaches back over 150 years; they call it home.

During our 2nd day in Mumbai, we were treated to an eye opening tour of the Dharavi slum, literally a city within a city, with Reality Tours (thank you, Nano!). With a population of about 1 million spread out over 2 square kilometers, Dharavi is considered one of the most densely populated slums in the world. It is also the most industrious. Dharavi is unlike the cold, dark slum depicted in the film Slumdog Millionaire. This area is in fact colorful and bustling with life.

The recycling industry, which receives recycled wasted from all over the state of Maharashtra and the city of Mumbai, is the most fascinating aspect of Dharavi. Used plastic cutlery, children’s toys, detergent containers and other plastic products are sorted and made into smaller pieces. They are then melted, dyed and reformed into long rods which are cut into small plastic pellets. This raw material is resold to plastic manufacturers. Plastic is just one of the numerous raw materials recycled in the area, along with aluminum and cardboard. It was interesting to see that no factory workers used safety gear even in the most dangerous environments. Our guides explained that though they are provided equipment free of charge, it is considered inefficient and promotes a certain weakness in the wearer.

Dharavi3 Dharavi2

Following our visit to the slum, we went back to Bandra West for lunch and shopping. The group decided to go to Elco, a vegetarian restaurant that specializes in Indian street food. This was a treat since most street food could be potentially unsafe for our Western stomachs! Every dish that the group ordered was a treat for both the eyes and our taste buds. We indulged in Chole Bhature (a massive inflated fried dough served with chickpeas and yogourt), Uttapa (the Indian alternative to pizza served with dipping sauces and broth) and Sev Puri and Dahi Puri, both derivatives of Pani Puri which we first tried during our Bollywood film night. Whereas Pani Puri is a stuffed hard shell, Sev Puri is flat and layered. Dahi Puri was covered in a refreshing and tangy yogurt.


 A visit to Fabindia, as well as its home wares outpost, was what we needed to get our shopping fix for the weekend. The girls bought harem pants and caftans and the guys bought kurtas (collarless shirts) in an array of lush textiles. On our way back to Malavli, we made a pit stop at a roadside McDonalds. This was a necessary visit in order to experience the cultural institution in an Indian environment, complete with paneer burgers and curry powder to shake with their famous fries.

Mumbai- The city that never sleeps

Entering this mega city we’re immediately captivated by the staggering amount of people roaming the streets and taking over the markets. Formally known as Bombay, Mumbai is the capital city of the Indian state Maharashtra. With a population of 18.4 million people this fast paced cosmopolitan thrives and pulsates from the crack of dawn until the wee hours of the night. We began our journey through the sweltering city with the ‘Haji Ali Mosque’. Floating like a mirage in the distance, the mosque is only reachable by a long walkway into the Arabian Sea. As we quickly navigated through people and tons of street vendors or should I say, “Arabian sea vendors” we finally made it to the tomb of the Muslim Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari. Having only been there a few seconds, our striking differences were amplified in such close quarters. We became the new attraction, people came over asking for pictures and some even handed their children over for photo shoots. Our way back was quite the event, but we seemed to be the only ones steering cautiously and trying not to slip from the high tide quickly coming in and splashing onto the long walkway back to the metropolis. For lunch we ate at the world renowned Cafe Leopold. We indulged in classic american food; pasta, fish & chips and burgers! We ate like kings and continued on to spend like them too! The market outside Cafe Leopold stretched out for miles, I don’t think I have ever been so solicited in my life.


After spending most of our money, we walked to the Gateway of India. On February 28th, 1948, the last British troops made their way out of India through this incredible monument. Obviously we were extremely popular, the Gateway of India and foreigners, what more could you ask for in a picture!?

As the sun slowly went down and the city still moved with every last ounce, we made our last stop at the beach. Looking out to a beautiful sunset and admiring everything Mumbai has to offer our day was coming to an end. With the massive city behind us and still craving some familiar food we had pizza for dinner.



Roadside night

What a week! Friday was much more relaxed as we met with our newly formed groups and began talking about our goals and ideas for the projects. We delegated roles within the groups and began thinking of how we might want to orient ourselves on Monday when we revisit the organizations and perhaps begin interviews. We had beautiful warm weather and were able to lie out in the sun as we discussed our plans. (Maybe got a bit too much sun!) The water was out for most of the day, which was a little frustrating, but I think all of us are really beginning to get used to the fact that that happens all the time.

Later on, we had the treat of our first dinner out with the group at Punjabi Dhaba, roadside restaurant. It was delicious! Some of us were very excited at the opportunity to have meat, as we’ve had a vegetarian diet since our arrival. We ordered naan, butter chicken and the Indian cheese-like substance called paneer. It was my first experience with butter chicken and paneer and I loved it. We also tried a beverage called lassi, which to me tasted like the yogurt drink Yop! (also very good). What made this roadside restaurant really cool was that we were seated on woven beds, complete with a little pillow. It was definitely a new and interesting experience and I think we all had a lot of fun. As a beautiful end to the night, we were able to watch the stars from our beds in the open-concept seating area, as well as the brilliant orange moon. Now we’re all packed up and ready to head off to Mumbai for the weekend!





Hey guys, it’s Judgment Day!

Today was decision day, and let me tell you it was not easy, as we had to choose the organization we would be working with for the duration of the trip. We started the day by discussing all three organizations and our thoughts and feelings on them and potential projects.  After a delicious lunch we got back to work making lists of pros and cons for all three organizations. Then we started the difficult task of trying to figure out which two organizations to work with and which one we would have to tell we are choosing not to work with. After this mindboggling decision we had the task of figuring out who was going to work with which group.  We took a break for dinner to have some time to ourselves to think about this choice we had to make by the end of the evening.


During this time we went to get fitted for our sari blouses. We were warmly welcomed into this families house where they had a variety of sewing machines and motioned to us to take a seat on their bed as we took turns getting fitted. We brought our materials that we had previously chosen a few days earlier and got to choose the cut, style and extra embellishments.  Choosing the style, cut and additional bling for the blouse was in in itself many decisions to make.


On the walk home we were passing Farooq’s (Member of ISAC) house where we were invited in to see his home and meet his family. His home was like nothing I have ever seen before; first of all 35 family members live there and it is a huge house with 5 kitchens, many bedrooms common rooms and one dog with his own small hut. As we sat on a swing sipping chai tea something came to my mind that Arron the project director said the other day “In Toronto you become friends with someone and then you invite them over; in India you invite someone over and then become friends.” This is something I hope to take back home with me. After returning back for dinner things seemed to fall into place and everyone ended up content in their groups. The two organizations we will be working with are Shikshangram (an orphanage) and Sadhana (a humans right organization.)


From Bhaja to Bollywood

We make an early start to the day to beat the sweltering heat of the sun as we climb the large uneven steps up to Malavli’s Bahja caves. The caves were carved from the rock face over 2000 years ago by Theravada Buddhists and remain to this day a sight of grandeur. There are 29 excavations in total from a grand hall to monk’s cells, to a water well that still holds clear water, all adorned with intricate carvings and stupas of varying sizes.
While we sit down on the ledge of the caves to rest we can see the Shikshan Gram orphanage we visited yesterday and slightly closer a line of colourfully clothed children making their way through the fields towards the caves. When they arrive they climb up to join us sharing mangos they picked on their way, for some the mango tree was the main reason for the trek.Mangoes We continue to explore the caves with the children often being coerced by their smiles to relinquish our cameras and let them put on the director’s hat


telling us pose. Finally we take one last group shot and pry our cameras out of their hands and make our way back down the stairs trying not to panic as they careen down the beside us, jumping down the four feet gaps of the side rails. When we say goodbye and head back to the guesthouse it feels like an entire day has passed and we haven’t even had breakfast!
After we have eaten we catch the 11:30 train to Dehu Road, seven stops northeast of Malavli, where Sadhana human rights organization is located. Arriving to a warm greeting by its founder Savita and a song about Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Jayanti, who was integral to the Indian constitution after independence. Savita tells us about the many changes Sadhana has affected and their current goals before we tour the Dehu Road cantonment area (definition) and slum. Inside the cantonment there are several communities one that works in metals making jewelry and small tools for their livelihood, another that makes brooms from the surrounding trees. Metal WorkEach community is industrious in it’s own way, yet still condemned to the open sewer systems and limited rights of the cantonment. We conclude our tour by speaking with women who have been able to overcome some of the conditions of the cantonment with the help of Sadhana and continue to push for their rights, whether for themselves or for the next generations of women who will be living where they are now. Listening to their inspirational stories we lose track of time and find ourselves running to catch our train but we make it in plenty of time as it is operating on ‘Indian time’.
As we walk back from the train station it feels as though several days have went by over the past 12 hours but as we shower and rest on the balcony watching the full moon we look forward to our Bollywood movie night and the special treat of street-food style Potpuri to finish off a eventful day.

The Perfect Arranged Marriage of Design with Purpose


Today began with the snooze button, a cup of chai, and otma a vegetarian dish made with semolina flour. This was followed by an energizing ride in a bright yellow school bus that we took to Shikshangram, a shelter for underprivileged children who were previously living on the street, involved in exploitive labour or abandoned by their parents for various reasons. We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Satish Moon and his wife Yogita Moon who are the founders of the organization. Mr. Moon explained that even though each child has their own challenges, they first need and deserve to be loved and cared for. He told us a story about a child named Shankar who didn’t like to keep clean when he first arrived at the shelter. Mr. Moon said that his habits had changed and that one day while wearing clean clothes and looking well kept, he said, “sir, I now feel like I have become a rich man.” Mr. Moon says that children deserve the basic needs of life including love, shelter, food and education. He says that each child is different and that the program uses positivity and education to create change in their lives that will prepare them for the future. There are still thirty to forty million children still living on the street and involved in exploitive labour in India today.

We then met the children of the organization and watched as they performed both traditional and modern dance items for us. We introduced ourselves and answered any questions that they had about Canada. We then discussed potential design work that could be done at the shelter and looked at the construction of a new living space for girls that will be equipped with an amphitheater as well as a separate kitchen and dining area.


In the afternoon we visited another organization called the Bal Anand Gram, which is a home for destitute children, specifically boys who have no parents or single parents. We were greeted with beautiful flower garlands made of marigolds and white flowers. The organization is affiliated with the government and offer boys’ ages 6 to 18 years of age the education that they need as well as food and shelter. These boys come from poor backgrounds where their parents are working long hours and receive a low income and are therefore not able to take care of them sufficiently. Their parents are able to visit and are able to take them back when they are stable enough to take care of them again.

During the tour of the hostel we were introduced some new cultural foods. We were first introduced to a new fruit called amla, which looks like a small pumpkin and tastes similar to a green pepper but is very tart and contains a seed. We also tried a green mango that was prepared with salt and chili powder. We tried a carbonated pop called Limca that tasted like a less sweetened version of Sprite with lime flavouring and were also given Chikki, which is famous dessert snack in Maharashtra.

By the end of the long day we were tired and also had an early night as we are going to wake up early to see the Bhaja caves tomorrow!

Day 1: Let The Aloo Gobi Begin

Dogs, motorcycles, hanging clothes, satellites on shacks next to pristine condo towers 50 stories high… people everywhere, noise, noise, noise and SMELL! This is Mumbai. It’s a bustling metropolis even as we depart the airport en route to home base at 4 in the morning. But Malavli, where we sleep, eat and design over the next 3 weeks, is an absolute paradise. Located on top of a mountain in the Pune district, the elevation blesses us with slightly cooler weather. (Note: this still means 33 and sweat rolling from ungodly places). But the wonderfully lush plant-life, views and surrounding area more than make up for this.


The last few days have served up hot, humid afternoons and deliciously cool mornings and nights. We had Sunday to adjust to the time difference and get to know the area- stopping in the nearby town (Lonavala) for shopping that evening. This is a wild place- their train system (although 45 minutes late) made me feel shameful about my petty TTC complaints. Here you pack cars full of hundreds and, when there’s no room left, leave limbs hanging outside or climb atop the train (why not, right?). When we reached Lonavala, only a stop away from Malavli, we were all reminded that we are not, in fact, one of the locals. We, with our MEC backpacks buckled tightly around us and astonished faces, stood out like soar thumbs. This was probably why our instructor, Sarah, and ISAC staff Farooq brought us straight to two clothing stores. Our group, consisting of 8 ladies and 2 gents, was excited to get down to choosing sari material in one shop and ready-made Indian clothing in the next. We arrived back home late but happy to find a delicious home-made meal on the table, and slept like babies that night.

Town of Malavli

Today we organized ourselves and headed out to orientation in our studio space (a house a few steps away from the one we sleep in). Sarah and ISAC staff member, Aaron, presented our next 3 weeks of the program, and we were introduced to Yusuf Hussain. Father of ISAC founder Safeena, and wildly famous Bollywood actor, Yusuf left us with some great advice to “be what we’re not” and “design our lives.” We left in a daze, slightly star struck, and in hot-pursuit of chocolate ice cream.

You’ll see a few photos here of us grinning as we lick up our melting ice cream, looking forward to sweeter days ahead.  (cheesy, for flavour).


I scream for ice cream. All smiles, ice cream in hand.