Welcome to India

November 7, 2018 Mumbai, India

Mark and I set out to find the train station this morning, in anticipation of buying tickets to take us to Lucknow once he buys a new bike and gets the paperwork sorted out. His goal is to go up to Nepal straight off – though we’d originally thought to head south to Goa, then gradually work our way north – because his passport, yet again, wasn’t properly stamped (he seems susceptible to this, and gets quite flustered as a result). He has an appointment to look at a bike this evening, a little Honda, and wants to leave as soon as possible, both because he’s grown somewhat weary of Mumbai already, and because he’s antsy to resolve the passport issue.

We walk down to the Chakala metro station and buy a round trip ticket to the last stop, which we think will take us within walking distance of the train station, for 55 rupees. The metro is relatively clean and although the seats are all taken, it has air conditioning, which is lovely given the fact that it’s about 95 degrees again today, and humid. When we alight, we walk toward the exit, but suddenly Mark sees the train tracks. “I didn’t realize this was on the train route,” he says. “We can just catch a train from here.” He goes to the ticket counter and comes back with two return tickets to the main rail station. “It’s called something I can’t remember,” he tells me, “but they just say Ltt.” We can’t find any indication of which platform our train leaves from either on the ticket or on the overhead LED signs, but Mark stops someone and asks and we are pointed to a platform just downstairs. We walk down and wait with a crowd of people for the next train which is due to arrive, according to the sign, in 25 minutes. 

Gradually more and more people wander down and onto the platform. By the time we hear the train in the distance, there are hundreds of us mingling together, anxious to climb aboard. “You might want to ride in the Ladies Compartment,” Mark suggests suddenly, pointing to our right. “It will probably be less crowded, and if you’re in with the men, you might get groped.” Great. I’m debating my options when the train pulls up, all of the doors wide open. I think quickly of our trains (subways, buses, etc) in the US, and how one would never leave nor arrive at the station with the doors less than securely closed. In a wave, the crowd, mob-like, surges forward. People are jumping off while others jump on, everyone in a hurry to transact their move before the train pulls away again. I look at Mark, then at the Ladies Compartment, then back at Mark. “I’ll get off at the next stop and see you there,” I yell over the hubbub, then separate myself from the fringe struggling to climb into the “mixed sex” car and make my way quickly to the now almost deserted cue of women. I grab hold of the metal rail and swing myself up into a throng of bodies, glancing over my shoulder in time to see Mark do the same. We both barely made it aboard in the 20 or so seconds the train was stopped. 

If there are seats anywhere or people sitting, I can’t tell, because we are packed in so tightly I can’t even turn completely in any direction. I’m practically hanging out the door of the car as it is, the ground whizzing by below me. I grip the pole tightly and think that at least there is a breeze, with the door open right in front of me, moving so fast, and it will be so easy to get off as I’m halfway there already. Next to me a young girl is plucking at my back, and I’m grateful that all I put in my backpack was my hat and a bottle of water, on the off chance that she is a pick-pocket. I take turns reaching down with my hands (I don’t dare let go of the pole for even a moment) to smoothe my front pants’ pockets, reassuring myself that my phone and passport are still snugly tucked inside. Momentarily I hear an announcement being made overhead but the voice is so faint I can’t make out any discernible words. The car slows and I prepare myself to jump off, when we lurch to a halt and there is nothing but swathes of track below me. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realize it’s the door on the other side of the car that is facing the station platform, and there is no chance in hell I’ll be able to get over there before the train pulls away. Frantically I look outside my door at the track, estimating how many feet above the ground we are, how much time it would take me to get across the several lines of crisscrossing metal, and wondering if I’d be able to hoist myself up to the platform before the next train arrived. 

I close my eyes for a second while imaginary news headlines parade across my mind: “American tourist, presumed to be mentally deranged, hurls herself off train in Mumbai.” Best to get off at the next platform and work my way back, I think. I start pressing into the wall of bodies, surprisingly hard, in front of me. “Excuse me,” I say over and over. “I have to get off at the next stop.” I get a few smiles, but more dirty looks and resistance. My natural good manners give way to practicality and I start pushing. When the train stops I’ve made it about halfway across the compartment. I grab hold of a woman in a sari who has begun to move in that direction and piggyback my way to the edge of the car, where we all hurdle ourselves out the door en masse. I look in the direction of the next car, the one Mark had crammed himself into, hoping he might have been in the same predicament I was and likewise gotten off at this stop. I wait a minute or so but there’s no sign of him. I give up and make my way up and out of the station, down halls and across bridges, choosing the east exit in hopes that I’ll be able to find the other train station, our original destination, or at least some landmark close by. I wind my way through narrow alleyways where tiny storefronts are packed together, the space between them filled with all manner of refuse and detritus. People are milling about, dogs are lolling lazily on either side of the road, and motorbikes are skittering in both directions. A terrible stench fills the still, fetid air, and though I increase my pace in an effort to quickly be out of here, I feel like I’m moving in circles. Many people are openly staring at me, as if they’ve never seen a Westerner before, while others barely glance my way.

Finally I step out onto a main street and check my phone again for the little blue dot which identifies my location. Without an Indian SIM card in my phone yet, I can only see which direction I’m heading. I walk and walk until I come to the only landmark visible on my screen, a hospital. An older man walking my way stops to ask me if I need help, and I tell him I’m trying to get to the train station. He speaks very little English and just shrugs, but when another man passes, he pulls him in to confer with us. This man too can’t understand what I want, and I’m about to just give up, thank them and walk on, when a young, third man appears out of nowhere. He is handsome, well dressed, and smiling. “Can I assist?” he asks. “Yes!” I reply, perhaps a little too quickly, as he raises an eyebrow. I tell him I am trying to get to the train station, but quickly amend that to metro station, realizing the chances of Mark still being at the train station are slim; by now he has likely gotten the information we needed and returned to the hostel. Luckily for me, this man not only understands where I’m trying to go, but hails the closest tuk-tuk and gives the driver specific instructions to get me there. I thank him and shake his hand, then turn to the other two gentlemen and do the same, before climbing into the tuk-tuk.

I haven’t even sat down before the driver pulls out into traffic. There are no doors, so I brace myself against the thin metal frame in front of me. It soon becomes apparent that I have placed my life in the hands of a suicidal maniac. He darts right, left, down the narrowest of spaces between cars, bikes, trucks and other tuk-tuks, to say nothing of pedestrians and cows, some walking, some lying in the middle of the road chewing their cud, unbothered. He speeds up at any opportunity to squeeze into an empty space and thereby decrease our journey time by a couple of seconds, and more than once I’m convinced we are going to collide with any manner of entity next to us. It feels like a small miracle, again and again, as I contemplate how easy it would be to reach out my hand and touch cold metal, soft flesh, or cowhide, that I don’t see or hear collapse, broken glass, blood or caved in frames.  Eventually, after I’ve abandoned my fate to this stranger, he comes to an abrupt halt. He says nothing, just turns around in his seat to face me. “How much?” I whisper. “One hundred fifty rupees,” he says, holding out his hand. I pay him, then take his hand in mine. “Thank you,” I say. Sweat is dripping down my face, my neck, my stomach. My shirt is sticking to my back, my pants to my legs. He nods, then shakes his head in a small circle, but says nothing. 

I catch the first metro in the direction from whence we began what feels like hours ago. It is clean, cool and luxurious compared to the earlier train. I happily stand up for the duration, watching the doors open and close with a gentle snap. Walking back to the hostel, I think about how glad I will be when Mark gets that bike.

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