Saturday, February 4, 2012

Around the World: Leaving Bombay

February 4, 1992

The sun has just peeked over the horizon and I am eager to put some distance between me and this cockroach infested hotel. Bombay has three train stations, Churchgate, Victoria and Bombay Central.  I'm hoping to get on a train headed towards Aurangabad, close to the Ellora and Ajanta caves.  I have no idea which station is the right choice, so I'll try my luck at the one that seems to be the busiest.  I find a taxi and ask the driver to take me to Bombay Central station.

The taxi ride is just as harrowing in the daytime as it was last night, only the traffic is thicker and the occasional wayward cow just adds to the chaos.  The guidebook mentions that Bombay is overcrowded, but what I see goes beyond this polite description.  The sidewalks are a subdivision of shelters, seemingly constructed from whatever materials were available.  It would be grossly inappropriate to describe these cardboard and corrugated metal structures as homes, but that's apparently what they are.  Few are larger than the size of the box used to ship a refrigerator. 

Photo courtesy of The Hindu

Arriving at the information counter, I ask when the train to Aurangabad is leaving.  The clerk tells me this train doesn't leave from Bombay Central.  I have to catch it at Victoria station.

I find another taxi and endure another white knuckled drive through Bombay's over crowded streets to Victoria station, where the clerk at the information desk informs me that the train I want leaves from Bombay Central.  At midnight.

It's now 9am, and the taxis of Bombay have me sufficiently traumatized. Another taxi ride is out of the question.  Logic presents me with two indisputable facts.  One: I have an Indrail pass that allows me unlimited travel without needing to make a reservation on India's railway network.  Two:  I am at a train station.

I can go anywhere if I can figure out how to get there.  I can still go anywhere, even if I don't know where I'm going.  Right now, "Anywhere" sounds like a great place to be and wherever it is, it has to be better than here.  I resolve to consider any and all available options before insanity claims what remains of my ability to have a rational thought.

While I have the attention of a clerk who seems willing to be helpful, I want to know what he knows.  "Is there an earlier train that goes near Aurangabad?"


"Are there any trains that leave from this station?"

"Which train?"

"Any train."

"Yes, trains leave from here."

"Is there one leaving soon?"

"Going where?"


"Yes," he replies patiently.  "One is leaving in a few minutes for Mad Man." 

So, I don't have to go insane after all.  I can take a train there. Oh, goody! "What platform do I go to?"  Whether he has named an actual place or insulted me is of no consequence.  He points me to the platform that will take me away from Bombay and I couldn't be happier.

Unreserved seating in 2nd class on an Indian train. 
Expect to share your seat.

I am, at the moment, the only person on this train.  The seating is bare-bones basic, to the point that I wonder if I will soon be joined by luggage and parcels.  The platform has a putrid stench that makes me wish I could cram durian fruit into my nostrils.  It's beyond gross. The train continues to sit in the station for 40 more minutes, while I am besieged by constant pleas from beggars.  Eventually, other passengers board, including four Indian men who occupy the seats across from me and collectively, they pepper me with questions about where I am from and requests for various items from my country.  Just before the train is ready to leave, the platform is swarmed with people trying to get on the train.  Behind the crowd are several men, all dressed in bright red and white, shoving the crowd forward, I'm guessing to speed up the boarding process.

The countryside is uniquely beautiful and rugged.  Mountains in the distance beyond the open spaces of bush freckled desert.  It is a drastic difference from the densely crowded streets of Bombay.  When the train is in motion, there is a tangible sense of relief, like a blanket of solace that is abruptly shredded to bits by the bedlam at each station stop.  The platforms are always full of insistent vendors hurriedly trying to sell food and drink through the windows and the in-your-face hands of beggars that board the train.

Rural Maharashtra
Photo by Nichalp, Creative Commons

Every eyeball in this car is looking at me.  At first, I thought it was just paranoia, but after a careful survey of eyeballs, the evidence is conclusive.  I am being stared at. It's not in any way threatening or adversarial, in fact there is a distinct absence of expression.  At first it is amusing to stare back with a friendly smile and a little wave or a nod, just to see if I can elicit some reaction.  More often than not, my efforts are unsuccessful.  I can't say I'm getting used to it.  Although I was told to expect it, I find it takes a great deal of effort to ignore.

And then I notice the guy sitting across from me has six toes!  Now I have something to stare at too!

It is getting late in the afternoon and I realize I should find a place to bunk for the night.  The train will be soon be arriving in Jalgaon, where transportation to Aurangabad is very likely possible.  The guidebook states that there is also a cheap hotel for 125 Rupees close to the train station.  When I arrive, I am thrilled to discover there is a restaurant in the lobby as I have not eaten anything since the flight from Hong Kong.  It's not the best chicken curry and rice I've ever had, but food has never tasted so good.  The best part is my room.  When I turned on the light, nothing scattered or scurried into the walls, a comforting fact that makes me gasp with a combination of delight and relief. 

• ¤ •

People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness.  
Just because you're not on their road doesn't mean you've gotten lost.  
~H. Jackson Brown