Surviving Mumbai: From the Airport to Victoria Station – India, Asia

The flight from London was long, about eight hours and with the time difference, it was 12 hours later when I finally touched down in Mumbai. Taxiing in, I saw my first bits of India from ground level: shacks next to decent-looking houses, trucks and airport equipment busy being used or used up, palm trees and hazy sunshine. The air conditioning in the terminal was minimal at best. I learned later that most things in India are like that, busy being jury rigged, old and/or not functioning properly, if at all. The airport, once a military installation, was no exception. From a distance, vents, light fixtures, etc., everything looked ok, but upon closer inspection, you could see things were a little askew; no two things were quite the same.

India is like that
I got my bag, went through customs – an army man took a ticket from the bottom of my entry/exit card, no security, no x-ray – and outside I went to find my ride. There were about fifty drivers on the sidewalk with signs and different names. Not one of them was mine. Good thing I had the driver’s cell phone number. I called, he answered and said. "Yes, my friend, we are ready to pick you up, 11:55 tonight, yes?" Oops! I know I told him A.M., not P.M. There I was in a crazy place with my backpack, and I'm on my own. Yikes.

As I was hanging up the phone, a Sikh man approached and asked if I "need taxi". A South African couple and I followed him to a little yellow and black taxi. I negotiated the fare for myself, 400 rupees, a good deal I thought. The driver from the inn wanted to charge me 1,200 rupees.

The ride was an experience. Mumbai is total chaos. The driver took us past makeshift shacks and tents with dirty and hungry people, living in extreme squalor. Mere words cannot describe this level of poverty. And there was this odor – people living, dying, sleeping, excreting, washing, cooking, mixed with exhaust, smoke, rotting things, chemicals, everything. The smell was not unfamiliar, not even unbearable to me as it is to some. I've smelled New York, but Mumbai is not for the weak of heart and stomach.

An hour later, we reached Pilahouse Naka in Mumbai Central. Mumbai Central is about as far as you can get from a tourist area. In fact, I had not seen one westerner in the hordes of trousered and collared pedestrians. A thin man in a grey “uniform” came out as I was getting my things from the taxi. He motioned to a door. No sign, just a door. Cautiously I asked him if it was the Anukool. He nodded, and with a smile that gained my trust said, "Yes, yes, come!"

I stepped inside and saw a desk and stairs. It was the accommodation. An attendant brought me upstairs to show me my room: dark, with a fan, and one dingy window, a shared bathroom, equally dodgy. Going back downstairs, I requested the private AC room – dirty, but in the heavy heat of that city, it was worth the extra money. The place did not at all resemble what they had posted on their web page. I don't know where that place was, but it was certainly not here, nor anywhere near this neighborhood. Perhaps my taxi driver was right; I should have flown straight to Goa.

Mumbai – in doses
No matter what you read, see, or hear, nothing can prepare you for the stark human reality that is the former Bombay. Tomorrow is another day. Next morning I met Tejas, my non-existent airport driver. He was apologetic, though I told him "no problem", as Indians are fond of saying. Tejas turned out to be quite a nice fellow, and helpful in giving me information on getting my tickets. Foreigners must go to the "Foreign Tourist Quota Agency" to purchase train tickets. More paperwork, I thought. India is the land of paperwork. I was directed to take a taxi to Church Gate Station; the office was on the second floor across the street. Tejas told me it would cost around 40 rupees. One should always ask the price to avoid being "taken for a ride". When you get taken in India, it is only for a dollar or so.

I got another good dose of Mumbai on that taxi ride. People in India dress well; light trousers and collared shirts, even the laborers hauling stones and dirt in the oppressive humid heat are nicely attired. The only ones who wore anything shorter than long pants were the “untouchables". They were everywhere, digging in the mud and trash, begging and sleeping in the street, dirty and hungry, many with leprous-looking skin and horrible disfigurements.

Taxis are everywhere too, as well as motor rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, carts, dogs, people, and, of course, the sacred and skinny cows. Taxi drivers know their vehicle size; they weave in and out of the traffic, honking their horn at every movement. Horns are a way of saying, "I am here". Passing into oncoming traffic at 50 kilometers is considered normal.

Mumbai is constantly being torn down and rebuilt, all at the same time. "New" construction is dirty, poorly maintained, everything is used and used up, then picked apart until nothing can be used anymore. After that, it is picked over again by the pariahs, and the rubbish thrown randomly. Colorful signs and advertisement are all over, many cartoonishly hand painted, others with strange quasi-western wording, sometimes humorous, though unintended.

Arriving at Church Gate, I pried my white knuckles apart, paid the driver 40 rupees (metered taxis are the only way to go, otherwise, the fare is arbitrary). I saw the sign for the Tourist Quota Office and went in. To my relief, there were a few westerners at the far end of the room, filling out forms, looking as confused as I. Filling out the forms was the easy part; getting the tickets was trying and tiring.

Just as we completed the forms, the staff stepped out for their lunch hour, leaving the windows unattended and us waiting. They returned, we queued. When the couple before me was next in line, the helpful woman behind the counter informed us that the computer was "down". We waited. She informed us the computer would not be operational for another hour, maybe longer. They are open until, well, 4:30, fortunately.

The couple, a British chap and a German girl in their early twenties, decided there might be safety in numbers if the three of us ventured out to find something to eat. Luckily for us, the neighborhood was a little easier to understand than Mumbai Central. A few blocks and several daring street crossings later, we settled on a "Chinese" restaurant across from the India Cricket Club on the Veer Nariman Road. It looked a little upscale from the rest, so we went in. There was a buffet for 250 rupees (expensive), and though it went against the advice of my "healthy travel" book, we opted for it. The food was fresh, well prepared, and hit the spot.

Tickets, by the way, can only be purchased at the Foreign Tourist Quota agency, or one can pay a travel agent a commission to do the legwork. They must be paid for in foreign money such as British pounds, American dollars, or Euros, for which the conversion rate is posted on the wall and calculated by hand. Rupees are acceptable only if one has kept the receipt from the exchange bureau; even then, they may not like it. The poor sap who does not have either can pay by credit card, which requires waiting an hour in another queue at another window, then going back to the ticket window after being approved.
Finally, at about half past three, I wished my newfound friends luck, got my ticket and left.

There are two trains from Mumbai to Goa per day; one at 6:55 a.m., and another at 11:55 p.m. The train takes 12 hours. There are three classes. Third class is a chair car, has no air conditioning, people cram into the aisles, men hang out the doors, windows are barred holes with the children and women looking out of them into the dusty heat. Second class sleeper is not air conditioned, though there are private cabins with beds and the same type of windows. The air conditioning coach has bunks, six at a time on one side, and two on the other. The bottom bunks fold up into bench seats on the one side, and two chair seats on the other.

I took the early morning train. I needed to get out of this chaotic and tragic city.

There isn't much to do in Goa, pubs are rare. The sadness of the diseased, begging children in the streets is hard to bear. I can wish the best for them, but I know their lives have little hope. They live and die in conditions we cannot imagine. The caste system still goes on. For 50 years it has been outlawed, but a thousand years' indoctrination does not change so quickly.

I bid the lizard on the wall in my room goodnight, and slip off to sleep. I have been here only 36 hours; it feels like weeks.

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