Saturday, March 17, 2007

trainspotting and no birdspotting

Ever since I arrived I've heard notorious stories of the local trains. Some people just frown and tell me with great seriousness that I shouldn't attempt to ride a train, others laugh and then still frown a little and tell me I'm crazy to want to go take one. I had seen the people hanging out the doors so nonchalantly and heard of them even sitting on the roof! I read in the fantastic local magazine Time Out Mumbai (only 30 rupees every two weeks!) that at peak hours you get 16 people to every square metre in the compartments... first class or otherwise! They tell me the womens' compartments are even worse, with girls pulling hair and fighting to get in ;) Sounds a riot! Well.... I guess I didn't really want to go at peak hour but I definitely had to try this experience on for size.

The perfect opportunity arose last week when one of our pipeline guys, a brilliant photographer, Chingkhei, sent mail out to the company asking if anyone was interested in a trip to the east side of the city to try and shoot the flamingos before they left for the season. Chris and I both jumped at the chance.... though as it turns out Chris was a little worse for wear after an all-night drinking escapade with the newly-formed india-fulltight group. Let me briefly explain... I had suggested we form an email alias for folks who would like to go out and partake of a drink or three on a regular basis... and thus was born india-fulltight! I couldn't go for the inaugural night.... I'd been feeling kinda sick for days and my stomach was in no shape... but I heard the die-hards were out until nearly 6am. Hardcore babeee! I don't quite know how Chris made it out with us really!

We met Chingkhei at the Infinity Mall near my house, and got an auto to the Andheri train station. Even that was a ride in itself.... longer than I expected and on really rough roads, but through some especially colourful and exciting looking local markets that I would love to explore. We felt pretty rattled when we arrived... but three to an auto holds you in pretty tight! The story of Aditya's auto flipping over at the end of the "fulltight" night before was not reassuring however! Lucky he was a little drunk... and not hurt at all ;)

So.... we arrive at the train station and I instantly love it. It truly is the hub of life in Mumbai.... I think half the population at any one time is at a station! That's a joke of course... but it's such a bustling lively place with so many kinds of people coming and going. I could sit there for hours. We had to stay on our toes to keep up with Chingkhei as he pushed through the crowds towards the ticket lines. I was fascinated... my eyes darting every which way trying to take it all in. The signs and colours. It would take me a while to figure out which train I would need, certainly, but Chingkhei had printed train maps and he surprised both of us by barging straight up to the front of a very long line to the ticket window... even in front of the person who was there. He explained later that if you're buying first class tickets you don't have to wait in line! I think Chris and I both had the same 'pit-of-the-stomach' feeling though.... it felt more like 'the white folks pushing in to get tickets' to us.... but before you could blink Chingkhei was back with our return trip tickets to Sewri. 104 rupees was the cost per person for first class. It seemed like a bargain... but when compared to the weekly passes, let alone the regular fares we were definitely paying the top end.

We then found our way to the correct platform and sat waiting for the train. It was an excellent chance to people-watch... and of course - be watched. I feel pretty comfortable with being a spectacle most of the time here - I think it's healthy to be out of your element and I am fascinated by the interest people show. It ranges from mild curiosity, to shy glances that break into smiles after a response, shocked stares, and of course there's always the guys that think all western women are not much more than prostitutes. Don't enjoy that so much.... but you have to take the bad with the good. 90% of the time it's all good and you can get some really great moments out of it. The security guards at my building gave me serious and mistrustful looks as I walked by to get the auto every morning. But I raised my hand in the salute of greeting so often used here, and smiled a 'hello' or 'namaste'. Now I get big smiles and nods from them in the mornings... I knew I would break them ;)

It was pretty hot on the platform - we were catching the train at about 2pm - and with the summer coming fast the temperature was in the 30's and a bit sticky. The rush of cool air as the trains poured in to the platform was welcome. When our train arrived we quickly got up and headed to the first-class carriage. We knew not to be fooled by the moniker, it's only first class because of some padding on the seats and less people able to afford to go it in it... hence potentially less crowded. But it's simple and grimy and real and I loved it. We got seats and I took some photos... the other men on the train thinking I was a loony I'm sure. ;)

I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Firstly... it was SMOOTH.... a travelling sensation I realised I hadn't felt in so long. Even when we're in a fancy modern car we're still at the mercy of the bumpy Bombay roads ... and suddenly we were gliding along with not a ripple. It was wonderful. People came and went and we counted down our stations. I could have sat there for quite a long time though... just enjoying the ride. I'm sure it makes a big difference when you catch a train like that from the beginning of its route as well. Guaranteed a seat ;)

At Sewri Station it was quite different. There was a lot of loud noise, strong smells I won't describe to you (teehee), and people rushing everywhere. We weren't sure which way to go.... but it turned out we had to walk right along side the train tracks and out across some other tracks to head towards the mud flats. As I saw people just casually walking all over the tracks I could see how it was that so many are killed by trains each year. It seems so odd to see them walking along the tracks themselves... I kept waiting for the voice of a guard to call out and stop them... but it's just normal here.

Chingkhei asked several people for directions to the waterfront.. and we headed down streets bordered with small restaurants and tea stands. We were definitely firangs in a foreign land ;) ...everyone stared... this was right away from the main city and much more like some other parts of India in the feel of the street life. As we walked further and further on, it was as if we left Mumbai behind and entered a poor industrial village. It was very muddy and the people were of tiny wiry build - hard physical labourers you could tell. But lovely grimy kids with big smiles and "hello auntie how are you", laughing as we came by. Suddenly we hit a little mound of dirt and mud.. climbed over and onto a 'road' being used by big trucks - we were right in some industrial zone and away from everything now. There was mud everywhere and we appeared to be walled in from the sea by a giant concrete and barbed wire wall that looked impenetrable. We headed along... avoiding the puddles as best we could, past derelict worksites, trucks and workmen playing cards. They didn't look up, which I admired. There also seemed to be more cards on the muddy ground than on the table ... so I don't know what the state of the game was!

Eventually we reached a street again... and I saw a sign pointing to the Sewri MudFlats. A concrete jetty with seemingly abandoned but actually very much alive boats, marked the spot. We could see the tide was going out as we saw mangroves poke their heads above the water. We walked around one side along the rocky beach, littered with items of clothing that looked like they had once belonged on a Bollywood film set.... glittering purples, yellows and reds, all covered in dirt and torn and battered. No more life left in them. It was sad to see so much litter along the coastline, but inevitable that the dirt from the streets would find itself into the environment like this.

It was pretty clear that we weren't going to find any flamingos. We kinda realised as we looked though, that there would be many hiding places for them along the spreading coastline towards the distant power plant.. and if I was a flamingo I probably wouldn't have hung out right next to the jetty where the people were! There was a pleasant breeze though, and after all the walking and hot sun it was very welcome. A man near us invited us to come aboard one of the boats to take photos of the flats from a closer view, so we braved the 'plank'... a precarious gangway, and stood there for a long time taking it all in.

We began to notice the different kinds of terns and gulls that were flying around... all fishing from the air. They would hover and dive from a great height into the water to come out with a fish. Quite dramatic. Chingkhei was taking lots of photos with his big lens... I didn't take mine out as I just didn't feel I was good enough to take that kind of shot. Manual focusing in mid-air on a flying bird?... I need a little more practise before I do that ;)

The train ride home was even better. More crowded this time, we had to stand, and after a while I took the position by the open doorway with Chingkhei. There is something very freeing about standing there, holding onto the centre pole, head out into the rushing wind, your body feeling the power of the train move through space. You could fall out without anyone even noticing, and it's a heady rush. Nothing to these seasoned Mumbaikers I know.... but for lil' ole kiwi me it's most fun and I look forward to my next journey on the local trains.

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