India: All Aboard

“…there are no rules. It’s like check-in at an Italian airport.” - Jack Donaghey, 30 Rock

Sunday morning I questioned my sense of adventure that day. Was it registering on the low end, meaning maybe I’d just take in a movie? Or was I feeling bold, bold enough to navigate the local train system by myself in order to get out of dodge (aka South Mumbai) for a bit? Much like taking a taxi and selecting my own lunch, riding the trains – alone, no less – was something I’ve been sheltered from since the beginning.
(Weekend morning routine - coffee and Skype.)

One extra sip of coffee sludge pushed me into feeling bold and/or bored enough to toss myself into the Mumbai local rail system. I’ve only just returned to India and it probably sounds ludicrous when I tell you I was bored but let’s be real, how many of you do touristy things every single weekend when you’re home? Not a one of you and me neither. Because this is “home” for me right now, I am trying to find ways to feel like I have a normal weekend that isn’t necessarily full of cultural, mind-expanding excursions. This meant I needed to do something with a purpose beyond “seeing stuff.” What could I do? Shopping. Like, running errands rather than souvenir hunting.

Shallow, superficial, typical? Yes. But this weekend (and perhaps this whole trip) was about being normal, being in control, not feeling like a foreigner on a very, very long holiday. What would necessitate going to a fancy mall rather than shopping at the local joints? Make-up. Clinique products with SPF, to be exact. Because we’ve all learned how challenging it is to find shades on the fair end of the spectrum here.
I set my sights on the big mall in Lower Parel, which is about 11k from my hotel and is reachable by a short walk beyond the local Lower Parel train station. Google showed me where to wander once outside the station and this nice little article filled me in on some of the train basics. The trains are legendary in Mumbai. They are utter madness during peak hours and exhibit regular levels of Indian chaos/disorder during the lulls. I found no baseline info about fares but I confirmed that 11:00am on a Sunday is perhaps the best time to try the trains (ridership is lowest then) and that I should look for groups of women on the platform as a sign of where to stand while waiting for the ladies’ compartment to pull up. I like trying new things but I was not about to be the lone woman in a train car full of men.

At Churchgate station, the end of the Western Railways lines and the start of my journey, my naiveté led me to pay 10x more for my ticket than needed. The ticket seller said “eight” and I heard “eighty” so she handed me back two rupees and hopefully pocketed the profits from my mistake.

But let’s stop for a second here. Eight rupees for a round trip ticket on Mumbai’s more expansive equivalent of the New York subway. Eight rupees. Sixteen cents! And I thought my $1.60 was still a deal!

Trains were pulling in and out of the station so consistently you’d think it was Monday morning. I hopped on one and sat down within the company of a handful of women, all beautifully dressed in saris and looking fresh as daisies. My t-shirt and shorts were rather casual compared to them but I held my own. That is, until the fans kicked on in the train. (Riding companions not pictured, clearly.)

Sweet lawd was it hot in the train. Hotter than the air outside. We hadn’t even reached our first stop and I was sweating through my shirt. Sitting in this rotisserie was not an option. Open doors, here I come. People hang out the train doors while zooming through the city, not because the operator forgot to push the “close” button but because the doors always stay open. Open doors allow you to jump on and off while still in motion, to pack five more bodies in where doors would normally sit, to get fresh air in an otherwise stifling box. Once I stopped thinking about the millions of lawsuits this would bring about in the US (thanks to having parents in risk management and law), I held on to the railing and poked my head outside. Now I get why Hudgins and Charlotte do this on every car ride. You see so much more and it feels comparatively great! My train ride lasted about fifteen minutes. We pulled into Lower Parel and I disembarked only after the train had come to a complete stop. You best be ready to jump at that exact moment because the train stays still for all of about three seconds. I can’t imagine doing this during rush hour where it’s not unusual for riders to run when getting on and off the train.Before the train had even pulled away people were slipping down the platform sides to cross the tracks and to bypass the designated pedestrian walks. It looked like someone had dumped a jar of marbles that then scattered everywhere. Again, lawsuits left and right. I read this morning in the paper that an average of six bodies are found on the Mumbai railroads every day. No surprise given how little control there is on and around the tracks. I stayed back to snap some pictures. (The Mumbai S Trifecta - shack, scaffolding, skyscraper.)

(Looking south from the pedestrian cross over.)

(Slum next to the train station.)

One or two wrong turns later I found myself literally melting at the mall’s front door. The metal detection lady didn’t even bother waving the wand over me. I think I had grossed her out by my appearance and that’s saying something, folks, because the mall is surrounded by slums. Once I got over my embarrassment I decided my disheveled appearance worked to my advantage. Very few shopkeepers approached me – hooray! Shopping in solitude is a rare accomplishment in this service-focused city.

(On the way to the mall.)

The rest of my time at the mall was unremarkable, save for Clinique itself. Lots of stores, fast food everywhere, icy cold air conditioning. Clinique had the goods, which was great, but the goods were sold by men. Straight men who don’t know a damn thing about make-up. The pain of my last make-up transaction paled in comparison to this one, pun fully intended, but I got what I came for anyway.
(The mall had signs everywhere saying "No pictures" but I snapped one in a brief moment of crowd clearing. Everyone was in McDonald's, which is to my right.)

My return trip was much the same as the outgoing ride, made more pleasant by the fans being in the “off” mode. When on, they push so much hot air you feel like dragons are breathing on you. I rode by the open door once more. If I can’t be with the dogs on the weekend then I guess I’ll settle for being like them.

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