Sometimes the journey is the destination – unforgettable train ride from Mumbai to Goa

2 05 2009

I looked at the clock – it was already 8pm. 3 hours to go before the train left Mumbai. “Good,” I thought, “there’s plenty of time.” Grabbing some ice cream on the way, I hailed down a rickshaw and told him to head to Bandra [neighborhood]. At that point, I’d have to switch to a taxi, since rickshaws are not allowed to pass that border and the train was leaving from a little further away.

While street vendors, motorcycles, and the rest of what makes up Mumbai was passing on the sides of the rickshaw, I relaxed – as everything was going according to plan.

I reached Mumbai Central – one of the main railway hubs in the city, through which many local and long-distance lines pass – in about 2 hours. Walking up to the security guard, I decided to double check from which platform the train was leaving. He looked at my e-ticket print out and exclaimed – “That’s not from here! You need to go to a different station.” That was the first inkling that signaled that the rest of the night wasn’t going to go smoothly.

After asking him again where exactly I needed to go, I ran out of the station and jumped into the first cab. “Mumbai CST. Hurry, we don’t have much time,” I pleaded with the driver, knowing full well that it was in vain. He nodded, as they always do, although I could see a glimpse of confusion in his eyes as to what is it exactly that he was asked to do.

30 minutes later, while nervously glancing at the watch, we finally came to a stop. Unfortunately, no train station was in sight. The driver flagged down a pedestrian and asked him the worst question that anybody could’ve asked under the circumstances: “Where is Mumbai CST railway station?” The pedestrian shrugged. He didn’t know.

Several attempts later, somebody finally gave him some instructions and he excitedly put the pedal to the metal and started driving with a sense of purpose. We reached a station five minutes later. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was the wrong station. However, ithe train was actually passing through it, so it would do just fine.

When it rains, it pours…

As I was waiting for the train to arrive, I glanced at a printout of the e-ticket again. Something curious caught my attention. The printout stated that the “passenger’s name must be confirmed on the reservation list or they will be treated as a passenger without a ticket”. That was certainly somewhat surprising – if you already bought the ticket and paid for it, why do you need to confirm it and where exactly do you need to do that anyway.

I walked up to the inquiry window to find out. The guy at the window took a quick look at the print out, keyed in a few letters in his computer, and passed the sheet back to me. “Not confirmed. No ticket,” was his response.

“Well, what am I supposed to do now,” I asked him in bewilderment. “Buy a new ticket,” he pointed at the queue at the next window which consisted of about 50 other people waiting to buy a new ticket. At that point, his interest in me waned and he went back to reading the paper.

As I was walking away from the window, a guy that was observing the whole situation from afar came up to me. “Ticket not confirmed, huh. What you need to do is get on the train anyway and go straight to the ticket checker. Tell him that you’re on the waitlist, give him 150-200 rupees and he’ll give you a seat.”

It seemed like legitimate advice. Although I haven’t seen a whole lot of “corruption” here thus far, it wasn’t that shocking to hear that you could bribe your way into something as innocent as getting a seat on the train because of some administrative mishap. Anyway, with only a few minutes left before the train arrived, that was the only option that had a chance of working. I was determined to make it to Goa tonight, so I decided to go for it.

Sometimes, money can’t buy you a way out (or in)

The original ticket was for a 2nd class air conditioned sleeper car. Although not particularly luxurious, this was supposed to be a very nice and comfortable way to travel for a 12 hour journey to Goa. Especially, since they promised a bed, clean sheets and a pillow – what else do you need!

When the train arrived, it stopped at the station for exactly two minutes. During that time, people need to get off, get on, and be ready to leave. I jumped into my 2nd class car, found a seat and thought of what would be next. I decided to wait until the train starts to move, then when the ticket checker would come over, I’d act surprised that my name was not on the list and offer him a few bills to settle this matter amicably. That was the plan – after all, I did book the ticket, so it could’ve happened to anybody. I started to wait.

It didn’t take long for the guy to come. He was equipped with a manifest of all the registered passengers, so he quickly realized that I wasn’t on there. While looking very concerned, I passed him 150 rupees and inquired, “is there any way that we can resolve it… sir?”

“No, the train is full,” he answered. That was unexpected. Maybe he wanted more money, I thought, so I added an extra 100 rupees. He wasn’t budging – “there is no space.”

If my look of concern earlier was acted up, it became real very quickly. “How about 3rd class,” I asked. Screw the damn pillow and the bed sheet – I can live without it. As long as I get where I’m going. He shrugged and said, “you can try it.” Unfortunately, when I approached the ticket guy in the 3rd class, his response was the same. At this point, we were already a fair distance away from Mumbai and I definitely didn’t look forward to starting the journey from scratch the next morning – especially since the story would probably be quite similar, as all of the trains seemed booked.

I decided to try my luck in the 3rd class, non-AC compartment.

As I was making my way between cars, it was amazing to watch how the environment changed. The difference in the train cars was much more than a few amenities. It was hard to believe that the same train could have such an enormous difference in terms of how people traveled. Every available inch of space on the floors, near the bathrooms, near the doors – was occupied by people sitting or lying. Although the the lack of windows did a fairly good job at ventilating the car, it had a permanent smell of sweat and feet, completed by the occassional breeze from the latrines as people entered and exited from them.

The people’s reactions as I was passing through were particularly amusing. Judging by the quizzed look on their faces, they thought that I was lost because there weren’t any other westerners or tourists in this section.

After reaching a point of not being able to go any further because the passageway was filled with people sitting, standing and lying down, all I could do was wait. Ticket checker was nowhere to be seen, so I wound up standing with a group of other travelers that were in a similar situation. I looked at my watch – it was about 1am, or 2 hours into the journey. Just 9 hours left until arrival. It wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but there was certainly no turning back at this point.

Suddenly, the conductor appeared and I explain the situation to him yet again. Finally, a stroke of luck. “For 543 rupees, you can stay,” he said. Not quite sure if that was supposed to be a bribe or what, as it was somewhat of a strange amount, I double checked – “so, for 543, I’ll get a bed here?”

“No, no – no bed. But you can stay. For 543 rupees,” he repeated yet again. It didn’t take long to get what he was getting at. The reality sinked in – the train really was full. No bribe or money would change it at that point. But, at least, this offered an opportunity to stay in the train and complete the journey as planned. I paid the 543 rupees fine, which included the cost of a new ticket and got my receipt.

When the guy left, I sat on the floor, looked at the people around and smiled. And they smiled back. I think that was the most amazing part of the past few hours. As dirty and crowded as this train was, not for a second did it feel unwelcoming. Although, most of the people there didn’t speak much English, the smile seems to transcend whatever language abd cultural barriers you had. Whenever you looked at anyone – man, woman, child – and smiled, they always returned it. It was as if you non-verbally communicated – “Yes, these conditions are shit but at least we’re going where we need to go. Could be worse.”

It was starting to get late and people were settling down. The legitimate riders slept on the 3-tiered bunks and everybody else found a spot wherever there was space. I put my backpack underneath my head. I couldn’t quite stretch out, as my own feet would hit the person next to me, but I found a semi-comfortable position, closed my eyes, and smiled to myself yet again. At that point, I knew that this is one train journey that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

* As much as I wanted to share this, I decided against taking any pictures on this train ride – as I thought it would be rude to the fellow riders.

* On the way back, I’m taking a bus 🙂




3 responses

4 05 2009

Was the bus ride back any better? Different, I imagine, but it could be a nerve-wracking ride depending upon the terrain you are covering. Might bring back memories of your trip to South America and some of the buses you saw navigating through the mountains.

The train as a metaphor for life in India today? Juxtaposition of wealth vs. poverty and the cultural mileiu all in one mode of transportation? Very nice post, Boris, and I’m glad you didn’t get thrown off the train in some small town … although I have a feeling you would have had no real problem finding kind people to help you get back to Mumbai.

4 05 2009

Borechka, I read all your posts from the very beginning. Everything you wrote is fascinating, every piece gives us something new about the world and something good about you. And one more thing: I open for myself the new site of you – you are gifted writer, in addition to all good qualities of you I knew before! Thank you so much! And I’m proud of you, really. I hope to have a cup of coffee with you when you are back 🙂

6 05 2009

Heh – the bus back was quite good, actually.

It was a sleeper bus, so it had bunk beds instead of seats.

The only discomfort was that you had to share a bed with another person… so you’re a lot better off traveling with a friend 🙂 And the bed is not particularly wide, so if you are traveling on your own – like myself – you become friends with a stranger pretty quickly 🙂

Train as a metaphor? Hmm – wasn’t thinking that originally, but I like it!

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