Study Abroad

The Trains of Mumbai

Wow! What a journey its been since I last updated the blog. I found that, inevitably, almost every study abroad goes through a stretch where they deny their blog- and it appears this was my time.

I spent most of the last month and half in Mumbai (or Bombay depending on who you ask.) At around 20 million people, the city is the largest in India and definitely one of the craziest. I spent my time there carrying out research on impact measurement strategies in social enterprises. I will post something more focused on the study once I finalize my report and feel better summarizing my findings. The rest of my time I spent exploring Mumbai: enjoying the wonders of globalization through my frequent patronage of Starbucks, making friends at the local powerhouse gym, exploring the plethora of awesome street food options, and most of all, utilizing the craziest public transpiration system I have ever experienced: the trains of Mumbai.

Mumbai is a sprawling city. It stretches over seven islands. 50% of its population resides in shanti-towns or slums. Asia’s largest slum, and the slum at the center of Slumdog Millionaire, is located there. Much of the rest of the city resides in the vast “suburbs” that spread for miles in all direction. These suburbs are made up of housing societies, malls, and streets filled with all sorts of small shops (mainly street food stalls.) Most of the residents of these neighborhoods commute inside the city to work. Almost all of them, and especially those who live far from the city center or can’t afford another form of transportation, take the trains. The trains operate like a subway system except they are all above ground and they don’t have any doors or automated notification system. There are two classes- one costs 15 rupees for an hour ride (approx..) and the other about 150; the choice was obvious. Due to many recent incidents there are separate trains designated for women as well as for the elderly and handicapped. The other compartments are a free-for-all.

To enter the train its best to get a running start. Once aboard its necessary to use a burst of strength, or well placed elbows, to get through the entryway into the train. If you’re extremely fortunate and the train is relatively empty, you may find a seat. In the case I was able to find a seat, it was nearly impossible for me to stay awake. Luckily the same could be said for the other passengers and inevitably we would all end up asleep on one another- my head on the shoulder of an older businessman, a teenager asleep on my side.

During rush hour, such a luxury was impossible. The trains were so full that it was often impossible to breath out all the way. The owner of my gym said that trains were good for muscles- the intensive massages were great for relaxing. As the trains shifted, the collective would shift accordingly. Occasionally, I would life one my legs up to attempt to shift to a less dense area only to find that it was impossible to set it down again. I’m convinced that if I had lifted my other leg up as well, I would have stayed upright, lifted up by the density of people. The worst cars to find yourself in were the open cars that were a third the size of normal compartments and reserved for merchants taking their goods to market. In these compartments I didn’t just have to fight for space with men and children, but with giants sacks of fruits and boxes of goods like watches or fake jeans. One most popular methods of travelling on the trains was the hang out the side of the trains. This was not only an ingenious method of finding air-conditioning, but also an incredible means of witnessing Mumbai. An average train ride was about 45 minutes, although, to get to some of my interviews took as long as 2 ½ hours. Once it was time to get off the train, if you were near the door it was usually expected that you hop off early- an action which resulted in a running/sliding entrance to the platform. The rest exited the same way they entered- through pushing and yelling and laughing.

This was not only the most significant aspect of my time in Mumbai due to the extent of time I spent travelling on those trains, but for what it taught me about India. Clearly my experience was very different than the experiences of the girls in my program- but it was significant nonetheless. The people I met were welcoming and familiar. They were inquisitive about my background and what I was doing in Mumbai. The helped push me onto the trains and held on to me if I leaned out. The moved over to give me a seat and taught me to give it up when a woman or senior approached. The pushing, elbowing, and shouting were only overshadowed by the laughing, joking, and brotherly horseplay. The trains not only gave me a badge of honor, everyday they showed me the true Mumbai- its people, its culture, and even its fields and its homes. It may not sound like a tourist attraction, but its surely the backbone of the city.

After four weeks in Mumbai I took an 18-hour train back to Jaipur where I only spent 6 days. The few days were packed with writing (45 pages!), final shopping, some moderate drinking, a visit to the hospital to visit a friend who could have had a better final few days in India, and lots of goodbyes. Because I’m still in India its difficult to separate my experience here from the SIT program. However, my experience traveling, my attitude and my perceptions, had clearly been shaped by the friends and mentors that have surrounded me the last three months. I’m sure my next few weeks will be filled with lots of reflections and I’ll make sure to be better about updating everyone!

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