Itinerary of an Unprepared Traveler
I had been on Indian soil for less time than it had taken me to get there. I probably would have experienced culture shock if I had the time to, but immediately I was thrown into the world I had waited over 10 years to see. Jet lag never happened and I woke up that morning expecting to ease into Bombay and plan the three weeks that would makeup my backpacking trip. That’s not what happened. This is what happened.
It was the busies time of day for transit; the countless khaki clad sandal wearers were all racing the clock to get on their trains in the busiest terminal of Mumbai, India: Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. I was dressed in what I thought would make me bend in: a pair of linen pants and a light green short-sleeved button-up shirt, but it didn’t matter. I was the only white face in the crowd. That too didn’t matter. That first morning, I realized I could have been standing there nude (as some of the less fortunate were) and the men and women of that country weren’t going to pay me any attention. I loved it. My pace picked up as I walked over a bridge that leads to the platform I was hoping to be looking for. You see I hadn’t really had time to figure it all out yet because the boys’ home I was supposed to be volunteering at called the couple I was supposed to be staying with and asked that I get there immediately. I walked over the cluttered bridge past beggars and cross-legged women selling flowers. There was a mess of makeshift homes below me; and below their blue-tarped roofs, the population of India everyone pretended to be so familiar with when they watched Slumdog Millionaire from their plush couches. According to the unofficial travel advice I received before my trip form the nosey, know-it-all Americans, I should have been gagging at the stench that was India. I took a deep breath in through my nose and didn’t even flinch. The smell of the impoverished was rancid, yes, but the fact that I was there, experiencing it, masked the monstrosity of it all.
By now, my shirt was no longer green; it was more of a flesh tone as the sweat soaked through. The train that I thought I wanted to be on was pulling up. Arms and legs were the least of the body parts hanging out the train’s cars and there were some that I was convinced had tied themselves to the outside of the train, literally hitching a ride. I grabbed onto one of the hand rails and worked my way on to the train, which had began to pull away before my first foot had even left the platform. There were rusty fans bolted to the ceiling but they weren’t spinning, and if they had been, I don’t think they would have made much of a difference. I saw day lit India for the first time on that train and the hustle and bustle that was the station was only amplified outside of it. Taxis and rickshaws weaved in and out of lanes that didn’t exist, through red lights that meant as much to the drivers as the roads they spit their tarry pan juice onto. I let my eyes wander with no direction, but they weren’t nearly as talented as the underpaid drivers and I soon lost track of what I was looking at. My stop came up too fast and I was forced to exit the train as elegantly as I had entered it. I leapt to the new platform and watched the dark faced passengers travel on.
The new platform was smaller in comparison to the last but somehow managed to fit the same amount of commuters. I was shocked at the reality of India’s ability to be comfortably overpopulated. The platform was a perfect representation of the city and the country: too many inhabitants in too small of a place. The people at this station seemed poorer than the last and I was constantly getting tugged and tapped by the language-less children, hardly covered by their tattered clothes, and their hands creating open books as they pleaded for Rupees. The poverty was worse than I imagined it to be, but like the smells of the country, it wasn’t something that made me gag, it made more and more intrigued. My pace picked up and I crossed over another slum and down stairs on the opposite side of the station.
I was nowhere near the boys’ home and still had a long, traumatizing rickshaw ride in front of me that would lead me to nothing more than a soggy walk through unfamiliar “streets.”
I eventually got to the Bandra East Community Center and it was everything I expected: an exhausting whirlwind of smiles interrupted by broken English and Hindi.