India: Slums and Heatstroke

Background-Website-FinalI’m getting way behind on these diaries now – I’m writing about the Jodhpurian desert as I’m sitting in the Goan jungle. But I’ll try and condense things.

We got to bed at 7am after the film shoot, but I only slept until 9 so I could nab some of the free breakfast. Samosas for breakfast, man. They’re the way forward. I thought I’d lose weight in India, but in fact I’ve had to work out every day to avoid putting it on. India so far has been a daily cycle of sunsets and samosas. I didn’t leave the hostel all day because I was shattered, and at 6pm I had to get the night train to Mumbai.

I said goodbye to James and Jonas after a couple of weeks travelling together, and I felt much sadder than I expected. I’m used to goodbyes by now, but we spent every second together through all of the peculiarities of India, and I’d got used to them being by my side. We hugged goodbye, promised to host each other if we ever visit each other’s countries, and I left. I felt sad and vulnerable as I hailed a tuk tuk to the train station. But that’s travelling.

I bought some rum to help me sleep and climbed into the top bunk in my carriage. Third class with air conditioning (read: fans). I’m working my way lower class with each train I take. They’re really not so bad. I settled in to my bunk, wrote a little, bought a lemonade and poured my rum into it. I got some strange looks from the local people, but whatever.  As I sat doodling, a smiley faced kid came over to chat. He asked me a ton of questions, and I told him his English was ace. He was all bashful smiles.

I slept for 12 blissful hours on the train, crashing out almost immediately due to exhaustion from the film shoot. I woke up at 8am next morning, with only two hours left until Mumbai. Easiest journey so far in India. I continued to sup my rum in the morning; seemed like a good idea at the time, but definitely drew a few concerned glances. But I felt great – day drunk in the sun, headphones in, world flashing by outside. I’d left the endless flat planes of Radjasthan behind, and gazing out I was greeted by splashes of green and glittering rivers, their waters deep brown from the dust.

Another kid came over for a chat and we sat together in one of the connecting carriageways for a while as we both waited to use the bathroom. The side doors were wide open; they never seem to close them here. You’re perfectly able to hang out of the side of the train as it rumbles across the country. Sitting with feet dangling and legs kicking, the kid and I chatted about our lives and the countries we’d like to see. He was incredibly bright. I liked him a lot.

It’s funny; I’ve noticed a pattern in how people in the smaller villages and towns chat to me. They will stare for a while, then eventually nod and ask where I’m from. Then my city, then my name, then my job, how long I’m in India, where I’ve been, if I enjoy it. Then I’ll take my turn to learn about them. But between each question asked, I’ve seen so many people react in the same way: they ask a question, nod when you answer, then stare into the distance for a while, thinking. There’s always a ten second pause between the last answer and the next question. It’s probably just the language barrier that slows things down, but I’ve found conversation here to be unhurried and pensive. It’s nice.

I chatted to a few other people on the train as we arrived in Mumbai, Bandra station. I had no idea how vast the city is. I got a cab to Andheri East where I was I was staying at Zostel, and paid 500 rupees which I thought was a bargain for a half hour drive but is apparently a huge rip off. Zostel is nice; some hostels here don’t let so many Indian people stay there for some reason, but Zostel is one of the exceptions, and so much richer for it.

I ditched my bags in a pungent dorm and made friends with a Swedish girl called Nora and a Californian called Shaun. I was feeling lazy but Norah was keen to explore, so I was prodded out into the megacity. We got a tuk tuk and two trains – one of which was half an hour – and finally were in the south of the city, ish. Mumbai is endless. Shaun had a couple of friends out in the city who were wandering around the slums, and wanted to join them. I’m not sure how I feel about slum sightseeing, but, as usual, trudged along behind.

We met two more guys who probably had names, and spent an hour sauntering through the Mumbai slums. I’m not sure which slum it was; they are all legal and have their own names and districts, and function as a key part of the city with their own economy. I expected to feel sad, horrified even, but in reality the people there were so chipper and full of life that no sadness came. People were chatting in the runways, washing clothes in buckets of soapy water, tinkering with mopeds, snoozing in shop doorways, or bouncing little curly haired babies on their hips. In every street people called to us, waved at us from third storey windows, gave us directions. A few groups of teenagers laughed at us and said what I assume were very crude things in Hindi, but it didn’t matter. Everybody was in good spirits. It should have been overwhelming, but I was profoundly calm.

It’s astonishing what life can be reduced down to. A tent, a stool, a couple of pots: your entire life. No home, no car, no job, no money, no change of clothes, dirt on everything, no cool air, ever, and in the face of this all inequality and adversity, the people simply sit together and chat in the shade. The poorest people bare their poverty with such casual resilience that you almost forget they are suffering. They are simply resigned to the lives they’ve been born into. You’re born in a tent at the side of the motorway, and you die in a tent at the side of the motorway. What was it Aloo Baba said to us? Life, one second, no life. I dunno, maybe he was onto something.

After the slums we headed back to the train to Marine Drive, which is apparently a great sunset spot. As the guys were queuing to buy tickets I sat by myself and watched the people. A minute later, Shaun grabbed my shoulder.

“Dan, we need water. Quick! Go!”

I stood up, half a second from telling him to fuck off and get it himself. Then I saw behind him – Nora has collapsed. A dozen people were surrounding her, kneeling down and fussing over her as she slowly came to and asked where she was. A couple of goats had wandered into the building and were stood by, watching with mild interest. Gazing into the crowded, gloomy little ticket house from outside, farmyard animals and stooping people in white robes and a swooning young girl in the middle, it felt like witnessing the Nativity.

She seemed alright, but I sloped away to buy water anyway. Everybody in the ticket house had water, so I was fairly sure I’d been sent on a redundant quest and Shaun had just panicked, but I didn’t want to refuse and look like a massive bastard. Sure enough, as I was fifty metres down the road, hands in pockets, kicking rocks, Shaun popped out and called to me.

“She’s fine, we have water!”

Yup, knew it. We sat down on a wall together and asked Nora how she was feeling. She had completely passed out from not eating all day, and told us that when she passed out she’d been dreaming that she was back home, in her own bed. Then she awoke to find 15 bearded men and one bearded goat staring down at her.

Understandably, Nora and the two nameless guys headed back to the hostel after. I carried on with Shaun, chatting for a couple of hours as we navigated first to an iconic train station, then to the Gateway to India (which the British erected in the middle of Mumbai to commemorate King George V landing in Mumbai, because we are a humble and modest people), then hung out on the sea wall at Marine Drive. It looked a lot like the glorious malecon in Havana that I spent so many nights sitting atop two years ago. I told Shaun as much, and soon found myself excitedly reeling off the history of Cuba and Castro – a favourite subject of mine. Either Shaun is a very good listener or a very bad one, because he didn’t say anything the whole time.

Back at the hostel at 10pm, we found a birthday party. A bunch of 20-somethings from Mumbai were drinking Old Monk, the local rum, and eating cake. They were playing drinking games they’d picked up from other backpackers. Some things when travelling are universal. You can travel to the most far flung oasis in some long-forgotten corner of the planet, and you’ll still find a couple of dudes keep to play International Drinking Rules, as well as a guitar with one string missing and a speaker playing Jack Johnson.

Shaun and the newly-revived Nora and the two nameless dudes were chatting among themselves, but I wasn’t so interested in their conversation so I hopped tables to sit with the Indian kids. They filled me with booze and cake, and at midnight invited me along to a flat party. I said yes, of course, and soon found myself whisked away into Mumbai in a taxi full of hard-partying strangers.

The flat belonged to two of the guys, and it was way more spacious and modern than I’d anticipated. It looked like the inside of a Spanish hotel. There was glitter everywhere from where they’d partied the previous day. Somebody set about rolling a joint, and we all sat on the bedroom floor. We chatted about all sorts, and with a swell of pride I mentioned the Bollywood film I’d starred in the previous day. Their reactions were brilliant.

One of the guys there was cool as hell, looking like he’d come straight from a Metallica concert. He had long, straight hair down to his waist, dressed all in black, and both arms covered in tattoos. He had tattooed on him the names of every band that played on the soundtrack to Fifa 2008, because he’d spent so much time playing it that the songs were forever ingrained in his head. We talked about British TV, and he told me how much he loves the show Skins. It was surreal to be in a strange flat in Mumbai talking about a show I used to watch in my living room when I was 15.

It was interesting to hear that, despite everybody bar me being Indian, they spoke English to one another – even when I wasn’t in the room. A girl told me that the young people in Mumbai speak a combination of Hindi and English; she called it Hinglish. Young people all over the world inspire me. The clothes may be different, the food and the customs, but you can travel the whole world over and in the eyes beneath every unwrinkled brow you’ll find the same passion, joy, and optimism.

I got a cab back to the hostel in the early hours. I was as drunk as a lord, and I slept like a baby.

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