31 May 2011

India experience - Week 1 - Mumbai

In which I arrive in this beautiful disaster* called India, get to know I got a servant and stare death in the face (or more like in the armpits).

I arrived in Mumbai Airport at around 23h. Waiting for my 60 kilos of bags to come, exchanging dollars to rupees and waiting in the wrong line for a cab that AIESEC should have arranged took approximately FOREVER, so I started roaming around the airport exit to see if someone from AIESEC was there to pick me up. The heavy air heat at post-midnight something impressed me. In fact, everything impressed me: the incredible amount of people waiting for other people in the airport at this time, the noise of the comings and goings and horns and hell raised by the old cabs, the craziness everywhere. I definitely was not in Norway anymore.

When I go around 2 or 3 times the airport exit without finding anyone holding a sign with my name, I decided that I would have to go on my own. But I was one of the (few?) blessed and the moment I am exiting among the, literary, hundreds of people waiting for others to arrive, someone says my name. This guy, Keenan, from AIESEC Mumbai recognized my AIESEC t-shirt. Ok, that was a relief. Other 2 AIESECers from Mumbai arrive and they give me to eat a candy (in just one bite). The thing tasted like eating anis (and if I am not mistaken, it was blue also) and I almost throw up.  I took approximately 30 minutes to chew it all. In the meanwhile, while I was with my mouth full of anis tasting crazy candy, we made small talk about who I was, what was going on, etc.

We went to a line to get a pre-paid cab. Pre-paid cab? Yes, no one trusts taxi drivers, so you go to the counter, say where you are going, pay, get a ticket and then find your driver to take you there. Clean.

When we finally found the cab, it was more or less like looking at a mobster car - after it has taken a heavy bullet hit. Only one of my bags fit in the trunk, the other one is also put in the trunk with a ROPE to keep it in place. I can only HOPE for the best. Oh man, India.

When we leave the airport, it is approximately 1h30. We drive to insanely heavy traffic streets (considering the time and that is Sunday). The 3 AIESECers tell me that Mumbai never sleeps. I think "yeah, we the amount of cars horning, I imagine no one really can sleep". Everything is novelty, even though I don't see much because it is dark. The taxi driver creates his own lanes. Rules are for the weak. The AIESECers are nice people. I like them. They went through a lot of effort to be late at night to pick me up and take me to where I should go.

We arrive at this place which would be my transition quarters (TQ). An apartment with 2 rooms with 2 beds each that TCS offers to the newly arrived for a couple of weeks. It was already 2h when I arrived at the TQ and I was greeted by Mr. Pruna (or Purna?), the Indian servant with a big smile and tentative English. He brings me cold water and call me Sir. I got shocked at first. Wow, he is serving me. After Norway, that is not a common thing at all.

Mr. Pruna demands remarks on his own: he was always there and basically fixed everything for us in the TQ. Every time I arrived from the office, the first thing was "Welcome, Sir" and the 2nd would be to bring me a full bottle of cold water. We spoke about some random stuff sometimes, more out of curiosity to understand where he was from, but mostly he would spoke with us like this:

- Breakfast, Sir?
- Yes, Pruna, at 7h30 tomorrow.
- Ok, Sir. Omelette, Sir?
- Omelette, yes.
- Ok. Toast, Sir?
- Yes. That is good.
- Yuis, Sir?
- What?
- Yuis, Sir? (More emphatically)
- Yuis? What is that?
Mr. Pruna would then mimic like drinking something from a glass. It should be really good, because he was always with this big smile on his face.
- Ah, yes, juice, yes, please.
- Ok, Sir.

And, of course, at breakfast he would ask us about what we want for dinner.

On the TQ, there was another AIESEC intern that had arrived one or two days before me, his name was Narcisse and he was from Ivory Coast. Me and Narcisse understood each other right away. He was one of those guys that you really like quite quickly. Me and Narcisse exchanged a few small talk and suddenly Mr. Pruna put a bed sheet on the floor and sit there. "Oh, no" I thought, "he sleeps on the floor - and there is an empty sofa just by the side where he is putting the bed sheet". Another shock. I took a shower and fell asleep in my (and Narcisse's) room, with the soft cover of the air-conditioning (which obviously the living room where mr. Pruna was sleeping, ON THE FLOOR, didn't have). I felt pity for the man.

Another shocking thing with Mr. Pruna is that he ate on the floor (using plates, yes, but on the floor). The thing is that since he is a servitor, he should not use the table (or the sofa), because it "pollutes". Crazy stuff, I just can't understand. But in the end, we made friends with him and he even sat on the table with us, proving that things are not so black and white.

Next day, me and Narcisse gear up for the first day at the office. We needed to get a rickshaw (or simply "auto")  to the Bolivari train station and from there get a local train to Churchgate. Easier said then done. Narcisse approaches one of the rickshaw drivers. He offers to take us to the train station for 40 rupees. Narcisse thinks it is too much, but goes in the polite approach, something like "It's too expensive. Can you do better?", noticing the soft approach would go nowhere, I stepped in and said "10". The guy said "11", I insisted on the "10", he agreed. We boarded the rickshaw and I noticed the driver smiled. I thought "hm, I think he ripped us off anyway". I was later informed by the locals that the lowest rickshaw drive is really "11". So maybe the guy just thought it was funny that such random people would be bargaining so hard.

The train station was a mix between fish market and dumpster. Too many people and no apparent way of figuring out which trains go where, we went for the asking approach. We were redirected here and there and finally we got to the platform where the train to Churchgate would arrive. When it did arrive, nothing can really translate the shock of seeing a crowded train, with no doors and with people ranging outside of it. This is the picture you see:

But it really does not translate the horror it is the first time you see it. And then you think "I have to ENTER this? I am going to die, that is it." People at the platform started to run to try to get inside the train. Everyone managed to get in (probably even before the train stopped to a complete halt), the exception being me and Narcisse. The men in the train (where, not exactly IN, since they were ranging at the doors) started shouting and making fun of us. Narcisse and I look to each other in despair and talk about tactics. A young Indian guy, out of pity, show us the place where the slow train goes. Typically less crowded, the slow train started in our station, so it would be possible to sit. We follow him to the platform and manage to sit. But the train anyway gets really crowded really quick and soon there are people ranging at the doors again.

The slow train takes around 2h to Churchgate (not so different than its counterpart, the "fast" train, that takes around 1h30min). You have no idea what is 2h in a crowded train full of sweaty people. Not people, men, because there are special wagons only for women. It was hell, I tell you. Every day, to and from the office, at the peak time. We were thankful when we managed to sit. But even though, that was not a great thing. Because it is so crowded, Indians have a very peculiar sense of personal space (or lack) , so it is very common to be squeezed with 4 people in a bench designed for 3 or to have someone gently sleeping and using you as a pillow. The smell was the worse, since after the 2nd time in the train, I got used with the amount of people and didn't mind the lack of space anymore. After the 4th time, I started to be able to read in the train (using the Amazon Kindle app in my Android). That was a very nice thing and more than one Indian approached me to ask about what was the phone about, what I was reading and such.  In the end of the week, I was able to enter and leave the train without it completely stopping. The civilized metro in Norway looked impossibly calm and was far away in my mind. Humans are so adaptable, I concluded.

The amount of adaptation (especially considering my gentleman ways learned in Norway) can be described in this (real) story:

Indians have allergy towards organization, in special in regards to queuing. Anyone attempting to queue will be faced with people cutting in front straight to the counter, people on the back breathing at half a centimeter of your neck and all this. On the train ticket counter, I was waiting for some time in the queue, I was the next customer after a man, when suddenly an old lady comes in front of me straight to the ticket window. I gently, but firmly, push her aside and point to the back of the line. She says something like "mahaba ragata jahlaputamadre", I answer in Portuguese "yeah, whatever, go to the end of the line". After I buy, she sneaks again and buy the ticket. But I was not the sucker. I was re-learning my Brazilian ways of fighting for survival.

I think what shocked me the most in Mumbai (and probably in all the little I know of India) is that poverty is absolutely everywhere. Not like most countries I know that had poverty concentrated somewhere and the rich neighborhoods looking very fancy and nice. No, in India, the fancy building is just by the side of a slum and trash is absolutely everywhere. A friend of mine is working in waste management in Delhi. Before coming to India, I thought this was cool. But after getting to know India and how much litter is everywhere, I just thought "wow, this guy is really making a difference. Waste management should be a top priority in this country".

Since I was in Mumbai only for some contract signing and other random stuff, I felt quite happy when I got my ticket to Chennai on the Friday. That is the city where I was going to live and Mumbai was just a transition. Since I was tired as hell of the trains and all the bla bla bla, I got very happy to go to Chennai, to my new home.

But that is another story...

* Beautiful disaster is what Pamela, my Mexican flatmate, calls India. She can say it with passion in her eyes.


  1. Ahhhh.... India. Remember I shook my head when I came back? And you said "I know this - it's like Brazil", and I somehow said "Man, I don't think so...."


  2. Here is the deal: nothing can prepare you completely to be MCP. And for India is the same. :)

  3. MCP, you should consider writing a book about India afterwards...

    hope you survive and I visit you there :P

  4. Please come to visit me in this beautiful disaster :-)


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