The raucous story-telling and laughter mysteriously descended into an awkward silence. We all looked away between scattered beer bottles, smirking with slight embarrassment, the way people do when they’re stuck for conversation. This time was different though; it wasn’t a lack of words or inability to converse, but a simultaneous realization of what lay ahead. The silence broke when Mark, our fearless leader (aka Der Führer), muttered the timeless words, ‘The calm before the storm hey?’
Never before, not here or anywhere, had those words been more apt. We were only hours away from departure on one of the most epic rail adventures to burden India. It wasn’t just that we planned to travel 12,000km, but we hoped to do it in 2 weeks, back-to-back, in the relative discomfort of 2 and 3 AC (2nd and 3rd class, air conditioned carriages).
Egypt All Over Again
Rewind a couple of years… Lauren and I were equally anxious going into Egypt. We’d heard stories of a country blanketed in putrid filth, barbaric men looking for easy Western woman, terrorist attacks targeting infidels, and all varieties of unpleasantness keeping mainstream tourists away. It’s not that Egypt wants to keep tourists away, but that the stories retold tend to come from the loudest story tellers.
As with our visit to Egypt, our experience in India, at least so far, hasn’t even come close to the stories. The people are mostly very warm and friendly; they’re impossibly helpful too. The streets are just like any developing country, although improving in front of your eyes. The food is great, but of course it would be. And, the country just seems to have an aura unlike anywhere we’ve been. In committing the ultimate sacrilege, I’d even say that Mumbai (India’s largest city) is everything I wished a city like New York would be.
Before landing here, Lauren and I spent a week in New York City (NYC); our first time in fact. We visited many of the lesser known attractions, saw a Broadway play, joined a pizza tour, and just explored the parts of the city we thought we’d like most. Now, don’t get me wrong, we did enjoy our visit, but something was lacking.
NYC felt just like Sydney or Toronto, except the Wifi was worse and the shopping (for outdoor and adventure gear) was abysmal. I can see why people (who value things other than WiFi and adventure shopping) would adore NYC, and again, it is a nice city, just like Sydney is a nice city, but New York is meant to be, well, New York. It’s meant to be bursting with charisma, adorned with technology, the hub of the greatest shopping, and so busy and bustling that it would blow any visitor immediately off their feet. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. At least for me.
From Mumbai with Love
I came here expecting to love India, and I knew those preconceptions were fraught with disappointment. To put a place, albeit a place like India, on such a high pedestal, was really asking for trouble. But alas, it’s everything I had hoped for and much more. It has charisma, it has character, it has widely avaialble Internet (whoo hoo!), it has good shopping, it has nice weather, and the food… oh the food! And did I mention it’s cheap? While I spent $20 in NYC for the worst fish and chips on the planet, I just spent $1.50 in Mumbai on one of my top 10 meals ever.
Granted, it’s only Day 1, so let’s see if these feelings last 12,000km+ of train travel in 2 weeks, living with my trip mates, and locals alike, in such close quarters.
GCIRC – Day 1
- Train: Saurashtra Mail
- Depart: Mumbai Central @ 20:25 on 18-Feb-11
- Destination: Dwarka @ 15:09 on 19-Feb-11 (estimated)
- Via: Ahmedabad @ 05:15 on 19-Feb-11
- Distance: 961km, almost 19 hours
So Day 1 of the Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge (GCIRC) went off mostly without a hitch. We all met for pre-departure beers at Gaylords Bakery in Churchgate, which is where Mark muttered those famous words about the calm before the storm, and then we headed off on the local train to Bombay Central to start the journey. And what an experience.
We hopped onto the train, crossed to the other door, secured our spots, and held steadfast while at each station a phalanx of locals jumped aboard and pushed us, unintentionally, almost out the door on the other side. Then as the train came to a stop at Bombay Central, we all had to fight the crowd jumping aboard to get off within the 10 or so seconds allotted to each station.
We had pre-arranged a band to meet us at Bombay Central to send us off with some fanfare. A little self-important? Sure. But good fun nonetheless. Especially since within seconds of playing we were swarmed by locals, and then within a few more seconds, by the railway police. Heated arguments ensued, camera flashes went off, and we were told, with stern voices and stares, to stop filming, stop photographing, and get the band the hell out of dodge (or words to that effect).
As the commotion subsided, we headed off to another platform to catch our overnight train to Dwarka via Ahmedabad. This was it, the start of the GCIRC. Everyone looked composed and ready for the adventure. We shuffled between berths, talked and chatted, as our eyes slowly glazed over. It had been long day shopping for tiffins in the chaotic Mumbai street markets, and by now, only 9pm, we were spent. As I considered retiring for the night, the reality of the GCIRC set in. It’s funny how this always happens.
Now, as I try to organize myself into a 1 x 2 x 0.5 meter space, I’m starting to see the struggles we’ll face over the next two weeks. The bed is harder than hard, the train is rocking side-to-side like a see-saw, and although there is just enough space for me to lie flat, where will my bag and belongings go? Oh, and I just heard one of our team say, ‘I just found out this train doesn’t have food’. We expected it to have food, and it is a 19 hour trip, so already India is testing our mettle.
But this is what it’s all about: adventure, adversity, experience, new people, new places, problem solving, living, learning and exploring the globe. What a place to be and a time to be here!
The Globetrooper Team, signing out from the GCIRC