• Sarah Royal

Toy Trains, Bollywood, and Pune Family Fun

The night train to Shimla was very peaceful and easy, mostly because I took a Benadryl to be able to fall asleep and block out any potential noise from the kids sleeping in the bottom bunk, and soon my feet were being shaken by the train conductor, waking me up to alert me that I was at my destination and was ready to board the toy train to head up to Shimla in the mountains. The ‘toy train’ is so named because it’s a smaller train that is specially made to wind through tight turns in the mountains up in Himachal Pradesh (“In the lap of Himalayas”). Needless to say, it was one of my fucking favorite things – particularly because you could hang your entire head out the window.

I wasn’t the only dork taking a ton of photos, as you can see in the background. When I arrived in Shimla, it was pretty sad to be off the train, but there were some epic views of the mountains, and the landscape, of course, was entirely different from any of the golden triangle area I had visited previously. My 'very nice hotel’ (as described by the travel agent) was basically a truck stop, but oh well – it was time to head out and explore. Shimla had a pedestrian (and cow and horse and pig and monkey and and and) mall wandering up several switchbacks, and I ventured up there through the folks selling various sweets and wooden walking stick souvenirs. The good news is that I could relax a bit without the hawkers attacking me – these folks didn’t seem to sell as hard as the 'save the polar bear’ types on every street corner previously – but the bad news was that I still couldn’t be even slightly anonymous. Every man that I passed continued to stare the exhausting and uncomfortable stare. At one point I sat down to have a bag of chips in a vaguely-quiet area overlooking a hill, and when I glanced up from the chips for a moment, there were at least 15 guys just glaring at me. I had to actually retreat to the hotel, it was so ridiculous. Later, after a refresher chai and a mood bounce-back, I ventured out with my sweatshirt fully on (it was still hot as balls, although much more bearable given the mountains), thumbhole sleeves pulled over my hands, hood fully covering my pulled-back hair, sunglasses on. I looked like the fucking unibomber.

After wandering a little further throughout Shimla and focusing my attention on the wild monkeys roaming around, it was time to board the toy train back – at sunset, this time. Some guy was standing outside the train before we pulled out of the station taking approximately 3,000 selfies, so I decided that he wouldn’t run away with my camera and asked him to take a photo of me hanging out of the train. You’re welcome.

One toy train ride and one sleeper car back – where good karma is coming to me, as I switched with some girl so she could be in a four-bunk with her friends and then discovered that the woman on the lower bunk of my new bed was hacking herself to death with a cough – I ended up back in Delhi to head straight to the airport to fly to Mumbai. The flight was super easy, and then the fight at the airport to get a taxi/rickshaw/anything that wasn’t ripping me off wasn’t. The hostel I was staying at had warned me ahead of time that the rickshaw ride was, in actuality, just 50 rupees – and the lowest I could barter with the pre-paid taxi, taxi line, even the police was 170 rupees. The 'tourist tax,’ of course. I was tired of fighting and took the deal, and then the rickshaw guy couldn’t find the hostel at all even when talking to the hostel dude in Hindi. Finally landing there, I actually lay down to take a nap. And I never nap.

I coordinated some online bullshit, signed up for a walking tour the next morning (as no one else had signed up for the bicycling tour – what gives?), walked down the street to buy some Kingfisher beer, ate some naan from some British gal’s takeout, and hit the hay. The next morning I woke up extra early to try my hand at navigating Mumbai’s infamous local trains at rush hour to get to the meeting spot for my walking tour. I somehow managed to purchase a ticket card, select my destination, pick the correct track, and jump on the train just as it was pulling away (yes, quickly grabbing the handle and hoisting myself into yet another 'ladies only’ coach in the nick of time). I decided, as I stood there holding a post with my hair blowing in the breeze and my feet right up to the edge of the door-that-never-closes, that this pretty much fulfilled any of the notions of hopping a freight train. This felt like the same damn exhilarating thing.

Mumbai, too, was a big city – much bigger and more vibrant than Delhi, truly – and therefore I felt supremely comfortable. Also, given the 'big city’ feel and the fact that Mumbai was in the 'south’, men were staring and glaring far less, and I felt a gigantic sigh of relief, being vaguely anonymous again.

The walking tour I signed up for was through an NGO that took you through 'Asia’s largest slum’, Dharavi. I knew about it, as many westerners have, from Slumdog Millionaire, but didn’t know much else about it, like the fact that there are a ridiculous amount of businesses (and government-supported businesses) inside like recycling, welding, sewing, and the like, and the fact that doctors, lawyers, police officers, and other professionals live there, too. It’s an odd blend of modern enterprise and frozen-in-time ancient practices, like much of India, it seems. We met a lot of neat people working towards education for kids who grow up there, and I talked for a while about nonprofit marketing with one of the teachers at the NGO. 

At the end of the Dharavi tour, as we were drinking our complementary Coca-Colas and filling out feedback forms, this friend-of-the-tour-guide walks in slightly out of breath and holding a cell phone. Turns out he’s an 'international talent scout’ for Bollywood films, and he was on the hunt for some last-minute “western-looking” folks, and would my blonde hair want to join for a few hours with pay and food? The next thing I know, I’m in a car with two Spaniards and said talent scout driving a million kilometers an hour through the highways of Mumbai to a movie studio on the other side of town. We head in through the gates and got dropped off at a little hut, where some other non-Indians were trying on very loud and ill-fitting gowns. We were to play background guests at a 'garden party’ outdoors in an Anil Kapoor film sequel. For those of you who don’t follow Bollywood, Anil Kapoor is the guy who reads the questions in Slumdog Millionaire. Yes. Less than an hour after leaving the slum, I’m in an obnoxious dress and in a goddamn Bollywood film.

We mostly stood around and got sunburned, but we also looked serious when a very intense argument scene was being filmed, exchanged stories of our travels, recommended other Bollywood films to watch, laughed at the crew killing time by filling water bottles with dry ice and watching them explode and frighten people, and planned drinks together that evening. I schmoozed a bit with the director’s four- or five-year-old daughter who was hanging around pretending to direct, as her name was 'Sara’. She seemed to get a big kick out of me having nearly the same name, but her father still didn’t select me for a speaking role.

On the long bus ride through rush hour traffic back down south, I chatted with a new Portuguese friend of mine, who had lived in China for a number of years and had been in India for a bit and was finally heading back home. I asked him what he was looking forward to most, and he said, “Drinking water from the tap.” True that. Given that he was leaving India the next day, and given that another new Belgian friend of mine had also been in India for a while, the plan was to head to McDonalds for dinner – and I swear, I didn’t even suggest it first this time, this was all them. Drinks followed at Leopold Cafe, a famous traveler bar that ended up being one of the sites of the 2008 terrorist attacks. It was supremely odd to have remembered hearing about that from so far away, and now be sitting near one of the still-existing bullet holes in the wall. We chatted for a long while over beers, and continued the enjoyment at another bar until they started dimming the lights. “Are those mood lights, or we-want-you-to-leave lights?” A few minutes later, the lights went out. “Oh, OK. The second one.”

The next day was spent wandering to some big attractions like the train station, the Gateway of India, the 'thief market’, famous mosques and temples, and all sorts of on-the-street preparations for the big upcoming festival Navaratri, a celebration of the goddess Durga. Everyone was telling me that it was a shame that I had just missed the Ganesha festival (the god with the elephant head), as he’s a favorite of Maharashtra state and people go nuts. But folks were setting up stages for storytelling and idols, making flower streamers and dancing to music – even if it wasn’t Ganesh, it was pretty cool. My Belgian friend was treating herself by staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a super-fancy hotel that is claimed to be the best service in India. The story goes that the owner built it in the early 20th century after being denied entry to a “whites only” hotel in town. I decided that since the rooms were too rich for my blood, I might as well go join her for a fancy cocktail in one of the bars instead.

Due to my cell phone SIM card acting up and missed timing, I ended up sitting in the bar myself at a table up close to a guy and gal playing music and singing a whole crazy variety of English and American covers. My waiter, who was absolutely treating my grubby self like a five-star guest, basically read my mind and told me that the band accepts requests, if I happened to have any, and then presented me a fancy pen and a notepad. I wrote, ’ “Do you know any Bruce Springsteen?” – An American’, and it was hand-delivered to the band by my waiter. The very next song, the singer smiled at me and said, “This goes out to the American,” and they played a great lounge-act rendition of 'Dancing in the Dark.’ Amazing. Soon I had a new friend – the only other person in the room outwardly enjoying the band – and a South African guy joined me and started chatting with me about India and traveling and such. He bought my last two drinks, and then the band joined us, and then we all planned to be there again the following night. A “cool cab” ride back to the hotel later, with a driver in uniform and everything, and I got a great night’s sleep.

The next day it was time to chase down the dabbawallas. These are the guys that run lunchpails, or tiffins, of home-cooked meals to offices for the Mumbai businessmen who don’t want to eat out every single day and also don’t want to spare any space on the insanely-packed local trains as they’re holding on for dear life just trying to get to work. So these dabbawallas ride trains and rickshaws and bicycles to shift these tiffins via a coding system to the exact right businessman in the exact right office. Harvard even did some crazy study of their simple yet incredibly effective methodology and found that for every six million deliveries they only make a handful of mistakes. They even got a six-sigma rating. I waited around at the train station to spot the first guy carrying a huge tray of 40 lunchpails on his head, and then followed him outside to where he set it down. Soon he was joined by a dozen other dabbawallas, each placing their bounty down for organization and eventual loading onto a bicycle. They knew they were famous, of course, and loved hamming it up for the cameras. I made friends with a German gal also there taking photos, and we exchanged info to grab a drink later on – at the Taj, of course.

Later I hit up the open-air laundry spot called Dhobi Ghat, which was interesting and odd and so very India all at the same time, and wandered around some more in the heat. I ended up on a hill in a fancy area, apparently where Mumbai’s richest businessman lives, and saw more festival dancing and streets coming alive. I watched the sunset from the pier overlooking the skyline, and once again fell deeply in love with big cities. Rejuvenated once again, I headed to be treated like a queen, and handed a bathroom towel by an attendant, at the Taj. This time my Belgian friend pulled herself away from her amazing bathtub and balcony room to join my new German friend and I for a few beverages, where we compared some more notes on being foreign women traveling by themselves in India. We missed the band, and also my new South African friend, but my waiter from the previous night gave me a warm welcome, and continued to bring exceptional beverages. After one more boxcar-esque crazy local train ride the next day, I met a driver arranged by my “welcome to India” friend from the plane to head a few hours southeast to Pune, where I would meet my college buddy’s extended family and spend some relaxing time with them for a few days. My hosts were two grandparents who wanted nothing more than to ensure that I was extremely comfortable and at home at their house… and to feed me nut-free Indian food until I could no longer move. Which they did, on both counts. I couldn’t believe how much delicious food I could eat and did eat, and it more than made up for the McDonalds and plain naan that had been my diet for the past few weeks.

Pune was even more relaxed atmosphere-wise than Mumbai, and I had a great time wandering the streets and then rickshawing back to the house. Each time I would take a rickshaw out, my host would put his slippers on and walk outside to translate into Marathi (the language of Maharashtra) so that there would be no confusion as to where I was headed. One evening I was whisked away by my hosts’ son and family to eat more delicious dinner, climb a hill to watch the sunset and accompany the family’s daughter on taking excellent up-close photos of dragonflies, ride on the back of a scooter at night (FINALLY), and join the whole family – complete with authentic colorful skirt and jewelry – at a Garba dance party in celebration of the Navratri festival. You basically go around in opposite circles with two sticks in your hand, hitting a pattern against the opposing person’s sticks in tune to the music, for an eternity. I got insanely sweaty, but did actually receive a handful of compliments for my stick-hitting prowess. Videos do exist somewhere, but they’re unfortunately not in my possession. I had a blast relaxing afterwards and cooling off, watching all of the pint-sized kids run around on the lawn in their traditional outfits, burning off crazy energy dancing on their own. It was fantastic to be taken in to a celebration like that.

The next two days were filled with drinking beer with my friend from the plane, seeing more sights whilst wandering around, unsuccessfully finding a heritage walking tour start point, sleeping in, visiting temples, watching more celebrations, eating more amazing food, riding more scooters at night and having a hell of a time talking traveling and Bollywood with my friend’s cousin and buddy, and learning all sorts of amazing history and religious knowledge from my hosts. I couldn’t have asked for a better closing chapter to India. And so, after a particularly long search for an internet cafe (which culminated in me pretending that I’m staying at the Courtyard Marriott and writing this blog post from their delightful business center)(free mineral water), I get up at 2:00 a.m. to being a really really long journey to get to Cape Town, South Africa (!). Talk to you from a new continent, folks. SEND MORE TEXTS PLEASE I LOVE THEM AND I LOVE YOU

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