Hello! It’s hard to believe it’s been almost exactly a week since I set sail on this adventure. And so far it is living up to the name adventure! Orientation in Delhi was busy and between lectures and feeling the jet lag, there wasn’t much time to go out and explore. But adventure was waiting for me in Mumbai!
On Wednesday I flew to the coastal city of roughly 18 million people with 6 other Fulbright students. Five of them are going to be living here in Mumbai and one of them, like me, is affiliated here, but will be living and working in Pune. It’s about a 2.5 hour drive, 3-4 hour train, and 5-6 hour bus from Mumbai to Pune. Housing in Mumbai is so hard to come by that many people commute from Pune to Mumbai everyday for work!
All of the Fulbright student researchers in the Mumbai area are being put up at the YMCA in Bombay Central. I had already made arrangements to stay at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), the institute that I am affiliated with for my research. So, I’ve been on my own!
Well, mostly. On Thursday morning Arunima (uh-ROO-ni-muh), a facilitator hired by the United States India Education Foundation, Mumbai (USIEF), met me at the TISS campus. Her roommate, Sharon, had accompanied her. I felt bad. I was very out of the way for the girls. Chembur is in the “suburbs” of Mumbai and they had to come quite far to get me. They smiled and said it was no problem. We all got in an auto rickshaw and headed to the train station. Our mission for the day: meet up with the other Fulbright students at the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and register. Since we will be in India for over 180 days straight, we need to register and show proof of residency and explain why we’ll be here for so long. At the Delhi orientation we heard all sorts of horror stories about the registration process; for some in the past it had taken days…4-5 visits to the FRRO. Yikes!
We got to the train station and Sharon took my hand. It was rush hour and this was going to be quite an experience! Sharon smiled and asked if I was going to be ok. I said yes; I felt relieved that Sharon and Arunima were watching out for me.
In Mumbai, the first car of every train is a “Ladies Only” car. It was very crowded on the platform and even more crowded on the train; we had to push and shove our way onto the train. Arunima and Sharon went in front and behind me so that they could help me make my way through the crowd. Once on the train we crammed into the middle of the car and held onto the overhead handholds. There is room for about 4 women in each row of seats. Two rows face each other. There are four of those in each compartment of the car. Women crowd their way into the car, standing between the rows of seats facing each other and in the aisle between compartments. You have to keep an eye out for any one who is getting ready to exit the train so that you can push your way to their empty seat. After about 30 minutes of standing, the three of us managed to get seats. In another 15 minutes we made it to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, previously called Victoria Terminus).
As we emerged from the pedestrian subway, my hostesses took turns telling me about the history of CST. It was designed and built by the British. It was completed in 1887 but the first trains started running from it in 1853. It and the other buildings in the Fort area were some of the most beautiful in Mumbai, leftovers from the British rule. According to my guidebook CST is “a meringue of Victorian, Hindu and Islamic styles whipped into an imposing, Daliesque structure of buttresses, domes, turrets, spires and stained glass windows….adorned with peacocks, gargoyles, cheeky monkeys and lions” (Lonely Planet India, 2009). It certainly was an impressive piece of architecture!
We walked around, located the FRRO and then called the other students to see where they were. They were delayed at the USIEF office getting all the various papers that everyone needed in order. So the three of us headed back to CST to find a place to kill time. McDonalds. Yes folks, I got coffee with Sharon and Arunima at McDonalds. It was the first time I had been in a McDonalds in about five years. The menu was small and it had been “Indian-ized.” The coffee was small too, and milky and sweet–almost more like a mocha. A couple other girls from their hostel stumbled upon us there. We all sat and chatted about various things–where I was from, what each of us was studying, what our names meant, what sights I should see while in Mumbai. Finally, about 2 hours later we got a call from the group. They were on their way. So we went back to the FRRO and waited for them.
Waiting. That was the theme of the afternoon. I should have had some food at McDonalds. I was at the FRRO from 11:30 am to 4:30 pm. Fortunately there was a decent waiting room. I think it was even air-conditioned. I was prepared for the wait and had brought a book. The artwork on the walls was very interesting. It wasn’t like the cheap, tasteless art that graces most official offices in the US. I think that the art was actually for sale and the waiting room doubled as an art gallery. What a great use of space and a clever way to sell your work since so many people are trapped and end up staring at the walls while they wait.
Fortunately the most difficult part of the registration process was sitting for five hours and not eating anything. All of us got our FRRO booklets and hopped in a cab. We went to Chowpatty, a neighborhood on the coast, famous for it’s beach and marine drive that looks beautiful when lit at night. After eating we all felt invigorated and decided to try to get cell phones. We walked around Mumbai for a few hours. A friendly guy on the street stopped and asked us if we were on couchsurfers. It’s big here in India! A few of us are members, so he walked with us for a bit and directed us to a big mall where we’d be able to get cell phones. We successfully got our mobiles and wandered around the maze of stores, picking up SIM cards, plug converters, and other miscellaneous things. This mall had pretty much everything. After we left the mall I said farewell to my fellow Fulbrighters; it was getting late so I hopped in a cab and headed back to CST to catch a train home.
Stay tuned for another update soon! I set out exploring on Saturday and had yet another adventure. Check back in a few days to read about it :)