In Mumbai, a Brompton is Faster than a Taxi
The afternoon of our last day in Mumbai, we were scheduled to take the “Rajdhani Express” train to New Delhi. That morning, we headed out in search of breakfast and ended up at a small pedestrian street just south of the CST train station. It was our favorite street in Mumbai – a fantastic bustling alleyway with street food stalls, Xerox stalls, barber stalls, and stalls where you can get documents typed on a typewriter.
Mumbai has the greatest variety of street food we’ve found so far in India and, determined to enjoy that variety, we ate: 1. Sandwich pav (imagine lightly spiced mashed potatoes spread on wonder bread, then deep-fried) served with green and red chutneys, 2. Vada with sambar (savory donuts flavored with green onion served with a light broth for dipping), and 3. Egg pav (spicy omelet on Mumbai white bread – basically an omelet slider).
After our street breakfast, we headed inside CST to scope it out for our train later that day and to appreciate the bustling station – it is a location for tons Bollywood movies, incuding the big dance scene in Slumdog Millionaire.
We weren’t anxious to leave Mumbai, so dallied at the Prince of Wales Museum (gorgeous ancient sculptures, cases of snuff boxes, and an entire room devoted to miniature paintings), then lunch at “Jimmy Boy”, an Iranian restaurant, and finally very cold beers and arctic AC at Modern Lunch.
With only about an hour left until our train departure, we rode to CST, which we’d prudently scoped out. I left Mila and the bikes at Platform 1 (the platform we thought the train left from) and went to investigate the train situation. At the Enquiry window I asked about the Rajdhani Express to Delhi. The answer came quickly: “Rajdhani? It leaves from Mumbai Central. Different station. You must take car.”
F U C K
This is my screw-up. I’d done so much reading about Mumbai’s famous gothic CST station that I’d somehow assumed it was THE Mumbai Central station. Even the acronym CST kind of seems like Central Station Terminus, or some such. (Of course had my reading been closer, I’d know that CST actually stands for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and that it mostly services local commuter trains.) As I ran back across the station, I searched for Mumbai Central on Google Maps and saw that it was across town, 5km away. I reached Mila, contentedly reviewing Japanese characters on her phone, and broke the news: “We’re at the wrong station. We have to go. We have 45 minutes.”
So we went. We folded up the bikes, ran out onto the street – where all traffic was at a rush hour stand-still – and tried to catch a van cab that would fit all our stuff. Amazingly, one came almost immediatly, so we threw everything inside, jumped in, and asked the driver if he could get us to Central in 20 minutes (Google maps had predicted that it would be 20 minutes by car, and our train now left in less than 40).
“Mumbai Central? Sixty minutes! Minimum! Congested!” He waved a lazy hand at the gridlocked traffic ahead of us. Indeed, we hadn’t moved since getting in the cab.
We took a second to consider the options and Mila said it first: “We have to ride.”
Everything went in reverse: we jumped out of the taxi, grabbed the stuff that we’d just thrown into the back, unfolded the bikes, and secured our bags – all under the bemused gaze of our taxi driver, whose taxi still had not moved – and we rode.
Mumbai traffic is an awful beast, but 2-wheelers do have an advantage. The area in front of CST is not a gigantic traffic circle so much as a gigantic traffic snarl. On the nimble Bromptons, we immediately hooked a U-turn across 10 lanes of stalled traffic – a maneuver that would have taken our cabbie at least 5 minutes to execute, and then we were riding in the correct direction. The past 7 weeks of riding our bikes in every imaginable condition in India were leading up to this. [Mila: In my mind, I was imagining the montage in any cheezy sports movie right after the coach yells: “This is what you’ve been training for!” and the inspirational music swells. I was also trying not to cry.]
Holding my phone with the map in one hand, I stayed in the lead, sticking to the big roads. (After 4 days in Mumbai we knew better than to try to take smaller alleyways as shortcuts. These can become so congested that even walking through them is difficult.) Worming between cabs at red lights, and weaving through lines of buses, trucks, scooters, bikes, people, and cows, we rode. In true Indian fashion, we were madly ringing our tiny, tinny Brompton bells, as if they could cut through the cacophony of Bombay. Mila hit a bump and her plastic water bottle flew out of its holder onto the pavement. But no going back! Keep riding!*
The one thing I hadn’t told Mila was that I was only about 85% certain that we were going to the correct Central station. In my panicked haste at CST, I had punched “Mumbai Central” into Google Maps and was navigating to the first result. Dripping with sweat, less than 10 minutes before our scheduled departure, we wheeled the bikes into a nondescript entrance marked “Central”. I turned to Mila, “Either this is the right station and we’ve made our train. Or it’s the wrong station and we’ve missed our train. Either way, no more rush.”
Thank Google, it was the right station. Two smiling female security guards pointed us to the correct platform (it was Platform 1 after all!). And with only 5 minutes to get the luggage on board and dripping sweat, we started folding the bikes – which attracted the usual crowd of Indian Curious Onlookers (a.k.a. gawking men standing way too close). As Mila was putting the cover on her folded bike, one of the gawkers instructed her to stop so that he could take a photo. Her response was a practical suggestion: “Look it up on the Internet!”
And then we were on the train, Bromptons tucked away under the seats, and even had time to pick up biscuits and “cooling water”, which was most necessary. As the train pushed off, we felt victorious. We fought Mumbai on our Bromptons and we won. With sixteen hours to go until New Delhi, we had plenty of time to celebrate with our tiny bottle of Old Monk rum.
*Moms and dads, while we were in a hurry, we were never reckless.