In India, even a routine task comes with a multitude of surprises and taking a train is a journey through Indian culture in itself.
The train journey from Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Pune, Maharashtra passed through some beautiful and diverse scenery and gave us our first glimpse of dusty but rubbish strewn rural villages through the bars of the open windows.
A lovely, friendly Indian family who were sat opposite us on the train practically force fed us their food and sweet coffee and we talked using a combination of broken English, hand gestures and photographs. The old, dirty, blue carriages of the Indian trains trundle along slowly through the dusty countryside but it’s impossible to get bored as every couple of minutes someone comes through the train selling all sorts of food, coffee, chai, books, newspapers, saris, handbags and other tat like jingly key chains,toys, hair accessories, bindis and colouring books. Beggars and singing children worked their way through the train and even a man dressed in a sari came up to us clapping his/her hands together, stroking my head and demanding money which was a bit unnerving.
As the train climbed up high into the hills, it passed through dark tunnels and then delighted us with brief snapshots of amazing views over the valleys. Throughout the dusty countryside were muddled huts and villages, people herding animals and walking through the fields. Swarms of brightly dressed people, buzzing rickshaws and decorated trucks gathered impatiently at each crossing waiting for the train to pass. I sat back entranced, observing the whole scene as passengers chattered excitedly, drank copious amounts of sweet chai in little paper cups and purchased food and jangly key chains.
Pune is a city of over 3 million people; I was surprised at how different it was despite being only 3 hours from Mumbai. The city didn’t have the old colonial charms of Mumbai. It was more modern with new malls, offices and call centres and many, many motorbikes. Most westerners visit Pune for the Osho meditation resort. It is a large commercial ashram where a mandatory HIV test is required for registration! It’s infamous for being established by Bhagwhan Shree Rajneesh otherwise known as the “sex guru” for his advocacy of sex as a path to spiritual enlightenment.
Anyway, my reason for visiting Pune wasn’t for any spiritual sex! I came to visit an old friend from university, Hayley, who lives here with her new husband Sam and I was excited and intrigued to find out more about her life in India.
Hayley and Sam met us at the station and we embarked on the first of many crazy, hair-raising motorbike rides. Dressed only in shorts and t-shirts, with our 80 litre rucksacks on our backs, we zipped around on the back of the motorbikes through the chaotic, noisy traffic. The ride was so hectic that I clung on so tightly that my fingers hurt and I spent most of the time screaming and cursing into poor Hayley’s ear.
There seemed to be no rules or lanes to the traffic chaos. Cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, lorries and buses would honk loudly behind us and swerve across the road filling every available space until eventually all the traffic became stuck. Then the honking would turn up to a deafening level, the dust and fumes got in your eyes and lungs. The decrepit condition of the antiquated, rust bucket public buses was shocking. They careered around the roads daring everyone to get out of their way. When we were stationary they drew up way to close to us for comfort as they belched out hot, smoggy fumes onto my bare shins.
Being in the middle of this madness on the back of a motorbike without a helmet I felt incredibly exposed. I feared for my life the whole way, especially as I had my huge rucksack on that threatened to tip me off the back of the bike if I leaned back. My legs were still shaking when I finally dismounted.
It felt a relief to finally arrive at Hayley's apartment, a lovely, gated development of large airy rooms and a sunny, spacious balcony overlooking gardens, to escape the chaotic streets and refresh ourselves after the sticky train journey.
As we relaxed on the balcony with a refreshing coconut from a street cart outside I watched in disbelief as men without any safety gear climbed up bendy bamboo scaffolding and worked precariously on top of the building. India never fails to shock and entertain, to surprise and enthrall. Its impossible to get your head around this crazy, bamboozling, chaotic country but even a routine task can never be boring!