It’s 3:15 AM and I am drinking instant coffee in the apartment Daegan and I are sharing for two nights in Mumbai. I wake Daegan up with a cup of his own. We have to pack and get ready for another big day that starts with a train ride leaving Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, over an hour away, at 5:00 AM. We’re both exhausted because we had just had another amazing day that started at about the same time just one day before. Like zombies we drink our coffee until it is time to head out.
Today we are everybody’s wake-up call. When we get down to the bottom floor we go to the gate. The chowkidar wakes up and unlocks the gate so we can leave. We walk around the to the other side of the building and knock on the office door. This time we have to knock again, harder this time and one of the staff, who sleeps on the floor of the office wakes and takes the keys to the apartment. Then we roll our bags to the gate of the apartment complex. We wake another guard who unlocks and opens that gate. And now we’re on the street.
The street is quiet, only interrupted by the occasional autorickshaw driving by with a passenger in it. Just outside the gate we see no less than three autorickshaws parked, all of their drivers are sleeping. I don’t know the protocol and am unsure if they’re sleeping here waiting for passengers like me, or sleeping here to be close to where the work is when they wake up. And besides, I’m tired of feeling like the annoying guy who wakes everyone up. And so, I take out my phone and call an Uber. Now if someone is waking up because of me, at least I don’t have to be the guy who delivers the bad news. It’s an app.
Five minutes later, Ashok arrives. I tell him in Hindi where we’re going and we’re off. The streets are nearly empty – something I never would have imagined having seen them during the day. There were a few people doing construction work, some more people sleeping in autorickshaws, or on the street. It seemed very dark as there were much fewer streetlights than I am used to in Toronto.
About 15 minutes in to our trip we see a lone 50-something man on a loaded bicycle. Ashok pulls over next to him and rolls down my window to talk to him. Either they’re speaking Marathi or my Hindi speaking brain cells are still asleep as I don’t know what’s happening. Are we lost? Is this cyclist our driver’s friend? What’s happening?
Our driver then turns to me: “Chai ya coffee chahiye?” Do you want coffee or tea?” Daegan and I both say yes to coffee and our driver tells the cyclist. A minute later, a large thermos is lifted off of the bicycle and Daegan and I now have instant coffee with milk and sugar. Another thermos is produced and our driver has chai. More words are shared, and I gather our driver is asking for two cigarettes. The cyclist has those as well. The driver pays for everything and we drive off. He asks if I smoke, and when I say I don’t, he says that he won’t smoke either, then. He opens a foil packet of chewing tobacco and has that instead.
Moments like this – ones in which everything is unfamiliar. In which I don’t know the rules, or what’s going to happen next, or in many cases even why things are happening, but am just experiencing the moment. These make every moment in a trip like this feel like a surprise gift.