Friday, July 29, 2011

On Safari

I figured after my adventure in Mumbai that I couldn’t leave India without trying to see a tiger. After all, I had been able to see lions on my previous trips to Kenya, so it only seemed fitting. So after a week back in Delhi, I pulled together a last minute trip to the Wildlife Reserve at Ranthambhore to go tiger spotting.

However, before I talk about that, I want to discuss a crazy experience in Delhi the night that I left for Ranthambhore. It so happened that on this evening, Andrew and Alan were in town (Delhi, this time) and were absolutely eager to see me and treat me to dinner. I was only too happy to oblige, but unfortunately had already planned to attend an environmental lecture that evening at the India Habitat Centre. Being the environmentally-conscious citizens that they are, Alan and Andrew thought it might be fun to attend as well and that afterward we could all grab a bite together. So I met them at their hotel and proceeded together to the India Habitat Center.

Now when I had planned on attending this event, all I knew was from a blurb forwarded me by my friend David. David didn’t know the speaker personally but thought I might be interested. The blurb said this was the launch of a new environmental movement in India called the “Tao of Green.” Interested since it invoked a philosophy that I had come to know in China, I thought it might be worth my attending to learn a bit about environmental movements in India (a nice complement to the green building research). Based on my enthusiasm, Andrew and Alan joined me.

From the first moments, we sensed this would not be quite what I had expected. We entered the room to hear the sounds of Bob Marley and other hits of the 1970s with the Windows Media Player Visualizer filling the projector screen. Though I recognized a face or two from my previous environmental conferences in Delhi, the crowd was mostly dressed down and relaxed. Few seemed to be of any high importance in the Indian environmental scene. The man running the show bounced excitedly around in his ragged jeans, slippers, and shawl reminiscent of those from South America. His overexcited nature belied either a great nervousness or something else.

When finally the hour struck to begin the meeting, he had to be prodded to get going. Otherwise, I think he would have fiddled with his computer and the microphones endlessly. He turned his bloodshot eyes to the crowd and excitedly began asking the audience for their suggestions on what to do about the environment, the lack of social infrastructure in India, and basically solutions to the problems caused by the corrupt Indian government. The bewildered audience which had been expecting a presentation of some sort just stared back until another member politely suggested that he explain why we were all here before demanding we overthrow “the man” and solve all of India’s problems through a new social order. Accepting the request, the man called up his panel of speakers and introduced each. That was the end of what I can even begin to call the “normal” part of the evening.

At this point, an audience member stood up and began yelling that one of the panelists was a fraud, liar, and undeserving of sitting on any panel anywhere. He claimed that the panelist had failed to pay his rent for years and as such was undeserving of the praise heaped on him from the organizer of the evening. In the five minutes that followed, a heated argument ensued in which the accused sat smugly, the accuser shook with rage as he yelled his accusations and held up incriminating documents, and the host had to be physically restrained in his violent retorts that nearly came to blows. The accuser was finally escorted from the room and calm ensued, but not before several others had discreetly found the exit. We wished later we had been among them.

As a sense of disquieted calm returned to the evening, the presenter turned once more to explaining his movement. With the accompaniment again of Mr. Marley, Queen, and others, he began a slideshow with images and headlines meant to shock us into revolution against India and the world. Claims of climate change, corruption in schools, failing grades, and a downfall of the economic system flashed on the screen as the presenter bounced along with the music, shifting from side to side, and occasionally throwing out a short rant to accompany a slide. When it was all over, I glanced from Andrew to Alan as I thought to myself, “What have I gotten us into?”

At the end of this, a few more people found the door while others stared blankly at the presenter again imploring us to offer thoughts and solutions to his new movement and creation of a new social order. He even asked us directly for an American viewpoint. Not wanting to be associated with this at all, we just shook our heads. An audience member again implored him to explain what it all meant. He defended his slides, saying that they were presenting the problem and later he would show his solution—the Tao of Green. After a heated debate on the use of the word “Tao” in the name of the movement that resulted in several more audience members leaving, I had to excuse myself to take an important phone call from the University of Michigan.

When I finished, I found Andrew waiting for me outside the hall. He had excused himself to the toilet and did not want to return. He sent me in to collect Alan so we could head to dinner. I crept back in to find Alan sitting in a shocked stupor at the crazy and often idiotic events unfolding before him. Tapping him lightly and signaling the door, he was only too happy to leave, and soon we were off to dinner at the American diner near the Habitat Centre. I found out later that while I was outside, the presenter had showed his solution through several more nonsensical slides that amounted to nothing except damning the current global geopolitical order, if, that is, you could apply any theme to his rants and images. I felt bad for subjecting my friends to this horrid evening, but soon we were all laughing about it while sitting in the neon glow of a 50’s diner in the heart of Delhi.

The presenter contacted me a few days later via e-mail. When I asked him to remove me from his e-mail list, he messaged me directly in a very defensive mood. After calling me a product of the system, saying that my friend David who had referred me to the event would be ashamed of me, and telling me that I was closed-minded and ignorant, he somehow had a change of heart and invited me to his home. I declined, blocked his screen name, and reported all of his messages as spam. I found out later that he doesn’t even know David—the e-mail was sent to David through some list serv. I don’t know what is wrong with this man, how many drugs he was on that night or the night he messaged me, or what he thinks he will accomplish with his ranting and images (his rants, by the way, continued in daily e-mails culminating in one that claimed the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami were products of global warming instigated by the malicious actions of current world leaders), but I hope he never includes me again in any of it.

After that interesting evening and a nice dinner, however, I was off to the train station for an overnight ride to the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. Though not the best place for tiger spotting in India, it is the closest to Delhi and with my limited time, the only one I could book easily. I arrived in the wee hours of the morning and was picked up and transferred to my hotel by the company through which I had booked my safaris. To maximize my chances of seeing the beautiful yet elusive beast, I booked on four trips—morning and evening each day—with another overnight trip back to Delhi on Sunday.

The first ride began shortly after sunrise as I was picked up by the lorry—a vehicle for 16 people. We headed into the game park and turned onto one of the paths set out for vehicles. The rules there were quite strict—unlike in the African game parks I visited, each lorry was assigned one route on which it could drive and one route only. So if a tiger was on another road, too bad. It was a matter of luck as to which route you were assigned too, so no trying to guess where the tiger will be based on where he was before. Each ride was only 2 hours as well and then you had to leave.

Riding through the jungle was fun though and we saw plenty of birds, monkeys, and deer. At first these interested us, especially when the birds would come down to perch on the top of the lorry’s windshield providing for close-up pictures. We even ran across a couple of crocodile sitting in the lake waiting for the sun to warm their cold-blooded bodies. However these animals soon seemed old to us as we thirsted for the sight of a leopard, or better yet, a tiger. As we turned around, however, it seemed luck was not with us. We left the park and though every pair of eyes in the car strained for a dash of orange in the reeds, it was not to be found. Our eyes only picked up what you see below.

My time in between rides on both days was a blissful vacation from the bustle of work in Delhi. I had chosen to leave the computer at my hotel in Delhi in the care of friends so that I would be unencumbered on my train rides. I had brought instead only a book to read and Sudoku puzzles to solve. I passed my afternoons, therefore, relaxing, thinking, sketching, and exploring the small village around Ranthambhore. It was wonderful in many ways to feel as though I was on a great adventure—I was not wasting time certainly—but yet to be able to pass the time in some idleness, relaxing from my southern adventures and storing rest for my upcoming travels.

As the afternoon waned, it was time for my next game ride. This time, I hopped into a different lorry with a new guide. We turned down a new path and again the excitement of the hunt stirred us all. Fresh eyes and high spirits scanned the forest floor for sights of the big cat but again found only birds and deer. Monkeys chattered above our heads but none called the warning of the big cat. Suddenly our guide pricked up his ears. He had heard the warning call and not far off. We stopped the car by a lake and waited. Perhaps the tiger was coming down to drink. There are only a few of these big beauties in Ranthambhore Park, and yet the park itself is massive, with large swaths inaccessible to jeeps and lorries. The excitement gripped us, but as the minutes waned, our attention wandered. Even the guide relaxed and seemed not to hope for a sighting. As we were thinking of moving on, we heard the warning call again, this time sharper and behind us. The driver did a quick U-turn and raced back toward the park entrance. We came upon a jeep stopped in the reeds, its cargo of four tourists popped out the top, cameras at the ready. As we waited, we saw something move to the right. The reeds rustled and slowly parted, and there emerged a beautiful, large male tiger. Undisturbed by the 24 tourists now snapping his picture (another jeep had come up behind us), he sauntered on his way. Swiftly, our driver moved past the jeep to keep pace with the cat until the tiger turned and faced the road. We stopped, killed the engine, and waited. Slowly, he moved out from the trees, walked slowly across the road not 20 meters in front of the car, and disappeared on the other side. Though we tried to follow, he moved away from the road and was soon lost in the underbrush.

Even though we had only seen him for two minutes, the car twittered with excitement as we drove on back to the gates and out of the park. No other lorries had glimpsed the beast that day and so we felt special—the conquering heroes. For me, the night was spent in relaxation and happiness over an Indian dinner before an early bedtime for my next day of safaris.

As dawn again broke on Ranthambhore, it was time for me to rise and head out once more. The sighting the evening before had whet my appetite for more, and I felt sure that today we would again be lucky. Our drive took us down yet another track this morning, past more crocodiles reposing by a beautiful lake. Birds skimmed the surface, and the clarity of the sky promised a beautiful day and lifted us all with optimism. For several in our car, this was their last chance to glimpse the powerful animal so near extinction. They only hoped if they went home empty today that it wouldn’t be the last chance in their lives. We drove all morning, but again in vain. Though we came upon wild boars this time as well as the usual cohort of deer and monkeys, the tiger again eluded us. Tracks lay in the road, but evidently the nocturnal beast had settled elsewhere for the day. Our cameras full but hearts empty, we again returned to town disappointed.

After another day of relaxation and wandering the town picking up souvenirs, I boarded a lorry for the last time Sunday evening. With yet another guide and on yet another road, I hoped that I might at least go 2/4 in my tiger spotting. Yet as the drive grew long, the sun’s rays longer, and time shorter, it seemed we were not to find the beast. We rode this time past the ruins of a hunting lodge now known to drivers as “Tiger Fort” because of the propensity of the beasts to sleep in the open windows. Yet today there was no such luck. Through the hills we wandered again encountering deer, boars, and monkeys, but no tiger.

As we passed the Tiger Fort again, though, something was different. Two jeeps were stopped staring at it from across the lake. We joined them and soon a whisper of “tiger” passed through the car. Everyone strained their eyes, but none could make out the supposed sighting. Our guide passed around binoculars and explained where to look. Sure enough, there was the tiger, sitting in the window. With the twin miracles of optical and digital zoom, even you can see for yourself. See?

How about now?


If you still didn’t see him in the last picture, try this one, and note that you are looking for the white belly of the reclining big cat. His head is up too, so that should help.

Though we now could all technically say we had seen the tiger, it seemed somehow unsatisfying. Though the time was short and we had to get back, as we saw the tiger moving, our driver decided to chance it. He raced around the lake to the other side and waited. With baited breath, we saw the tiger slowly pop through the reeds into a small pond, stoop for a drink, and then move off again into the brush. We tried briefly to follow, but our tardiness forced the driver back to the main gate without further chances to see the beautiful cat. Even so, we were all extremely thankful for his courage in defying the curfew and expressed our gratitude profusely on the ride home.

As darkness fell again on the city, I strolled through to the train station and waited for my train. Though it would be a long night and very uncomfortable, I could make the journey happy. I had been triumphant in my quest and had experienced yet another unique aspect of India’s mysteries.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mighty Mumbai

After being spoiled for a few days by my stay with Alan and Andrew, it was back to living life as a poor student and back to seeking the sustainable in India’s urban jungles. Having only spent one day in Mumbai my first time through the city, I decided to head back down there via Ahmedabad for another week to learn about sustainability in this financial capital and bustling metropolis.

I left Udaipur on a bus bound for Ahmedabad and after a bit of a nap arrived in the city. Stubbornly refusing the overpriced rickshaws, I hoofed it to my hotel getting lost once on the way but in doing so, getting a nice introduction to the city. As I meandered through the streets laden with my backpack, I came across the city market jammed full of people and stalls to the point where it was hard for people, let alone rickshaws, to travel through (although the latter often tried!). By this time I had grown to love these market scenes in India for the diversity of people and goods, the bustle of life, and the glimpse of urban India that they represent. So despite my load, I took my time to enjoy the scene unfold before me.

The rest of Ahmedabad was relatively uneventful save for one moment that struck fear in my heart and sent me running back to my hotel the next morning. After a peaceful night and a good dinner of Chinese/Indian food (pure Chinese doesn’t exist in India—it is always Indian-ized), I awoke the next morning to vacate my hotel and see the sights before catching the night train to Mumbai. Halfway to my first stop, Gandhi’s ashram, I realized that I had forgotten my money belt complete with my passport in my now empty hotel room. Panicking, I ran back to my hotel and told the manager that I had left something “very important” in my room and needed to get back in to get it. I knew I had left it under the pillow and was only hoping that it was still there. Smiling, he called the room cleaner and then together they pulled my money belt from a drawer in the front desk and handed it back to me. I was immensely relieved and thankful, yet before I could express this, the manager laid his hand on mine atop the money belt and said, “We didn’t take anything from it even though we could have. You should give us something for that.” In other words, for his simple honesty in doing the duty that any hotel manager should, he wanted a reward. Now I have no problem giving such rewards, but I hate being asked for it. And his toothy grin twisted around eyes glowing with greed only bothered me more. However, considering that my luggage was also stored there for the day, I did a quick calculation and figured 100 Rupees was worth the security that nothing would be stolen from my luggage (even it was extorted from me). So I handed over the money and with a bitter smile and a sour taste in my mouth at the loss of the money, I left.

I tell this story because it highlights something that bothers me most about traveling in the developing world, but especially in India (it seemed more prevalent there than China or Kenya)—the association of white skin with money and the constant attempts to draw every last penny from the rich people. Perhaps there are remaining class tensions here that I do not entirely understand or perhaps there is the sense that without the caste system everyone should be equal and therefore they have a right to the same money, but it annoys me as a traveler. I don’t have anything on which to base this claim, but my guess is that an Indian staying in the hotel I did would not have been extorted as I was for the return of a possession left in the room. I read an article while in Delhi about why India was not yet a “world-class” tourist destination or a “world-class” country. The authors listed several things having to do with cleanliness, rude behavior, and general maintenance, but this incident in Ahmedabad put one more item on their list in my mind—lack of equal treatment. While I understand that many in India are so poor that they struggle to make ends meet, I don’t think that is a fair basis on which to leverage unfair prices or tariffs on foreigners or those who are a bit wealthier. Perhaps this is the sense of justice and equality cultivated in America since the 1960s talking, but until everyone is treated equally in India (upper and lower class, tourist and citizen alike), I don’t think it will be “world-class” in the sense that this article implied. This is not just a matter of the vendors giving equal prices—the wealthy in India are equally guilty of unfair treatment. Yet if tourists experience such unfair practices, I can understand why they might become disenchanted with this mystical nation. (Note: I realize the depth of discussion these comments could generate but I don’t have time nor column space to delve into them and explore both sides of this issue in a way that does it justice. Instead, I leave only my impression from the time at which this all happened.)

Anyway, once that was over, I had a nice day exploring Gandhi’s ashram in Ahmedabad and some of the very interesting step wells in the city that used to provide places for gathering drinking water, bathing, and other activities. I capped the day with a meal along the same market street on which I entered the city—some good street food prepared by a few Muslim Indian gentlemen who quickly made me their friend and chatted with me all about the city while I ate. In fact, I noticed throughout the city that many people were very friendly and eager to talk to me, almost to the point where I could not walk about without being stopped every 10 seconds. While it made getting around harder, it did offer some fun conversations and many pictures of smiling groups of friends.

When I arrived in Mumbai the next morning, I headed to my new accommodation—the Salvation Army hostel in the shadow of my former residence, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. While this was definitely a step down on luxury, I got to meet some cool German girls who were traveling through India. The days passed in a combination of sightseeing with and without them and in holding a few meetings with people involved with sustainable building in and around Mumbai.

In my time here, I learned just how different Mumbai is from Delhi and how its unique structure and social conditions create different challenges for sustainability. To begin with, contrary to Delhi which is a sprawling city, Mumbai historically has been very space constrained. Its location on an island means that it has developed extremely densely, similar to Manhattan. Its location on the sea gave it a prominent position in the times of the British Empire when trading dominated. The southern part of the island therefore developed into a financial and business hub with soaring architecture featuring powerful columns, impressive facades, and monumental stonework proclaiming the might of Britain. As the city developed, wealth was increasingly concentrated on the small island leading to a two-fold effect—the growth of the upper class and services catering to it (hotels, restaurants, clubs, and the movie industry) and the rapid growth of the lower class which provided the services. As Mumbai increasingly gained a reputation as the land of opportunity, more citizens flocked to the city seeking to fulfill their dreams.

What is left today now that the British have left India is a city that strives for modernity yet is plagued with one of the worst income gaps in the country. Where else in India or the world can you have mansions overlooking the largest slum in the nation or a land of movie stars mixed with the poorest of the poor. Relative to other Indian cities, it is relatively young and thus does not thrive on tourism to sustain itself. Instead, as with many financial centers the world over, it relies on international banking and business to develop and grow. Sure it has some interesting tourist sites (a large temple to the goddess of wealth, a mosque that is only accessible at low tide, a beautiful waterfront and beach—just don’t swim in the water), but the real stars are the banks which line the area north of Colaba and the numerous other corporations which occupy the old British towers.

Yet was is most intriguing about Mumbai is how it has evolved to handle these disparities and develop ways to service and satisfy both of these populations given the constraints that it has. Whereas in Delhi many of the lower classes rely on tourists for income either through sales, rickshaw fares, or even begging, in Mumbai there is a very visible dependence of the lower classes on the local population through established systems. The most obvious of these is the rickshaw network. Drivers belong to different conglomerations and operate in different areas, and unlike in Delhi, you hardly ever have to ask for the meter—turning it on is automatic. This system evolved perhaps from serving so many bankers and others for whom punctuality and fair prices were necessary, or perhaps from entrepreneurial rickshaw owners inspired by Mumbai’s business-friendly atmosphere. This same organization, however, can be seen visibly in two other cases. The first, the dhobi ghat, I mentioned in my previous post. However for those who have not read it, the ghat is basically the laundry room of Mumbai. Hundreds if not thousands of concrete basins are the site of washing by slum residents for hotels and citizens alike. A drop off and pick up or delivery system aids the process as well.

The other system that has evolved (and the one that impresses me the most) is that of lunch delivery. In India, hot lunches are especially valued given that the food just isn’t the same when served cold. However workers in downtown Mumbai do not have time to head home at noon for lunch with their families. Given their challenging work, they usually eat in the office. To satisfy this demand, a network of lunch delivery men work the city, taking hot tiffin boxes from the wives of the workers and dropping them at their places of work. Each box will pass through several hands in its delivery, going from a local collector to a man on the train to another local delivery man at the other end. Most of these delivery boys are illiterate, so a system of colors and numbers is relied upon to make sure the right box gets to the right place. While this service is only a few rupees per box, the number of boxes is staggering and can easily help support a poor man in Mumbai on this job.

What impresses me most about these systems is the industriousness of the workers and the inherent “sustainability” of them. As I highlighted before, these evolved independently in Mumbai and rely not on tourism (an inherently unsustainable market that unfortunately often sustains cities in the developing world) but on the institutions that exist in the city. The tiffin box delivers or clothes washers often do not give as second glance at tourists—they are too busy working to notice those who pass by. Though it would be nice to see a bit more money flwoing through these systems as the workers are still in relative poverty, this is not likely to change until the entirety of India’s salary base is lifted. Until then, these jobs will remain barely economically self-sustaining. However in this poverty there has also developed a socially sustainable system. Deliverers, washers, and drivers all bond with their kin, forming alliances and friendships that run very deep in Indian life (here, friendship and family are not to be betrayed). I heard stories while in Mumbai of residents of Dharavi, the largest slum, who chose not to leave even when their economic situation became more advanced simply because they had too many friends and family to want to go. Whether you think that occupations like washing and delivery can be simplified, you have to acknowledge that there is a camaraderie that would be lost should such innovation occur.

However there is a negative side to this camaraderie as well, at least in the sense of sustainable development. It is a negative aspect common as well to Shanghai. Like the Chinese financial capital, Mumbai has seen property prices rise, thereby introducing a market for developers to eliminate slums and gentrify large sections of the city. In doing so, private developers rarely place value on preserving the existing social structures. In China, where poor residents cannot speak out against such injustice, the result is clearing of poorer, inadequate housing and dispersal of the residents to scattered tenement housing elsewhere. Circles of friends and neighbors are torn apart in the process.

In India, the same thing could result from slum clearance. Furthermore, typically when developers build on a site such as Dharavi, the result is housing that can only be afforded by the middle class or higher. The previous residents are forced out of the city and may be too far removed to earn a living or contribute to the economy in the same way they did before. A train fare or the simple distance from their former place of work could be the barrier that further impoverishes them. Though no one will likely deny the venefits of improving areas such as Dharavi (the setting for “Slumdog Millionaire”) given the health benefits that would be obvious from better sanitation, plumbing, and health and education services, doing so threatens to disrupt the social balance, remove from the city the only people who can perform the services mentioned above, and disrupt the social support system in place for many of the city’s residents. This balance between environmental and health objectives and social and economic ones is a challenge that is hard to meet.

Yet this is just one segment of Mumbai society. What about the rest? Well, the same pressures that are infringing on the slums of Mumbai are challenging the rest of the city as well. A shortage of residential space ad growing demand for housing and living in the city means that more areas on the periphery are being explored for housing and even retail and commercial centers. As with many other growing cities in the developing world, housing cannot be built fast enough. And since this new housing is in fringe areas, it is typically lower density than the city center and relies heavily on vehicle transportation to serve the population. But as I said, this does not make Mumbai in any way unique. What is interesting is that while the city is facing this growth pressure, it also has a number of older buildings, holdovers from the British and the period after independence which are unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. Many of these buildings predate central air conditioning and though some have been retrofitted to incorporate this feature and other modern comforts, many still have not.

I suppose it is a valid question to ask why a financial capital would be built in a location such as Mumbai. Certainly it is not the most inherently sustainable location for a financial capital given that summers are unbearably hot and humid and monsoon season turns the streets into rivers, but at this point, that is beside the question. The city is not going anywhere soon and that means that growth and renovation are necessary. Yet this is not part of the buidling culture in Mumbai yet. Whereas in some areas of the world sustainable spaces or at least modern spacesa re mandated by coporate policies, in Mumbai this does not seem to be the case. An influx of workers vying for fewer jobs than people combined with a lack of knowledge about comfort and sustainable technologies means that there is no culture of sustainability and modernity in the office world. This perhaps may be in part due to a lack of foreign investment relative to some other cities (such as Shanghai) where there is beginning to be a culture of modernity driven by these foreign companies. Certainly such investment could be driven by internal mechanisms as well, but there is not a culture in Indian business of investing in comfort and environment. It would be easy to blame this trend on a similar lack of care and understanding in imperial Britain that has been held over in recent times, but this is too convenient. I feel that there are other reasons where there is not the same culture of quality, sustainable office space in the city, but I don’t know them so will not speculate here.

The lack of focus on comfort and sustainability is also due to a lack of understanding in the architectural and engineering industries on how to make modern, sustainable buildings, especially in renovation projects. Now this is not to say that there are no good architects and engineers in Mumbai who can make such spaces but rather that the average level of knowledge and the dynamic between clients and architects is such that optimal or sustainable solutions are often lacking. Modernity, like in Gurgaon near Delhi, is often associated almost exclusively with creation of glass boxes which in Mumbai’s climate are completely ineffective from a comfort and environment point of view. All in all, this makes for a daunting challenge for Mumbai’s buildings.

It doesn’t help either that some buildings billed as “green” are inherently unsustainable. The perfect example is the Ambani Tower, a 27 storey residence for one family which I referred to in my last post. This was billed as a “green” project in Mumbai by the developer Perkins+Will.

Now I don’t want to seem like I’m entirely down on Mumbai. While it does have challenges like any city, it also has several factors that make it predisposed to sustainability in ways that other cities do not. The first of thes I have already mentioned—density. The city is more dense than any in the world with the exception, perhaps, of Hong Kong. While modern urban planners do not believe this high density to be such a good thing in new cities, for Mumbai, this means that there are inherently lower transportation nemissions. Furthermore, many of the trips in the city are taken via the suburban railway. In fact, so many are taken in this manner that the railway is often overtaxed with bodies squished together in every car and more hanging off the sides. To counter this, the city is trying to upgrade many of the trains and the public transit system to accommodate more passengers. However in the meantime, in my opinion, the city has a good problem on its hands. Whereas in a place like Delhi distances are quite far apart and building transit to service them all is a challenge, in compact Mumbai the corridors exist and people are used to using transit to get around across all sectors of social life. Furthermore, the compact size means that traffic is so horrendous that the public transit is preferred by many.

Even though roads are also being widened and extended, the lack of free space likely means that there will not be much room for additional roads and thus additional cars. Therefore, even as the city modernizes its infrastructure, cars only have a limited role to play.

From the standpoint of urban life, the compact development means that you are rarely out of reach of all necessary city services including food, communications, and other needs. Anywhere in the city you can find necessary services thereby further reducing the impact of living in the city. Though this will rise as air conditioning and other modern appliances are introduced into housing, these are easy things to tackle from an energy and emissions standpoint. The design of the city and the compact lifestyle is the hard part. Many architects and urban planners slave over this problem daily in other nations and cities, but Mumbai does not have to worry about the issues of mixed-use and compact development.

Overall, in my opinion, though Mumbai has a long way to go to be considered a truly sustainable city, it at least has the basis in place to meet these goals. With its form of urban development created out of necessity and land constraints, it is already on a better path to sustainability than may of India’s cities which have room to sprawl and lack the transit infrastructure of the financial capital. Time will tell, though, how Mumbai handles its population pressure and twin challenges of refurbishment and new development and whether or not it chooses a sustainable path. If the private sector can be motivated and mobilized to invest enviornmetnally, Mumbai has the potential to be a national and world leader in sustainability. Yet it will have to steer toward this path in the coming decade before it is too late developmentally to go back.

Before I close this post, I have one last story to tell, this time about my trip back to Delhi. I thought that after my harrowing trip from Jaipur to Mumbai that the worst of my travel difficulties might be over. Though I knew I would have one more night on a hard seat the following weekend, I thought that at least I might have an easy trip to Delhi in between. After all, I was riding the express train back—a train that has never had mechanical difficulties and almost always runs on time. It is, in fact, a point of pride for the Indian Railways system.

I boarded in Mumbai along with some fellow travelers from Mauritius in the late afternoon ready for the long trip in my air-conditioned cabin. Relative to my other trips, this was the most luxurious ride I had taken as I actually had a mattress on which to sleep and covers, not just a hard plank for a bed. Around 8 pm, we were served our dinner and the six of us sat eating and chatting as the train rumbled through the countryside of the state of Gujarat. Since we were on an express, we stopped only rarely and so from time to time, a small station would speed by outside, a blur of light, color, and weary faces waiting for other trains before the outside world was once again endless streaks of black and purple. As we were finishing dinner, the train slowed and pulled into a station. Initially, we thought nothing of it, but as I looked out the window and saw we were at yet another of these small town junctions, I became a bit concerned. My concern was more than anything over whether or not this unexpected stop at Ankleshwar Junction would delay our arrival significantly and if I would still be able to make it home in time to Skype with my mother for her birthday.

Seconds later, a fellow passenger from further down the car hurried up to us carrying his shoes. Initially, I thought this was his stop and he had almost missed it while sleeping. Then he turned and looked right at us. “Get off the train, there’s a bomb,” he said and then was gone further down the car.

After a split second of stunned silence, our cabin became a flurry of activity. Though I had the sense of mind to set down my dinner carefully, others threw theirs wildly about scattering dahl, roti, and masala across the cabin. Swiftly, I reached up to my bunk, grabbed my computer, and turned for the door. We were luckily right next to the exits, but with the tide of people now flowing down the hallway, it was not easy to get out. When we did, the crowd pushed the Mauritian father and me into the door (which opens inward) with such force that we could not release and haul open the iron barrier. At the sight of the closed door, panic increased until we could clear space enough to open it. The tide of people surged out and into the warm air on the platform.

Without thinking, my Mauritian companions and I took off for the building itself. My motivation at the moment was just to get as much steel and concrete between myself and any potential blast as possible. In my hurry, I noticed that to the right a group or rally had gathered and was chanting along with a man holding a megaphone. Once inside the station, I stopped and peered back through the open door. Most of the passengers had gathered immediately outside the train, some were drawn as if magnetically to the rally. Only the Mauritians and I had sought the safety of the station hall.

After a tense minute or two had passed in which I speculated on the nature of the rally in this small town, we saw the conductor walking along the train and talking to the passengers. We emerged from our hiding to find out what was going on. The Mauritian father spoke Hindi and was by default appointed to assess the situation. He learned that there was no bomb, only a mechanical failure that caused smoke one of the cars. This had led to the passengers believing a bomb to be on board. In reality, it was a failure of the brakes such that they were rubbing the wheels while the train was in motion causing the smoke.

Relieved and yet still disconcerted by the rally, we boarded the train again to sort out what was left of our meals and assess the cleaning to be done. No one ever did explain the rally to me, but after a delay of a hour and a half, we were back underway. Perhaps because of our delayed schedule, we lost more time en route to Delhi but at least the rest of the journey was uneventful.

To put this all in context, it is not entirely unheard of for a bomb to be placed on a train in India. A rash of train bombings in Gujarat a few years back are still being prosecuted in Delhi and had, in fact, been in the papers in the weeks leading up to my trip back to Delhi. In fact even recently there were bomb attacks in Mumbai, though nothing as damaging as those which rocked the city several years ago. So thought I would take it seriously anywhere in the world if I were told my train had a bomb onboard, in India it is perhaps an even more real threat.

Yet despite this, I have to wonder—why didn’t more people distance themselves from the train? I mean, if there had been a bomb and it had gone off, being next to the train would have been just as deadly as being onboard. I guess it is just one of life’s mysteries that we will never solve.