Leaving on a Train 1


The last part of my inspiring south India backpacking trip left me in the middle of the largest and craziest city in India – Mumbai (British ex-name Bombay). The setting for one of my favourite books, Shantaram, I got to experience eating at Leopold’s café, visiting the elegant Taj Hotel, and even walking through one of the largest slums in the world, Dharavi. I stayed for one day on Marine Drive, the most beautiful city view in all of India on a bay with buildings actually taller than 30 floors. Luckily I was able to split the cost with two friends from Vancouver and another two from IITs. It definitely would not have fit into my budget if I did it on my own! Right next to the British-build Gateway of India is the Taj Hotel, scene of the 11/26 Mumbai terrorist attacks and the most expensive hotel in all of India. For my other 3 nights in Bombay, I slept in the relatively dirt cheap youth hostel besides the Taj!

View of Marine Drive from a beautiful hotel

View of Marine Drive from a beautiful hotel

Aside: Ever since I came to India I have been telling people that I will be in a Bollywood movie someday. As friends and strangers alike dismissed this as humour, my determination only increased up to a point where I was asking people how to achieve this dream in the mountains of Kashmir, on a beach in Mumallapuram and in an aerospace museum in Bangalore. As it came closer to the end of my journey, time was running out, but at the same time I was coming closer to Bombay – Bollywood itself! After checking into my hotel I went to a popular tourist district in southern Mumbai and started asking around. After getting a few “no”s, a couple “I have no clue what you’re talking about”s and a request to leave a café immediately, I came across a guy who knew another guy. A few sketchy phone calls later, I was told that I would be contacted later at my hotel. Long story short, I appeared on the set of a big production Bollywood movie (US$50 million) somewhere on the outskirts of Bombay! With a few other international folks from Holland, Australia and the UK, we acted as extras for a scene with a nuclear physicist at a press conference. I have described my role as “international business man who walks across the scene…twice”. Watch out for me, Krrish 3 gets released November of 2013!!!

I know realize that the diversity of people I’ve met in India has been quite limited. Mostly IITians, a few DU folks and other international travellers, there is a much larger Indian population which I have hardly met. Luckily, I took a leap of faith in February and invested in an exclusive program which I then still thought had the possibility of being a scam. On December 24, boarding a train in Bombay, I found out that the program was real and the 18-carriage passenger train would be my home until I came back to Vancouver.

I should explain. I am now participating in an epic journey known by the name of Jagriti Yatra (Awaking Journey): 15 days, 8500 km, 12 Indian cities, 450 participants. All between 20 and 25, these participants are India’s young social entrepreneurs who will be changing the country over the next 50 years. Luckily for me they also accepted a few internationals in the application process! With a focus on the Indian middle class and rural development, I am meeting people from remote villages, towns, and cities all over the country. Every person has a different background, personal story and is at a different state of entrepreneurial development: some own international corporations, some are just trying to explore India and see what sort of opportunities are available. I’m sure there are even a few here just to make a few friends of the opposite gender.

Just some of the hooligans I hung out with on this traintrip

Just some of the hooligans I hung out with on this traintrip

With such a diverse background there are a lot of issues coming to the surface. For the first time in India people around me are openly discussing India’s “problems”. Problems with corruption, education and awareness constantly come up in conversation. It has been really uplifting and refreshing to find out that there are already so many programs going on across the country and that many of these people around me are working as part of them. We are literally travelling around India visiting cities and villages alike, learning from different entrepreneurial role models about the possibilities and challenges that they have overcome in their enterprises.

It has become very apparent that these Indians carry much pride and nationalism with them in their lives, and it has just been enhanced on this journey. It is sad that I never see this sort of ownership in Canada. Everyone wants to help lift India to the superpower status it deserves, and I have not met a single person here who wants to leave India to settle in the West. Quite a difference from IIT…

One of the hardest things about the Yatra is that it passes right over Christmas and New Year’s. Never having been away from family before during these important holidays, the experience has been a weird one. With temperatures of 25°C, no snow imaginable, no decorations, no Christmas carols in stores or on the street, and no mass commercial propaganda, it is actually quite easy to forget that it is December 25th. Along with a few British girls on the train, we went around on the train platform singing such songs as “12 Days of Christmas”, “Jingle Bells”, “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and of course “Frosty the Snowman”! It was sad to break the 2-decade-old tradition, but I survived with the fact that I would see my nuclear family again in less than 2 months. December 31st also passed quite differently, as I brought in the New Year while crowdsurfing across an entire carriage while the train was moving at full speed through the fields of rural Orissa. After getting some of the cake out of my hair, we continued the dance party on the strangest New Year’s night of my life!

Crowdsurfing on a train!

Crowdsurfing on a train!

Latest observations

  1. Telling people that you’re from Canada actually becomes so repetitive at some point that you start improvising a little and try to convince people that you are Indian yourself. Works for about 20 seconds
  2. Skipping past basic introductions and diving right into deep content has actually only scared off 10% of people, and the rest are OK to skip such simple steps making conversations much more interesting
  3. I have only met two people on this train that have travelled to more of India than I have

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One thought on “Leaving on a Train

  • rethinknow

    The Jagriti Yatri seems so incredible! I really should have signed up this year… I’ll be 26 next year. Oh well, at least we get to live this adventure from your eyes. Alex, can you do us a favour? Would you write the profile of say 3 or 4 other young social entrepreneurs whom you found very inspiring on your train journey? What are they like? What’s their background? What kind of change do they want to make? How do the plan to go about it? What do they think they need to succeed? I’d love to hear more about that 🙂

    Happy new year from Kerala!