ESCAPE FROM MUMBAI
BMX in India is hard work
Words and photos by Walter Pieringer
I’ll tell you this – Mumbai is the craziest place I’ve ever been.
Our flight got in a little before 10:00 at night. It was after 11:00 before we had cleared customs, gathered our bags, and strapped everything down to the roof of a cab headed for our hotel.
That cab ride, our first taste of India, is hard to describe. I knew very little about India, but two of the things I had heard were that it was one of the most different places a westerner could travel to, and that the poverty was like nowhere else. As it turns out, my sources were correct.
The next morning we got up super early (11.5 hour jet lag) and ate breakfast at what we later learned must certainly have been one of the most expensive restaurants in town. We were nervous to eat – countless people had told me that we should just expect to get sick at some point in India. After breakfast we started pedaling around the city.
Mumbai is huge. Massive. It’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and it shows.
Pedaling around Mumbai is fucking hard. The traffic is unbelievable. The streets are this chaotic mess of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and people, all meshing together in this weird, almost harmonic way. Traffic seems based on a “flow” theory, where everyone just goes where they want to go and hopes everybody else will get out of their way. It’s breathtaking, really. Traffic lights are merely a suggestion, and if you think you just might possibly be able to squeeze into a gap between two vehicles, you’re expected to go for it; it would almost be more dangerous not to.
And then there’s the honking. Oh the honking. Mumbai drivers have a very different take on horn etiquette than what I’m accustomed to. Instead of honking when a fellow driver is making a mistake or being an asshole, the tradition is to simply honk to let other drivers know you’re there. Passing someone? Give them a friendly beep to let them know you’re in their blind spot. Now when you consider that every vehicle on the road is constantly passing someone or being passed, it all adds up to this unnerving symphony of incessant car horns. It really, truly is nonstop. It’s incredibly hard to get used to being honked at all day every day – where I come from, a horn is generally used in anger, and it’s engrained in my mind that someone honking at me is upset with me. In India, such is not the case.
That first day we pedaled around all day – all day – and didn’t find one single spot. Had we finally done it? Had we finally traveled to the place where there legitimately was nothing to ride?
The number of people living on the streets is hard to comprehend.
We did, however, start to get a feel for the city. For one, it was hot. Very hot. And one definitely encounters more mystery smells than anywhere I’ve ever been.
The number of people living on the streets is hard to comprehend. In the US, it seems like the majority of homeless people have some kind of root cause for their homelessness, be it drug problems, alcohol problems, mental problems, or what have you. In India, there are entire respectable families living on blankets in the streets – people that are clean, well dressed, and seem like they’d have jobs. And children. So many homeless children.
Water trucks drive around and provide drinking and bathing water to those living on the streets. Stray dogs and cats roam everywhere, and cows, goats, and these wild looking bovine creatures with horns and a hump that I think are called zebu are not uncommon, even in the dense urban environment.
It was true – India really is a very different place. We were dumbfounded by the sheer madness of it all; we had a hard time even figuring out how to do basic things like find a restaurant or a grocery store.
BMX IN INDIA
If pedaling around in Mumbai is hard, trying to photograph and film bike tricks can only be described as next to impossible.
First off, as I explained, just cruising down the street is a nightmare. The next problem we’d encounter is the complete and total lack of spots. Think you don’t have anything to ride in your town? Go to Mumbai, you’ll reconsider. There simply is not the type of architecture that street riders need to thrive. Any fancy building that might have rails or stairs or a gap or a wallride or any obstacle that’s even close to rideable is almost universally locked down behind steel gates and guarded by a private security team, I’m assuming because of what appears to be an ever-present terrorist threat in Mumbai, and the number of people living on the streets. But whatever the reason, nearly everything we did find that looked rideable was also completely inaccessible.
But let’s say we do find a spot. And don’t get run over getting there, and it’s not heavily guarded. Awesome. Let’s ride.
Immediately the crowd starts to form. Within five minutes, there are easily 75-150 people gathered around, all so curious and exited about us and our bikes. And because they don’t quite understand exactly what it is we’re doing, they’re in the way – standing in runways, standing where people will be landing, standing in front of my camera. They’re asking questions, introducing themselves, shaking hands, touching our bikes, touching us, and taking cell-phone pictures. It’s completely overwhelming.
But the spectators are the least of our worries – within another five minutes the police will inevitably show up, attracted by the huge crowd that’s formed around us. And they are not happy. They’re screaming at the crowd, hitting people with long flexible sticks. Then they see my cameras and things get much worse. They hate the cameras. It’s strange because almost every single person I met in India was incredibly nice and exceptionally friendly – except for the police. The police were almost universally dickheads.
DAY 2, OR THE CRAZIEST DAY OF MY LIFE
The plan for our second day was to take the train up to an area of Mumbai called Bandra, an easy 11 stops on the western line. The train station was a mad house, but before too long we had successfully boarded the correct train headed north, with bikes and camera gear. So far so good.
It was early still – the morning rush was in full effect. What started off as a moderately crowded train car was soon extremely crowded. But we still had no idea what was in store for us.
As we cruised along, one of our fellow passengers looked concerned and pointed at my camera bag, which was sitting on the ground next to me. I couldn’t understand why, but I pulled the bag a little closer to me nonetheless. But then I figured it out. As we stopped at the next station, a massive flood of people bum rushed the train, clawing their way on, desperate for a spot before the thing started moving again. I now existed in the most crowded space I’ve ever been in in my life; in fact, the word “crowded” is truly an insult to how absurd the situation actually was. I was pressed against humans on all sides to the point where breathing was starting to become an issue. It was hot, everyone was sweating, and the smell was indescribable. It was undoubtedly the most dirty I’ve ever been.
To make things even more interesting, we were on the right side of the train, but we needed to exit on the left. I honestly didn’t see it happening – the idea of the four of us traversing the dense sea of people with bikes and cameras in the short amount of time the train would be stopped seemed completely beyond comprehension. I imagined one or two of us making it off at best, and it being nearly impossible for us all to meet back up again.
We got to our stop, and we went for it. Heads down, football style, pushing through the crowd as hard as we could, dragging our bikes behind us. Other passengers were trying to help, pushing us and our bikes toward the exit as pedals, pegs, and bars snagged on chairs, handles, and shins. Aside from the already overstuffed train, a whole new flood of would-be passengers was pressing back against us, trying to board. It was absolute complete madness, but against all odds, we all made it off that train. I couldn’t believe it. Any of it.
And now we were thrown into Bandra.
If we thought the area of Mumbai where we had pedaled around the day before was crazy, we were in for a shock. Bandra was 50 times crazier. So many humans, so much traffic, so much honking, so much noise. My mind was blown. After that train ride, I wanted nothing more than to sit down for a few minutes and collect my thoughts, but there was simply no place to do that. So we just started pedaling and trying not to get run over.
Soon we had stumbled upon our first spot of the trip – a sweet bank-to-bank setup on the corner of a busy intersection. The dudes started riding it, and within moments a huge crowd had formed. Of course it wasn’t long until the police were upon us.
So many humans, so much traffic, so much honking, so much noise.
There were several of them, and they appeared out of nowhere. They were screaming at the crowd, telling them to disperse, shoving people. In the chaos Nathan didn’t even notice the police and nearly ran into one as he pedaled toward the bank; as I filmed, the cop pushed my camera down just as Nathan pulled a truck to fakie.
That’s the point when things got weird. Instead of simply kicking us out, the police grabbed us and our bikes. We weren’t quite sure what was happening at first, but it soon became clear that we were being arrested. There was talk of running; the cops had a pretty good grip on us, but nonetheless I’m pretty sure we could have broken free and just pedaled off – the problem was, where would we have gone? We didn’t exactly blend into the crowd, we had no idea where we were, and being recaptured seemed inevitable.
As they were literally dragging us down the street to the police station, one of the cops demanded I give him my camera; I told him, “No I’m not giving you my camera!” and somehow that was the end of the discussion.
Once we arrived at the police station, we spoke with several very angry officers, a few of whom spoke at least a little bit of English, which was both helpful and appreciated. The strange thing was, they weren’t even upset about the riding – they were much more concerned that I was shooting photos. I never got a clear explanation as to why, but apparently there are many of areas of Mumbai where you simply are not allowed to take pictures, including the entire district we were in. I don’t understand how anyone is supposed to know that – Mumbai did not come with an instruction manual, and an internet search later on turned up nothing on the matter – but nonetheless, the police take it very seriously, and they made it clear that ignorance of the law – even from a foreigner – is most certainly no excuse. Unless I’m mistaken, I think it has something to do with the terrorist threat, but that’s only a guess.
After being interrogated at the police station for maybe 20 minutes, they just let us go. We had dodged that bullet for sure.
Not knowing what else to do, we kept pedaling. It had been one of the craziest days of my life, and it wasn’t even noon yet.
Before long we happened to find a Hyatt hotel in the middle of one of the most chaotic neighbourhoods one could possibly imagine; I can’t even begin to describe how out of place it seemed. We were in desperate need of some peace and quiet at that point in our lives, so we headed inside. It wasn’t that easy though – security there was crazy, with dozens of guards, checkpoints, and mirrors on poles to look underneath cars for bombs. Pretty serious stuff. Just parking our bikes was a mission.
Once we were finally inside, it was culture shock all over again. It was one of the most extravagant hotels I’ve ever been in; the contrast to what was going on right outside was unbelievable. On top of that, it was fashion week, with models in expensive clothing walking around everywhere; it really was hard to grasp. We chilled in the air conditioned lobby and ate some nice food in one of the hotel’s four elegant restaurants while we built up the nerve to brave the streets of Mumbai once again.
We pedaled over to the University of Mumbai but were stopped at the front gate by the security guard – we weren’t even allowed on the premises because I had a camera. They really don’t like cameras over there. We circled the perimeter trying to find another entrance, but apparently there was just the one. A second attempt at entry – this time with my camera stowed in my bag – proved more successful, but unfortunately the campus didn’t resemble what one typically thinks of as a university, and there wasn’t much to ride.
After another couple hours of pedaling, and getting harassed by the cops a few more times, we didn’t know what to do. We tried to keep going, but we were beat, both physically and emotionally. We elected to take a cab back to the hotel – by now it was evening rush hour, and we just couldn’t handle another train ride. Fortunately taxi drivers in Mumbai have absolutely no problem with strapping four bikes to the roofs of their cabs.
Once we made it back to our hotel, our little neighbourhood didn’t seem quite so chaotic anymore. We started noticing restaurants, shops, drug stores, and all kinds of other conveniences that had been lost in the commotion when we first arrived. Compared to where we had been on that second day, our area was positively tranquil.
For the next few days, we rode and chilled in Mumbai. We’d pedal from the hotel or get a cab to a different area and explore. It was hard work, and the police were a constant problem, but it never got too out of hand. Then things got crazy again.
Nathan was doing a line outside the train station near our hotel. He pulled it, but the light was terrible, and it wasn’t too hard for him, so we were going to wait around for 20 minutes and shoot it again. We should have known better – five minutes is usually all we’d get at a spot before we knew we had to leave – but the crowd was small, and it seemed pretty chill.
Then the police showed up, two of them on one motorcycle. None of us were even riding, but the cops were very upset that I was shooting photos outside the train station. One of them spoke some English, and he asked me what kind of visa I had. I told him a tourist visa, and he informed me that I needed a work visa to be shooting photos. I tried explaining that I was just a tourist, shooting for personal use only, not for money or commercial purposes; I said it every way I could think of, but apparently my camera gear just looked too fancy, and he wasn’t having it.
The weirdest thing was, it really didn’t seem like I was simply violating some code or statute – this guy was genuinely, personally angry with me. He demanded to see my passport; I had left it in the hotel, so I gave him the only form of ID I had on me, my Texas driver’s license. That seemed to make things much worse. Throughout the ordeal, he repeatedly yelled at me and told me I had disrespected him. “This is not your America. This is not your Texas. This is our country. You think you are king? You are not king!” I honestly have no idea what I did to offend him so profoundly; I’m not an idiot, I don’t go mouthing off to cops in foreign countries. I tried my best to apologize, calm him down, and explain the situation, but trying to reason with someone who is 1) very angry with you 2) in a position of authority and 3) speaks a different language really does have to be one of the most aggravating and futile activities one can ever hope to engage in.
Next thing I knew, he’s telling the other cop to seize my cameras and telling me, Nathan, Aaron, and Tom that we’re all going to the police station with him. Fuck.
I packed up my gear as quickly as I could, gave my camera bag to Nathan, and told him, “Go.” I knew if my cameras were taken by the Mumbai police, the odds of me ever seeing them again were slim to none.
The cop kept asking to see my passport; after explaining several times that it was in the hotel, he agreed that we could stop by there on the way to the police station. As I followed the police on their motorcycle, Nathan, Aaron, and Tom took off in the other direction. The cops were furious and demanded that I make them come back; I wasn’t sure how I would make that happen, and I didn’t want to anyway, so I gave a half-assed yell, and my friends kept pedaling. The cops were not pleased.
Our hotel’s lobby was located on the sixth floor of the building, along with our room. I figured the guys had gone back to the hotel and were hiding out there. As I headed toward the elevator, I sent Aaron a text: “We’re coming upstairs run.” If the police followed me into the room and the three guys who had taken off were in there, it would have been bad. Fortunately the elevator was tiny and the cops took the stairs instead, so I was able to sneak into the room before they made it up.
Once inside I hid the memory cards and hard drives containing the photos and footage from the trip in case the cops tried to take any of it. I grabbed my passport, told my friends to wish me luck, and headed out to meet the police.
I found them at the front desk, very upset, grilling the desk clerk for my room number. Soon the hotel manager appeared and wondered what all the commotion was about.
The manager was a badass. It wasn’t hard for him to figure out that I was in a bad situation and needed help. He ended up walking the police and I into a back room at the hotel. We sat on some sofas, he brought the cops some tea, and we talked things out.
I sat there as one of the cops ranted to the manager in what I’m assuming was the Marathi language about what I had done. It was an impassioned speech, but I had no idea what he was accusing me of. The manager simply nodded his head and occasionally responded with a few calm words.
As best I could put together, I was in trouble for shooting photos where I shouldn’t be and without the proper work visa, disrespecting the police, and for my friends running.
It came down to this: the cop told me that I would go with him to the police station, pay a fine, and then in the morning I’d see a judge who would decide what happens to me from there.
At that point, it seemed inevitable – I was going to be spending the night in an Indian jail. Despite the manager’s best attempts at reasoning, the cop hadn’t given an inch. By now my camera gear seemed relatively safe, and I really didn’t see any way of talking this guy out of taking me in. So I just let it go. I said “Okay, let’s go” and started to stand up. The manager shook his head, gave me a “no you don’t want to do that” kind of a look, and motioned for me to sit back down.
Then things got even weirder. One of the police officers offered me his cup of tea – “Drink, drink” he urged. Now I should mention that foreigners are absolutely not supposed to drink the tap water in India; countless sources indicate that it will make you very, very sick. I declined the tea as politely as I could, but the officer insisted. I declined again, and he insisted again. There was no way out of this – I was already in trouble for disrespecting the police, and refusing his hospitality was only digging my hole deeper. So I drank up. As it turned out the tea was amazing, even if I was certain it was going to make me sick.
This was my reality: I was being forced to drink something that was almost guaranteed to make me incredibly ill by the Mumbai police under threat of incarceration. And not only was I probably going to jail, but I’d be experiencing some serious gastrointestinal problems in there as well. Things were not looking up.
But then it got better. After another ten minutes of arbitration, and plenty of apologizing from me, the hotel manager miraculously convinced the cops to let me pay the fine on the spot (1500 rupees, or about $30) and to not take me to jail. It was pretty awesome. The cops were still really pissed, but I was quite happy to not see the inside of jail cell. The manager had completely saved the day – three cheers for the Chateau Windsor Hotel. And the tea never made me sick.
ESCAPE, OR NOT
Bike riding in Mumbai followed a very consistent and predictable pattern. It went something like this:
l Pedal for hours
l Find spot
l Crowd forms
l Cops show up
l We almost go to jail
After four chaotic days of that, and numerous run-ins with the law, we were ready to go see something else. We formulated a plan over breakfast one morning: we’d rent a car and drive 20 hours to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was going to be amazing.
Unfortunately renting a car in Mumbai is impossible, apparently. I won’t go into details, but I tried so, so hard to make it happen, only to fail miserably. We literally spent hours upon hours crammed in cabs, sweating, going all over town in stop-and-go traffic over a period of two days, and all for nothing. I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrating it was.
Once it was painfully clear the car just wasn’t going to happen, we explored other options, none of which panned out either. In the end, we couldn’t rent a car, last-minute plane tickets were much too expensive, and train tickets to anywhere we’d want to go were all sold out. It was official – we were trapped in Mumbai.
We really didn’t know what to do at that point. We didn’t especially want to ride anymore – it was just so much work, everyone was completely exhausted, and the ever-present threat of getting locked up really killed the mood. So we did touristy things for a couple of days – walking around, going to museums, things like that. We rode with a big group of Mumbai BMX locals one afternoon – that was fun, and all those dudes were really cool. Unfortunately they didn’t seem to know where any spots were either, and our session got cut short when I nearly got dragged to the police station yet again.
As the trip winded down, we were quite pleased that – miraculously – none of us had ever gotten sick, despite numerous predictions otherwise. Even so, by the last day, everyone was completely beat. I didn’t want to sit around in the hotel all day, so I hopped on the train and ended up walking around Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, for about an hour until two guys on a motorcycle claiming to be police told me that I really shouldn’t be there by myself and that I had to leave. I wasn’t going to argue with that, so I found my way out and hopped back on the train toward the hotel. I definitely saw some unbelievable things in there though.
So that was our trip to Mumbai. I’m not going to lie, it was a hard trip for sure, but a truly extraordinary experience. I feel like it’s the kind of place that words, photos, and video could never possibly describe. It’s so chaotic, so different from anything I’ve ever seen before, and so incredible. Thanks to Aaron, Nathan, and Tom for going with me – I know it wasn’t an easy trip, but I don’t think any of us expected it to be. I just hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did.