Dr. Anne sent me an email this week. It looks like she has already found herself a new travel companion and last weekend they ventured to Varkala. Oh, how I envy them. To feel the kiss of the sun on my skin, to for a couple of days pretend to be a tourist in India and rubbing shoulders with other Westerners, comparing and exchanging stories about yet unexplored travel destinations… What did ‘Indian Man in the Know’ say? ‘You will miss India when you are gone…’ ‘Not in a million years,’ is what I thought…
But travelling with Dr. Anne using India’s public transport has indeed left me with some unforgettable memories to cherish! That, and other ventures making ample use of other means of transport in India. Although I probably cannot boast to have sampled all of them, I have experienced a fair few…
The old style elephant ride
There is nothing comfortable about an elephant ride. I have tried the ‘sit-astride-the-back’ approach and the ‘squashed-in-the-box’ approach and I have vague memories of an elephant ride in Jaipur a long time ago. The only blessing is that as most elephant rides are extremely short of duration, the labouring lumbering left-right, back-and-forth shifting is unlikely to induce motion sickness.
The humble bicycle
Before arriving in India just over a year ago, I had visions of using a bicycle. I saw myself cycling to school and easily covering the mere distance of 16 km to the beach on a Sunday morning. Not only would it be cheap transport, it would provide simple, easy, always accessible exercise. The dream evaporated as soon as I got the measure of the little hamlet of N. Yes, there were indeed bicycles, but only men would ride them taking their lives in their own hands, wobbling perilously in between impatient cars and even more impatient motorcycles. No wonder some cyclists take extra precautions by adorning the handle bars with a rosary… Ladies clad in saris would struggle to mount a bike, and let’s face it, as there is clearly effort involved in pushing the pedals to achieve any forward movement, no Indian woman would be in the least tempted to use the humble bicycle. The plan got shelved.
I tried to avoid being a passenger on a motorbike, but this was not always possible. The scariest motorbike ride was in Pokhara, Nepal, when Bish Po – a 40-something man whom I met up with a few times – decided to show me the most wonderful sunset over the lake. I had not been warned that he would turn up on his motorbike and had no idea I was accompanying him to a friend’s house… It was a sultry evening, warm and clouds heavy with rain. The roads in the town were tarmac-covered, solid, with just a few potholes to slalom around; it seemed safe. So I mounted, being encouraged to hold him tightly. ‘Put your arms around my waist, head resting against me. That is the safest way…’ Really?? I kept my hands firmly on the metal bit at the back and pushed my feet as hard as possible against the footrests and hoped for the best. I was not really looking for an intimate experience on the back of a motorbike. Off we went… Soon the fairly smooth road surface gave way to a more familiar one: atolls of tarmac scattered amongst a sea of gravel and holes big enough to sink the Titanic. And to make matters worse, the house overlooking the lake was perched on a hill with an almost 90˚ incline. We bumped and bounced to the top, him enjoying every minute of it, me holding on for dear life and stubbornly refraining from our bodies moving in unison on the bike… We made it in one piece, but the sunset drowned in a rain shower and I panicked: no way was I going to sit on the back of the motorbike on the way down that hill. It was pitch dark by the time we finished our meal, no moonlight to brighten up the path and the rain made the stones and boulders slick and slithery. I insisted on walking down the steep part before eventually getting back onto the bike – I did not fancy a five mile walk…
A very useful, but rather expensive means of getting from A to B in India is using an auto rickshaw. ‘Expensive’ has a completely different meaning in India. Whereas for a tourist, 300 rupees makes barely a dent in the pocket and is a bargain compared with Western World taxi fares, on my meagre salary 300 rupees was a bit of an extravagance only to be indulged in when buses were not an option. On the upside, after a year in India, I knew how to negotiate my prices and calculate the cost before setting off. Pleas for an increased fare because of yet another impending Hindu holiday were easily ignored, and on a few occasions I simply stopped the auto-rickshaw and left the driver standing, unpaid, when an agreed fare suddenly rocketed sky high once the wheels started moving. And to ensure my safety, it was a comfort to know that some auto-rickshaw drivers did not take any chances and displayed gods of all denominations in the hope that at least one of them would be on hand if disaster should strike…
I travelled mostly by bus, even before I met Dr. Anne, as it is the most convenient mode of transport. It can be a little hairy to find the right bus as destinations often are only written in Malayalam, but usually after asking a minimum of three people and finding a general consensus regarding where the bus was heading, I felt safe to get on board. Or should I say, to join the battle to elbow myself onto the bus. Queuing is an alien concept as Indians only understand the ‘me first rule’, so even before passengers on the bus have a chance to alight, passengers on the pavement start to heave themselves inwards. And the sign intended to reserve seats for pregnant women, the disabled, the elderly or people with small children is ignored by all as men and women of all ages and ability take up positions and have no intention of giving up their ‘deserved’ seats… Although I admit I once shamed one young man into giving up his seat for a woman who was holding a small child on a very long bus journey as he was hogging one of the reserved seats – there were other men as well, but the thirty and forty somethings were clearly not going to budge… Although the ‘Ladies’ sign on the buses seems to be more of a deterrent as men generally steer clear of that side!
India must boast the longest trains on the planet. Platforms go on forever to accommodate numerous compartments: air-conditioned class for a different class of traveller with deeper pockets or for Western tourists; general class for short distance and local travel and mostly standing room unless you have managed to beat the throng or have been more successful in the elbow fights; sleeper class for long distances or more comfortable travel where there is more of a chance of a seat for a small supplement; reserved compartments if you want to be guaranteed a seat, but this needs to be booked ahead; women only compartments to ensure men do not have to sit next to women whom they are not related to – although on the one occasion I agreed to move to the women only compartment, I did get a seat…
Until I started travelling with Dr. Anne my experience of trains had been limited to the AC compartments (when my journeys were booked by men who thought they did not need to ask what I would prefer…) or in the general class for my monthly trips to Varkala – no need to pay the extra for AC – I could cope with being squashed for an hour on a train crammed with commuters. However, Dr. Anne introduced me to the more sensible travel in sleeper compartments or reserved seating compartments without reserving a seat in the first place… We often tried our luck in the sleepers and moved when requested to another free seat. And as for paying a supplement when the conductor checks your reservation, or lack thereof, I hardly ever had to show my tickets so never paid anything extra.
Travelling in the carriages used by ordinary Indians was much more interesting as it often meant fascinating conversations with ordinary people who spoke good English. I shared a top berth with Fauzia, a 27 year old Indian girl who loved her independence and wanted to find her own husband rather than being matched with ‘ a suitable specimen according to the horoscope’. We talked about Harry Potter and exchanged titles of books that had grabbed our attention. A twenty something man wanted advice on finding a job in England – I recommended a Syrian passport…. I was evicted from my top berth by a woman-hating, black-and-orange robed pilgrim on his way to Sabarimala, a Hindu pilgrimage centre, after he manhandled men on the train who refused to move for his troupe of cronies. I watched the spectacle unfold from above and was bemused when they almost came to blows. Needless to say that my invitation to share the top berth with him was rejected, so I graciously conceded defeat and moved along to the next top berth… Mostly though, train travel is a great way to connect with the Indian public, the normal people.
Just don’t expect the trains to run as Western trains. Although delays in England are common place, it is nothing compared to the happenings in India. Lack of information boards on the platforms, or even train numbers on the tickets add to the challenge of getting onto the right train. Last year when travelling back from Periyar, Emma (another volunteer in Kerala) and I boarded the train at the correct platform at the correct time, but when asking other passengers to help us locate our seats, found we were on the wrong train, so got off… Our train did not arrive until an hour later… And I met Pete in Varkala, who left on Friday to travel South, only to reappear the next day, as the train he took was heading in a Northerly direction. And when Dr. Anne and I returned from Munnar, with only minutes to spare due to a rather extended bus journey through the gridlocked roads , Dr. Anne rushed to the ticket counter. A heated debate ensured us tickets on the right train: an express train speeding from Bombay to Trivandrum and beyond. With tickets in hand we raced to the platform and boarded the train, Dr. Anne having ‘carefully’ listened to the announcement which indeed featured Bombay and Trivandum, and the train slowly gathering speed. We congratulated ourselves for making it just in the nick of time, after an exhausting eight hour bus journey that morning. But just ten minutes later, we realised our error. Yes, the train was indeed travelling between Bombay and Trivandrum, but clearly on its way to Bombay, not Trivandum… Luckily, or should I say unfortunately, even an express train makes plenty of stop along the way, so our mishap only added another three hours to our journey. I eventually made it home at about 10 in the evening, after an early morning 7.30 start by bus… Maybe, just maybe, sometimes it makes sense to pay for a private taxi… but where is the fun in that!!!