Monday, June 30, 2008


For any day journey in India, I highly recommend traveling by bus. It may be more expensive than traveling by train (still a bargain at one eighth the cost of bus travel in The States), and precludes the option of sleeper-type seating arrangements, but it offers almost unimaginable flexibility and trip-hackability, but most importantly, it's the way to see India.

Trains offer panoramic views of the vast and unbelievably variable Indian countryside, but run at fixed times which are often inconvenient and far apart. Train stations are also usually some distance from populated areas and because of low volume of traffic, but the largest "main" and "junction" stations are often desolate and in disrepair. Buses, on the other hand, offer, for (on average) a fifty percent longer, arse-spanking ride, routes through city and country, availing the passenger of unequaled opportunities to see every face of India.

On the way to Rameswaram, you can see colourful, painted fishing boats and a sky full of circling eagles, and instead of skirting around them, buses bring you across the Western Ghats(?) between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on narrow, potholed roads that wind between hidden villages and lush green forests, through the cool mountains that are two and a half kilometres closer to heaven than the rest of South India. Still occasionally strewn with rubbish. Still too many things that made me want to melt with joy when I saw them. I can't start because I would never finish. These mountains are beautiful and amazing, and they top my list of places to go to to escape from the world forever.

Best of all, buses stop at towns, cities and bus stations along the way. Bus stations are hot, noisy, bustling and intensely alive - not to be missed.

The outcomes you face at each bus stop or station: You could miss your intended connection, in which case the literal herds of buses massing at each station offer a range of alternate routes to your destination-- but more often than not, the bus you want leaves in five minutes. Off-duty drivers and conductors are friendly and endlessly helpful. Indian bus drivers are among the most skilful in the world. India, strangely enough for being a very large and very populated country, is served by mostly single lane roads. Buses, trucks, cars and mopeds fly past each other, sending half (or all) their wheels off the road to brush past each other with a flourish of horns. After riding Indian buses for about two kilometres per rupee (two and a half cents), I will never pay to ride a roller coaster again.

Some buses sag on their left sides from worn suspension. I've seen buses in perfect condition sagging on their left sides as they ply the roads they are packed full and have ten people hanging out of each door.

The Indian bus network is a marvel of chaos and synchrony. There is very little distinction between long distance buses that ply the highways between districts and states, and the local buses that run loops between towns. They are in comfort and operation - some simply go further than others. Both stop at villages along the way, and neither adhere to any kind of strict schedule. Information is disseminated through word of mouth and observed in patterns and timings.

Somehow, Indian travelers attune themselves to this music. They must either know the buses inside out or not at all, simply slipping onto and off buses that bring them closer to their destination with each new route. I can't conceive of this system being any more efficient and effective than it already is, and buses are always full - and by Indian standards. I've had many a ride where I spent more time outside the bus than inside it.

Rameswaram, a sleepy village with a fishing problem.

On a little taxi rickshaw driving beyond Rameswaram to the tip of the peninsula closest to Sri Lanka

Amazing desert beach!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tour d'Inde

If you ever plan to do an off-road bike tour in South India, don't forget to bring your poncho in case the sky falls without warning.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Nandri Not-Express

If you're a misadventure seeker, born with disaster in your blood, traveling unreserved (second class sitting) on India Rail is something you should definitely do. Of course, you should know exactly what you're getting yourself into. And you should, preferably, take a short trip. Note: there is a ladies only carriage in this class, which you might choose depending on your sex and whether you prefer sweaty men or screaming children. That said, India Rail is a great introduction to Indian folk and offers stunning views of the country.

The unreserved sitting class is not for sitting. There seemed to be no rules on the train, although I noticed that most of the sweaty Indian men I was squeezed in with had tickets. I tried to sneak looks at their prices to see if we had paid to travel in the same class. After frantically trying to find the "right car" to ride in, I eventually hopped onto an unreserved car, before the train departed. Because I was one of the last to get on and the carriage so full, I was squeezed in right by the door near the washrooms rather than the main cabin.

I struggled on this ride. A proud, ready, veteran of living rough, I struggled with not being able to sit or even stand properly, and struggled especially with the fact I had not slept in a day. I did this for eight or so hours on four hundred and ninety seven bone jarring kilometres of wide gauge India Rail. At least it cost me next to nothing. Funny, if I had known the carriage would be so packed and that I would not even smell a conductor, I would definitely have rode without a ticket.

I began to feel very uncomfortable as the train started moving. I felt I had made a terrible mistake. Staring contests between muzungu and natives broke out in the damp, slowly circulating air. Then, to my pleasant surprise, challenges turned to funny looks, smiles and then conversations in broken English. Indian boys offered me snacks, and helped me buy food from the vendors that swooped through the carriages when the train made its scheduled stops. They even shifted themselves and offered me floor space to sit, although it was too cramped to be comfortable. There were two people hanging out each door and one person sitting in the public wash basin.

Although you should not count on it, never underestimate local hospitality.

When I finally arrived in Madurai, it started to rain. I wanted to burst out laughing because of how dehydrated I was. I had brought and drank just two litres of water on that journey, during which the hot draught dried me out like a strip of beef jerky. A couple of (cold) iddlis from Egmore station, which I do not recommend, and a "meal" of rice casserole and fried onions on the train, which I do recommend, had plugged my digestive tract at my stomach, keeping water from absorption and making me feel bloated.

I was disappointed and relieved to arrive at Madurai. It's funny how on the train I thought I might not make it, but even after a night of fitful, restless sleep, I felt perfectly ready to take on India.