Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting There is Half the Fun

On the night train to Mumbai
(Written in Mumbai – February 4th)

You’ll probably have heard a lot of stereotypes about India.  Most of them are probably true:  the depth of poverty can be truly shocking; there is an astounding number of people around, everywhere you go; sellers can be very pushy in trying to part you from your tourist dollars; and there are animals of many different descriptions wandering the streets everywhere.

But nowhere are the stereotypes more true than in transport.  From the crazy traffic and the blaring horns, to the rickety auto-rickshaws spewing clouds of black diesel smoke, to the haphazardly scheduled night trains, it’s an adventure and a half just moving around the country.  Some wise person (who, exactly, I can never remember) once said that “It’s the journey, not the destination”; this is absolutely true here.  (Well, it’s the destination, too. But the journey is worth experiencing in its own right.)

Traffic is legendary.  An Indian guy told me that there are three things you need to drive in India:  a good horn; good brakes; and, most importantly, good luck.  I’m quite literally speechless sometimes as I watch the traffic flow; it seems like a choreographed dance as everyone manages to get through intersections miraculously without getting hurt or hitting a stray cow or two.  Horns create a constant aural backdrop as you walk the streets of a city, and after a while you don’t even notice them anymore. (Until, as in Pushkar, they suddenly weren’t there any more.  Then it seemed far too quiet.)

What you’ll probably notice first in this mass of traffic are the taxis.  I rode in one of these immediately upon arrival, as I prepaid for a taxi to my hotel in Delhi from the airport.  I think the road from the airport was intended to be three lanes, but there were four lines of vehicles squeezed into the space, none of them willing to give an inch and horns blaring furiously with the least provocation.  Amazingly, no one hit anyone else (not for lack of trying); even the cows managed to meander across the highway unscathed.

A better way of getting around, maybe, is the metro, in the bigger cities.  I didn’t take Delhi’s (not having arrived with any spare time to go sightseeing, sleep being a more pressing need), but it sounded quite sensibly designed, if a little crowded and manic; there are special “ladies’ carriages” now for women only, as it used to be a fairly common occurrence for women to be groped or harassed or otherwise molested when riding the trains.  It’s cheap, too, something like 10 rupees a ride (20-25 cents).

The train is another must-have experience in India; I have ridden two so far, from Delhi to Agra and from Ranakpur to Mumbai.  Delhi to Agra was quite a swishy train (the first-class “Shatabdi Express”), with big plush comfy seats and breakfast provided, and it’s a short journey (just a couple of hours) so relatively painless despite having started at 6:30 a.m.   It was even (nearly) on time, which I gather is quite a feat in India given the number of announcements at Delhi station about trains running 5, 6, even 15 hours late.  Getting on this or other modes of transport, I have to remember NOT to act like a polite Canadian; if I wait patiently in line for my turn to board, I’ll never get on.   

The Ranakpur-to-Mumbai train was more fun, though, if not quite as swish.  It’s a 15-hour night train journey, leaving at 6:15 pm from Mt Abu station and arriving (in theory) at 9:00 the next morning.  We didn’t go “sleeper” class (which, despite the name, is the lowest class of travel on night trains where people are crammed in like cattle), we were one or two classes up in “3AC”:  the “AC” standing for, unsurprisingly, air-conditioning (sleeper class doesn’t have that), and the “3” denoting that bunks are in tiers of 3, like the cheapest couchette compartments on European trains.  Bunks are in groups of 6 lying perpendicular to the train in open compartments; curtains that can be drawn across the opening (rather than doors) and the middle bunk folds away so that everyone can sit on the lowest bunk until it’s time for sleep.  The opposite side of the narrow aisle has two bunks running parallel to the train, with individual curtains.  There is no food, but a “chai-walla” (tea seller) makes the rounds to quench your thirst if desired.

Some of my group (not to stereotype, but ...*cough* Americans *cough*) complained bitterly about the train ride, demanding to know why they weren’t given the option to just pay a little more and fly instead.  I think they missed the spirit of the thing; travelling by train is definitely one of those quintessential Indian experiences that shouldn’t be missed.  And it was fun; we played cards for a few hours till bedtime, and even got the random Indian men from the next bunks over joining in our game.  I slept like a baby on my bottom bunk; there is nothing so soothing as being rocked to sleep by a train.

The buses are, perhaps, not quite so much fun.  I travelled from Agra to Jaipur on a pretty plush coach (with a lot of tourists on board), but from Jaipur to Pushkar (about 4 hours) was decidedly a local bus, with no air conditioning, unpadded seats and no suspension.  No toilets, either, so I realized downing most of my bottle of water in the first hour was a mistake; I ran desperately to the stinking squat toilets when we finally stopped for a rest break.

The Pushkar-to-Udaipur bus (about 6 hours) was more comfortable (the seats had padding), but crammed with people and still had no toilets.  Seats were quite wide, with two on one side of the aisle and one on the other, but the ceiling overhead was very low; this was to allow room for bunks above, into which as many as five people squeezed themselves.  By the end of the trip, the aisle was full as well, and we couldn’t quite work out whether to keep the windows open (allowing some air into the sweltering non-air-conditioned interior) or closed (keeping the dust and dirt and flies out, and allowing us to breathe).  

Motorcycle is another interesting option here; they’re at least as common as cars and drivers whizz in between vehicles with devil-may-care disregard for traffic rules or their own personal safety.  Helmets aren’t that common, either.  One of our group (an Italian guy who’s perhaps a little nuts) opted to rent a Royal Enfield motorcycle one day in Jaipur and follow our taxi around as we went sight-seeing; traffic in Jaipur is insane and he got hopelessly lost after the first roundabout (but, fortunately, was savvy enough to pay a rickshaw driver to lead him after that).  It’s a seriously cool bike and I think I’d love to have one at home, but drive in India?  No bloody way, baby.

Auto-rickshaws are entertaining, too; the ones in Delhi aren’t too bad as they run on clean natural gas (with “CNG” stickers prominently displayed), but elsewhere they run on dirty, smelly diesel that creates a noxious cloud around the vehicles.  (They’re open to the air, too, so it’s not like you can avoid the fumes.)   In some places, in theory, they run on meters with set fares for certain distances, but in reality, you have to haggle for the price (particularly if you’re obviously a white tourist and therefore automatically deemed to have money).  We piled as many as six people — plus all their backpacks — into on rickshaw, putting it at serious risk of tipping as it went around corners; rickshaws have three wheels (two in the back, one in the front) and aren’t the most stable creations ever.  

Local city buses are another interesting choice; I rode one in Jaipur to get back to the hotel.  At first, I felt very self-conscious, as I was the only white face on the bus and the object of intense staring from every other person on board; but then I decided to take it as part of my rock-star Indian lifestyle and accept it as the price of being a celebrity (however fleetingly).  City buses are ridiculously cheap (not even 10 rupees a ride, usually) but usually look like they’re about to disintegrate, and signs are in Hindi in a different alphabet so you have to take someone’s word for it that you’re getting on the right bus.  (I did, fortunately.)

Camels were a treat, as well, as we rode these huge, lumbering beasts out into the countryside from Pushkar for a dinner around a bonfire, with local women dancing for us, local men cooking and serving the food, and much Indian rum being consumed.  (Staying on the camel on the way back was a bit more of a challenge.)  I’m not sure I like camels, exactly; mine was a bit cranky and bad-tempered and kept trying to bite the camel in front of him.  But they’re a very practical way of getting around as they can go anywhere and are completely unfazed by noise, smoke and incessant honking of horns.

Bicycling in Udaipur was a bit more challenging, as I had to steer myself through traffic rather than just letting the camel figure it out, but also less painful (riding a camel left my butt sore for three days afterwards).   Our group leader Binu led those of us who felt up to the challenge around the city and out to the countryside, where we cycled around some of the man-made lakes surrounding the city (Rajasthan is desert and has no natural water) and up to a lookout point.  I happily discovered that I’m fitter than I’d realized, as I made it up hills fairly effortlessly and sailed past the rest of the group (all of whom, by the way, were at least 10 years younger than me).  

But I think my favourite way of getting around is just walking the streets.  This is sometimes frustrating, as aggressive shopowners surround you or grab your arms in an effort to drag you to their shops — if you so much as slow down on the street in Jaipur or Agra, especially, you’re a sitting duck.  Occasionally your life will flash before your eyes as you attempt to cross a street or negotiate a roundabout; if you stop or hesitate or change direction, you will narrowly escape being hit as a rickshaw driver or cabbie slams on his brakes, horn blaring.  But once you get the hang of it, it’s fine; keep going, no matter what, and traffic will flow magically around you like the parting of the Red Sea.  Ignore the incessant voices trying to sell you something, and they’ll eventually lose interest and move on to other prey (just be warned, in Jaipur it can take a block or two to shake them — you have to be persistent, and ignore them completely.

Later on, in Kerala, I’ll also get to travel by boat and canoe, and even by elephant if I choose.  I’ll keep you posted, but I think that walking is going to remain my favourite.  There’s no better way to see a city.

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