Trains, Planes & Automobiles (plus Ricks, Boats, Propeller Planes & Scooters) – Getting Through India One Kilometer at A Time

India is huge. Huge. Every morning I wake up and I am amazed that I am still in India. On the beach. India. Pristine forest. India. Organic cardamom farm. India. Deserted ancient grassland city. India. Rolling green valleys – yep, still India. Ancient Royal palaces, megalopolises, shanty scuzzy little villages, bucolic farmland, sequestered family compounds, high tech office parks, tiny little European style mission cities. India, India, India! It’s like one of those tall hedge mazes in an English garden – you just can’t find your way out of this shit. And I still have a lot to go in this land.

Because India is quite a big kind of a girl, it takes a lot to get around her curves. In fact, most of my days are spent preoccupied with securing transport (and food and bathrooms, but those are other posts). I have been on so many different types of transport that I thought it fitting to hold kind of an Academy Awards of Indian Transportation here. So, after 3000kms and another 3000 to go, here are some of tonight’s big winners.

In the category of Most Terrifying Ride, the winner is: Madikeri to Coorg in the middle of the night during sectarian Hindu-Muslim violence.

Cody & I arrived in Madikeri for a few days of hanging out at an organic forest coffee farm in the beautiful green area of Coorg, which is due west of Mysore and Bangalore. It’s a wooded, farming area and as our bus got closer and closer and took us further up the hill, the roads deteriorated into that charming Indian potholed state that really gives truth to the expression “hold on to your tits”. We had called ahead for our autorickshaw driver, Charlie, to pick us up and take us to the farm. But we got in a bit later than we expected and the sun was setting.

As we get off the bus Charlie runs up to us, tense and pinched. “I called you ten times” he says. We weren’t getting any reception, we say back. He hustles us brusquely into the ‘rick. As we settle our bums on the seat he peels out of the sleepy little town of Madikeri as if he is being chased. He is taking potholes hard and fast, swerving at the last possible second to avoid other cars, and generally driving like a maniac. And this guy was recommended to us by the inn as a great driver.

When we get out of town it is no better. On what is little more than a dirt road Charlie is hauling ass. I hold on to the “oh shit” handle with both hands. My teeth are rattling and a few times I catch air as we sail over something that was hopefully already dead. Rick’s have no shocks and this road would have given a 4×4 a run for its money. At one point I seriously contemplate telling him I’m carrying a baby so he’ll slow this death cart down. Finally I decide to go with it, and stick my head out of the window to see some of the stars above hurtling past us.

As we pull into the inn Charlie finally explains. There’s been some trouble in town. A Hindu politician came to the area and gave an inflammatory speech. That was two days ago. Since then there has been rock throwing, grandstanding and petty violence of the Hindu majority against the Muslims in town, who are not farmers and are mostly the shopkeepers. There’s a curfew, no more buses are running, and he had to get us out of town before dark. Furthermore, it’s not safe for him to drive back now so he has to stay the night with us!

In the next few days we learn that this story is basically 90% true. There wasn’t exactly an official curfew, but there was cause to be alarmed if out after dark. I thought Charlie was risking our buts but he was actually saving them. So Charlie, this award is for you!

The tree canopy in Coorg; worth the near death experience

In the category of Shiniest New Ride – puddle jumper prop plane from Hyderabad to Mysore

India is growing faster than it can keep up with, don’t you know? I had the best proof of this when I booked a flight on Cleartrip from Hyderabad to Mysore for $40. Hyderabad is a fairly big and growing medium sized city with a pimp little airport. Mysore is a sleeply little town of 800,000 (that’s nothing in Indian terms). So my hosts in Hyderabad were confused when I said I was flying there. “Is there even an airport there?” my friend’s dad asked. I shrugged. Smart money was on the Cleartrip booking being a bait and switch – I would arrive in Bangalore and my connecting “flight” to Mysore would be a tidy little deluxe AC bus.

I was shocked when I got to Bangalore and indeed was ushered on to a plane to Mysore. I was even more shocked by the size of the plane. It was a cute little 18 seater that you didn’t even have to go up steps to get on. I don’t like my planes cute so I was prepared to be terrified. And it was a terrifying ride, although it lasted all of 25 minutes. The stewardesses tried valiantly to push a beverage cart down the narrow aisle, but their faces betrayed the ridiculousness of that particular effort on a plane this size.

Planes aren't supposed to be cute

We arrived at Mysore airport. It was the mouse that roared. Airport is perhaps even a strong word for it. It was a one terminal hall in the middle of absolutely nowhere. A woman was outside of it weeding the lawn by hand. There was one airline flying there – Kingfisher – from one place – Bangalore. There was one baggage carousel and one security line. The ladies bathroom was spotless in a way that was suspicious in India. I don’t think it had ever been used before.

But Mysore airport was filled with what I’m starting to get to know as Indian ambition. It may not be much now, but the way Bangalore is growing and sending off offshoots, Mysore could be the size of San Francisco in a year. From an airport that even native Indians who have been to Mysore several times don’t realize was there to a major regional transportation hub, this is not outside of what I can imagine given the pace of growth here. When that happens, let’s hope they get some planes going that are big enough to fit a standard sized beverage service cart.

Musical Interlude: Bullock Carts
My friend’s dad was fond of teasing us about how bullock carts were the mode of transportation in his village growing up. But those days aren’t gone – my ‘rick got raced by one in Mysore.


Best Performance In A Driver : Our 2nd to Last Leg Driver Going from Belur to Mangalore Over the Western Ghats
We made our way slowly from Coorg to Mangalore, changing buses two or three times to see some of the sights along the way. The 2nd to last leg of our ride took us over the Western Ghats, a beautiful mountain range into green valleys that separates the India central plains from the coast. This was also where we encountered our best driving performance of the trip.

At first we went up and up, and then we broke through a very healthy forest and we were on the side of a huge hill looking down into a gorgeous valley. This happened maybe seven or eight more times in windy switchback succession as we made our way across the mountain range. It was beautiful valley to spend time in.

Unfortunately, we spent that time on a narrow, steeply descending, winding road that had trafffic going two ways on it and pilgrims in orange sarongs walking on either side. Every few meters we would see another group of twenty or so pilgrims – there must have been hundreds strewn along the road from Madikeri to the pilgrimage town of Dharmasthala. The bus driver would beep to alert them or just to say a friendly hi because they wouldn’t move anyway, and we would pass them either perilously for them on the road side or perilously for us on the straight drop cliff side. Occasionally a deluxe AC tour bus or a trucker would play chicken with us on what I swore was a one way road, coming at us fast in the other direction. One party would sometimes stop and let the other through, or sometimes we would just take our chances and head toward each other for the pass. At one point the driver stopped the bus and got blessed at a roadside temple of sorts before a particularly tricky decent. Now if you aren’t a believer, that sort of thing does the opposite of inspiring confidence.

The road was bumpy; every now and again during the above dramatics we would also catch air and sail about two feet up out of our seats. It was fun, like a free rollercoaster ride.

When we finally made it to Mangalore, we thanked the bus driver. What was terrrifying/thrilling for me was probably something he did two or three times a day. It had been a great ride, and he was clearly a master of his craft.

Yes, that is a cow waiting at the bus stop

Musical Interlude: Wild Horses
This team of wild horses was outside my hotel room one morning. I don’t know if it was transportation related or if they were just hanging out.

Most Thrilling Way From Point A to Point B: Dead Weight on A Scooter
On the way out to a cool national forest in Goa, I rode bitch on the back of my friend Pratap’s scooter. Contrary to popular belief, there is some skill involved in riding in this position. First of all, you have to master the art of not making any sudden moves. The driver is doing all the balancing, and if you throw your weight around like a sulky sack of potatoes you will both surely die.

Second, you have to avoid creepy touching. There’s a place to put your hands and a place not to put your hands, if you want to keep friends and not get dumped off. No matter how scared you get. Lots of Indian men riding with other men seemed to be flouting these conventions, though.

Third, it’s really fun. If you actually relax your death grip and turn your head, it is a great way to watch the world whiz by and feel like you are actually in it. And it’s the way real India gets around, as the vast majority do not have cars.

After this experience I am now ready to go local style on a bike: loaded up with my grandmother, baby niece and two chickens in tow.

They sure do learn to ride young, here

Musical Interlude: Never Thought I’d Be On A Boat
On Palolem beach we took a boat not too far out into the water to spy on some dolphins. We also re-enacted “I’m the king of the world” Titanic poses on the “bow” of our “ship”. A few days later, we partied with the middle aged and repressed teen boys alike on the disco sunset cruise out of Panjim’s harbor.

Most Humbling Moment: Train Ride From Goa to Hampi
Did I mention that India was huge? It’s actually a long way from Goa to Hampi, even though it looked pretty close on the map. Cody & I decided to do trains for our next destinations. Third class sleeper was the only thing available even though we booked about a week in advance. I set out to do this one on my own while Cody embarked on his own 16 hour overland train odyssey to Kerala, also in third class. This second train ride gave me an up close personal look at what India for working class people can be like.

The boarding platform was outrageous. As soon as the train pulled in, pleasantly on time, a horde of very skinny and desperate looking men in dark polyester slacks and light short sleeved cotton shirts began crowding onto the compartment before the train even stopped. It looked like a scene out of the front lines of a Tahrir Square anti-police riot. I couldn’t do anything but stare and laugh, but it wasn’t funny. I hopped in a 1st class car further down the line and hoped for the best.

Trains don’t come in either announced or labeled, so I was hoping I was heading in the right basic direction. On my earlier shorter train ride to Goa from Mangalore, no one had botthered to even check our tickets so I figured I was safe here. I pulled the curtains closed and enjoyed my AC view.

But about an hour into it, a conductor came by. My heart sank.  He brusquely explained that I would have to move down to sleeper car s4. There was no way to do this inside the train as there was no way from first class to the other classes.  Oh really, India? I would have to disembark and run 8 cars down to my class at the next station. Hurry to shuffle back into your place.

This train ticket guy had the stern mustachioed countenance of the middle aged Indian career bureaucrat that I was getting familiar with, so there would be no sweet talking my way out of this one. I steeled myself and made the run for it. This was the most desperate run of my trip, because if I missed this train, it was a day wait to get back to anywhere. That desperation was met by a tired disinterest when I huffed and puffed into my car.

Riding in third class was like stepping aboard a ship doing the Middle Passage:  hot, rank, cramped, interminable, fraut – except with biryani hawkers instead of overseers. People were flopped out on the steel and vynl bench seats in various states of casaul disarray, like walking into someone’s living room. Agricultural products travelled with people. 90% of the faces were male, gaunt looking and staring at me blanky. The car smelled of feces and body odor. And not a seat was available. A lady told me I had to go to another car “no seats here”. I couldnt’ find any seat or berth numbers anywhere so I just walked until I found a nice looking kid who had his feet up. He let me sit and I stayed planted there unmoving for the next seven and a half hours.

He was a good kid but he had a lot of questions. He asked me if I knew what year India obtained independence, where I worked and lived, if I liked Obama (and then gave me his opinion) my name, age, marital status and number of kids; the capital of the United States (which he knew, it was a quiz for me), what I did for fun. In turn I asked him if he played video games (yes, Call of Duty!), did he use Facebook (yes, of course), what he was studying to be (an Engineer), how old he was (15). He asked me all sorts of questions, staccato curious and a bit exhausting. But I was starting to suspect he had an angle. He let it drop that he collected foreign currencies, and had coins and bills from all over the world. I had heard that one before, from a mom on my last train ride, and had parted with some Thai Baht as a result. Lots of avid currency collectors in this nation? I wasn’t parting with cash this time. But he was so fresh faced and earnest and young, I was sure he would become the engineer he was dreaming of being.

Happy to be leaving town?

As the train got more crowded, a different conductor came by several times and a unique incident played out over several rounds. He checked my ticket and remarked this was not my seat. I decided to flex on him as a foreign female and said there were no seats available in my car, and then just broke eye contact and continued reading my book. This worked and he never bothered me again. The next time he came back, though, an older more prosperous Indian gentleman was with him. He wanted to sit down and a younger, darker, skinnier dude was in the seat he thought was his. He spoke curtly to the man in Kannada, and the guy got up without a protest and gave his seat. Later in the ride Mr. Big Shot tried this out with a fellow in our row that had the window seat, and he easily got that seat given up for him too. As far as I could tell, everyone on this train in third class was just sitting exactly where they wanted regardless of official seat, and the only time the conductor had checked seat numbers was when this fancy guy came through. The people next to us in the other berth didn’t have their tickets checked. I didn’t have my ticket checked. Only the guy in the seat that this man wanted. So that’s how it’s going to be, India.

The train ride had some familiar acts.   Like on my last train ride, people played tunes from their tiny phone speakers as music for the ride (I had already tried my iPhone out for this – apparently western market phones didn’t have speakers pimped especially for this purpose). The chai man came by and I loaded up on a couple of those for 5 rupees each. What a welcome relief. Everyone passed over the fried pakoras but most had some of this thing that looked like puffed rice mixed with salsa. Aggressive hijras (Indian transvestites) came to beg and if you didn’t give, they snapped their fingers loudly in your face and walked off with the kind of fierce attitude that would have made RuPaul proud.

The views from third class were much better, unmediated by glass with wide open windows and doors to the passing countryside. I mourned my lack of camera as we were passing over some “oh wow” scenery moments that even the weary looking denizens of third class seem transfixed by.

We also passed through what had to be subsistence farming villages, sad looking dry farms and blink-and-you-miss them crowded strips of villages lining the rail tracks. I didn’t see any water. At one point Cody and I had mused – why are all the trains in India always so overbooked and crowded? Where the heck were all the people on the train always going to? I got it now – they were getting the heck out of these dried up, nowhere villages.

People in third class sleeper just seemed tired. Except for one little girl who was bouncing up and down and sometimes staring at me shyly, then laughing (the way little girls around India had been doing all month). Her dad was playing with her and seemed utterly in love. We shared a smile at her antics. This seemed like a kind of parent you would find anywhere, willing to do anything for their child. Yet her mom looked tired and slept most of the way. Looking at their faces, as brown as mine, I felt humbled and sad. This is 20% of humanity and this is life – it’s not much, people are working hard, they care about their kids but probably can’t do much for them, and you can see the everyday difficulty of it in their faces. I didn’t think this little girl would end up as fortunate as my quiz-making teenage friend. I felt a sense of the scale of the human project going on in India and in the world, and I wondered if how many on this train were going to make it to their hoped for destination.

Musical Interlude: Vomit
The overnight bus ride to Mumbai was something I was dreading but it turned out to be quite nice. Comfortable, clean, well air conditioned, pimp reclining seats, not that much motion, and I slept 8 out of 15 hours of it. My group of Spanish traveling girlfriends didn’t do so well, however. One was throwing up in loud gurgling bursts from 6PM to 12AM, frequently pulling the bus driver over for mercy stops. After giving her my stash of Roll-Aides, Imodium and a Xanax, I pulled a fleece over my face to cut the smell of throw up and went to sleep like the rest of the Indians on the bus. When I woke up at 8AM, she and her friends were mysteriously gone.

You never know what you'll see out the window

Outro Act: Fireworks & the Bus Ride Out of Goa
Every night in Goa on the beach we were treated to fireworks. No doubt this is horrible for the local environment and dangerous to boot, but still they were quite beautiful and gave our beach trip the air of a proper holiday. After an hour long hot as hell line up for our bus tickets out of Panjim back down to Margao and its train station, we we treated to some awesome fireworks and they lit up our retreat.

The fiery plumes and star shapes receding behind us over Goa’s coastline were a fitting punctuation to what had been roughly 3000 kilometers of travel over India’s skies, beaches, forests, cities, waterways, towns, rivers and roads so far. India is huge and it’s always going somewhere; and it’s frequently doing so with a bang.

Goan Carnival Parade - sometimes walking is the best transport of all


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