Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Planes,Trains and Automobiles

No, this is not about the movie. And it is not about the “desi” remake of the original either but I will shamelessly plagiarize the title because it is very apt for this post. It is an account of my “first” experience travelling in India. Travel in the US is either by plane or by car so I had pretty much forgotten how train travel feels like. I spent a lifetime travelling in trains, a lot of it without a reservation but it is strange how quickly you forget things and places you thought you knew like the back of your hand. As for buses, I had only travelled by an inter-city bus one time back in 1998 so obviously my experience was outdated and I didn’t know what to expect.
I went to visit family in Delhi and this one was by air. The journey was fairly predictable but the one thing I noticed is that the airports in Delhi and Bangalore are very nice. The ride to the Bangalore airport is a different story. With real estate within established cities sky rocketing and the need for bigger better airports rising, the cities had no choice but to build new airports outside city limits. Much like our very own DFW a few years back. It takes me an over an hour to reach the Bangalore airport when there is no traffic which is only at about 2:00 in the morning. At all other times, it takes close to 2 hours to get there. So, air travel is only for places that are not accessible via road or train. Other than the time it took to get to the airport (god forbid you forget something at home) travel via an airplane is pretty much the same as the US although I think the service is a little better in India.
The next trip was to Chennai to visit a friend which was close enough for a train. I could only get a reservation while going there so I decided to take a bus on my way back.  It was a 4 hour trip so I thought how bad can it really be? DH was a little worried but I put up my brave face and even though I was freaking out inside, I kept saying I would be fine. The train station is less than 12KM from home but as expected it takes about two hours to get there in traffic. At 5:00 in the morning with barely any traffic it took me all of 20 minutes!!!! Seemed like a good start…
As soon as I got off the taxi, I was hounded by coolies even though all I had with me was a small carry on! I ignored them and moved on. I even got some catcalls saying “Madam, shatabdi?”and some other things which thankfully were in Kannada and I didn’t quite understand. I started to get a little scared but I wasn’t going to chicken out and go back so into the station I went. Imagine my horror when all the boards showed up in Kannada only!!!! I felt like an illiterate person trying to find their way. After the cat calls I was also unwilling to ask anybody for directions. Thankfully the display changed to English within a few minutes and I was able to figure out the platform.
The “angrez” in me kept looking for escalators. I wasn’t trying to be snooty or anything but I guess my brain is conditioned to look for escalators every time I am lugging around a suitcaseJ. Finding the platform number was an adventure in itself. I was expecting something like Nagpur, Hyderabad and New Delhi stations but sadly the signs at Bangalore station were not very easy to find. The cat calls earlier and stares from everybody who passed weren’t helping boost my confidence either.
Now if you are a woman who grew up in India, you develop a sort of defense mechanism which lets you ignore all the cat calls, stares, comments that you encounter while walking on the street, travelling by public transport or at any other public place. You sort of become immune to it unless it is extremely bad. I found that my defense mechanism was still in place and it finally kicked in J.
As I neared my platform, I suddenly heard something about the shatabdi express over the public address system and surprise, they had changed the platform! It felt like I was living in one of those comedy sequences in a movie where anything that could go wrong does go wrong but ‘all is well’ in the end. At least I heard the announcement at the right time so I didn’t go to the wrong platform and get into the wrong train. That would have been a disaster!

I got to the platform and into my seat without any more adventures. The compartment was a pleasant surprise. I think Indian railways got a makeover since the last time I travelled in a train. The train had nice seats, neat aisles and even a television in the compartment! I hadn’t been in a train for over three years so I was not expecting any of this. The fare wasn’t very high but it included bottled water and breakfast. That’s better than air travel in the US!
I kept looking for a seat belt even though I knew I was on a train. Muscle memory I guess J. Things were fine until the entertainment started. They had music blaring out of the TV at 6:00 in the morning! I don’t think anybody got to take a nap after that point. The worst part was the bathrooms. The less said the better! If you have been to India and had the misfortune of experiencing a bathroom on a train, you know what I am talking about!
I also had a very talkative middle aged person sitting next to me who insisted on trying to engage me in a conversation in spite of the fact that I was reading a book. He even told me that the bread was stale and advised me not to eat it!! All I could say was thanks. I was sorely tempted to taste the bread just to see how bad it was but this person stared at my food until he was sure I was not going to eat the stale bread! It was funny to see some stranger take such deep interest in my food. Other than the over zealous breakfast snob and the loud entertainment forced on the entire compartment, the journey was fairly comfortable!
The journey back was in a bus no less. DH’s friends at work had suggested a state transport AC bus. Very good they said, very comfortable they said. Liars! Even my friend’s driver was surprised I was travelling via state transport bus and not a private bus! My experience with intercity buses was very limited and the one time I did travel, the guy sitting in the seat behind me tried “something” so I actually stood up in my seat and beat him up. Not kidding, true story, I actually hit him very hard. I am proud of that but in retrospect that probably was not a very smart thing to do on an overnight bus when I was travelling alone.
I got to the bus station without any problems but once inside I couldn’t figure out which platform the Bangalore bus left from. The signs were in tamil, kannada and telugu. Some were in English but as luck would have it the one I needed to read didn’t have an English translation! (Kicked myself mentally for never learning to read and write in Telugu!)It was broad daylight so I wasn’t afraid to ask for directions and after making a few wrong turns arrived at my bus. The good part, I had an e-ticket that the conductor verified on my mobile phone. Technology has touched every part of life in India! The bad part, the seats were old and the bus not very comfortable. I wanted to kick the person who recommended it. Especially after I saw one of the private buses! They were so good, it was like watching somebody eat chocolate ice-cream while you were stuck with a popsicle! I called DH and told him NEVER to book a ticket on a state transport bus again and to follow travel advice with caution! The worst part was that there was barely any fare difference between the two! Lesson learnt- when in doubt; go with a private bus service.
The saving grace was that there weren’t too many people on the bus so the seat next to me was empty. The ride itself was another story. I don’t understand why entertainment during public transport has to consist of bad movies played at a deafening volume but that is what I was subjected to for the 4 hours on the bus. I had my iPad but I had to set it at a deafening level to hear it over the din of the movie. That movie affected me so much I still remember it in painful detail! It was quite possibly the worst movie I EVER saw. I do have to say that the freeway was very well maintained and the ride was pretty smooth. I think next time I will take a private bus though. One word of caution if you are travelling by bus in India- DO NOT drink any water. Enough said.
Even with all the craziness involved with travelling by bus or train, I would say the journey is far more interesting that getting on a plane. There is a lot more to see and it makes for very good writing material :P