Daily Archives: April 23, 2010

Traveling in India: Transportation Travails

I think there are many great tales that often take place around transportation: planes, cars, trains, buses, elephants, camels, bikes, rickshaws, etc. Especially if you’re traveling (obviously) there are more tales than the everyday commute, but even living in one’s own city will afford you adventures.

India was probably the most diverse in terms of transportation and terror. I already wrote about flying in “Frightful Flights” but the rest was its own adventure. I never did ride an elephant and though I saw one being ridden it was definitely not the most common form of transportation in India. That would be feet, as most people are too poor to afford more.

I took a few buses from town to town. Many of these were Greyhound size buses and usually without incident But a few trips were driven by kamikaze drivers on winding hills through treacherous roadways. These buses tended to be more like school buses with a picture of one or several Hindu deities up from as well as bright color trims or other decoration. The bus could be one where everyone had a seat and was a mixture of tourists and locals, or one that was a reservation only, air-conditioned, elite tourist only bus. Reservations certainly didn’t guarantee the type of bus or a seat.

On one supposedly reserved bus it was jam-packed full of locals with live chickens and other produce. We knew that we’d paid extra for the privilege of riding locally. It was a bumpy, dusty and long ride and we were packed close enough to examine the weave of each other’s clothes. After someone managed to puke on the bus, the answer being to put paper over the acrid mess and continue onward, several of us opted to ride on the roof of the bus. The tourist luggage was up there anyways and this was a good way to keep an eye on our goods and get some fresh nonvomit-ridden air. Of course this is illegal and had we been stopped some baksheesh would have changed hands, probably from tourist hands to police hands.

As it was, it was a fun way to see the country, and not experience the claustrophobia of the overcrowded bus. I had a couple of bus rides in Nepal too but they were calmer and cleaner. Busing to the next town wasn’t that far but the seats were narrow and metal. Metal is fine in a warm climate but at 5’4″ I was nearly too tall to sit in the seats. I would have stood but I was hit so badly with dysentery I nearly fainted and had to sit, thanks to the Nepalese who noticed my state and motioned for me to sit. Three of them can fit on a bench but I could barely jam my knees down and they were pressed against the seat in front of me. I also took up the room of 1.5 Nepalis. And anyone taller than me had to stand because they just wouldn’t fit. Imagine a 6’2″ man standing next to a tiny Nepalese woman.

Perhaps the most terrifying ride of my life took place in a jeep. The Himalayan hill tribes in the state of Meghalaya tended to drive mostly jeeps, which makes a lot of sense when you see the winding, curving roads with nothing but the foothills of the Himalayas framing them (those foothills equal some of our mountain ranges). One day we went out to Cherapunjee with Hanocia’s brother driving us in the jeep. I had tried to the drive the jeeps there but with the handling of a jeep which is somehow different and tippier, and the right-hand steering, left-hand gear shifting, I just couldn’t get it to work. (Oddly in Ireland with the same type of driving but a car instead, I had no problem.)

So we drove up and took the day looking around. We were there in Oct./Nov. and the days get shorter sooner. We ended up driving back in full darkness. There is no light pollution from distant cities in the foothills of Meghalaya. And the roads are narrow hairpins. As we found common and strange in India, cars would drive with their lights off and only turn them on when they encountered another vehicle. Imagine how terrifying this is as we wind through a hairpin, get to the outside curve and then there is a truck barreling at us, and they both turn their lights on to blind each other.

Hanocia’s brother swore he had to do this to save his lights and that the battery was going. Usually driving regenerates the battery but needless to say we were nearly breathless with fright. After a few encounters with oncoming trucks on the narrow roads we insisted he turn the lights on or we were going to get out and walk. We were miles and miles from Shillong but a long walk in the dark was preferable to dying in the dark.

Since this post has gone long enough I’ll leave off the train rides for a another time, but I can say this: after all these years I still vividly remember the transportation and the tales attached with traveling in India.

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