Traffic in India
Overloaded trucks are the norm. Indian drivers have a sophisticated communication system called the horn. In fact, you often see the request "Horn Please" emblazoned across the front of buses or trucks. After a while, it becomes obvious that there is a subtle code, that all seem to heed. Buses and large trucks have a particularly penetrating blast that means: DIVE FOR COVER! They never slow down, so the choice is to move or be road kill.
Flying in India
I have taken a few internal flights. Air India and Sahara, the two main domestic airlines, are not too awful, Air India being the more unreliable. Flights are generally a bit cheaper than flying domestically within North America. The only advantage to air travel is covering in hours what would otherwise take days.
Take the Train
One of the best British legacies in India is the railway system. It is THE way to travel. The system serves 10 million people a day, and is the largest employer in the world (bigger even than Wal-Mart). You can watch all of India pass by as you sit comfortably – well, reasonably. I have met more people traveling by train, and it’s stunningly cheap.
The first thing do when I arrive is to buy a copy of “Trains at a Glance”, where there are schedules for every major route in India. For 50 rupees, you can’t go wrong. I plan my whole route, and, if I desire, book every part of my trip, anywhere, in advance. It’s always a wonder when the train arrives. Even a small town will have a travel agent who can book you a train for a modest fee, or just go to the railway station. I always specify an upper berth when I book, as it’s the top bunk where I can sleep uninterrupted through the day if I wish. I try to arrange the train trip to include one night, as I usually get the best sleeps in India on the train, and it saves a night’s hotel cost.
Indians also inherited the British class-consciousness, so there is a bewildering array of choices when reserving seats on a train. Generally, the best deal is the 2nd class sleeper. Second class is a must when traveling in the north during winter, as the AC becomes heating. Also, there are four bunks per cabin in AC, versus six in the plain 2nd class. They are mixed bunks, too, so women sleep in close proximity to men. You receive nice sheets in AC, and a steward to assist you. Stewards are especially useful when you have to get off the train at some god-awful hour in the middle of the night. Local trains, however, have no perks. You travel with all the rest, including with livestock. Everything is packed to the gunnels: the luggage racks, and even under the seats. There are a couple of main routes, Delhi to Calcutta for instance, that are served by very fast trains called the Rajdhani Express. There are few stops, and often traveling time is cut in half. The Express only offers 2nd Class AC and better.
Indian’s Tourist Quota
India decided several years ago to make it easier for foreign tourists to get around. So, they invented the “tourist quota”. What that means is that on certain trains there are guaranteed seats reserved for tourists. In the major cities, there are tourist only booking offices. The privileged few can enjoy cool, uncrowded salons where they can comfortably wait to book tickets, while the unwashed masses throng in queues 100-deep in the blistering heat below. It smacks of colonialism, but I admit that I take full advantage of this service wherever I can. These booking offices are not always at the train stations, so check out where they are located first. Not all trains have tourist quotas so ask if they do. Then you are virtually guaranteed a place. You can also go on a “wait-list” that often may get you a seat.
If you are tired and want to lie down between trains, many stations have “Retiring Rooms”, dormitories where, for 100 or so rupees, you can catch up with much-needed sleep.
Travel by Bus Will Take Your Breath Away, Literally
I have had the most nightmarish journeys at the hands of Indian bus-drivers. India is said to have the highest rate of road accidents than any other country. It isn’t hard to believe once you have been on a bus. The seats are small and uncomfortable, even in the so-called luxury express buses. Often, the roads are no more than glorified cart tracks. Once you are in mountainous country, the cliffs and yawning abysses loom at horrifying speeds. However, Indian drivers must qualify as the best drivers in the world. There is so much traffic, and no rules of the road. It is amazing that the roads are not permanently littered with wrecks. Luckily, on the longer routes, the ancient vehicles and small roads discourage drivers from attaining the higher speeds. Still, there is nothing more colourful than a local bus journey. You make fast friends all about you, and instantly feel as if you belong to one huge family.
The Daramsalla Express is alarmingly well named. As soon as we set off, the heavens open, and torrential rain render visibility to near zero. This incidental fact does not deter our driver, who like most, considers it his mission to overtake anything and everything ahead. As usual, I do not sit close to the front, in case I become too aware of impending disaster. However, it is very obvious that this road is barely negotiable, and as we climb up into the mountains, great floods gush with fresh debris across the road that has now become a river. Occasional glimpses out of the window reveal missing portions of the roadbed, and what is left is rapidly disappearing. The bus grinds up and up, with the scenery getting more spectacular, but accompanied with ever-increasing precipitous drop-offs. I adopt a very Eastern attitude: If death is meant to take me here, so be it. Hopefully, it would not be lingering and painful. Once I keep this focus, the fact that we might plunge over a ravine at any minute seems, well, a detail. I think everyone else must be keeping the same attitude because, by rights, they all should be screaming by now.
Excerpt from Nirvana By Installments
The ubiquitous three-wheelers known as auto-rickshaws are the most polluting vehicles on Earth, but they can carry amazing numbers of people. Often, they are the cheapest way to travel small distances, especially around cities. I once crammed in with a dozen others, probably not a record, judging how many Indians can fit in one. Always know where you are going to in advance. Many drivers will profess to know, only to stop endlessly on the way to ask others, and still get hopelessly lost, or dump you in the middle of nowhere. ALWAYS barter, and ALWAYS fix the price before you set off.
Sometimes, taxis are necessary, especially where there are no auto-rickshaws. Usually, taxis are the most expensive form of ground transport. When leaving a large airport, be sure to ask for the fixed-price taxi stand. Don’t be sucked in by any other offers. Go to the dispatch, tell them where you want to go, and they will give you a coupon in return for the fixed fare. Then you are assigned a taxi, and not at the usual exorbitant fare. Some people pool their resources, and hire a taxi for a day or more to see the sights. With the right driver, this can be a comfortable way to get around. Always negotiate the price in advance. Nearly all taxis are distinctive white Ambassadors, automobiles from 1950s England. They are manufacturing holdovers from the British Raj that have endured for decades.
The legendary British Enfield bike is still being manufactured in India, its classic design still intact. I met a number of people who bought an Enfield for a reasonable price, and travelled across the country. The beauty is that there are always parts. You can always tell an Enfield by the telltale bass thump-thump as it passes by. I once hired a taxi that actually was a motorbike. All I can say is that it is not for the uninitiated.
You can generally hire a scooter very reasonably, but driving one is not for the faint of heart. I finally plucked up the courage to drive one on my third trip. I chose the relaxed (but still mental) pace of Pondicherry traffic for my trial run. I loved it! I was staying in nearby Auroville where there was no other public transport, so a scooter was really the only option, besides hitchhiking, which is another adventure altogether.
he Hero is another blast from the past. There are mountain bikes, but this basic one-speed, one-size-fits-all, no-nonsense design seems to have stood the test of time. Riding a bike is slow, but somehow elegant. You will often see a woman, in her sari, balanced gracefully across the back of a bike as it weaves ponderously but effectively through the bustling traffic.