I spent a grand total of 5 weeks in India and in that time I spent roughly 100 hours travelling. That is just over 4 days in total on various forms of usually shitty, unreliable and frustrating forms of transport. In total we ended up on 3 trains, 2 long distance taxis, 5 planes, 4 coaches, 2 ferries, a camel and a very small boat which I had to help to paddle myself. In short, no account of travels in India is complete without understanding the varying degrees of shit that this entails and the pain and, to be fair, the pleasure that they all can bring to the travels.
The first thing that you have to understand is that your perception of time regarding Indian transport becomes wildly warped, frankly it has to or you would actually lose your mind and just end it all. Everything is late in India, you just need to deal with it, to not take it in your stride would result in you spooning out your eyes in frustration.The first real experience of this I had was in Agra. It has to be said at this point that Agra, as I have said before, is a true shit hole. Yes it has the Taj Mahal but if you think of the most deplorable, awful pit of desolation you have ever been to (Blackpool springs to mind) and multiply it by 1000 you are not even close to what this cesspit of degraded filth has to offer human kind.
Now picture yourself at the local train station, somewhere where there is no floor to stand on simply because of the number of sleeping people lying around the place and where every step you take is watched by hundreds of eyes all firing jets of hate in your direction. Next picture turning up to this place at 3:30am for a 4am train out of this black hole of hell only to find out that not only is the train you are looking to catch not there but not a single person there can tell you if or when it may arrive. I saw a monkey fall from the ceiling of the station to its likely death and no one batted an eyelid, says it all really. It turned out that our train didn’t turn up until 8am, leaving us stranded on a station in the dark, tired and confused for nearly 5 hours in genuine fear.
On top of this, Indian trains don’t often have departure boards, there is no markings on the train to tell you where the train is going and they regularly turn up on a completely different platform to the one advertised, often only stopping for a few minutes before tearing off in to the night and you have a recipe for a very tense 4 hours. It is safe to say that I was very glad to leave Agra that day.
On the other hand, as with many things, the god awful times we had on trains were easily outweighed by the great times. Indian trains, when they actually do turn up, are an incredible and exhilarating experience that I don’t think you can get anywhere else in the world. Our train from Jaipur to Jaisalmer, a journey of 15 hours in which we didn’t even leave 1 state in India, was an absolute revelation.
We travelled sleeper class (the lowest class on an overnight train) which consists of a carriage in which you have wooden bed, barely covered by a thin mattress stacked 3 high against the walls of the train. Packed in like sardines you have never seen a place more alive. Everywhere you look there are people chattering, laughing, exchanging stories and it all feels so very alive. Throughout the night there are people getting on, getting off, jumping off the train during the regular station stops to brush their teeth, dropping off deliveries, picking up old relatives and everything else in between.
In the morning you wake up to chai-wallas, basically mobile tea salesman selling very strong, super sweet tea, barreling down the aisles selling their wares, Indians playing cards on their beds and sellers at the bars of the windows selling samosas, pakoras and a load of other weird but insanely tasty food bits through the bars of the train windows. It is an incredible experience and something I would do again in a heartbeat…frankly not something that can be said for the coaches.
Everywhere else in the world that I have taken long distance coaches they have been very civilised, luxury even, but in India they are the lowest of the low. First off the stations smell strongly of piss, and i don’t mean the kind of old man toilet smell off piss, I mean the urine covered sweaty tramp kind of piss that makes your nose want to pack his bags and fuck off. It is genuinely offensive.
On top of that, long distance coaches in India, unlike anywhere else in the world, don’t have toilets on board. Even on what turned out to be a 12 hour coach from Bangalore to Kochi in Kerala there was no such facility. Yes, they do stop every 4 hours or so near some god awful excuse for a toilet, but they can stop for 10 minutes or 30 seconds depending on how the driver feels and there is no way of working out which it is. He will simply stop, let a load of people get out, wait for however long he feels, beep his horn once and immediately drive off leaving anyone caught in the middle of a piss stranded in the some random Indian town.
This was so much of a problem that the advice we were given was to not drink for at least 4 hours before getting on a bus and to under no circumstances to drink whilst on them. The result of which is you turning up to your destination chronically dehydrated and in urgent need of intensive medical care. Jesus walking through the desert for 40 days has nothing on this shit. Just to really put the boot in, during a 12 hour journey we sat through at least 9 hours of very loud Keralan movies, each as baffling as the last, with the most incomprehensible subtitles you have ever seen. It was at this point, after drifting in to a semi coma through sheer exhaustion that I woke up to find Tahmina being violently sick over the seat next to me. I am honestly surprised that I survived these journeys with my sanity intact.
That brings me to the camel. My impression of what this would entail was that I would sail, Ali Baba-esque, majestically through the desert on a sea of sand, at one with the world and to all intents and purposes a Maharajah in my own time. The reality is that it was the equivalent of being headbutted repeatedly in the balls by an angry midget. Yes the desert was beautiful and yes the night we spent sleeping under the stars with an open fire was epic but the two days I spent afterwards cradling my poor broken testicles was not really part of the plan. I just hope that anyone who regularly rides a camel is either a female or a eunuch.
In short it is the journeys between places that makes travelling in India something special. Although some of it is tough, hilarious, dangerous and challenging, often all at the same time, we met some of the most interesting and fun people on those journeys and there is nothing like an Indian journey to bind you together. Even the worst of those journeys I wouldn’t have any other way now, they form part of the experience and at the end of the day adventure isn’t straightforward. It is challenging, difficult, awkward, odd, funny, weird and unusual and you don’t leave home for everything to be as you expected.
Travelling is a journey, and sometimes that’s the the best bit.