Planes, Trains, and Bicycle Rickshaws

We’ve done it all – or very close. We haven’t been in a helicopter or parachute or glider. We haven’t (yet) been on a motorcycle or scooter. (Actually, James test drove a motorcycle, but that doesn’t count as travel.)

Here’s what we have done, and what I thought of it:

Cheap-Class Airplane

We flew to Mumbai (named after the goddess Mumbadevi, rather than the Portuguese’s Bombay after Bom Bahia or good harbor). This trip took 15 hours of airtime – maybe 16.5 hours total with waiting time at JFK before we were cleared for takeoff and taxi time on the Mumbai end. It was sardine-style flying with (luckily) a relatively small older woman next to me. My greatest fear in anticipating that flight was someone with an ass the size of mine or bigger…ay – what a pain that would have been! Instead, we boarded the plane at 9:30pm and read, ate, and tried to sleep. The Indian Airlines flight attendants were nicely available, but not overly friendly. Chipper isn’t what I was after, though. There was a child – as you will already know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while – who was in great discomfort due to the pressure drop. Sleep was far away because crying was so near. When we arrived, the customs check went smoothly and we didn’t have to fill out a single form. This was surprising to us, as we’d heard much about the Indian bureaucracy.

Summary: if you’re rich, by all means pay for the bigger space. We would have spent more on the tickets than the entire rest of our trip had we gone with a real bed, but oh – did they look luxurious. Basically, long-distance flights will never be comfortable. Indian Airlines was no better or worse than others I’ve flown with. There it is.

Cars – Fancy Taxis, Hotel Taxis, and Private Cars

Okay – then we got out of the airport and started our bleary, nervous, nerved-up search for the hotel’s driver. We didn’t find him. Attempts to call the driver foundered on the barriers caused by cell-phone static, traffic noise, and language barriers. To make a long story short, a driver from the right hotel showed up for the wrong people (only because it wasn’t us) and we hijacked him. Our erstwhile driver would have to pick up the later people. The drive was exhilarating and terrifying and we overtipped.

We also had a short ride in my friend Vishal’s car with his family. Pretty much like a cab, but with a more careful driver.

In Delhi, we got picked up by an autorickshaw driver and shown around the Sikh temple – no charge. He did ask (no pressure, you can of course say no) if we would be willing to go shopping (no need to buy if you don’t like) in a fancy hotel taxi he owned. For each shop we entered (just walk in and look around, maybe 10 minutes), he received a fuel voucher worth, I guess, a lot. We acquiesced and had the bizarre experience of being deferentially ushered, sweaty and smelly, into the nicest shops we’d even set eyes on since arriving. The taxi itself was less fun than an autorickshaw, but I can see how some people would prefer being separated from the outside world. Not us!

Summary: still better than trying to negotiate for a ride all the way down to the CST area first thing when we arrived. Otherwise, no way. I’ll go rickshaw every time…

Trains – Rajdhani/Shatabdi, 2AC, 3AC, CC, 2nd Class Unreserved

I’m not going to provide a complete breakdown of the train system and classes, but we have taken a lot of them and you’ll be able to put together a pretty good feeling based on these descriptions. The Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains are a little nicer than the average, and they feed you something like four times a day. The charge for the ticket includes the food, and it works out a little expensive (compared to the same food other places), but it’s brought to you regularly and you don’t have to worry about cost or payment. The trains make good time, and bedding is provided for overnight trains. We took a Rajdhani from Mumbai to Delhi and then a Shatabdi from Delhi to Amritsar. Definitely the most comfortable train travel we did. The class we took was 2AC, which means that there are two tiers of beds, top and bottom. You have four beds on one side of the train, meaning four seatmates during the day. The other side of the train is just two placed long-ways, and I don’t like those seats so much.

When you go 3AC, it means sitting three people on each bench during the day and sleeping in racks of three at night – not enough room to sit up if you wake up before your bunk-mates. It’s okay, but not nearly as nice – especially since I was trying to keep my hurt foot elevated!

The chair cars are either air conditioned (CC) or not air conditioned. I think – though I’m not sure – that there are reserved and unreserved non-AC classes. The AC chairs are a lot more comfortable than cheap-ass plane seats, but otherwise, it’s just another chair. The unreserved train we took was very exciting – we boarded in the rush and press of bodies all trying to get on first so that they could cadge a seat. I was still limping pretty good, but pushed aboard with everyone else. By the time we got to a reasonable area, there was only one butt’s worth of space on a bench, but the whole luggage rack was empty. I sat below and James climbed onto the luggage rack with all of our bags. Another man got up on the other luggage rack – he stretched out and slept! James read, and though I checked up on him regularly, he seemed comfortable enough! I’m really glad he sat up there – he got a beautiful shot of a girl in lavender napping in the window with greenery flashing by outside…

Summary: It’s worth the extra price to go on the Rajdhani/Shatabdi trains if you are already planning on going 2AC. My favorite train experiences were on these trains. For any ride of only a few hours, the unreserved seats are fine, though a bit of a struggle. The chair cars seem best for trips of 3-6 hours – otherwise I think I’d prefer a sleeper regardless. Note: we haven’t yet gone 2nd class sleeper.

Buses – Private and Public

The first bus we rode was private and airconditioned. It was sort of an accident. We were trying to get to Agra from Delhi, and we’d gone to the bus depot. All of the regular busses were saying that they’d be leaving in a couple of hours and the first bus that said they were leaving right away was AC. What a bummer! AC was okay, but the exhaust was leaking into the cabin and there was no fresh air to blow it away. I was dazed and stupid by the time we reached Agra…We were well amused by the self-proclaimed MTV and soap opera star Rakesh Jain. He seemed surprised that we didn’t recognize him…

From Kollam to Alappuzha, we took a bus. It was a regular Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC for kind-of short) bus, and it was the bumrush through the door to get seats. Barred holes rather than windows and a daredevil drivers would have made the ride more-or-less pleasant and entertaining, but it got really annoying instead. First, we busted through the crowd and got aboard almost first. I grabbed the front seat, right behind the driver, because it had the most space for legs (and luggage). With all of our stuff, we took up three (tiny-assed) seats in a bus where there were a couple dozen people standing. Guilt won, and we squished so that a very very skinny girl could sit on the bench with us. Then the fighting started. The press of bodies and the heat of the day weren’t as bad while we were moving – the auto-AC provided by the wind was good enough. But when we stopped for a long, long time, while the conductor and three passengers fought about whether or not their transfer ticket was valid…well, that was a drag.

We’ve taken similar buses a couple more times – but these rides have been about a half hour or less, and much less packed. The intra-city buses are harder to deal with than the inter-city buses.

Summary: Not a bad way to travel. It’s cheap, there are plenty of them running all the time, and if you don’t have any luggage, they’re fine.

On the Water: Launch and Ferry plus Rowboat

We only did a regular launch once – on the way to Elephanta Island. It was a little noisy, a little smelly, but I loved every second of being on the water again. Have you been to our latest sailing website at www.svsapien.net? Then there was the row to the Sangam – the confluence of the holy rivers (the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sariswati). We also got on the water taking the ferry between Cochi, Ernakulam, and Vypeen Island. That bay is very industrial – only I could get a nostalgic tear in my eye from the sight of cargo ships unloading (ah, the Oakland Inner Harbor…).

Summary: a lovely way to get to some neat stone-temple caves or to the spice-trader part of Cochi. Of course, I’ll get on the water for no reason at all, so I’m prejudiced.

Autorickshaw

In Mumbai also began our love/hate relationship with autorickshaws. I love riding in them – narrower than a car, they worm through traffic and always beat the bigger vehicles. I hate dealing with people out to cheat me. We’ve had so many drivers try to charge us anywhere from two to ten times the correct fare – and sometimes we didn’t realize until after. It’s pretty upsetting and there was a whole period where James and I constantly felt like targets. We’ve only in the last week or so really gotten the hang of paying what we ought. And here’s how you do it: get in the rickshaw, tell them where you want to go, and insist they use the meter. If the meter doesn’t work, get out and try another one. In Mumbai, the meters were a rate-card behind, so they had laminated paper cards with the rate chart and you should always ask to see it before paying. In other places, every driver claims their meter is broken. Here in Trivandrum, you have to hop in, tell them where you’re going, and tap the meter until they start it. If the driver starts moving before starting the meter, tap his shoulder until he gives in. So far, that’s worked every time. And if you have a mobile phone (many travelers get them for the short term) and you find a driver you like and trust, you can probably get his mobile number and call him for rides. That means waiting, of course, but…

Summary: I really think it’s a great way to travel in town. It’s not very expensive unless you’re being ripped off and it’s quick and easy. Just beware.

Bicycle Rickshaw

This is the only form of transportation that I’ve taken that I can really say I won’t be doing again. Well, at least not with another person. Basically, James and I don’t fit in these little things. We took one to the train station from our hotel in Amritsar. Not only did it create bad bruising on our hips, we had to get out for a big hill and help push! I think these guys work hard and deserve not to pull my couple-hundred pound ass around…

Summary: Maybe if you’re smaller…

Foot

After our day and a half of sleeping, we began what was to be our main mode of transportation by time spent – walking. We walked north the first day, using an overhead causeway as a breadcrumb trail back to the hotel. Then it was south. Then in every place we’ve been since, we’ve walked. James has cinched up two holes on his belt – me one. And have we ever seen India! I like walking best because it’s so wonderfully fluid. You spend exactly as much time you want looking at any given thing. We haven’t been anywhere much where there were long stretches of barren vistas. Everything has been busy and entertaining, and photogenic.

Summary: do it until you fall over. Then get a good night’s sleep and do it again!

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