|With so much to do in a country the size of a small continent, travelers can easily spend as much time getting to places, as they do enjoying them. So why then, are travel benchmarks continually set by monuments visited, events attended, and festivals celebrated? Don’t the scenic bus rides, unexpected train delays, bus breakdowns, and peculiar rural transportation methods milestone the same trip? I mean, let’s face it, half the fun of traveling, is getting there...
I’ve classified 3 different forms of transportation whilst in India; The 3 P’s: Public, Private and Personal Transportation. Public includes all the widely available, government operated methods. Private refers to chauffeur assisted conveyance. And personal, summarizes any form of transportation you (or a travel mate) rent, buy, or borrow to operate yourself. So sit back, buckle up and enjoy the ride (rides) through India...
Widely available, and relatively inexpensive, Public Transportation is by far, the most commonly used form of transport. The most distinctly Indian form known as the rickshaw. Supporting narrow, box-like metal frames and covered with soft yellow tarps, these 3-wheel motorbike taxi’s are just as much apart of India’s landscape as Cricket is to sport. From congested city streets to remote villages, the yellow-topped beacons are never far, more so, never far enough away, usually hailing you before you need to hail them.
Unparalleled in convenience and availability, rickshaws unfortunately come with the worst kind of price...an unspecified one. Fare bargaining is crucial before any rickshaw ride commences, especially for tourists, and the battle to set a respectable fare can be exhausting. Shop around and follow the golden rule of Indian bargaining, cut their starting price in half and work up from there.
Along with fare bargaining, is destination controlling. Rick’s have been known to alter simple cross town jaunts into undisclosed shopping escapades, obliging commission stops at their friends shops to present you, their “friend”, the best purchases in all of India. Well, don’t be fooled. Rick’s are not your friends. To them, you are nothing more then a dollar sign and they will milk you for all the taxi fare and commission money they can.
For those longer distances, trains pick up where rickshaws leave off. Leaving regularly to almost every city in India, what you will gain in set ticket pricing and the elimination of commission stops, will be offset by lines, platform chaos, and delays.
First and foremost, a ticket must be purchased before departure which, you guessed it, requires waiting in line. A term I use loosely as the only thing systemized in an Indian line is the system...PUSH! Elbows, knee’s and whatever else you can leverage to push yourself towards the ticket desk are advantageous.
Once past the ticket window another, often more menacing, challenge presents itself, the platform. Sure, if you pay for the more expensive train fare, your boarding will be relatively comfortable, but if you chose the non-AC, second class arrangements (like myself) you are in for something much different. You see, of the hundreds of people crammed onto the platforms, only half hold valid tickets. The other mass of people, not yet granted tickets, are classified in the, “first come, first serve”, pool of passengers. For them, the only way to obtain a ticket, is to push their way onto the already crowded train and hope to find an unassigned, vacant seat.
Crucial to their seat assurance is train door positioning. Worse then a lion’s den at feeding, when the doors open, all hell breaks loose. I’ve witnessed two elderly women tag team a younger man in response to his insolent pushing, assaulting him with a flurry of smacks and condescending remarks. A family toting an extravagant amount of luggage, stack their bags in a unified wall to prevent others passage. And, my favorite, two rival groups of middle-aged women engage in such a passionate argument over which party would board first, only to be split down the middle and heedlessly pushed aside by those disembarking the train. They never did recover their coveted positions for entry and both parties subsequently missed the train.
And this is all before the train has even departed, that is, if it departs. Delays and train cancellations are imminent perils for backpackers, as my sister and I repeatedly learned. A travel plight not caused by accidents, animal crossings, or poorly maintained rails, mind you, but by the worst disturbance of all, bad weather. More specifically, fog!
Only in India for 2 weeks, my sister, her friend, and I suffered the worst train luck any tourist could have experienced in the same allotted time. 3 overnight train rides, all, “DELAYED DUE TO FOG”. The first of which, capped out at not one, two or three hours...but 12 hours! What was scheduled to depart at 8 p.m. didn’t leave until 8 a.m. the following morning, marooning us at Agra Train Station amidst an unbroken sea of other anxious, passengers. Had we known the extent of the delay from the outset, logically we would have moved to a warm, hotel room to wait out the night, but each visit to the station’s enormous mechanical scheduling board, yielded a new departure time of one hour later, one hour later, one hour later!
Frozen to the bone and fighting the urge to vomit due to the putrid smells wafting out of the nearby toilet, the three of us huddled in the overcrowded station waiting room, on the best piece of terminal floor real estate we could find. An abominable wait plagued even further by persistent power outages. Hugging our valuables near, and our travel mates nearer, one minute of reassuring florescent lighting equaled several of skittish darkness. And this was only the first of a series of fog related delays.
The next train “only” suffered an 8 hour delay, but it was the final, and longest of our train rides, that fogged our memories of train travel in India forever.
Our train from Varanasi to Delhi was scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m. and to our shock and surprise, it did. An on time departure? Could it be? Needless to say, our celebration was premature. Instead of suffering delays outside the train (as we had come to know so well), our final detainment would be endured whilst on the train.
Scrunched into a 6 bed cabin, where the total head room between bunks measured no more then 2 feet high and the 1/2 inch thick mattress resembled more of a stone slab then a comforting addition, an estimated 14 hour journey warped into a painful 26. (Again, thick fog was to blame for the subsequent snail-pace train ride). Now, it’s one thing to go into a ride mentally prepared for 26 hours of train confinement but it’s an entirely different beast not knowing when you will arrive. Each hour painfully turning over to the next with no sign of the end. We were in the hands of the railway god’s and, as we had come to know, they were never kind to our trio, playing our patience strings and stealing our precious tourism time.
The second transportation mode, Private, is probably the least commonly used but undoubtedly the easiest and most comfortable method. I personally never thought I could afford such a luxury but that was before India.
As mentioned before, my sister Alicia and her friend Christine, had only 2 weeks in India and in order to maximize our time, we needed to minimize the hassle. A driver at our disposal? No set itinerary? No train or bus line waiting? Pre-arranged budget hotels? What was described as 4 days of effortless travel, without the tour bus feel, sounded to good to be true, but after some hard bargaining, we reluctantly sealed the deal on our very own, private driver.
To be honest, we weren’t expecting much, a suspicion we thought confirmed with the arrival of a cramped, 4-seater Suzuki Ta Ta (previously described as a spacious luxury sedan). It wasn’t until the door opened and Mr. Faroch’s benevolent smile greeted me that the skepticism changed to optimism.
Mr. Faroch introduced himself as our driver, but more importantly, our personal tour guide, a term severely paling in comparison to what he really was. Our personal spring of eternal Indian knowledge, Mr. Faroch loved talking about India, just as much as we enjoyed asking about it. Discussing every topic from religion in India, to modern day politics, and even offering a comprehensive historical re-cap of his great nation. Not to mention, detailed overviews of each and every tourist sight visited.
Setting a loose route prior to leaving, Mr. Faroch informed us of just how loose it could be. If we wanted to extend stops, switch activities, or even completely change course, it was possible. “Everything is possible”, emerged Mr. Faroch’s coined phrase. In just a few days, we managed to see more of each city visited then most travelers could see in several. We literally said the word, and he was ready to move. If we wanted to see a specific fort at 3 in the morning, he would take us. If we wanted to sit at a textile shop for 5 hours deciding on sari’s, he would stay with us. And if we got sick (which unfortunately did happen) he was off to buy med’s at the pharmacy without a second thought.
Checking off the main tourist sights, such as the Amer Palace of Jaipur, the tiger safari’s of Rathambore National Park, and Agra’s famous Taj Mahal, we found more interest in the lesser known sights that without Mr. Faruch, we never would have encountered. The abandoned Monkey Fortress outside of Jaipur, home to some 6,000 wild monkeys and not one foreign tourist, the impromptu Butter Chicken cooking course with one of Faroch’s good friends Romeo (although he was far from what the name presumes), and the long drives down country roads, providing intimate views into the lives of India’s vibrant rural population, were just a few of the unique memories that will forever dominate my memories.
If only for his knowledge, Mr. Faroch would have been well worth the budgetary splurge, but his driving ability, patience, and kindness, clenched a fondness and trust that far surpassed that of a guide. Mr. Faroch was, and will always be, my friend. Just as his smile never faded throughout the entire trip, mine too will never wane when thinking of him.
Last, but not least, our final Transportation P; Personal Transportation. No schedules to align with, no ticket lines to wait in, no overpriced fee’s, and most importantly no limits, personal transportation makes up the final, and in my opinion, best Transportation P. In this case, motorcycling.
Like the private driver, I never expected to travel continually by such a method but thanks to Clay, and his 1966 Royal Enfield Bullet Motorcycle (purchased on a previous trips to India), the possibility became reality.
The “Harley Davidson’s” of India, Royal Enfield bikes are easily the most recognizable and famous bike in India. Originally brought over by the British in the early 1950’s, Royal Enfields sport a unique body design with a hard to mistake thump of the engine. Clay’s Enfield attracting even more attention due to her vintage bones. Housing an original 1966 engine, the bike is regarded by most enthusiasts as a child would regard their grandparents, with reverence and respect. Sure, she’s had a few updates since 1966, such as a reconditioned body, chrome accents, and a 500 CC powder blue gas tank, but the body just keeps her young, the engine is what defines her true age.
Planning to travel though India’s largest state Rajasthan, along with the smaller state of Gujurat, we allotted just over a 5 week period of time. A 1,000 mile roundtrip journey that may not seem like much, given the large period of time, but then again, I haven’t explained the road conditions yet.
First, you must avoid obstacles! Erratic bicyclists, careless pedestrians, meandering cows, wild dogs, and reckless rickshaws are just a few primary city obstacles while overflowing Lorie trucks, slow-moving camel and elephant caravans, and unannounced animal crossings just scratch the surface of rural obstacles.
Second, road conditions. If a road is not under construction, chances are it should be. And, if a road is under construction, chances are it lacks any alternative routes. And even still, it’s not uncommon for roads dictated on maps to no longer be there upon arrival. So, while maps are handy, local passerby’s are handier. Ask directions as often as you can and play, “follow the leader”, whenever possible.
Next, the language barrier. City streets and main highways usually pose no problem, but the further into rural India one travels, the thicker the communication wall becomes. Road signs that once read both English and Hindi, now only read Hindi, and directional assistance is limited to simple hand gestures and one specific word, “Sita” (Straight), a term every cross-country biker should know before departure. “Straight” is always the answer to a directional question, spoken with a happy wobble of the head and a far from convincing forward hand gesture. I swear, you could be at an 11-way roundabout, and still be told to go straight.
The final motorcycling difficulty is comfort (or lack there of). Sitting on an 8X8 inch piece of stretched leather, over a series of used and abused springs, does not necessarily scream comfort! Thank goodness for my half-inflated neck pillow, cleverly situated below my gluteus maximus, absorbing a good majority of the bumps along the way. Blissfully bumped into numbness before she ever knew pain.
If you can move past these obstacles, there is a freedom that no other mode of transportation provides. The freedom that comes with letting yourself go and getting lost in your thoughts. Spending hours on the bike with little to look at, but somehow, everything to see. Each village offering snapshots of the virtually the same scenarios. Groups of old men gathered outside their relatives shops, relaxing on either plastic chairs or bamboo woven beds, dispelling the nights cold by soaking up of the afternoon sun, all the while enjoying cup after cup of chai tea. Middle-aged men managing majority of the town’s shops with the assistance of their sons. And women, young or old, their radiant sari’s starkly juxtaposed against the country sides muted backgrounds, almost certainly engaged in hard labor. Transporting loads of sticks from fields to homes for meal-time fires, drawing large basins of water from the only water tap in town, and carrying loads of concrete, rock, or rubble for village construction projects.
And just as I have described these rural people as a spectacle, so too, did they relate us. 2 gora’s (foreigners) rambling into their tiny villages, were unusual enough, but it was the Ba Ba Bap of the Enfields engine that attracted even more of a curious crowd. Within minutes of arriving, the few initial onlookers multiplied into dozens as shopkeepers, chai runners, rickshaw drivers, and farm workers cascaded around us. Every move we made, scrutinized, and every word we spoke, struggled to be understood. The unflinching gawks of onlookers became commonplace happenings and I’d be lying to say that I didn’t embellished the moments on a few occasions, removing my helmet and giving these blonde locks of mine a quick shake in the sun light to catch even a bit more attention. What can I say? I had to capitalize on the movie-star feeling for as long as possible.
So, whether you are a window watcher or a down and dirty local transport connoisseur, India offers every means to suit your particular traveling style. Although, personally, I recommend a combination of the three! After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination...might as well make it interesting.