It is fitting that I should be writing this post from the back of a bus. When I say back of the bus, I’m not evoking Rosa Park’s 1950’s Montgomery. I’m talking about being sent behind the mysterious red floral curtain to what I presume is the driver’s private enclave, complete with mattress, a few changes of clothes, and a towel, on my way between Johol Bahru (JB) and Mersing, Malaysia. When we tried to catch the bus from Singapore to Mersing, the driver told us the bus was full so we concocted plan B and opted to take a bus simply to JB, on the border with Malaysia, and then catch another bus to Mersing. Little did we know that the bus in JB would be the exact same full bus we were trying to catch in Singapore. No emptier than it was in Singapore but apparently more available, as he let us get on. Maybe what’s not allowed in Singapore, i.e. hiding tourists as if they were illegal immigrants, flies in Malaysia. Whatever the reason for his change of heart, it’s hard to get five people on a full bus. This isn’t India, seating capacity is respected here. People aren’t allowed to be strewn across the floor, or crammed three to a seat. This isn’t Nepal, you aren’t allowed to get on top of the bus and hang on to the luggage racks for dear life. The Malaysians have other ways to get around silly seating rules. So as an angry Chinese woman yelled at us for being in her family’s seats, the driver calmly herded two of us to his lair. I had a valid seat but jumped at the opportunity to go to the back, a section of the bus I didn’t know existed two minutes prior. In my new locale, I pulled the partition closed. This would be where I could update my blog for the next three hours: my new home office.
I’ve been wanting to write a post about transit for a while. Most people don’t like to consider transit as part of the travel. They want to get where they are going without actually participating in the going. A four hour bus ride seems tedious as it is nothing more than the wall that keeps them between two geographic locations and two moments in time. I, on the other hand, relish in the actual travel part of travel. 20 hr train ride? Sign me up for it gives me time to reflect. 14 hrs on a plane? Great time to catch up on sleep, especially since I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for more than five minutes (people who road trip with me find me useless company). And the best of all, you don’t know who you are going to meet along the way.
The train. India has the most extensive train network I’ve ever seen. While lacking in punctuality, it makes up for this in character. Oh man does it have character. My new friends in Jaisalmer, also Brits as they seem to run rampant in these here parts, refused to ride anything but A/C, which is 1st class travel. I tried to convince them of the beauty of traveling 2nd class sleeper (which would translate to about 5th class) but they weren’t having none of that. They were scarred for life after an incident whereby a little girl decided to drop trough on the seats right in front of them. As the mother embarrassedly tried to clean up the mess, which was worsened by the fact that girl clearly lacked fiber in her diet, the girl moved to another location and repeated her previous action. While the mother followed her daughter around like a New Yorker curbing her dog, my friends were making simultaneous mental notes: no more traveling with the plebeians. A/C all the way for now on.
I can’t fault them for their respect for hygiene but I did try to show them that second class sleeper has its merits. I made them sit with me on the way from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur after the ticket Nazi wouldn’t allow me to sit with them in fancy shmancy A/C. There facial expressions were marred with fear. Flashbacks of the “incident” was playing back, stuck on repeat. After a little coaxing, they were with me and the Brit, crammed between several people. The Brit was soon whisked away by a soldier who wanted to share his hidden stash of whiskey so only I was left to hold my friends’ hands as they made this giant step towards recovery. Luckily, we had an amazing experience. While no one in our section spoke much English, we were able to get them to teach us phrases in Hindi, draw us maps of India complete with all the states and home towns, tell life stories with no guarantee of comprehension, and laugh uncontrollably over cultural differences.
Another key to sleeper class is to carry with you a bit of food, and offer this food to any woman you see, because in return, she will pull out a picnic basket concealing a 10 course meal, and undoubtedly return the favor. There is nothing worse for an Indian mother than to think that you might not be stuffed beyond belief. However, Indian mothers are somewhat of a commodity and can be hard to find on some itineraries. As a female traveler, you have to be aware that at times you could be the only female on your coach. For some reason, my 20 hour ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer was void of all things female. I think even the cockroaches (and there are many of those, something you should probably learn to accept if you are going to travel extensively in India) were male on that leg of my journey. While A/C has some sense of order and anyone without the appropriate ticket is quickly escorted out, with sleeper, the collectors have a much more laissez-faire attitude, giving many general seating travelers license to sneak in. You shouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the middle of night and find a whole family sleeping on the floor between the bunks of your compartment (as was the case between Jodhpur and Delhi). Getting to the toilet can be quite dicey as you have to avoid stepping on body parts and luggage. One time, I finally made it through the gauntlet to find that one bathroom had been converted into some sort of office as about five men played cards and conducted all sorts of business from the comfort of the latrine. Meanwhile, the other bathroom was occupied, indefinitely, as some guy was smoking up. Herding a group of men out of the bathroom in another language is not the easiest of tasks and the 20 other people crammed in the hallways love to see how you handle the situation. As with most things, giving food as an offering usually suffices.
At my stop in Jodhpur, the train cleared, only to repack itself with military personnel. For this leg, I was sandwiched in between soldiers, rifles, and all sorts of military paraphernalia. As always when I’m the lone female among a group of guys in India, I get my “don’t even think about talking to me” face. I scrunch my eyes in the shifty-eye position, jut my lips out slightly in a menacing fashion, and cross my arms. However, holding this stance for hours on end is tiring. They seem to know it’s a war of attrition and that you will eventually weaken. As soon as the moment occurs when your face sets itself into neutral, it begins: “where are you from”, “are you married?” “where is your husband/boyfriend?” “why are you traveling alone?” in that exact order. However, after exchanging pleasantries this time, the soldiers wanted to know what I was listening to. This led into hours of comparing music and trying to get our bluetooths (blueteeth?) to synch in order to share. It turned out to be an enjoyable ride hanging out with the boys and watching the desert panorama pass me by.
Planes. Since I had such little time in India, I had to grab a couple flights to cut down on the length of travel time. However, there are none of the usually amusing Indian travel experiences when traveling by planes. In fact, they are comfier and cozier than any of the American or European flights I’ve been on. Kudos, India, kudos.
Autorickshaws. I thought hitting a buffalo head on in a motorcycle and flying in the air was scary. But nothing, I repeat, nothing is scarier than autorickshaws in India…if you are not used to them. Fortunately for me, I am now used to them.