“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”
Several things were booked way in advance. For example, a place to stay, giving certainty on arrival in a new town. Thought let’s face it, when they have to resort to the name “Hotel Supreme”? As you pre-pay your booking, you wonder: is it going to be a minger? In the interests of mildest suspense, I shall tell you if it stank or if it rocked later on (as it is of no consequence to you whatsoever). I may resort to the word minging/minged/minger elsewhere in this post on an unrelated matter, so stay sharp.
We were really sad to leave the tranquility of the Tomichen homestay and wave bye-bye with misty eyes. A gentle 25minutes of tuk-tuking sees us in the town frontier town of Kumily. It’s only the frontier between two Indian states – as I’ve written before – but still gets it’s own (don’t) care-worn checkpoint barrier which I awkwardly limbo under to annoy the officials on duty. It doesn’t work as they are the very image of we’re-on-duty-and-we-couldn’t-care-less.
It’s not long before we’re being hustled. About 20 seconds I’d say. The vibe in Tamil Nadu is noticebly different from minute one. After being messed around we return to board our bus for the 144km ride to Madurai.
The bus itself is worth a moment of sdescription. It’s not a museum piece as that would imply some form of notability. It’s certainly a scrapyard dodger whose best years were – at a guess – in the 1970s. Deciding it’s best not to think about it too much we climb aboard and meet India’s most surly bus conductor. (A coveted post for which the many thousands in his role are – it seems, I imagine – in fierce competition for.) He charges us 60IRP each plus an extra 8IRP for my bag because it won’t fit on the luggage shelf. 232IRP equates to £2.99 for all of us (and my bag) to travel almost 100miles. You can see the appeal of buses, no? Plus, if you squint it looks like a stunt vehicle from one of the post-apocolyptic Mad Max movies. Which is, er, nice.
Anyway, the vehicle carries no form of visual identification nor livery. It is 100% bereft of signage suggesting it’s destination and the conductor gives no commitment (as is the Indian wont). I am shouted at. And again. I pause and realise that it is my new task to stow my bag at the front of the bus. (Where’s the rack? Oh I see, you want me to wedge it between the front seat and the engine cover: why didn’t you say?) Before I can get back to my seat we set off down a “thrilling” mountain road. Within a few minutes one realises why the first few rows of seating are vacant: (cracked) widescreen 3D terror. We’ve cooked the brakes on the coach and drive’ is trying to engage a gear, any gear. Massive crunching noises ensue from the bowels of the behemoth. The bus gearbox is quite noisy too. Presently – nanoseconds before careering to a cliff-plunging doom – we discover the joys of engine braking and lurch into a more controlled descent retarding velocity from ludicrous to merely breakneck as the motor howls with the strain. We whizz past families of monkeys viewing from the kerbside – they love a good bus crash – and somehow avoid the heavy buese/trucks lumbering up the mountain. (I have video. But – as is oft the way – it seems undramatic and the soundtrack of my whimpering and sphincter squeaking seem incongruous. You had to be there.)
The switchbacks criss-cross some enormous water pipes. The fruits of a British engineering project in the late 1800s. A story that has all the hallmarks of colonialism and that became a personal mission for it’s engineer Major John Pennycuick. The contents of the piping feed the once barren Tamil Nadu interior and is causing political strife today. Within moments we are trundling across an agricultural landscape of rice, grapes, pineapples, coconuts – irrigated thanks to the good Major – fringed by the mountains that we were resident in the three nights previously. Mighty high they look and somehow mighty distant.
We hesitate randomly on the road for casual bus stopping and have more punctuated stops at town bus stations. There is a conistency with these facilities. They ming. [There it is!] How so? A) Because they are invariably strewn with rotting waste. B) They stink. Every time. They pong with shuddering, determined, eye-watering consistency of “poo and wee”. I asked Josie what defined an Indian bus stand and that was her instantaneous reply. A particularly piercing pungency that makes you instinctively want to douse your person in strong bathroom cleaning chemicals. Be thankful this blog isn’t scratch’n’sniff.
Ach, it’s only a smell and you typically move on within minutes, but the airborne taste lingers. Did I mention the bus was specified without the option of windows? (I mean glass, not Microsoft.) Drive’ switches off the motor at one stop and various passengers debus – ugh – to add to the minging fug. Suddenly, we’re off again leaving several passengers behind. Cue lots of shouting from their parties. In grumpy response we stop sharply and park around the corner. Presumably to teach those with weak bowels/bladders some sort of lesson. When all are present and correct we’re off again barrelling along in the increasingly hot late morning. Any thoughts of answering the call of nature are repressed, our legs firmly crossed. A succession of fellas sit next to me. (Women avoid sitting next to foreign men. Chaps are less shy.) They range from comically teeny – seemingly without the means to afford shoes – to barrel chested and affable.
The latter is in a kakhi uniform of sorts. We converse in pidgin English with good cheer. Memorably he says (adopts Goodness Gracious Me accent) “culture in India very nice, but watch for the many dirty fellows isn’t it?” Then he’s asleep. Like a hypnotist has put him under: click! Annnnd sleep. Then after a moment of profound snoring he wakes with a start and comical Tamil version of “whassat?” He smiles broadly and click! Gone again. This repeats for some kilometres with swaying and leaning his considerable bulk upon me until I get the giggles which – quite unintentionally – wakes him up. He smiles a broad smile and instantly nods off again.
Next time he wakes for longer than a moment and we converse further ending with my stunned, silent, blinking amazement as follows:
“What is your job then?”
[With cheery pride] “Long distance bus driver isn’t it?!”
After much ado and a particularly meomorable incident with a hay-ldaen tractor (see youtube) we arrive in Madurai bus station where I promptly misplace my sense of humour. Zero signage, piercing heat, minging atmosphere, persistent touts and utter avoidance of response to our queries to locals humour exits stage left. Gilly to the rescue and we’re in a tuk-tuk and soon at Hotel Supreme where our reservations materialise.
Madurai is famed as the temple city and we spend time respectfully gawping at the main complex after dusk. Bats swoop and call, the devout make their prayers and the hot stone soaks warmth into our tired, bare feet. Ignoring the addtion of electric lighting – see below as it happens – one can easily imagine this place being as ever thus.
It’s a huge place and tourist numbers here – though considerable – are dwarfed by the worshippers. The surrounding town – for me – has not changed since last I was here: it’s hot, dusty, crowded, pushy and just not very pleasant.
Hmmm. Madurai is in the crossfire of industrial action where the coal workers are witholding their product from the state power companies. This means frequent blackouts as the grid fails to cope with supply and demand. Shop keeper? No matter, have a small petrol generator outside your premises belching fumes to poison your customers inside. Hotel? Industrial gennie plumbed in and ready. Power or no, it’s a hot evening so we head to the rooftop terrace of the Supreme and take in the views of the towering temple gates (one per compass point) with a cold drink.
(Nice weather back in the UK is it?) Tomorrow night is an overnight train ride 500km north Bangalore, so we go for the early night and the promise of a lie in.
This doesn’t go well in any respect. The final sob inducing straw is the pumping Indian pop music fed through a garage-door sized PA at dawn the next day following a trying night. I spy this cacophony from our decidedly dodgy, filthy, fifth-floor balcony. So we go for breakfast. It mings.
Hotel Supreme? Am considering the following TripAdvisor entry:
“An utter minger: avoid.”
Never mind, we’ve a rail journey to cheer ourselves up! I booked the seats in November 2011: what could possibly go wrong? Three sweaty visits to the railway station later… am getting nowhere. Now where did I put that sense of humour?