Bus travel can be fun! So imply the clever marketers of coaches. I agree and add that bus travel is educational. Not your normal claim, eh? Not one the National Express will be half-inching for their next ad’ campaign. (Although hands up who is already humming the classic Divine Comedy track at the mere mention of the venerable coach company? “And it’s hard to get by…” If you’ve never heard it, get onto YouTube for the typically witty video.) How does one justify such a dotty assertion? Well, I’ll go further. It’s not just educational, it’s a belief of mine that the way to get to know a place quickly and authentically is simple: Ride as the locals do. Not only do you see all sorts, but you meet people too. For peanuts!
You’re not buying it are you? I can tell. Suit yourself. In any event, we’ve lived to tell the tale of (possibly) the shoddiest bus in the Indian sub-continent. Now there’s an accolade that i) no one would want and – paradoxically – ii) is subject to some pretty stiff competition: India is home to the truly crappy bus.
So what of the railways? In 1994 I rode thousands of kilometres by rail across wonderful India and wanted the Beers to have a taste. Hence we are riding overnight Madurai to Bangalore.
“Marvellous” says in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound I.
“Not so sure” says comfort enthusiast Mrs B.
All booked from the comfort of the UK. Isn’t t’internet wonderful?
Well, er, no.
Lost in the ether was the minor details of the ticket requirement. Or as later pointed out by a local, more likely minor corruption at work. Three separate forays to the railway station only gives patchy information on our pre-booked tickets.
(Personal aside: At the occasion of my 3rd in-person visit to the station to get the opposite of definitive information, I experience sense of humour loss. Again. (For the second time in 24hours.) This involves having a Reggie Perrin moment where I can clearly see the – so-called – “General Information Officer’s” face as I hold his head under the surface of some water. As I float back to what I am loosely terming reality, I consider bursting into tears. This feeling of helplessness – with a side order of “beam me up Scotty” i- s enhanced by several things. One, I’ve had little sleep, am wearing a heavy rucksack and it’s 35C. Two, I am under self-imposed pressure to provide a positive train experience to match the hype I have been (unwisely) generating. And then there’s the utterly different social rules in this culture. In this case, concepts of queuing and ‘personal space’ in India. Whilst queuing seems to be happening, it actually isn’t. You can’t just march up to the front surely? No. Yes. Oh I don’t know. Then, finally at the counter leaning in to hear what’s being said you are jostled left and right by people trying a) to hear what you are on about – IE: being openly nosy – b) to get their own stuff sorted and c) to literally just see what’s going on. The former and latter are subtly different. The Indian people love to openly watch and stare: their rules of etiquette around this unsettle us stiff Brits. My final note on the matter: you can’t expect full and frank information in India. That’s not how they roll. You have to ask multiple times from every conceivable angle and then fill in the gaps. Frustrating with a capital F? Yes. But that’s how it is… you have to soak up the punishment and move on. Control freak? Don’t come here: your values/standards won’t wash.)
Armed with less than perfect information we are on the utterly filthy platform for our on-time train. We find our carriage and… oh. The super efficient “who’s where” system is crystal clear: We have two berths.
Four reservations made equals two berths on the train. Specifically, Ian & Gillian have beds. Bye-bye kids, see you in Bangalore?
We board anyway and the train conductor – several cuts above your bus equivalent – allows us to squidge in. (Generous of him personally, but as I’d actually paid in full for all four of us…) And we’re rolling. It’s a particularly Indian experience to be thrust into a tiny little community which is your curtained compartment. Within minutes we’ve all shaken hands, children play, grandparents offer us food and the lone businessman – Bank Manager M. Desikan – gives up his bed for Mrs B. (He’s only aboard until 1AM he reasons…)
As the rest of the Beers bed down, Desikan and I have a wide-ranging conversation. How global and well read the Indian business perspective can be. Puts me to shame. We talk into the small hours as the train trundles along. As a compromise to Mrs B we are travelling AC2 tier. IE: Posh. Sheer luxury! Air-conditioned with “only” 2 tiers of bunks as opposed to three or even four layers with paneless windows for ventilation for those further along the (enormous, twenty carriage) train. Your Indian train rides along wider gauge tracks so the whole affair is on a bigger scale than our trains. Ironic since “we” (Brits) built both: in India we had the blank canvas to do things properly.
Other things are not proper though. How come a bank manager who books the day before can get a berth where the tourist booking and PAYING 3 months in advance can’t? (Nothing personal against the gentleman who gave up his bed.)
[Okay, okay: I’ll let it go.]
We part on good terms at 01.30 when all is quiet aboard. Soon I am feeling the great luxury of lying flat when a new noise joins the ensemble. THUD! Parental heads poke urgently through curtains. A small Indian lad has fallen off the top bunk onto the hard floor.
Isn’t it amazing hows kids bounce?
We’re all awake at 05.45 – that’s the western loo and a man under a sheet on the video – as the train makes its way into the outskirts of Bangalore. I hold Mog & Jojo as they lean out of the open carriage door Indian stylee. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. (Whaddya mean I’m a bad parent? We weren’t going all that fast. I was being educational: “Looks kids, you can’t do this in the UK.” Just don’t tell their Mum.)
Bangalore City Junction station 06.45 on any old Saturday morning is like Twickenham or Cardiff Central on a Six Nations day. (Ahhhh, this’ll be the sweet weekend where Wales beat England I feel.) We follow the herd out of the station to encounter a smiling face. Why it’s Mr Saty Joshi as I live and breathe! Saty and I sat next to each other in a UK office before he relocated with the company to India.
Not only have we got him out of bed early on a Saturday – following a mega busy Friday – but he’s extending us full hospitality. Soon we are being transported in comfort to his apartment. This is just as well as Bangalore traffic is howling, slavering, twitching, barking mad. It’s like the rest of India but with faster, more numerous cars on wider tarmac with greater urgency. After some ado we’re at Joshi towers and being given breakfast by Priti, Saty’s better half. By anyone’s standards they have a lovely pad and it’s decor is delightful. Would we like a shower? We bite Priti’s hand off down to the ankle.
Suitably cleansed we take in the sights and meet up again for lunch. It’s at the 21st century mall – where Saty’s office is – with a collection of nice cafes and restaurants. Nice in any country: unreal in India. Within minutes we’re munching pizza and gossiping away like we do this every Saturday.
Afterwards, the ladies go clothes shopping Indian style: for a sari. The mind-boggling quantity and variety of garments is used to great effect by master Bangalore sales people. They see reactions to the theatrically spread items – “oooh, that blue is nice” – making more and more effort going for the guilt purchase angle. The men folk – Saty as my expert guide – are treated to coffee/pop and a sit down before being commanded to get the wallet out. British shops take note?
Several saris later it’s back to the ranch to try out the pool. Apart from a quick dip in the sea at Alleppey, there’s been no swimming on the trip. So eyes bulge from sockets when a groovy, deep blue, empty private pool is proffered. Much childish excitement and splashing ensues. Josie & Morgan were eventually allowed in for a swim too.
Dryed off we have a fascinating conversation with our hots about the way things work in Bangalore. The theory of the train ticket “mistake”? More like corruption and backsheesh. State bank manager versus foreigners? Guess who wins. It’s an education for Gilly & I in the “rules” of modern Indian society. Saty & Priti are doing their bit to right some wrongs in their neighbourhood: direct action rocks.
Before you know it, we’re waving goodbye – after Masala Dosa, yum! – and heading for the airport. This journey will be easier in years to come as there’s an airport express in the works. However, in true Indian fashion, whilst they build it the road to the airport has dirt-track chicanes where major works are undertaken. The recipe? No signage, no lighting: a kilometre or two of full-beam dual-carriageway foot-down followed by swerving off the road, bumpety-bumping over the shoulder, around the enormous concrete blocks and repeat. (Sprinkle in oncoming headlights and crossing ox carts to taste.) It’s not an aggressive ride, just too fast and a little bit squeaky bum for us passengers.
And then we’re into the late evening terminal and it’s next stop Singapore…