The challenge in trying to describe anything as outrageously eclectic, manic, colourful and fun as travelling by bus in India, is that you can’t reduce such noisy, crazy, sometimes smelly, organised pandemonium to a couple of sentences.
You end up saying something silly like “Hermione spent part of her gap year volunteering for this marvellous NGO, handing out pencils to homeless children at Kolkata Railway Station. She learnt what real poverty looks like”.
No she didn’t. If Hermione was paying attention she would have learnt what real budding entrepreneurs look like. What does she think those kids did with all those pencils?
But we digress.
Bus travel in India can only be experienced. Describing it is really hard. But if you are going to travel on buses on India, here’s some hopefully helpful background information.
First, a few quotes:
Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind”. (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Persig)
“Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, it is not yet the end”. (Simit Patel, Hotel Manager, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)
Second, some road rules. We have through many years of observation and experience come to understand that there are four rules universally applied by all drivers in any second or third world country. They are:
1. The gross tonnage rule. Only give way to larger vehicles.
2. The following vehicle rule. Under no circumstances allow yourself to be the following vehicle. You must always overtake any vehicle in front of you at the earliest possible opportunity. If there is any oncoming traffic, any road will accommodate three vehicles abreast, and if not, see Rule 1. It therefore does not matter whether you have a forward view when you commence overtaking.
3. The operating horn rule. So long as it is physically capable of moving forward, a vehicle can be driven with any defect or malfunction, with one critical exception. Functioning brakes, indicators, suspension and windscreen wipers are all optional. However, in the event the horn stops operating, the vehicle must immediately be taken off the road. The journey cannot be resumed until the horn has been repaired.
4. The one extra person rule. We first experienced this one on a mini-bus trip up Mt Bromo in Indonesia many years ago. The “bus” was actually a Mazda Bongo van into which the driver had managed to squeeze us and sixteen other adults, plus luggage.
Shortly after setting out we approached a group of two adults and one child on the side of the road. The driver stopped, looked carefully at the inside of the van, then at them, then back into the van, and very reluctantly declined to let them board. We drove on, and shortly came upon one adult, who was squeezed in. Then 100m up the road another adult was somehow shoehorned inside, and then almost around the next corner another adult, surprise surprise, was also accommodated. It was the salami technique in reverse.
What is the relevance of all that to travelling independently by bus in India? Well, you need to understand that although the driver is going to rip along as fast as the laws of physics allow, he does not actually want to die. He knows, as you should accept with Zen-like equanimity, that the Rules impose a universally understood choreography on all participants in the race. It may look like lunacy, at times it clearly is lunacy, but everyone knows their role.
Out of all that, and with some licence and due attribution to Messrs Pirsig and Patel, you may take this piece of advice: To embark upon the journey requires great peace of mind, but it will be all right in the end.
Our reintroduction to distance travel on Indian buses was getting from Karaikudi to Pondicherry. It was a classic reminder that you should always expect the unexpected when travelling. And it really was fun, after we also learnt one extra rule.
The day started with an auto-rickshaw trip from our hotel to the bus station. There is a growing tendency throughout the parts of India frequented by overseas tourists to call Autos “Tuk-Tuks”. That terminology is starting to infect locals. If you were in South-East Asia, Tuk-Tuk would be correct. India is not South-East Asia. It is not correct. Stop doing that.
Autos are one of the world’s great cheap thrills. Taking a taxi is for wusses. An Auto driver is not so much aggressive as benignly assertive. An auto driver can fit his three wheeler into any gap in traffic that is at least 5mm larger than their vehicle. They can stretch the boundaries of The Gross Tonnage Rule past any objective assessment of relative size and somehow sound their horn in a way that makes it work like mosquito repellent on other drivers.
If you start your day setting out in an Auto with your backpack stuffed in with you, you know you are off on another adventure.
Arriving at Karaikudi bus station, we discovered that, notwithstanding multiple assurances from multiple sources, the trip would not involve two express buses with just one change. Instead, we would have to do the milk run on old clunkers through an indeterminate number of towns with unpronounceable names. That of course could not faze us. We had our packs on our backs, and there was a vendor nearby selling an assortment of great looking somosas. We knew where we were starting from, and where we wanted to finish. We were just a bit hazy on the bits in between.
There was also of course the minor detail that no one seemed to speak English.
Indian bus stations can appear a bit chaotic. That is because they are chaotic, and one of the more immediately worrying elements of the chaos is identifying your bus. Buses mostly, but not always, have the name of their destination on the front. The more tricky bit can be confirming they will pass through wherever you actually want to go, if that is not the termination point.
The way to deal with that is to keep approaching people you think are drivers, conductors or bus line officials, and recite the name of the place you are headed. Of course, your pronunciation of the place won’t be even vaguely similar to the local one, so expect a few blank looks.
It helps to have a pad and pen and write it down. As we can’t write in Hindi, that is not foolproof.
If communication is really difficult someone who is thought to speak English will be shanghaied into the conversation. Sometimes they can speak English, sometimes not so much.
However, we have never actually left on the wrong bus so the system works.
Upon boarding our first bus we were immediately reminded of another problem. If you are travelling on a local bus, there is nowhere to store your luggage. That can be difficult when you have 40kg shared between two comparatively large travel soiled backpacks.
You can’t realistically balance them on your knees unless you are just travelling around the block.
You can’t put them in the aisle. They totally block the space and you will be told to move them.
You need to pray the bus is not already full when you board and then stuff both packs into a seat, then sit in the adjacent seats with a look on your face that says ‘nothing to see here’. Depending upon how full the bus is likely to get, and the mood of the conductor, you may or may not be charged for the additional seat.
Buses are extremely cheap, so cost isn’t the issue. But as the bus fills up and your luggage is occupying space where someone could otherwise sit, you are going to get the hairy eyeball, big time. Even if you have paid for a seat for your luggage, you have no way of communicating this to a standing passenger and you just have to stare down that hairy eyeball. At least if you’ve paid, you will feel less guilty about it.
Our bus eventually set off. We then quickly learnt another important lesson. Because we were the coolest kids on the bus (and were trying to hide our packs) we of course sat down the back. We couldn’t immediately understand why we were on our own with about six rows separating us from the obviously way less cool kids who preferred to sit toward the front.
Then Indian infrastructure stepped in to explain the situation to us.
Indian roads consist of an endless series of speed bumps and potholes, separated by short stretches of dodgy asphalt. Remember also the Working Horn Rule, which relevant to this story means Indian buses do not require anything even vaguely resembling suspension. Our bus may have had shock absorbers when it rolled off the production line in about 1956. But that was then, and this was now.
Seasoned Indian bus travellers clearly know this, and have an understanding of leverage and the way a catapult operates. We were a long way behind the rear wheels, in a bus with no suspension. That meant that whenever we hit anything larger than a cigarette packet, we were ejected out of our seats. When we hit a real speed bump or pothole, landing back on the seat forcefully reminded us exactly how many vertebrae we have in our lower spine.
Eventually, at a point when we were seriously worried about potential spinal damage, we manoeuvred ourselves into more sensible seats closer to the front. To their credit the other passengers, very tactfully, didn’t actually laugh out loud. They did smile a lot though.
Having spent about two hours covering approximately 40km, we exited the bus having been reassured by the conductor that yes, if we wanted to get to Pondicherry this is where we needed to change.
On the next bus, we sat in the very front row, thinking this would solve the suspension problem. It did, to a degree, but an alternative problem soon became apparent. The Gross Tonnage Rule requires smaller vehicles to give way to larger ones, but an apparent sub-rule is that to identify yourself as the bigger vehicle, you must have the loudest horn. So for the next two hours, we endured the constant blasting of an air horn which would have been audible from space. Between blasts we debated whether a crush fracture of the vertebrae was better than a perforated ear drum. We did not resolve that question.
And so our day proceeded, through three more changes of buses, and at each station we were happily assisted by pretty well everyone we asked. We got the odd grump, but we were regularly approached and offered help by people who recognised we were a pair of lost idiots who needed assistance.
We won’t try and pretend the buses themselves were comfortable. No matter where you sit you can’t get away from the fact they are old, open, often dirty, with cart like suspension and very little cushioning on the seats. If you are contemplating doing it, you might as well wear the same clothes you wore the day before because you will finish layered with a fair bit of dust and road grime.
Arriving in Pondicherry we had travelled in five different buses and covered about two hundred kilometres in about ten hours. Try as hard as they could our various drivers hadn’t managed to coach a lot of speed out of the old carts so we actually were travelling at a pretty leisurely pace. We had time to soak up the bits of the countryside and villages that we could actually see through the admittedly filthy windows.
At each changeover we relied almost entirely on the goodwill of local people to keep us on track. By mid trip, we had no idea where we were, but at no point did we think we could finish the day in an ice bath missing a couple of kidneys. Aside from a catastrophic road accident the only real risk we faced was having to spend the night in some really dodgy hotel.
We had shared space and sometimes sort of chatted with an amazing cross section of the populace of rural India, a lot of whom found us as exotic as we found them. We didn’t see another foreigner on any of the buses, which inspired the name we really really wanted to give this blog: “The only Whiteys on the bus”. Sadly, PC has throttled creativity and we didn’t think we would get away with that.
The other joy of travelling on local buses is that you see stuff you wouldn’t see from the comfort of a luxury AC tour coach. For instance, a few days later when leaving Pondicherry, the bus was flagged over by some sort of transport Police. They walked the length of the bus checking and sometimes opening and inspecting people’s luggage. In one bag they found some bottles of alcohol, which they simply confiscated. India is a maze of minor bureaucratic rules so we have no idea whether this was a legitimate action or just some random coppers stocking up the bar for Friday night drinks.
Do we recommend it? Absolutely. It is a great cheap way to travel and, cliched and banal as it sounds, an opportunity to see a real slice of India.