Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Trivandrum to Pondicherry

The bus ride from Trivandrum to Pondicherry takes a scheduled 17 hours, starting at 2pm. I was booked into the front seat, which is handy because the front of Indian buses is the only space for luggage - and even then I have to rest my feet on it. A girl with hair cut short in an elfin crop got on and took the seat next to me, waving a cheery goodbye to her mother and aunt.

As the bus pulled out of the station, I closed my eyes and tried to settle back into the plastic-covered seat. Apparently this is a universally accepted sign for people to start talking to me. The girl next to me tapped my knee. "Your goodname?" Charlotte. "Shalette, nice name. I have an aunt called Shalette. She lives in Australia. My name is Jency. I'm a student engineering." Nice to meet you. I shut my eyes again. "What country?"

Some time later when I was daydreaming about something interesting, Jency tapped me on the knee once more to tell me she admired my "silent nature". "I'm a chatterbox," she continued brightly, "my nickname is chatterbox. My mom always tells me I'm such a chatterbox." I liked Jency. We chatted a bit more - it turns out she studies in Tirunelveli, which is right near Palayamkottai, where G-G-G-Grandfather Henry is buried, so we exchanged phone numbers ("call me when you get to Pondicherry" - that makes four people I've promised to call as soon as I arrive) and I hope to meet up with her when I go down there.

There are no such things as toilet stops on long bus journeys in India. Sometimes the bus will pause at a bus station for five minutes or so, but I never know which and I'm always scared to get off in case the bus leaves without me. Plus, Indian bus station toilets (which you have to pay for the priviledge of using) are unfailingly dire. They invariably stink of stale urine. They never have bins, so used sanitary towels are left on the floor or on windowsills. The bucket provided for washing (no toilet paper, obviously) usually looks so grimy I don't know if I'd feel any cleaner for using it. They're frequently unlit. They almost never have a hook or any way of keeping my camera bag off the floor. They're always squat toilets, of course, which I don't mind so much when I'm wearing a skirt, but with trousers and a long tunic to keep a) out of the way and b) off the (usually wet, generally filthy) floor, I find very awkward. Sometimes there's just a gutter running along the wall, with stalls to squat in. Once on an overnight journey I had to decide between closing the door, leaving my camera bag outside on the dry floor and peeing in the dark, or leaving the door open and hoping that none of the kitchen staff of the nearby restaurant glanced in my direction. As a result of all this, I generally attempt to become severely dehydrated for long bus journeys. Unfortunately I'd drank plenty of water in the morning, so by the time we reached Nagercoil, three or four hours into the journey, the pressure was getting quite unbearable. Jency took me to the bathroom, and insisted on paying the 1 rupee charge (she was worried the attendant might overcharge me, as I'm a foreigner).

I needn't have worried about the bus leaving without me, at least - when Jency and I got back on the bus there was some heated debate going on, which continued for ten minutes and got more and more heated. It seemed to come almost to blows, but was finally defused with the involvement of four S.E.T.C. (the Tamil Nadu government bus company) employees. And the cause of all this consternation? A girl was seated next to a young man. The two were not married, nor related, so the girl's father refused to allow them to sit together and insisted that the man be moved. The man had reserved his seat and been sitting in it since Trivandrum, and was unwilling to move. You'd think for all the bother it would have been easy for him just to change seats, but Indian people seem very proprietorial about these things. On the sleeper bus from Hampi to Bangalore I was mistakenly guided to the wrong berth, when the conductor misread the scrawled "5" on my ticket as a 3. I'd just finished arranging my bags around me in the narrow bunk, and settled down, when the chap with the number 3 ticket showed up and insisted I be relocated. My logical argument that both bunks were exactly identical, both being upper berths on the same side of the bus, and that wouldn't it be easier for him just to take my bunk, went unheeded: This was HIS berth, it belonged to HIM. So I huffily (and slowly) climbed down and removed myself to my allocated place. And with smug satisfaction listened to him sweeping the grit from my dusty shoes off his sheet.

Jency got down at Tirunelveli (which the Indian pronunciation strips of almost all its vowels, so it comes out something like "Tirnlw'lee"), and the seat-hopping young man, a student in Pondicherry, took her place. He tried to talk to me, but I was just going to sleep. The rest of the night passed pretty uneventfully. Sleep doesn't come easy with a Bollywood movie wailing through the speakers (long haul bus journeys are often in "luxury coach" class vehicles - "luxury" loosely defined as having glass in the windows and being equipped with TV and DVD player, which I would not necessarily consider a bonus), the driver apparently trying to keep up with a horn-blast quota of at least thirty seconds in every two minutes (thankfully he eased up between about 1pm and 4am), and the glare of oncoming headlights (a downside of having the luggage-space front seat). The lanky student next to me seemed to have several knees and elbows all vying for my air space, and the very very weird man in the seat behind kept reaching around my seat to fondle my shoulder - quickly withdrawing his hand every time I glanced down, and pretending to sleep when I looked round. Weird. At some point in the middle of the night I was vaguely aware of a problem overcoming a potholed road - the bus kept reversing, lurching forward, then stalling. This happened several times before we got moving again.

We eventually arrived in Pondicherry at 9:30, two hours late. I set about trying to find a room. The first 3 places I called were full. The fourth offers a 700 rupee double. Er, I'll get back to you. Then I try the ashram information line (Pondicherry is home to one of India's most famous ashrams, founded by Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwoman known as The Mother). They give me New Hotel. The only room they have available is a triple. And how much will that set me back? 150 rupees. Done! I can deal with a 10:30 curfew, a ban on drinking and smoking, and all the peace-and-love dippy hippies you can throw at me for that price! The ashram guesthouse is spotlessly clean, with almost-warm water and a western toilet in my en-suite bathroom. My room is labelled "delicacy" (others include "skill", "energy" and "order"). The staff are very nice. Plus, there's a meditation room.


At 8:34 am, Blogger robin t varghese said...

i came across your writeup when i was searching for a bus service between pondicherry and trivandrum,it was interesting to read what you have written.it is true that ,there are no good toilets in the bus stands.and the behaviour of people is irritatingm,men trying to touch you all the night.may be because our country doesn't allow free sex so whenever we see a foreigner we take them for granted.all the young grew up watching english adult movies and thinks that every one from your land is like that only.in a sense you are lucky that you reached pondicherry by 9.30 in the morning ,once when the bus reached nagarcoil enroute to pondicherry,the setc decided to run the bus to coimbatore instead of pondi,because there were only a few in the bus to pondichery.we had a fight with them and finally they were ready to send the bus.what to do,iam also a student in pondicherry ,i feel sorry for whatever bitter experience you sufferd in your journey
thank you

At 10:12 am, Blogger sacred trails said...

Nice, you have really captured the drama of a typical Indian bus journey. But can you guess who I am ?


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