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Planes, Trains & Automobiles (and buses and boats and bikes)

28 September 2008

Two weeks ago, I went on a trip. Yes, another one. I have been in a wandering frenzy, trying desperately to see this area of the world out of fear that I may never be here again. And it’s probably not such a good thing because now I’m so tired and have so much washing to do that I want to hide in my room all day. And not talk to people. And wear stinky clothes. So I’m putting a moratorium on trips for the rest of my time here … sort of. I mean, this is assuming that that possible trip to Delhi and the Taj doesn’t work out. Or something else really cool doesn’t pop up. And that Mike keeps promising that we’ll come back some day.

Anyway, it was nice to have the opportunity to travel with Ana since I probably won’t have a chance after I leave India to see her again until 2010. Unless she convinces Mike and me to move to New Zealand some time before then.

The main reason for the trip was to visit the child I sponsor through an organization that shall remain nameless for its safety (however, rest assured they have nothing to do with Sally Struthers). I know some of the people reading this blog may be rather skeptical of child sponsorship, and, to be honest, over the eight years Mike and I have sponsored, I had developed some questions as to its effectiveness myself. However, after this visit, I can wholeheartedly say I’m a fan. This is another post for another time, though, so I’m moving on.

The awesome thing about this trip is that Ana and I traveled on pretty much every mechanical form of transportation known in India. (Alas, there were no camels or elephants.) Being a modes of transportation geek, this was very exciting to me.

So we left the office on Thursday evening and hopped on the…

TRAIN: I’ve talked plenty on this blog about my Indian train experiences, so I’m not going to go into the actual experience much here. However, this was Ana’s first trip on an Indian train, so she was excited.

See how excited she is!

See how excited she is!

You might note from the photo that this train appears a bit more cush than my other train trips have been. And it was. By the time I got my act together to give Ana the information she needed to get our tickets, there was only room in first class. I don’t think I would ever purposely choose first class if any other A/C class was available. (I need the A/C because I am a hot sleeper and don’t want to melt the plastic covering of the non-A/C-chilled berths.) But since it wasn’t, what the hey, first class it is – with its cushy, wide berths, cabins with doors, porter at your beck and call, very Darjeeling Limited.

However, throughout this train ride, I was inwardly and outwardly berating myself for letting us partake in this obvious luxury. After all, this can’t be the “real India,” can it? An Indian friend goes on and on about the “real” India and how being part of it requires sleeping on your feet in a packed train car with barely any air, let alone air filtered and dried by a whirring air conditioner above. I must admit to a certain measure of guilt over forsaking non-A/C sleeper class for this posh cabin (even though the cabin did come with a family of three consisting of a rumbling snorer, small whiny child, and loud phone-talker).

Ana pulled me out of my guilt-fest though by noting that, in a country with one billion people, there is really no way to define the “real” India. Many tourists to developing countries think you have to be always among the poor to really experience the country. And many of these visitors in India also seem to think they have to dress like destitute hippies, with baggy, crotch-between-the-knees pants and frizzy, sun-faded dreadlocks, carrying around bongos like they have to busk for their next dosa, acting like they’re so Up With People (but without the jazz hands). However, as Ana noted, if you limit yourself to only this part of the population, you miss out on a good chunk of India, especially that young, highly-educated part of India that will most likely be making quite a difference in the world in the next few decades. So I guess first class can help you start to put together the whole picture. That Ana, she’s a smart one.

All that being said, I have decided that I sleep better in third class. The roar of the wheels on the tracks drowns out snorers and children much better there.

We arrived at our destination 13 hours later and were met by the sponsor host and the program director, who ushered us into a waiting…

HIRED CAR: Honestly, I’m not much for riding in cars in India. It’s very stressful for me what with the six lanes of vehicles where there should only be one and the Shriner-like traffic patterns. Rarely are there readily available seat belts, and, more often than not, I find myself shoved into the “seat of death,” that seat in the middle of the back bench that has only a lap belt at best and offers the fabulous opportunity to dive through the windshield at worst. Pair this with the propensity of large farm animals to saunter into the road at inopportune times, and you find me nearly hyperventilating in the back seat. We spent two hours in this particular car, and I pretty much held my breath the whole time. My lips are still blue. And the driver seemed to be aiming for every street dog. Jerk.

When my eyesight wasn't blurred by lack of oxygen, I did see some pretty scenery along the drive.

When my eyesight wasn't blurred by lack of oxygen, I did see some pretty scenery along the drive.

After visiting my sponsor child (during which time Ana rode a BICYCLE for all of 30 seconds – hey, it still counts), the sponsor host and hired driver drove us to our hotel in Kanyakumari, the small town right at the tip of India. In Kanyakumari, you can see the sun rise and set over the ocean from the same beach, which we did try to do, though our timing was a little off for the sunset. And we were a bit cranky and tired at sunrise, so we didn’t stick around for that much either. But we tried.

Sunset over the ocean

Sunset over the ocean

The next day we decided to visit a rock memorial about 100 meters out into the sea, so along with a large number of other tourists, we piled onto a …

BOAT: The boat ride only took about 10 minutes, and by the time most people had figured out how to put their life preservers on, we were there. Ana noted, though, that it was probably a good idea that they required everyone to at least hold on to the life preservers because, to our knowledge, not many Indians know how to swim. At least the women – we’ve only ever seen them go up to their mid-calves in water, usually wearing salwar sets or sarees. Man, when I think about how my mom tricked me into the pool by threatening to let my sister have my swimming lessons if I didn’t GET IN THAT WATER NOW, I am eternally grateful.

Ana in Mexican Hat - that saved her from getting sunburned. Maybe I should have considered that instead of mocking her. And she is going to kill me for including this picture.

Ana in Mexican Hat - that saved her from getting sunburned. Maybe I should have considered getting one instead of mocking her. And she is going to kill me for including this picture.

We spent only about 45 minutes out at the rock memorial because we couldn’t stand the hot pavement for any longer than that – since it is a sacred place, we couldn’t wear shoes. Tip for traveling in India: When visiting sacred memorials that are outside, DO NOT visit at the hottest part of the day, unless you want your toes to sizzle like baby potatoes in a heated pan of olive oil. Ouch.

So we rode the ferry back to the mainland, grabbed our bags from our hotel, and set off to that place where we could take the …

BUS: Unfortunately, we arrived at the bus station to the news that we had missed the only direct bus to our next location by 45 minutes. Ugh. So instead we just hopped on the next bus to Nagarcoil, which took 45 minutes, and then smooshed into the next bus to Trivandrum, which is 90 kilometers, but 4 hours, away. And by smooshed, I mean that I got the last seat, and then Ana got pushed to the front of the bus where she had to sit on the engine. I think she got the better deal, though, because about two hours into the trip, she was able to get the front seat in the bus, built for one. Whereas I had a woman sit on me. I’m not kidding.

About 45 minutes into the trip, the bus became so crowded that one of the women in the aisle poked me in the arm and (I assume) asked me to move over so she could squeeze into the already-too-small double bench. Moving over meant sitting on the woman seated next to me already, so I just shook my head and raised my hands in the air while hunching my shoulders, which is, as we all know, the universal sign for “I’m sorry, but I can’t move over because I do not wish to crush this rather small lady seated beside me.” Unfortunately, this woman in the aisle did not seemed to be versed in universal signs and instead assumed it meant, “That’s all right. Why don’t you just sit on me instead?” Which she then did. The lady sitting next to me then poked me in the arm and made some flailing gestures with her hands, which I thought meant “Please, please stop crushing me. I can’t breath.” So I tried to move with this other woman seated on my lap but then had them both poking me and shouting things in Tamil. I had no idea what was happening. If I tried to move, they’d shout even more. So I just shut my eyes and said “Illai Tamil” about twenty times (which literally means “No Tamil”). They eventually calmed down, and about 20 minutes later the small lady got off the bus. I moved over to sit by the window, assuming that now I would have a free lap and some peace. I am so naive. When the other lady sat down again, she perched one thigh up on mine, poked me in the arm and said something. I just said, “I don’t understand. I’m sorry.” And proceeded to stare out the window for the next 2 hours and think about how this will be one of those stories I love to tell when I’m home about how I experienced the “real India.”

Ana took this picture from her spacious seat up front. If you can't tell by looking at my face, I'm thinking, "I need to learn how to say in Tamil, 'Please stop poking me, or I may be forced to eat your finger.'"

Ana took this picture from her spacious seat up front. If you can't tell by looking at my face, I'm thinking, "I need to learn how to say in Tamil, 'Please stop poking me, or I may be forced to eat your finger.'"

We arrived in Trivandrum after dark and to the dawning realization that we were not actually in Kovalam, the small beach town in Kerala where our hotel was. I also had not figured out how to get us there. Thankfully, I had actually brought the number of the hotel with me. So we called up the owner, who told us just to hail an …

AUTO RICKSHAW: The hotel owner told us not to pay the auto driver more than Rs.150. I bit my tongue because I wanted to say, “Dude, really? Have you seen Ana in her Mexican hat? We might as well stand on top of a bus and yell ‘We are tourists! Please take our money!'” (It was all about the Mexican hat and had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I am the least Indian-looking person in the world.) Anyway, we did get an auto, and we paid him Rs.200. Oh well.

We arrived at our hotel much after dark and starving since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The extremely gracious owner offered to have some dinner made for us even though it was the off-season and their restaurant was closed because he was worried about our wandering around after dark. And for this very reason, I highly recommend Baker’s Resort if you are ever in Kovalam. There are aesthetically nicer places with more amenities, I’m sure, but you will not find a more accommodating host for so little money.

As nice as the owner was, though, it was still the off-season, and our hotel didn’t have a restaurant. So Ana and I decided to spend the next two days sitting in the outdoor restaurant of the most expensive hotel in Kovalam, The Leela, pretending we could actually afford to stay there, and eating fabulous and expensive food. It was the most relaxed I’ve been all year.

Inside the Leela, just after the sunset, hoping no one calls our bluff and tells us to move.

Inside the Leela, just after the sunset, hoping no one calls our bluff and tells us to move.

After relaxing for two days, Ana and I were ready to head home. This time we eschewed trains and buses and decided to take the easy route and head back to Chennai on a …

PLANE: I really have nothing to say here other than it was a propeller plane, and I’ve never taken a propeller plane before, so, you know, score!

Really hoping that doesn't come off and fly through the window...

Really hoping that doesn't come off and fly through the window...

It was a great trip, but I’m really glad we decided to fly home because it has given me more time to sit in my room and not talk to people. And ignore my laundry even as the clothes start moving on their own.

Quite the way to cap off my Indian wandering.

Kovalam Lighthouse - Pretty!

Kovalam Lighthouse - Pretty!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    29 September 2008 2:53 pm

    Yes, she is!!

  2. Unity permalink
    29 September 2008 5:33 pm

    Sounds like a good trip–glad you got to do it. I would be absolutely shattered from it–your face on the bus is priceless by the way.


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