Posts tagged "travel"

Where does one go for Christmas in India?

Listen up Internet. Can you help my wife and I? We want to go somewhere for Christmas but we just don’t know where! The only requirement is that it’s in India, we shouldn’t have been there before and there should be some things to do or places to explore.

This will be my fifth year outside of England for Christmas. Last year my wife and I decided to switch things up a little and booked ourselves into the Hilton Colombo. She was working for the Hilton so we got a nice staff rate on the regular price. To top it off, the head chef at Hilton Colombo was British so he laid on the best Christmas dinner I’ve had in a long time.

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The 1000KM Wedding – Part 1

“Hey Pete, are you coming to Sathish’s wedding?”. Asking if you are going to someone’s wedding is a daily occurance in India where everyone gets married between the ages of 23 and 29. Heaven forbid you should get to your thirties and your parents still haven’t found you your soul mate, right?

So in my office there’s a group of guys a year or two younger than me and since they are now deemed to be reasonably well settled (ie. they’ve held down a job for four years) their parents have been hard at work back in their home towns and villages trying to find the perfect bride for them to ensure that they have someone to cook chapattis and keep the house in order.

Most of these guys are now married and I’ve received invites each and every time along with the insistence that I attend. I’m rather ashamed to admit that despite wedding invitations being given to me at least twice a week I’ve only attended two ceremonies in the near 4 years I’ve been here – infact there is one girl who used to be on my team that is so angry that I didn’t come to her wedding that I don’t think she’s speaking to me any more! Ouch!

Last week I received a wedding invitation from Sathish, congratulations all round, his parents have found his wife and now they are to start their journey of love together. These moments are occasional, said the wedding invitation, but my presence would, I was assured, make it sensational.

“Pete, we’re going to the station to book the tickets to Sathish’s wedding, are you going to come?” I have to be honest, after the look of anger and disappointment I got from the other employee when she came back to work the other day, I thought I should make an effort. “Sure, why not” I told them “where is it?” “It’s in Tiruppur, about 500KM from here.” Oh God. Fine, put me down for a ticket and tell me the cost later.” I said to them.

Map showing the distance from Chennai to Tiruppur

Friday afternoon

“So guys, what time is the train leaving tomorrow?” I asked, rather naively. “Train? Who said anything about a train, we’re getting the bus.”

OK, freeze frame.

Buses in India have rather a bad reputation. You can’t go to the BBC news website without reading a tragic story* about how a bus crashed and 40 people perished or open the local newspaper without seeing a burned out picture of a bus.

My friend’s brother was involved in an accident where the bus driver fell asleep and slammed in to an oncoming bus, his injuries were severe enough to get him admitted in to hospital but because India is so vast it took over an hour for even the police to get to the accident and the injured had to be taken in another bus that was passing by.

Unfreeze.

As you can imagine my face kinda froze in place, buses are not the way I want to get around this country. “But you said you were going to the station to buy the tickets” “Yeah, Pete, the bus station”. My face must have been quite the picture because they all burst out laughing and started teasing me.

“Ugh, God, fine, how long is it going to take to get there?!” “About 9 hours Pete.” There was a nervous exchange of glances between the guys, “What!” I demanded, “Err, it’s non A/C too.” Let me just remind you that this is India where the night time temperature is still around 28 degrees, not having A/C for 9 hours would be like spending a night in a Swedish sauna. Where 12 months of vigourous gym workouts have failed, a night on a bus to Tiruppur would have me shedding the kilos in no time.

I called up my girlfriend in desperation and told her the news, hoping for some kind of reassurance. “Oh God, you’re going to die!” she said. I didn’t feel reassured.

CST Bus stand, 8:50pm

You may think I’m stating the obvious here but there are a lot of people in India. No, really, there are so many people. Think Sydney Harbour, Leicester Square or Times Square on News Years Eve and then double the number of people and you have the average number of people at a public location at any one time in India.

Packed Chennai Bus Station

Dealing with this many people who all want to get from A to B means that despite having one of the most expansive railway systems in the world and despite having the most rolling stock in the world, the trains are usually fully booked up to a week in advance.

The spill over goes to the bus stations and you’ll never see anything like it, hundreds of buses coming and going, thousands of people lugging suitcases, hawkers trying to sell you tickets, and the bus horns. The bus horns. They are not just loud but musical. Think “Delalalala” or “dum deledum de dum” or “Belee buluu belee buluu”. There are no LED displays showing departure times, there are no sign posts, the bus station is barely illuminated, you must find your bus by looking for a little sign that is placed in the window of each bus.

Now, if your idea of a bus is the X15 commuter to Northampton then you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen some of the private buses they have in India. The business bus that flies between Bangalore and Chennai is like an executive lounge on wheels with big reclining seats, plug points, desks and WiFi facilities. For the middle class traveller you can travel by night in a sleeper bus with fully flat beds or a semi-sleeper which has reclining seats and loads of leg room.

This is me getting on a bus for a 9 hour journey

11am, 2 hours south west of Chennai

I’m writing this from a semi-sleeper bus as it careers down one of the high ways of Tamil Nadu. I’ve got acres of leg room, I’m lying almost flat with my legs stretched out, people around me are snoring, the windows are open and the smells of countryside India are assaulting my nasal passages.

Ah, the smells. Did you know that the traditional way of making leather is to use animal faeces because the bacteria helps soften the skin – think about that the next time you buy a leather handbag! Although if you are a male reading this and buying handbags you probably have a few more things to worry about than the fact that it’s been submersed in dog shit for the last 3 months!

Now, thanks to the numerous tanneries dotted along this highway, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the traditional leather factories are alive and well in India. Even the usual failsafe of pulling your t-shirt collar over your nose doesn’t block out the smell of rotten, decaying flesh, urine and poo.

Cows on a truck going to the tannery in India

The journey is to take 9 hours in total and there is no toilet on board. This means that we have to stop for what are popularly referred to as pit stops. These pit stops take place at what could be described as service stations without the golden arches. People get off and refresh themselves with tender coconut milk and samosas instead of an artificial burger and coke. For those brave enough you can check out the toilet facilities but ensure you make full use of the t-shirt-collar-over-your-nose trick because it’s not going to be pretty. Infact they charge people 1 rupee to use the bathroom but on both pit stops so far I’ve chosen to ignore the man on the desk and plead ignorance of a stupid foreigner and walked straight in.

2am, Somewhere in Tamil Nadu

Judging by the last 4 hours, I’ve worked out that the way to drive a bus in India is to hurtle along at 100KM/h, blasting your horn for as long as you can at any headlights you see in the distance and then slam on the brakes as you approach a junction. The state of the high ways have got progressively worse the further we’ve got from Chennai and in places it even becomes a dirt track. In others we’re quite literally skipping over the pot holes. It’s like turbulence on wheels. Fortunately I’m one of those weird people who enjoy turbulence and find the rocking and shaking very relaxing.

4:12 am, Still somewhere in Tamil Nadu…Possibly Salem

It’s now gone 4am and I’m not sure what’s going to go first, me or the laptop battery so I think I’ll call it a draw and try to get some shut eye.

* This accident occurred on the same bus route that I was travelling on. Eek!

New Chennai Airport

Check out the new Chennai airport that is being developed at the moment. Looks like it will be a huge improvement on the current building which is looking a bit old and crusty now – it was built over 20 years ago way before air travel exploded and businesses started invading India. The bit about the ‘green airport’ made me smile though, apparently a few plants makes the airport ‘green’. I wonder if Greenpeace would agree!

What My Mum Thought About India

A few weeks back, my Mum came to visit me in India. What did she think about it? Her thoughts? This is what she sent me below…

Some observations from my trip to India:

  • All the stray dogs look the same – is there only one breed of dogs in India?
  • I couldn’t believe that there are still people drawing water from pumps in the street
  • You don’t see young couple out together or on dates – pre-marriage courtship is not part of the culture
  • Toilets – what the bucket, jug and hosepipe all about
  • I only saw 2 women car drivers in Chennai
  • Hugging and hand-shaking is a no-no
  • Families of 3 or 4 on a motor bike – scary
  • Education is very important from an early age
  • Crime rates appear to be low – may have something to do with lack of available alcohol
  • There are no pubs or bars as in European cities just for drinking although you can buy alcohol in hotels and restaurants
  • Lots of things taste sweet which shouldn’t, like milk, bread, tea and cereals – they love sugar

What I missed from home:

  • Being able to clean my teeth with tap water
  • Carpet especially in the bedroom
  • Soft mattresses and a duvet
  • Bread, milk and tea without sugar
  • Quietness especially at night
  • Radio 2
  • Variations in daily weather
  • Mosquito free bedrooms
  • Windows you can see out of instead of being fitted with bars, frosted glass and AC units
  • Just paying for things without bartering

What I miss about India:

  • The sunshine and warmth
  • The delicious and varied food
  • The friendliness of everyone I met
  • The respect and warm welcome I was given
  • The colours – clothes, food, shops all so vivid and bright
  • Learning about different cultures
  • Seeing goats and cows wandering the streets untethered
  • Watching children on the streets amuse themselves for hours without PSP, X-Boxes or Wii’s – just sand, sticks, balls, old tyres and scaffolding!
  • The tranquility and simple life of the backwaters in Kerala
  • The spectacular sunsets in Goa
  • The cost of living!