“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!