12.29 planes trains and automobiles

transportation in india is a bitch. i think it will be an indian who will make teleportation a reality.

so far i have been driven around spoiled silly with a personal driver. i've taken two overnight trains, neither of which even had first class seating. and i've flown indian airlines. with a cold.

the "rail ghadi", (rail car in english), is an adventure. book early. for overnight trips "1A" is your best option. "1" being the class, and "A" being short for A/C. in my case we booked 1A but when the train appeared, there was only 2A. you have to go right up to the cars and look for your name on pieces of paper taped to the train outside! it's the most disorganized system ever! we found our names on the 2A list. 2A has two bunks, one on top of the other, pretty crammed, but i also saw a 3A car. the word sardines comes to mind. 'A' cars are not only air conditioned but safer i've heard than non-A. i found there were bunches of indian business travellers in the A cars, all of them who i spoke to were very cool and were very helpful. they really understand the NRI (non-resident indian), and give you the kind of good advice that only someone who cares about their country's economy will.

the ride is surprisingly smooth, but noisy. there is no closed 'compartment', only curtains separating you from strangers walking by. there are 'western' (seats) and 'indian' (hole in the ground) toilets for each car. one sink, outside the toilets. bring sanitizer! forget fresh air. the rail cars look almost greenish on the insides, and on a couple of occasions i almost pulled aside all the curtains in our car to find the elusive 2am chain smoker.

i went against the rules and between cars, i opened the door so i could catch some railside action. as the sun came up, i saw the most amazing things. train tracks and train stations are almost always in the seediest areas of towns. no exception here. many 'homeless' people make their beds by the tracks, some in tents, some in open air. i even saw a real bed out in the grass under a bypass bridge! like so many other speeding by moments i didnt' have my camera ready to capture it! in the morning, these people are all doing their matinal abolutions (ie blowing their noses without paper, horking and spitting, urinating or taking a dump) in plain view of locomotive passgeners.

the coolest part is that you are never thirsty. there are a multitude of 'chai-boys' pedaling hot tea. they climb on at one stop and walk up and down selling their stuff. and the chai is soooo good. even gets your mind off the stopper-poopers outside for a few minutes...

as for planes, i took a horrific air india flight from cochin to chennai. the flight itself was fine (they still hand out candies before the take off; even BA has stopped doing that!), but after two sleepness nights and a head cold to boot, i underwent the most acute ear pain since i was 12 (that was the last time i flew with a cold). apart from the massive power out at the airport, and heavy security checks (in a curtained room a guard smears the metal detector ALL over you), the trip was fine. i was even distracted from my ear pain by a croissant puppet thanks to my charming travel companion who i met prior to the flight.

i must mention that the east coast road trip from chennai to pondicherry is the most beautiful route i've taken in a long time. during the 3 hours, my driver stopped so i could visit the ruins in mahabalipuram. these are a series of ancient rock carved structures that were built by the pallava dynasty in the 7th century. like the taj mahal and lal q'ilah, the red fort in dehli, there is a stretch of tourist shops lining the entrance to the monuments. i spend 20 minutes visiting the structures, 10 minutes chiling at the beach. by the time we reach pondi, i am so tired and hot that i am nodding off. i wrestle myself awake, taking everything in as we enter the french enclave where i am to spend a week improving my vision... and very glad to not be in transit mode for a full 8 days!

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