Public Transport in North India: Part One
Upon leaving the hot but holy and laid-back city of Rishikesh, I took a local, one-hour bus ride along the Ganges to Haridwar.
At the Rishikesh bus station there was one other foreigner, a German who had been to India on numerous occasions. He, like me, had a train ticket from Haridwar to Chandigarth.
Through him I learned that the railway stations have enquiry booths. Without consulting this tiny office, even this seasoned drifter of India wouldn’t have found our train. There was no departure display for Chandigarth. We learned that we’d have to board one of the two worn cars that were attached to the train bound for Amritsar.
Even with fans above all the seats, the five-hour ride was so hot that dozing at times would be imminent. At different stops people came on the train selling generic cola in Pepsi cups, water, samosas, sweets, potato chips, roti, and diced veggies to be consumed as finger food. Utensils are not common; people tend to eat with their right hand.
My seat was next to the aisle even though the man who sold me the ticket said that I had a window seat.
A boy with a shaved head crawled by in the aisle. The bottom of his bare feet were caked with layers of dirt. He was wiping the floor with a cloth. He stopped at every seat, putting out his hand. Upon placing his view on me, he saw that foreign look painted across my face and head.
Rupee signs were possibly spinning in his eyes. I made the mistake of glancing at him, as I’d never witnessed a person trying to earn money in this way. His hand tapped against my leg incessantly. After about six or seven shocking touches, I dug out a Rupee and got rid of him.
The German man sat in the first Chandigarth car while I was in
the second. There were two other tourists in my train car, an Italian woman and her teenage son. You can see the Italian lady standing in the picture. This woman, also a veteran traveler of India, had booked and paid for a room already. As usual, I didn’t have anything booked.
I decided to share a rickshaw with them, figuring that maybe I’d
get a room where they were staying. After seven motorized rickshaw drivers vied for our ride, we squeezed into a back seat.
The driver started his rickshaw by pulling a cord, just like you would to start a traditional lawnmower. The engine idled and we sped off. Within 10 seconds, the driver had slammed on his brakes before crashing into a man on a bike. We hit the bicyclist very lightly after coming to a complete stop. The two men argued in Punjabi for a few moments.
Our driver tried to restart the rickshaw but couldn’t. A colleague of his quickly came by and picked us up. The journey seemed long. We intermeshed with cars and motorbikes along perfectly paved, three-lane, western-like roads. We turned off onto a narrow dirt street and into a market. Finally, we were at the hotel.
An angry man in a run-down and tiny reception area thoroughly inspected the Italian woman’s printed reservation.
He then rudely grabbed the passports and inspected them with vigor. He also needed to study the visas inside. They’d already paid so had no choice but to take their room. I didn’t see the room but my guess is that this woman got ripped off by booking online. This surprised me as she is now in India for the fifth time in the last 20 years.
The man then said:
“Your passport sir!”
“Why? I don’t have a reservation. How much for a room?”
“1,050 is the best price I can give you.”
I looked at the Italians. We tacitly agreed that I shouldn’t stay there as this man wasn’t schooled in customer service. More importantly, I wasn’t about to shell out $22, a bit expensive in India for a place with a shabby entrance and a disgruntled desk man who didn’t kindly ask me if I wanted to see the room first.
To the two from Turin I said:
Accompanied by my big and small backpacks, I walked out of that market to a main road. I tried to ask people where Sector 22B was as that’s where the hotel that I’d written down was located.
It is the first hotel listed in the Lonely Planet. The good thing about a hotel such as that is that you can easily meet western tourists. Fellow travelers can often provide better advice than locals. This is partially true in most places on earth, as locals cannot often empathize with a traveler’s needs and desires the way that a fellow wanderer can.
I asked two women. They immediately contacted a man who was more than happy to help. Appearing happily intoxicated, he walked me across the street. He waved down a bicycle rickshaw. I told him that I wanted a taxi and not a bike rickshaw.
“Taxi not possible.”
Three guys instantly appeared on motorbikes, smiling.
“Where are you from?”
“How long in India?”
“Two weeks so far.”
“Are you travelling alone?”
I get asked these questions daily, on multiple occasions. This is more prominent in a city like Chandigarth where you’re more of a novelty because they don’t see so many western tourists. Like everyone who asks me those questions, they seemed very happy to meet me. I even get hugs sometimes. Indians seem to be infatuated with foreign lands and their peoples. I think: It’s healthy to be interested in far away and exotic things. I sure am.
The inebriated, yet kind man, told me that I could get a motorized rickshaw. He flagged one down and explained to the driver where to take me. I ended up at the hotel which was full.
“Of course you’re full. You’re the first place listed in the Lonely Planet.”
“I have another hotel next door and there is one room left.”
It was late. I needed food. By the time I got to bed after a stroll and a meal, the only person there was the security guard.
I found small, black, eight-legged bugs crawling in my bed. I pulled them out with my hands and flushed them down the toilet. I pulled out my little container of 98% DEET. I sprayed around the room. I went down and woke the guard up. He came and saw the bugs but couldn’t do anything.
The next morning I explained the situation to the man at the desk. He just smiled with disinterest. I’m not sure that he understood me.
The educated people in India are very nice and tend to speak good English. But with others there is often a serious language barrier.
This is the first hotel I’ve ever stayed in that had a 24-hour check-in/check-out policy. Since I checked in at 9pm, I was able to keep the room till 9pm the next night.
Upon checking out that evening I requested to speak to the owner.
“Those are not bed bugs they’re monsoon bugs. They’re unavoidable this time of year.”
I kindly complained and got the cost down from 900 to 800 Rupees. That was the best I could do.
I’d skip accommodation for the next night as I decided to travel onward from Chandigarth.
The journey to Shimla, the queen of the Himalayas, would be next. It would prove to be one of the roughest journeys of my life. I hope to elaborate on that in my next post.