Out and about on India's roads and Rishikesh
31.05.2012 - 06.06.2012 42 °C
Until getting to Amritsar, we had managed to avoid India's roads almost entirely by getting train tickets for all the places we wanted to see, and treating ourselves to an internal flight as well. But our luck couldn't hold out forever, and we found we could not get a train space for love nor money to get out of Amritsar. We would have to brave an Indian bus, and therefore the roads of India. You really have to see these to believe them: livestock, pedestrians, bikes, overloaded rickshaws and scooters all amble along either side of the narrow, pot-holed thoroughfares. Cars, jeeps, buses and lorries weave their way through any possible gap in the rest of the traffic, horns blaring as they go. Overtaking into oncoming traffic is the only way Indians like to do things, meaning a journey on India's roads involves: a lot of swerving; bumping over potholes and random, unmarked speed bumps; and moments of butt-clenching fear as you stare down lorries coming straight at you from the other direction. It's a world away from the gentle rumble of an Indian sleeper train carriage...
We got down to Amritsar's bus station by 4:30am on 31 May to make sure to get a space on the AC service to Chandigarh - this would take us half way to our destination of Rishikesh, hopefully by midday. Things seemed to go well at first as we identified the AC bus and got onboard with our bags. Then we waited, and the departure time passed and we waited some more. Finally the driver started the bus and drove it ten metres across the parking lot, where he parked and walked off. We got out and were told that there was a strike today, so no buses would be leaving.
There are many obvious questions: first and foremost, why did nobody tell us before that a nationwide strike was due to take place today? But we were too busy trying to see if there was some other way to get on the road, rather than having to stay another day in Amritsar. Luckily we bumped into a friendly guy called Jatin, who took us under his wing. He said that a private bus company was still running today and heading for Patiala, his hometown, 50km or so away from Chandigarh. We decided it was better to move, even if we could only get as far as Patiala, so we jumped onboard. This bus had AC and an old TV upfront which played non-stop Punjabi music hits from local star "Miss Pooja". As we flew along the relatively good highway, we picked up so many people that the aisles became packed with locals standing and squatting in any space they could find. It was hard to say what was more unpleasant: Miss Pooja's incessant music videos or the press of flesh all around us.
Grant and Jatin on the bus to Patiala
The conductor on the bus was a cheeky young chap, who took a bit of a friendly interest in Grant. When Grant and Jatin went to get sandwiches for the ride, the conductor insisted Grant buy him one, which seemed a bit odd.
Our very friendly conductor was keen for photos
However, the trade-off for the sandwich later became clear as Mr Conductor served Grant a large cup of chai from his personal flask. When the bus was stopped at a roadblock put up by the strikers, Mr Conductor took Grant and Jatin out to the shaded area by the side of the road, where protestors (all men) were sipping on sweet water served in metal cups from a huge vat, and got a round of sweet water in. That was very nice of him.
But the best was still to come: as the bus was getting close to Patiala, Mr Conductor beckoned Grant up to the sealed-off driver's area at the front of the bus. Here the driver, Mr Conductor and some other dude (there's always at least one guy in any Indian workplace whose lounging presence cannot be explained) were having some lunch, and Mr Conductor invited Grant to join them. Mr Conductor showed Grant how to prepare a chapati with a pickled lime and ginger, which was very tasty. He then motioned for Grant to take the last chapati from the modest pile back to Helena for her to have some lunch as well. The generosity of the gesture was extremely touching - we can't help but think that sort of generosity to foreigners would rarely take place in Europe. When we arrived in Patiala, Mr Conductor escorted us through the crowds to find a bus to our next destination, Ambala, and then gave Grant a big man hug when saying goodbye - an emotional farewell!
Grant hanging out with "the lads" in the bus
The driver was more keen to pose for this photo than to watch the road
The modest lunch that the driving crew shared with Grant and Helena
So we were on our way to Ambala, a nearby transport hub, this time in an older non-AC bus. The heat was stifling as it was, of course, over 40 degrees by this point, but we made good time and were in Ambala before 1pm.
In Ambala, we had to wait in the small, stifling bus station enduring the endless stares of Indians who apparently never get to see foreigners in their bus station. The heat was so intense that we were sweating just sitting and waiting for our next bus, which of course we didn't know for sure would run given all the strike action. We found no-one who could speak enough English to comfirm one way or the other. We drank endless bottles of juice and water, and eventually our next bus did arrive, apparently unaffected by the strikes. Again, this was a non-AC bus and this time we had to ride for five hours to Dehra Dun. We sweated the whole way. At times we were cramped so tightly into our seats by the weight of other bodies on the bus that we could hardly move. We stopped in random Indian towns where people stared and so-called holy men tried to guilt-trip money out of us. It was, in short, horrible. Oh, and sweaty.
We finally arrived in Dehra Dun - just 50 km from Rishikesh - at about 7pm. We were knackered, having been on the road since 4:30 that morning, but decided to push on and get to Rishikesh since we had come so far. Another old banger of a bus took us there as night was falling - no AC, of course, and the 50km took over two hours. By this time, Helena was physically sick as we trundled along the twisting roads in the sweltering heat of the night. She seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion.
When we got to Rishikesh, we had the usual bargaining fiasco with rickshaw drivers and eventually agreed with one to take us to the guesthouse we had booked. Of course, he dropped us in the wrong place, and we ended up wandering the streets of Rishikesh at night without a clue where we were. By this point, Helena was in a really bad way and we had to call our place to come and collect us. Helena was whisked off on one scooter and Grant followed on another. It transpired we had been dropped a good 2 km from our guesthouse by the idiot rickshaw driver, but - even worse- we could only get a non-AC room in the guesthouse that night. This is bad under normal circumstances; after 18 hours of sweating on the road all day, it was downright unbearable.
After a torrid night of "rest" in the oppressive humidity, Helena was unsurprisingly not any better, and Grant had developed heat exhaustion symptoms as well. At 6am the next day, Grant went out to find a new place with AC, and we got moved by 9am - the place was only 400 metres up the road but we were so weak with exhaustion we had to get a scooter lift up there!
The new hotel owner must have thought we looked like a serious pair of invalids as we practically crawled into the room, bolted the door and turned on the AC. We hardly left the room for three days. It felt incredible that just by sweating constantly for 24 hours we had made ourselves so ill. We're afraid this bout of illness coloured for the worse our impression of Rishikesh. We stayed five days but most of that time we were nursing ourselves back to strength in our AC prison. When we did venture out, we found a crowded, dirty, smelly, noisy town just like any other in India where we did not want to be, feeling as delicate as we did. Everything seemed to be miles of unhappy trudging along busy roads from our place, and not worth seeing in any case. We had been excited about yoga and cooking courses in Rishikesh; in the end we did none of that and couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. The highs and lows of travel in India!
Our only photo from Rishikesh: Laxhman Jhula bridge. Just look at how many people and scooters are crammed on that bridge. Exactly where you do not want to be when feeling delicate. Get us out of here!!
As we sped out of Rishikesh on the morning of 6 May in the private car we had treated ourselves to, unable to face any more buses, we could not help but think that the only way from here was up!