Transportation in India is quite flexible. I was charmed when I first saw tut-tuts on the road. With only three wheels, no doors, and a handlebar instead of a wheel as a steering device, I was dubious with how nimble and swift this type of vehicle could be; but behold, it even overtook motorcycles! Most of the roads here are jammed with motorcycles and people going both ways on a one-way street, paying little heed to the stop signs that are more of decoration rather than a mandated regulation.
And the buses.
There are really three types of buses that I’ve distinguished here: the local bus, the overnight sleeper bus, and the overnight seater bus. Surprisingly, several of my favorite memories and stories I like to recall come from my experience on a bus.
At prime time, the local buses in Pondicherry are packed. Body forms peak out of the window, obstructing the source of ventilation for those within. The inside of the bus is much hotter due to the amount of people crammed together, so I find myself being extra careful not to flick my sweat onto others. I tightly grasp a pole to steady my balance as the abrupt stops and turns of the well-traveled bumpy roads causes me to barrel into others.
Compared to 200 rupees in a tut-tut, is this 5 rupee bus ride worth it?
Heck yeah, it is!
In the beginning, stares, especially within such a small space like a bus, were inevitable; but I quickly found that the feeling of uneasiness would usually be replaced with amiable curiosity if I initiate a smile. My first time riding the bus, I was snugly fit between two women. The limited number of seats on the bus were certainly out of my reach with the locked position I was in, which was why I was so surprised when an older woman waved for me to sit. It amused me even further when other women around me enthusiastically followed her gesture. I politely declined and observed her offer the seat to smaller children and older women before taking it herself. I thought this was such a bizarre thing to do, as I was accustomed to the aggressive shouldering on Septa back in Philly. This offering of free seats has happened every single time I have been on a bus. Insignificant as it may seem, the openness of her actions alleviated some of my self-consciousness about being a foreigner, and encouraged me to reciprocate the friendliness.
Call me cheesy, but I am a sucker for small acts of kindness.
My second time riding the bus, a woman sitting beside me started rapidly speaking to me in Tamil. After many hand movements and laughter from both parties, I realized that she was asking me where I wanted to go. After communicating that I wanted to go to the bus stop in Pondicherry, she patted me on my lap, nodding and silently assured me that this was the correct bus. As we arrived at my destination, she held my hand and motioned for me to get off, even though I was fully aware that this was my stop.
Before my discovery of maps.me, I was in a constant state of fear of being lost. I severely lack any sense of direction, and without any service on my phone, I was at the mercy of my co-intern who traveled with me. A simple gesture of making sure I was on the right bus and getting off at the right stop made me feel so much safer and welcomed in a place where I knew I was constantly under scrutiny. I know that my co-interns prefer taking the bus because it’s so much cheaper than a rickshaw, but I also secretly enjoy the fleeting interactions I have with locals around me.
The local buses typically don’t have the option of air-conditioning, but if you do get the choice, ALWAYS CHOOSE AC OVER NON AC. The sleeper buses, on the other hand, offer more selection for your comfort. They are exactly as they sound: for long distances of +6 hours, passengers can sleep on twin or single beds as the bus drives overnight to its destinations.
*See photos below*
Is that intimate?
What’s really the worse case scenario?
Twin bed on a non-AC bus.
And guess who got the worse case scenario.
The first bus I ever took was on a non-AC sleeper bus in a twin bed with my co-intern that I had only known for not-very-long. The twin space had curtains that we could pull to cover outside disturbances as well as make our space even more intimately claustrophobic. The main problem was really the heat. It was too hot to keep the window closed, but it was also too disturbing to keep it open with the blaring noises from the roads and uncontrollable wind blasting our hair in whirling directions.
Fun fact: Maggie and I were lost for 2 hours after getting off the bus. I think we slept through our stop. Tip: always be aware of where you are going, especially in the dark!
As awful as this experience might sound, there were some good things that came out of it! For example, we knew after this experience that we (mostly Maggie because I had zero directional capabilities before I downloaded maps.me) are able to navigate Pondicherry even with our nonexistent Tamil skills; we will never pay 500 rupees for a 15 minute drive; we discovered Aravind is specifically in a place called Thavalakuppam, and we don’t always easily cry under pressure. It’s a story we love to tell people with some additional flare.
Now last weekend, Maggie and I took our first seater bus to Kodaikanal. And of course, the only type of bus available was non-AC.
Seater Bus Package to Kodaikanal Includes:
- 8 hours overnight in a seat
- 135 degrees seat incline so the person behind you can peer right down your scalp and assess when the last time you washed your hair was
- A wailing baby
If you’re from the U.S, think Megabus seat, but worse.
In truth, this is another story Maggie and I like to dramatically recount because it’s funny how little sleep and little personal space we really got in those 8 hours.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to write about something as mundane as buses, but as I thought about some of my comical experiences here in India, I realized that my times on these different buses facilitated many of these memorable events. The thought of riding an overnight bus was never on top of my “things to do in India” list, but in hindsight, I’m glad I’ve had this experience.
Next weekend, Maggie and I are going to Kerala to meet up with our fellow interns from the LEAP program. The bus ride is listed as “8” hours.
Hopefully, it’s AC.