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The International Writers Magazine: An Aussie in India

An alternative Civilisation: Travel India by Public Transport
Chi Tranter

Anyone who has been through airport customs in Australia, will know, that before you even reach the baggage inspection staff, you will have been prompted by at least two menacingly large signs to throw all contraband material out. By the time we had passed through emigration, and exchanged some money in Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi, customs had packed up and left.

Systems that were deceptively familiar never worked in a predictable way. I missed several buses before I learned that tickets are not purchased from a ticket booth but from an un-uniformed ticket seller who leans out the bus door, or wanders around outside the bus yelling "Rishikesh, Rishikesh, Rishikesh!!!" or whatever destination the bus was heading to.

None of the buses had toilets, not even ones that drove long haul trips of six to 12 hours. All the writing on the buses was in Hindi, making it very difficult to scamper back to the correct bus after racing to the toilet at a station. While I spent five minutes wading through a sea of urine, water and sometimes rats, the bus would invariably move and I would desperately search for my travel companion; the only other foreigner among to sea of Indian faces peering from the bus windows.

You see people in Sydney fighting off a nervous breakdown when a train is running ten minutes late. At any Indian train station you will hear unapologetic announcements about trains that are running up to six hours late.

India in all its extremes held for me some of the best and worst experiences of my life. Trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas was by far the hardest, and yet also the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

After stumbling along through snow at least a foot deep for 20km, with 15kgs on my back and spending the night in a village inhabited only by metre long icicles just waiting to melt off the edge of the roof and deliver a fatal head wound, I felt like I had truly achieved something. No view could ever beat the snow capped Himalayas at sunset, and no feeling could be the same as finally stepping out of the snowy woods back on to the road and finding our jeep waiting for us like an old friend.

Travelling with an Indian friend gave us a distinct advantage over other Western tourists lost in the perpetual smog of Delhi. After the sun set at 4pm into the pollution, it was good to have a local to navigate through the chaotic traffic and endless shouts of "yes Madam, you need? Very cheap, very cheap!" When we finally struck out on our own, two pale "goras" (foreigners), in the majestic desert state of Rajasthan we were armed with the basics; a few essential Hindi words and phrases and a couple of phone numbers to call if we got into trouble.

The true treasures were definitely found off the beaten track. We found our jewel of the desert in the form of a small fort town called Chittorgarh in the south of Rajasthan. Most towns and cities in Rajasthan boast forts but none matched the 1700acre expanse of towers, palaces and temples enclosed in the three metre thick wall of the Chittorgarh Fort. The highest of the fort towers was an impressive 24metres of hand carved stone. The many temples within the fort offer welcome cool sanctuaries from the heavy desert heat.

While you can’t go to India and not see places like the Taj Mahal and the floating palace in the lake city of Udaipur, be prepared to pay not only with money but also with your sanity as the harassment of tourists, especially in the Taj’s home town of Agra can reach fever pitch.

The best way to get around in India is the trains. While over thirty hours on a train from Goa to Delhi may not be everyone’s cup of chai, it can at least be a good way to catch up on sleep. Book yourself into an AC sleeper class and a bunk bed and blanket will help you kill the hours. Be prepared to share your bed with the occasional scampering mouse, a white woman shrieking in surprise at her new found fury friend only gains you a couple of condescending looks from people who know better than to be surprised at the company.

Sharing travel stories with fellow travellers is a much better way to pass the time than watching the tenth repeat of ‘King Kong’ on one of the few English channels on Indian ‘dish T.V’. One seasoned traveller of Asia beat all our horror stories about Indian traffic by recounting seeing a motorbike driver in Vietnam texting on his mobile phone while his passenger read a newspaper.

While over 80% of Indians are Hindu, 100% follow the religion of cricket. As soon as anyone found out we were Australian, cricket was all they would talk about. "You, me, Sachin Tendukar?" one tout asked. After much deciphering we realised that they were trying to ask if we thought that they looked like Sachin Tendulkar.

When I arrived in India I would sit rigidly in the back seat of a taxi watching the six lane traffic navigate along a two lane road, wincing at every near miss. After a few weeks the Indian way had forced its way into my blood, and I could snooze peacefully on a bus while it swung onto the wrong side of the road to rocket past a line of trucks on a blind corner.

Chi Tranter - March 2008

I am a third year journalism student studying in Australia.

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