INDIA: The Sights, The Sounds, The Suicidal Bus Drivers
By Steve Braithwaite
The minute you step off the plane in India it’s mayhem, bedlam, heat and filth.
Nothing in the west had prepared me for the surreal, chaotic streets of New Delhi.
You had the feeling that all law and order had broken down and survival was the
Dusk was settling over the trash-strewn roads and people were lighting small
fires in the roadside gutters to prepare their evening meal. The smoke from the
flames, mixed with vehicle exhaust, created an eerie scene in the fading light.
All around was hustle and noise, and being a westerner I was the target of constant
“Come to my hotel. I own very fine hotel, cheap, not far”
“Rickshaw? Where you go?”
“Money Change? I make very good rate”
As I pushed my way out of the airport it was unrelenting. At six feet tall I
stood head and shoulders above most of the locals, which made it difficult to
hide in the crowd, especially heaving around a rucksack the size of a bathtub
on my back.
Everyone either owned a hotel or had a brother that owned one and would give
us “very good rate”
I’m a British guy who has been living in America for the last 15 years. I’m in
my mid/late thirties and suddenly got a wild hair to go traveling. For the previous
year two of my sisters had been planning a round the world trip and at the last
minute I decided to join them. Kathi and Jaqui left from England and had arrived
in India a week ahead of me.
As I looked around in bewilderment I suddenly heard a yell above the cacophony.
I turned my head to see two enthusiastic English girls wading through the crowd,
waving and shouting at me. They found a taxi for us, haggled a price, and we were
off. I soon found out that you always agree on the fare first and then travel
rather than tell the taxi driver where you want to go and when you arrive he decides
all by himself what the fare will be.
Jaqui and Kathy had talked my Mother into going on the trip with them for at
least the first month. Because I had not seen my Mother for such a long time we
had decided to surprise her with my presence. It was late by the time we finally
arrived at the hotel and so I was smuggled into a room where I crashed, exhausted,
until the following day.
I had to walk past her three times the next morning before she finally looked
up from reading her book, saw me and then immediately carried on reading. She
probably read about two more sentences before her brain quietly told her that
her first born, who was supposed to be in America, had just walked past. She then
shrieked out loud, dropped the book and leaped to her feet. We were all seriously
worried that she might have a heart attack!
Because Mum and the girls had already been in Delhi for a week we immediately
left for Nepal, high in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China. The train
stations in India are like being dropped onto a strange new planet and trying
to make sense of utter insanity! People are everywhere. Whole families fill almost
every inch of floor space. I think it’s where they live.
The ticket office has rows of windows with enormous lines of people in front
of them. They look like they have been waiting days to get a ticket, and probably
have. We tried to stand in various lines but everyone kept shaking their heads
at us and pointing further down the row of windows. It seems that there are different
windows for different people. One, for instance was just for women. Ours had a
sign saying “Members of Parliament” “Foreign Tourists” and “Freedom Fighters”
I’m sure everyone kept pointing us to this window because we were obviously foreign
tourists, rather than freedom fighters. Although I don’t know that for sure.
We found our platform, made a big pile of rucksacks and waited. A cow slowly
ambled down the railway tracks, foraging for what I have no Idea. Eventually the
train arrived causing everyone on the platform to start shouting and waving at
the cow trying to make it move out of the way. At the very last minute, realizing
that something large was barreling down on it, the cow hopped on to the next track.
I tried to picture a cow wandering down the railway tracks at a station in Washington.
It’s very unlikely that it would happen but in India it’s totally normal.
If you plan on going to India and will be using the trains take a catapult to
shoot at the rats on the tracks. I’m not saying this facetiously I mean it. The
train won’t be on time and this will keep you occupied until it arrives. Although
thinking about it rats are probably sacred or something so it might be best to
Our train journey was a long one and so we had booked onto what Indians call
the sleeper. Carriages with hinged wooden arrangements that serve as back rests
during the day and fold down to make bunks at night. There are three to a wall,
the top one being perilously far from the floor but a more difficult climb for
cockroaches. The reason I consider it to be a bit of a stretch calling the train
a “Sleeper” is because you get no sleep at all! All through the night the train
stops at different stations about every 45 minutes and vendors clamber aboard
shouting as loud as they can! The most common item for sale is “chai”. A deliciously
sweet cup of tea often served in small disposable clay pots. It costs about 3
rupees per cup and because it was available everywhere we went makes India, in
my opinion one of the most civilized place on earth (There are however many other
factors that negate this which you’ll read about later).
If you are ever the houseguest of friends that have traveled in India do this.
Get quietly out of bed, one night at about 4:30 am, stand just outside their bedroom
door and start shouting “CHAI, CHAI, CHAI” as loud as you can. They’ll think its funny and thank you for bringing back
many happy memories of their Indian travels. Another common item hawked up and
down the carriages of trains are short pencil length twigs. People were handing
over money for these things and so they must be of some value but I couldn’t for
the life of me figure out what. I later saw a man attacking his teeth and gums
with one like it was normal and realized they are used instead of toothbrushes.
He was really giving it beans and seemed to be quite pleased with the results,
giving me a large wide grin displaying his remaining teeth.
One thing that we did not realize until half way through our travels, is that
when you book a bunk on a train it is only yours from 9pm until 8am. And so at
8 o’clock in the morning you must fold it up and let others sit down. We had no
idea. I remember waking up the next morning at about 11am. The bunks across the
centre isle from us were folded away and about 13 Indians were sitting on a space
that should hold 5. They were all just sitting quietly, staring at us while we
slept. Still not knowing that we no longer had any rights to these bunks we slowly
woke up, collected all our stuff and by about 1pm folded our beds away. Some of
the Indians opposite immediately, and much to our annoyance, switched to our side.
All that time they never said a word. I know I would have. At 8am on the dot I’d
have been shaking someone shouting “Hey Buddy, you don’t live here you know”!
In Gorakhpur we had to either change trains or catch a bus I can’t remember which.
Either way I know it’s somewhere I never want to have to go back to. There are
some stunningly beautiful places in India and then there are places like Gorakhpur.
I don’t mean to hurt the civic pride of the residents of Gorakhpur but it has
to be said, the place is a shit hole! Rotting, rat ridden, piles of garbage line
the roads, much worse than in other towns we visited. I can’t remember how long
we were there or how we left but I knew I didn’t want to go back! We had to, of
Eventually we left the train and boarded a bus to Sonali on the border of India
and Nepal. This was my first experience of an Indian road and, because I wasn’t
driving, it seemed OK. Very colourful in fact. We would pass water buffalo shuffling
along the road, piled high with green stuff from the fields. A man out for a ride
on a small wobbly scooter, taking along his wife, his two sons, their newborn
baby, his mother-in-law and some chickens.
As we neared the border the low flat fields gradually gave way to higher and
steeper inclines slowly preparing us for our assent into the highest mountain
range in the world.
Visas for India have to be obtained in advance of your travel but to enter Nepal
you can arrange them at the border. We did this and then found a bus headed to
Katmandu. Now things really start to climb. Up until this point in my life I hadn’t
realized that Katmandu really existed. It was a kind of mythical place of legend
and song and now, here I was on a bus going there! Far Out (as they say).
Sitting on a bus, only inches from a thousand foot drop and speeding round blind
hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road is something I’d never done before.
Instead of being completely terrified, as I should have been, it was actually
quite exhilarating. Because our mother has a terrible fear of heights, we had
to go to great lengths to keep our hands clamped firmly over her eyes but even
she seemed quite calm after a while. She reasoned that, these guys do this all
day every day and that we were safe as houses because they know what they are
doing. It turns out that this logic is hopelessly mistaken and we later learned
that busses full of hapless tourists and unfortunate locals regularly plunge off
the side of a cliff but we never let her know that!
When I say that drivers go round a blind curve on the wrong side of the road
I’m not just saying that for dramatic effect. They do. At least our drivers did.
Every curve they come to. There might be five slow moving trucks crawling up a
steep section of road and our guy will just swing out into the oncoming lane and
crawl past them. It might take him a while and he will probably encounter several
vehicles coming the other way that have to slam on their brakes and swerve, but
he’ll do it!
I think the attitude of everyone on the road is either, “I know it’s my lane
but there is probably someone around that bend coming straight toward me at high
speed so I must be ready” or “I know I’m in the wrong lane but they can all just
GO TO HELL!”
If you plan on going to Nepal someday here is a tip that will stop you from looking
like a complete wanker in front of the locals. To play a little joke on foreigners
who come up from India, everyone in Nepal has set their clocks forward 15 minutes.
We had been in Nepal for 4 or 5 days before we realized this and only then found
out because we were sitting in a bar for about a quarter of an hour waiting patiently
for “Happy Hour” to start not realizing that it actually started 13 minutes ago!
My sisters were pissed off knowing they will never be able to get back that lost
Once we arrived in Kathmandu we explored the ancient city on cycle rickshaws.
They are great fun to use but here is an interesting tip. It’s very unlikely that
the rickshaw owner will be able to speak English but he won’t let you know that.
You will therefore tell him where you want to go, haggle a price, and all the
time he has no clue what you are saying except rupee prices.
“How much to take me to the Freak Street”? You’ll say.
He has no idea where you want to go, only that you want to go somewhere.
“100 Rupees” he will reply.
You smile at him trying to give your face the expression that conveys you know
he is trying to pull a fast one and are having none of it.
“20 Rupees” you reply
“Oh no, no, no, no,” he will say “80 Rupees”
You both know that you will end up paying 50 Rupees but there is a certain song
and dance that you both have to perform to get there.
“30 Rupees” you say pulling your pockets inside out to show him you have no money.
You do this completely ignoring the enormous backpack hanging from your shoulders
that is probably stuffed with cash.
He will shake his head vigorously smiling all the while and say “60 Rupees”
“50 Rupees and that’s my final offer”
“Ah Yes” he’ll say wiggling his head in many directions as he motion’s toward
the seat for you to climb aboard.
Remember he has no clue as to where he is taking you, but it doesn’t matter,
because wherever it is, he is charging you at least twice what he would charge
a local. As soon as you sit down he will start pedaling in the direction he was
facing before you arrived, searching for someone wearing a tie. It is probable
that a man wearing a tie in India or Nepal will be able to speak English. I presumed, each time he stopped and spoke in Hindi to someone, it was a friend of his and he was asking how they were doing. After pedaling for about a quarter of a mile
and two brief conversations with passersby, he would say something to someone
who would then turn to me and ask.
“Where you want to go”? I would happily tell him, presuming that he was just
making conversation with me. He would address the rickshaw guy who would then
invariably turn around and pedal back the way we had come. This is all done so
cleverly that for the longest time I had no idea they could not understand me.
I would even make conversation as we traveled and they were able to answer me
in such a way that made me think they were following along.
One of the tricks up their sleeve is the head wiggle. Nepalese and Indians often
answer a question with a strange wobbling of the head that looks like both a shake
and a nod at the same time. In this way they are able to correctly answer any
question you ask of them.
The two types of rickshaw are the pedal type, which is a bench mounted behind
a single cyclist, and the motorized kind, a small three wheeled machine that tips
over going round corners. The pedal type is really for two people but you can,
if you really try, get three large westerners and their entire luggage on one.
At slight inclines one of you will have to get off and push. Timing it just right
to climb back on before going down hill can be tricky but fun. To be fair though,
tip the guy well, it can’t be an easy job. Every time you travel in a motorized
rickshaw you’ll think it’s going to tip over on corners but I actually saw it
happen only once.
We spent a week of so in Kathmandu and then traveled to Pokhara and then on to
Here is an example of doing things yourself rather than buying a packaged tour.
We were riding on the back of elephants, rhino spotting in Chitwan national park,
my sisters and mum were on one elephant and I was on another with three strangers.
One of the other members of my group was an Australian guy who had heard from
someone else that they only paid $200 US dollars for the same trip from Katmandu
and he was upset because he had paid $250. He asked the person behind me how much
they had paid and got really annoyed when he found out that it was only $185.
I’m glad he didn’t ask me because we had done everything ourselves. We had taken
a rickshaw to the bus station in Katmandu, bought our own tickets to Chitwan.
Found our own rooms, paid for our own meals and drinks and went in search of an
elephant owner on our own. Adding in the cost of a return bus ride to Katmandu
we paid about $27 US dollars each!
I’m really glad he didn’t ask me but it would have been funny.
Five of our most exciting days were spent white water rafting. At the time I
never gave any thought at all to the response I would receive from people back
in the west to the statement “We also went white water rafting in the Himalayas”
I got to admit though; it is a heavy-duty thing to say.
After about a month in the mountain kingdom we started heading downhill to rejoin
the rest of the flatlanders and spend Christmas in Goa a small state on the west
coast of India.
I am a total idiot it must be said. Kathi and Jaqui had been talking about spending
Christmas in Goa ever since we started upon our journey and all the time I thought
that Goa was a town not realizing that it was a state covering some 3,702 sq KM.
It seemed that every westerner we met was heading to Goa for the yuletide season
and I was getting really worried thinking that if we didn’t get a move on all
the hotels would be full. Very similar to the birth of Jesus story except that
none of us were virgins.
Being a tourist, you are a very desirable passenger to any rickshaw driver as
they will be able to fleece you something wicked. Because of this every time you leave an airport, bus terminal or railway station
you will be besieged with rickshaw drivers offering “Very good rate”. It’s annoying
to know you are being greatly overcharged, but remember that they will be overcharging
you the equivalent of pack of gum back home. The main problem is simply being
hassled. The girls and I got so sick of it along with the Hellish ordeal of buying
a train ticket that we decided to buy motorcycles and travel under our own steam.
It turns out that there is a Factory in Madras that makes old English Royal Enfield
motorbikes. They now simply call them Enfields but the only difference between
them today and back in 1958 is that they now have electric indicators. The decision
for me was made after fighting my way out of a railway station in Lucknow and
seeing one of these bikes in the parking lot. It looked like something a fifties
greaser had just parked to go into a milk bar somewhere. I had to have one.
Luckily both Kathy and Jaqui were up for the Idea, and so went in search of a
dealer. Our hopes were somewhat dashed when the dealer at Swastika Automobiles
informed us, that there was a three-month waiting list for a new bike. We would
have to buy second hand machines. As luck would have it we met a couple of westerners
on Enfields who told us “Na, the best place to buy Enfields is in Karol Bagh in
New Delhi. You can get new ones straight away there”.
We were off. I bought a new 500cc bike out of the showroom and my sisters each
bought a used 350cc bike. We had them fitted with panniers and racks for our entire
luggage and had the long bench seats replaced with single sport seats, they just
look cooler. Kathi had never even sat on a motorcycle before let alone tried to
ride one and yet she bought one and spent an afternoon learning how by driving
round and round the very busy roundabout of Connaught place right in the middle
of New Delhi!
One incident that I’m particularly proud of happened on the train from New Delhi
to Bombay. We had decided that with Kathy’s inexperience on a motorcycle it would
be best to avoid the very busy roads of the capital city and leave Delhi by train
and so after an enormous amount of hassle, baksheesh and swearing we finally had
the bikes drained, wrapped and loaded, along with us, on the sleeper train to
Bombay. As dusk fell and it started getting darker and darker I was having a hard
time reading. When we went round a bend I could see that all the other carriages
had their lights on but not ours. I fought my way to the end of our carriage to
where a large crowd was gathered. It seems that the knob for the light switch
had broken off and the conductor and a few others were trying to twist the remaining
piece of metal with their fingers. Just before leaving America I had bought a
few things from an outdoor shop, and a penknife that was also a pair of pliers
had caught my eye. I couldn’t imagine when I might need such a thing but being
a guy was all the reason I needed and so I bought it. Here was my great moment.
I found the penknife and reached between the throng, gripped the metal stub of
the switch. With one easy turn all the lights in the carriage snapped on. I think
at that moment I justified every guy and his love of gadgets. I was the hero of
our carriage and the group of men that had been struggling with the switch all
wanted to see my knife so that they could marvel.
The conductor then did a strange thing. He opened one of the blades, a serrated
one that was as sharp as could be, and to test its sharpness he cut into his thumb.
I don’t think he expected it to do much and so was quite startled when it cut
deep! Instantly I expected the worst, and was sure he would start shouting at
me and have the three of us thrown from the moving train. But instead he started
showing his thumb around as people went “Oooogh and Aaahhh”
Sunbathing on the beach in Goa can rather be exciting. You’ll be lying there
with your eyes closed softly baking in the hot sun when a shadow falls across
your face. You’ll slowly open your eyes to see a Bull the size of a Chevy less
than a foot away, horns like bayonets. You’ll quietly gather your towel and lotion
and move further down the beach, not so much out of fear, (although that does
play a part) but more because you don’t want to be shit on! Having a Bull shit
on you while sunbathing would make you look about as silly as is possible. Amongst
all the other foreigners you would then become known as “The guy who got shit
on”, which would make it much harder to pick up girls.
Bulls, like cows, are of course sacred in India and so they pretty much do as
they please. Every Wednesday in Anjuna, there was a flea market. It was held down
by the beach. The makeshift stalls covered about an acre and left walkways between
the rows of vendors just wide enough for two people to squeeze by. Bulls would
often wander down the narrow isles and everyone just moved out of their way. One
of the Wednesdays that I didn’t go, two huge Bulls got into a nasty argument over
a female. It was like a rodeo, apparently with the two bulls charging each other,
locking horns and leaping and smashing over everything. When it was over the Indian
stall owners just dusted off their wares and carried on as though it was normal.
You need to be told that on any trip to India, Excreta, in all its various forms,
will play a major part. There’ll be your own panic when you have your first case
of “Delhi Belly”. You’ll enter into denial when someone informs you that what
you just ate was cooked using cow shit and you’ll gasp in utter shock the first
time someone has a crap on a street corner next to you. To anyone from the west
it is a most sacred and understood right that we enter alone, into a small room
built solely for the purpose of hiding us while performing the most basic of all
natures functions. Not in India. The unused land alongside the railway tracks
does the job.
Whereas in the west one would be mortified if the bathroom door accidentally
opened, it doesn’t seem to faze Indians one bit that 600 people on a passing train
all know that they had corn for dinner. Maybe we should learn to lighten up a
Indians have no need for toilet paper preferring to simply use their left hand
instead and so it is only sold where tourists can be found. Buy 3 or 4 rolls at
a time and always, always, always carry a roll in your day bag! I don’t think
that the smiling storeowners who sell the strange round rolls of paper have any
idea what we do with it. And I think it’s best that we don’t tell them.
They do not use utensils when eating and because of this only eat with their
right hand Their left hand being used instead of toilet paper. One thing that
(thankfully) I didn’t think of until after my return to the west was this. Because
of this, they therefore consider their left hand as “Dirty” and so I am presuming
that all the cooks, in all the restaurants in which I ate, prepared my food by
cleverly only using their Right hand. I mean after all, if they will not use their
own left hand to eat I’m sure they wouldn’t use it to make my sandwich! Oh yes
and get used to people clearing their throat in a very loud way. I have always
tried to avoid coughing up flem in public but Indians seem to use it as a form
Christmas in Goa was fantastic but one can only take so much frolicking and so
during the second or third week of January we loaded up the Enfields, lashed down
the extra fuel container and headed south.
We continued our India trip through Udupi. Mysore, Bangalore and on to Chennai
(Madras) where we had two of the bikes shipped back to the west.
After India we flew to Sri Lanka then on to Thailand, then overland to Malaysia
and Singapore I left the girls then and flew to Australia for a month and then
back to America.