Getting There is Half The Fun - A Post On Travel

by Ramesh Mahadevan

Dear God of Air Travel,

How come it is always an ordeal at the airports ? How come it is only in this country that different Airlines have their own TV monitors and there is no centralized information monitor ?

Just when I struggle with my two bags and a newspaper and do the Statue of Liberty stuff with my ticket to the agent at the door, the first class critters had already jumped the line and engage in a small chit-chat with the woman at the door, completely oblivious of the fact that I was delicately maintaining my static equilibrium. Why ?

As I enter the plane, weaving through the narrowest passageway between your seats - even the Red Sea would part a little wider - still clutching my bags and by now crumpled newspaper, the first class critters are already being wined and dined by the Airplane Angels, blocking my path.

By the time I sit down in my seat, the first class critters have already gulped their wines and are tossing their wine glasses back into the economy class. We ought to bring back communism, at least just to bring about a classless society in plane travel and abolish the first class in planes.

Why do you announce that it is a 'non-stop' flight to Denver and then 'continuing on to St. Louis, Columbus, Newark' and why not just speak the truth and say that it is a flight to Newark with several stops ? And what do you mean 'preboarding' ? Isn't 'preboarding' also 'boarding' ?

How come, nothing interesting ever happens in any of my flights even though I fly like a maniac ? You don't book any celebrity or interesting women in the next seat. When I am flying, do women request for 'Nowhere near Ramesh', like 'No smoking' as a preference ? How come I am always seated next to King Kong when I fly to India on those long flights ?

Also, how come, whoever is sitting next to me manages to produce industrial quantities of urine during a two hour flight and forces me to un-seatbelt every ten minutes so that he or she can go to the bathroom ?

And you never give me food. When you are just about to serve me, you park the stupid cart in the aisle and disappear for hours, to take care of someone else more important.

Even when you finally come back to your cart, you don't hand me a pack of food, but instead you push the cart up and down the aisle three times, just to tease me.

The Vedic flights were better.

One can write post after post about train travel. No matter whether you travel in India or the superfast TGV in Europe or Amtrak in this country, certain things are common to trains - the ease with which you strike up conversation with the others, for example. And just before the train enters any major town, it invariably passes through some of the shadiest, filthiest outskirts, filled with polluting factories and junkyards. I wonder why this is so.

At any rate, when we were young, one of our summertime rituals was to visit Uncle Venkat down South in India. About a mile down where he lived, there was a railway station. Me and my cousin would walk up there everyday after lunch and just hang around. The bigger express and mail trains would completely ignore the station, whistle loudly, double up their speeds and zip through the station and disappear into a cloud of dust, leaving us quite stunned.

The most interesting aspect of this thunderous 'Express train run' was the exchange of 'keys' between the train and the station - a concept that may not be practised any more in India. The 'key' used to be a metallic sphere, tied to what looked like a tennis racket. As the train buzzed through the station, the engine driver would toss the old 'key' from the previous station and in one swift move, would grab the new 'key' from a station porter, who would stand perilously close to the edge of the platform, defying death and hand it to the driver, somehow withstanding the full fury and tremor of the train. It used to fascinate young kids like us.

Although this station was like a mole in the armpit of the Indian railways, there was a 'Goods shed' at one end of the station and many goods (freight) trains would stop by to load and unload. The 'marshalling' of the goods train was a lot of fun. We used to explore the parked goods train, especially the caboose (called the guard's van in India), the vacuum brakes and so forth.

We used to beg and plead with the engine drivers of the goods trains to let us ride in the engine, as they did the 'shunting'. And one day all our prayers were answered when a kind driver let us climb on. It was most thrilling ! For something that ushered the industrial revolution, the steam engine is an absolutely low-tech thing. There is no pressing a button and something happening. In fact, there were two halves to a steam engine and they were not even rigidly tied together into one piece and the engine squirmed as it ran along. The drivers hardly even had a dignified seat to sit on and they looked grey and black with all the soot and dirt. They would perpetually shovel coal into the fire, between puffing their bidis. There was a simple light bulb illuminating the entire cockpit.

"I used to haul the express trains with this very engine" reminisced the engine driver. He had tied his dirty black handkerchief on his forehead. "But I could not take the tension any more as I got older. That was before the big WP Class engines came along and started hauling the express trains. Heck, this beautiful lady of an engine has even won awards for being the prettiest engine in the entire division."

I was dying to blow the engine whistle and was somewhat disappointed when the driver told me that all I had to do was just pull on a string. It was a wimpy, spineless, sore-throated sound - almost like a ventriloquist, throwing his voice far away. Disbelievingly, I pulled the string one more time to make sure. This time I pulled on the string a little longer and the whistle lasted a trifle longer, at which point the engine driver, kind hearted he certainly was, pulled me aside and asked me not to overdo it.

I never rode in another engine, ever - perhaps never too innocent afterwards to fall for such simple pleasures in life.

If you lived in some northern cities of India, you always traveled by 'tempo', that black beast with three wheels, carrying an enormous load of human cargo. All tempo drivers, as a rule, are religious folks, decking up their dashboards with color pictures of Santoshi Maa or Hanuman or at least a divine warning that 'whoever focussed a malicious eye on this tempo, his face will turn black'.

An eternity can be defined as the time period between the time you sit in a tempo and when the tempo actually starts moving. Even if the tempo is more than full, the driver just ignores your pleas and threats to start the tempo, and yells out to get more passengers. Sometimes, he does a 'foul start', and revs up the engine, giving false signals to some potential passengers that he is just about to leave. But that's only a ruse. Some graduate students at IIT Kanpur had written their entire Ph. D theses while waiting for the tempos to start.

And two eternity is the time period between time the tempo gets stuck in front of a railway crossing gate, waiting for the train and when it finally gets going. It is waiting at these railway level crossing gates that I sometimes get the feeling that we are one of the most stupid nations in the world on some counts, because we have no sense of orderliness or waiting for one's turn.

The vehicles waiting for the gates to open are an impatient lot. All rules are broken and they all converge every which way around the railway gate. It is almost like the start of a major war, with two sides digging in on the two sides of the gate. And when the dumb gate finally opens, it is all hell breaking lose. Honking, near misses, recklessness and vehicles simply diffusing through each other following laws of quantum tunneling. The entire traffic could have easily passed the gate in less than half the time if everyone waited patiently behind each other. But then, this is India.

At any rate, there was the time when a certain Srikant (no last name please !) came brand new to this country from India. And he was making a rental car reservation and the phone conversation went roughly like this:

Cute phone voice: "Sir, would you like a compact car ?"

Srikant: "Oh, sure, a compact car would be fine."

C. P. V: "How about a Ford Tempo sir ?"

Srikant: "No, no. I don't want a tempo."

C. P. V: "But sir, you said any compact size is okay".

Srikant: "Yes, true. But I can't drive any three wheelers"

and so forth, till someone had to butt in and explain how a Ford Tempo has four wheels and nothing like a desi tempo.

Also, has it happened to you that your passport expired all of a sudden and you had completely forgotten about renewing it ? Then you panicked around, made a bboard post to find out the phone numbers of Indian Consulates etc. To avoid such unpleasant surprises, why can't they tie up our passports with a credit card company or something, so that the credit card folks automatically connect our passports with our credit cards and let them expire at the same time, so they can be renewed simultneoulsy ? Bboarders, write to your local Indian consulates.

One of my greatest accomplishments, and I include this even in my resume, is having 'chaloed' a bullock cart in my native village, way, way back.

Even though my grandfather's bullocks all looked the same, they all had a name each. There was a Ramu and there was a Gopu. And they even had their own individual personalities. On that fateful day, the gentlest of bullocks was attached to the cart and I was hoisted gingerly onto the edge of the seat - ready to go on my maiden journey, like a world conqueror.

"Where do I keep my legs ?" I remember asking.

"On the clutch, dummy" came the reply. So, I had to dangle my legs between the bullock's rear-end. What a user-unfriendly design ! Whatever happened to the new bullock cart they were designing at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore ?

The official driver of the cart was an old, grouchy man. He was on my grandfather's payroll purely for humanitarian reasons and for having eaten our 'salt' all those days. My grandfather did not really have to use the bullock cart much.

The Groucho was not at all happy to be my driving instructor. He sat behind me and grudgingly told me "Okay, let us quickly get it done with. Lets go."

Driving a bullock cart is very simple. Actually even though you are in the driver's seat, you are completely at the mercy of the bullock. Making turns is easy. You simply pull the reins in the direction you want to turn. And if you pull really hard on the reins, the bullock comes to a dead stop. This is how you stop the vehicle. The toughest part is actually to coax the damned animal to be enthusiastic about the whole trip and keep moving. I was too much of an animal lover to whip it. And I knew very little of the 'bullockese' sounds and anyways, the bull didn't understand my accent. After every ten steps, it would simply refuse to budge any more, unless I prodded it.

After what seemed like eons, I had barely covered half a mile and we were at the Main street of the village. The entire village had a good laugh at a 'villager wannabe' at the helm, inching up the Main street. The original driver, crept way back into the cart and was hiding his face in shame and muttering unflattering things about me. Then the damn thing happened.

A town bus was coming in the opposite direction and a sea of humanity was crisscrossing our path. Amidst all this, the bullock just stopped cold, right in the middle of the road, causing a minor traffic jam ! Any amount of my prodding, the bull didn't seem to care. It just would not move. It was on strike. The bus driver in front of me was honking furiously at me to get going. The old-man-driver behind me had gone completely mad at me.

I begged with the bullock and even tried to push it ahead with my bare hands. The animal didn't even register my imploring. Then, all of a sudden just when everyone's attention was drawn to us, it lifted its tail and in one endless do loop, (or shall I say, 'do poop' ?) it deposited lump after lump of its you know what, right on the Main street. The freshly laid chips kinda looked like Taco Bell's taco salad (quoting a friend). Then, satisfied, the bull gave the entire Village Square that 'one-up' look, before ever so gently marching on.

The next minute, the real driver mumbled something like "Enough is enough. You can't even do simple things like driving a bullock cart. You will grow up to be a most incompetent fellow, bringing shame on your illustrious grandfather" and forcibly took over the control. I protested that it wasn't my fault, as I retired into the cockles of the bullock cart.

Also, from that day forth, 'bullshitting' was no longer just a theoretical expression for me.

Copyright(R) Mahadevan Ramesh