Pondicherry to Trichy; In which the bus is much nicer than expected; We reward ourselves with a nice hotel

We hadn’t had the best time in Pondicherry and were more or less eager to put the place behind us. We only had one real chance to catch a bus out of town directly to our next destination, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) - if we weren’t able to force our way onto that bus we were going to have to inch our way down the coast on a series of short bus rides. So we got to the bus station at the edge of town half an hour earlier than our bus was leaving, figuring that we could position ourselves strategically for the boarding scramble. Imagine my shock when the bus was there, when we found it easily and quickly by asking someone, and when it was nearly empty. Getting ourselves on and the packs stowed was a breeze. I tell you, it felt like a gift from the universe.

The bus was still half-empty when it left, right on time. Foolishly, I dared to hope that it might stay that way, but it took fifteen minutes to get out of the station (I said to Sheryl that we were just taxiing to the runway and were in the queue to take off) and by the time we finally got on the road it was standing-room-only, as people kept jumping in the open doors of the crawling bus in ones and twos the whole time. Didn’t affect us, of course, since we already had our seats and weren’t about to give them up. We did have to pay for the seat the packs were taking up, but we’re perfectly happy to do that - it’s cheap and that way we can keep an eye on them, which we wouldn’t be able to do if they were on the roof. The fare to Trichy was a lousy 58 rupees anyway - about CAD$1.50 - so very much worth it.

It was a hot, boring six hours to Trichy through towns, tiny villages and fields. Periodically, the ride got bumpy as the bus had to leave the highway for road reconstruction. This, and the landscape passing by out the open, barred windows, made me think of Kenya. There are no rice-paddies in Kenya, though, and I saw plenty of those. I remember a long, straight line of brightly-clad women all bending down planting rice, and later one woman in a field below the road with her orange sari unwound, meters of silk floating out behind her in the wind, the brightness of the colour almost physically shocking against the green-brown of the ground.

Trichy is a big city by any but Indian standards - about a million people live here. I was prepared to have to fight to get off the bus, but it took so long to get through the city to the bus station that nearly everyone had left the bus by the time we got there. I had to shake my head a little - the trip from Pondicherry had been far too easy, given what we’d come to expect. It seemed unreal. Trichy is very busy around the bus station, right in the middle of the Cantonment area of town. The main street is very loud, but that’s where most of the hotels are. We found one for more than we’ve usually been paying (a lot more than some of them) but after our succession of fleabags in the last few days we felt like we deserved a break. It was Rs510, which is still only about CAD$6.50 each - and it was a lovely room. Clean. Crisp white sheets. Hot water. Lights and clean linen. Compare and contrast to €20 for the beds in vile hostels we’d paid all through Europe. We asked for a quiet room away from the street noise. We got one of the quietest rooms, but it was still incredibly loud. Every bus pulling into or out of the bus station uses an air-horn multiple times (and whenever else the driver feels like it) and every conductor blows constantly and shrilly on his whistle.

We ate in the restaurant downstairs on the ground floor of the hotel. I’m not sure why it is, but nearly every restaurant here in India is attached to a hotel. The only exceptions seem to be the little streetside fast-food vendors. Just after we ourselves sat down a loud group of Europeans came in - younger kids in their twenties. The girls were dressed completely inappropriately in little dresses, showing legs, cleavage and shoulders (I think they were French). The waiter had to move them away from the front of the restaurant, which was open to the street, so that no one passing by could see them. They were generally very confused, needed every item on the menu explained to them, asked for forks and knives and ate with their left hands (which is extremely rude and offensive here). Cut to us at the next table, ordering without bothering to glance at the menu and eating with our hands stuffed in our mouths just like the locals. We traded amused eye-rolls with the staff over the Europeans. I always feel like a gawky tourist idiot, but Sheryl and I have effectively been travelling towards India for a very long time, and we’ve been assimilated pretty quickly. You don’t really realize this, because all you have to compare yourself to are the locals, until you see someone fresh off the boat, as it were, and realize just how much more out of place they are than you.

Trichy’s train station is massive. It’s at the end of a long street that curves away from the bus station and the hotels, lined on either side with a thousand seedy, cheerful shops that have organically grown together into one solid row and spilling out onto the pavement. The station sports a grandiose entrance with a vintage steam train out the front, but the main entrance only has a couple of kiosks and a run-down lodge inside - the real entrance is a little down the building, a nondescript archway that looks like an underpass to the tracks. We were there to find out about onward travel from Trichy in the next couple of days - even though the bus trip here had been (suspiciously) easy, we still reckoned we’d had more or less enough of buses and it was time to start taking the train. After being bounced around from ticket window to ticket window to another building entirely, we found out that there was no space on any train for at least three days. There is such a thing as a tourist quota (a couple of berths reserved for foreign tourists) but only if you book from the train’s origin - Chennai, in this case. So, it’s the bus for us again. I wonder if we’ll ever manage to take a train in India? If we do, I’ll be prepared. While at the station we picked up a copy of the coveted Trains at a Glance book, which lists all stations and routes with timetables. It’s a heavy chunk of badly-bound newsprint pages, but (I hope) well worth the weight and the negligible 35 rupee cost.

Trichy is a modern city, with a lot of buildings of five or ten stories. We walked for a bit around the busy Cantonment area, but it had been a long day and we had a nice comfortable room and bed waiting for us. Six floors above the noise, it’s still impressive, but from our window I could see neon hotel signs scattered around, the bright orange lights above the bus station, a thousand yellow autorickshaws on the street, and two stray cows nosing around the trash in the vacant lot beside the hotel.

We didn’t stray far from the room for quite some time, as it happened. We both felt very queasy after breakfast the next morning, so instead of heading for the temples as we’d planned, we went back up to the room and lay down for a bit. We kept the ceiling fan on to try and cool the room, and watched insane Indian television and snippets of vintage Bollywood films on the room’s television. We felt better after a bit, but too much of the day had been lost and we didn’t feel well enough to tackle the temples, so we called a rest day. There’s nothing much to do around the Cantonment area, though. We walked around a bit and then had a truly loathsome lunch at a restaurant that our guidebook had (unbelievably in retrospect) recommended - it’s been a bad day for food.

After lunch, though, Sheryl came down with a terrible headache studying hard to be a migraine when it grew up. We got her back to the room and lying down. I kept the inadequate, thin curtains drawn over the window to block out a little of the light, and kept her skin wet and a dark, wet cloth over her eyes - and kept feeding her painkillers. She couldn’t have the ceiling fan on - it was too loud and the feel of the moving air on her skin was too painful - so I sat in the darkened, sweltering room trying to catch up on my writing until her headache finally passed and she was able, late in the evening, to sit up shakily and demand food.

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One Comment on this Dispatch:

March 7th, 2009

You could and should look online at irctc.co.in to book rail tickets if you ever wanted to.. and I think you can book the tourist quota there no matter what too.

¬ Ganesh
March 12th, 2009

Thanks… I’ve been using that site and http://www.indianrail.gov.in a bit, mostly to find out the timetables. That’s good information about the tourist quota - cheers!

¬ Chris
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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