Kochi to Trivandrum to Trichy to Chennai; So much for not back-tracking; Chennai to Hyderabad to Jaipur

So here we are in the south of India - nearly as far south as it’s possible to be, in fact - and we need to get up to the north. So it was a taxi to the train station in Ernakulam, and then a train to Trivandrum, and then another taxi to Trivandrum airport, a flight back to Chennai via Trichy and another, finally to Jaipur via Hyderabad. I was loathing myself the whole time. One of my travelling rules is no backtracking, and here we were not only backtracking to Trivandrum but Trichy as well, and all the way back to Chennai, where we’d first arrived in India. Honestly, we might as well go back through Africa and Europe and spend some time in Toronto.

But what are you going to do, eh? We needed to be in Jaipur on short notice and this was the only way we could find to manage it. The price we pay for lack of forward planning.

Cue twenty-four hours of confused scrambling. The taxi to the train station in Ernakulam was as easy as it got, unfortunately. We bought a second-class ticket for Trivandrum which cost Rs56 each. Our only train experience in India so far had been a complete and utter shambles so I was more or less expecting something bad to happen. We had half an hour before the train, though, and so we found the right track without a problem. Couldn’t really hear any of the announcements because of the big cricket match on the platform screens, but it was funny watching the gangs of men all grouped below each screen, heads cranked back and all staring at the game with the grim, clenched tension of brain surgeons in an operating theatre.

The only issue I anticipated on the train was fighting the crowds to get ourselves seats and find space for the packs. I certainly didn’t anticipate trouble finding second-class. The train was gigantic. Sheryl claims it was only twenty cars or so, but I’d say it was more like forty. And none of them were second-class cars. We watched as each of them passed. I thought second-class was right behind the engine, but that was the luggage car. We watched the 2AC cars go past, and then the 3AC cars, and then sleeper car after sleeper car… after sleeper car. No second-class. Nobody knew where it was, either.

Sleeper class is so named because there are pods of bench seats like compartments without doors, that have three-person seats facing each other at the bottom, middle-tier bench seats at shoulder height that fold down into backrests during the day, and a third tier of benches up top, reached by ladders. On the other side of the aisle are two facing seats that fold out into one sleeping bench and a second level bench at head-height. Indian trains are wide. At night you can fit eight sleeping people per doorless “compartment” (ostensibly - if I ever take a sleeper train I expect to see twenty or thirty people per compartment) and at least that sitting during the day.

We thought the train would be leaving in a minute or so, like trains in North America and Europe which don’t hang around in the station for very long, and since we couldn’t find second-class we just jumped on the closest sleeper car, reckoning it was that or be left behind. Seats are assigned in sleeper class, like everywhere on the train (except for second-class, which was why we’d bought second-class tickets). All the sleeper seats had been sold out, we were told - no availability at all, even on the waiting list. And we certainly weren’t going to pay the steep fare for 3AC or 2AC (which were also sold out in any case). So I figured we’d either not be able to find seats in sleeper class (because they were all full, remember) or we’d be kicked out when the conductor checked tickets or when the person with the proper tickets for those seats showed up.

Well, I’m a fool, aren’t I? I forgot we were in India, where rules are only guidelines and are there more or less to be ignored. Everybody was just sitting wherever they wanted in sleeper class and there should have been lots of empty seats. Should have, if people had been sitting rather than lying down. Everyone seemed to be taking “sleeper” class literally, though, and were all intently (and badly) faking sleep so that they could claim an entire bench for themselves. It was mostly old women, and so I didn’t have the guts to sit on them and make them move - old women being amazingly nasty in defence of their comfort. We found space for our packs and ourselves in the end, with some trouble. This was complicated by the food vendors swarming up and down the aisle shouting their wares in singsong: “Chai-a, chai-a, chai-a”, “Vadai-vada-vadai” or what have you. The official vendors were in railway livery of checked shirts, but there were plenty of unofficial ones too. We could have had tea, coffee, any of a vast assortment of fried things - even biryanis in cardboard and foil takeaway boxes. Surviving clearly won’t be a problem on long hauls, though eating healthy certainly will be. In the end the train didn’t leave the station for at least twenty minutes, which would have been plenty of time to find second class. But I’m sure all the seats would have vanished in the first fifteen seconds of the boarding scrum and we would have been left standing, crushed and unable to breathe.

The trip to Trivandrum was five hours, and the conductor didn’t come to check tickets until easily three hours in. Makes me wonder how many people never bother buying tickets at all. I was expecting to be moved out of our ill-gotten sleeper-class seats and back into the perdition of second class, but the conductor didn’t even blink at our ticket and just began making out a receipt for sleeper seats. The extra charge was Rs70 each, so we paid Rs126 each for our seats in the end. I must remember to look sometime to see how that compares to the actual up-front fare for sleeper class - I wonder if we were charged extra?

After all the initial craziness was done, it was a relaxing, breezy trip. I really do like travelling by train. When the train isn’t screaming, crowded bedlam it’s a very civilized way to travel. We got into Trivandrum Central Station in the early evening. Our flight was at the hellish hour of 3:30 the next morning, so it wasn’t worth getting a room for the night. We killed a few hours eating and using the internet before taking a rickshaw to the airport at 11. Arriving at the airport we were mystified to see that the domestic terminal was closed up tight and dark. A nice guard told us that the 3:30 to Chennai left from the international terminal. Well naturally, I thought. Chennai is definitely in another bloody country so why didn’t I just assume it left from the international terminal?

Sometimes the universe mystifies me. There are so many little tidbits of knowledge like this in India, I’ve found - things that it’s completely impossible for the tourist or even an Indian visitor from another town to know. This sort of information is never posted anywhere - it’s just part of some vast, free-floating, unquestioned body of lore that locals are privy to. It’s no wonder they thing tourists are stupid, here.

It was well after midnight by the time we got to the international terminal. It looked pretty quiet and dark too, but there was a brightly-lit waiting area outside. We really didn’t fancy being lunch for mosquitoes for two hours, though, and so we went up to the sliding doors. On either side of them was a military guard with a big nasty looking gun… both fast asleep. We quietly and casually walked in under their noses and took up residence in one of the darkened waiting areas inside the terminal. It was obviously meant to be closed - there were no staff there at all. When the guards woke up, though, they visibly decided not to call attention to their slip-up and that they were there to keep people out so anyone inside the terminal was clearly not their problem.

There were five overnight flights from Trivandrum airport. Ours was the earliest, but we were called for boarding last. Indian airports require you to send your checked luggage through a big x-ray scanner before checking in. I’m not sure how useful this is, to be honest, since they then give it back to you with a little sticker on it - if I were of a suspicious turn of mind, I might suggest that evildoers could take that opportunity to insert various explody things back into their bags. We’d been very tired and bored waiting for the terminal to open and then for our flight to be called, so we thought we’d be a little proactive and take our stuff through the scanners while we were waiting. Of course it turned out that we’d gone too soon and we had the wrong little sticker, so we had to go back and do it again.

There was only an hour between the flight being called for check-in and the scheduled departure time. There were screens all over the terminal with flights listed and beside them each a little flashing CHECK IN or SECURITY CHECK. There were huge queues for customs which - we found out when we reached the front - as domestic passengers we hadn’t needed to stand in - another piece of mysterious lore which didn’t seem to deserve a sign. By this point there wasn’t much time left for security check. Naturally there were big queues there too. There was the usual x-ray machine and metal detector, but also a very thorough frisking. Sheryl got to go through the curtained women’s’ pat-down area. They pulled my carry-on bag apart, too. I’ve no idea what they were looking for but they looked at everything. I carry a lot of strange things with me that are pretty difficult to explain, so this tends to delay things. Nothing dangerous - but how do you explain a mummified baby sea turtle to an airport security guard? I’d have felt awful if Mister Raisin got confiscated.

But we got through security with ten or fifteen minutes to spare. I’d really, really hate to do this in the middle of the day with a million people in the terminal - there’s no way we’d have made it in time. There was no gate number printed on our boarding passes, and no screens or signs, so we had no idea which of the three gates we were supposed to be leaving through. Our flight was suddenly called to board and we still had no idea - the announcement said only “Passengers on Air India flight IC-968, please proceed to the airplane”. Great. Following the crowd isn’t always a good idea, but in this case it got us where we needed to go - it turns out that there was only one gate being used.

Okay, I thought. We’re almost on the plane. Now at least we’ll be in Chennai before something else goes wrong Again, though, I’d forgotten which country we were in. Naturally there were people sitting in our seats. Why would I expect any differently? They were very upset, too, because they said they’d been moved there by the cabin crew. None of the cabin crew remembered this, but the passengers insisted that was the case and that they had been wronged and were taking some sort of personal stand against oppression and refusing unconditionally to be moved again. This caused a huge altercation between them and the cabin crew that spilled over into the rows ahead and behind and eventually brought the pilot back to mediate. Sheryl and I were both so exhausted by this time that the latest absurdity just pushed us over the edge into helpless laughter until they found us somewhere else to sit. I suggested, I thought, clearly the best resolution to the problem - that they move us up to first class. That met with the expected scandalized giggles from the flight attendants. It did work out for us in the end, though, because they finally put us at the very back of the plane and we each had a row of seats to ourselves, so we could lie down and sleep. The flight attendants, dressed in ugly uniform saris (the first non-unique saris I’ve seen in India, actually) woke us up for breakfast and tea and cookies.

It’s a good thing we had plenty of time in Chennai to make our next flight - we arrived at least an hour late. It wasn’t a connecting flight, so we had to collect our baggage and trundle over to the domestic terminal. The whole episode had an air of déja vu. We’d done precisely the same thing in just the same order and even at the same time of early morning, when we’d first arrived in India almost exactly a month before. The smells were the same, the misty, glowing orange night sky was the same - I think even some of the same people were sleeping on the concourse floor. We even encountered the same airport official who’d helped us with directions, and he recognized us and shook my hand. It was very strange, but actually a nice surprise to suddenly meet someone familiar in a strange country.

The security check for our second flight was much easier for me than the first had been, but much harder for Sheryl. She’d decided not to bother putting a luggage tag on her carry-on bag, and apparently it’s necessary - that’s what the security guard stamps to show that the bag has been through the x-ray machine. He wouldn’t let her take her bag until she got him a luggage tag for it, and the other security guards wouldn’t let her leave the gate area to find one. She had to run around the gates trying to find a tag and was in a poisonous mood by the time it was all over. But we were still at the gate in plenty of time for our SpiceJet flight to Jaipur via Hyderabad. Here’s where it all goes wrong, I thought to myself - we’ve jumped through all the hoops and spent nearly twenty-four hours travelling, all in the name of getting to this Elephant Festival, and if something’s going to go wrong it’s going to be now. But nothing did. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about the flight except that the pilot sounded like he was from North Carolina, which isn’t really an accent I expected to hear, flying from Chennai to Jaipur.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

March 22nd, 2009

I feel sorry you had to undergo so much trouble but I guess its part of the package India is! Though in the deepest of my heart, I hope things will become better in the years to come..

¬ Ganesh
March 23rd, 2009

I do hesitate sometimes when writing these entries, because I know I have a few regular Indian readers and I don’t wish to cause offence. In the end, though, I have to call it as I see it.

Every city has its own character, and just because Jaipur is a hellhole doesn’t reflect badly on the rest of India. I liked Chennai and Madurai a lot, to pick a couple of random examples. But just wait for the entry from Jaipur on the 10th, it gets worse!

We’ve had fantastic experiences in India and met a lot of great people - I’m still very happy to spend time here. It’s an amazing place and I love it… but unpleasant experiences are sometimes the price you pay for good ones. Things here will get better, but these things take time. It’s a big country and there’s a lot of inertia - changes of that magnitude can’t happen quickly.


¬ Chris
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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