There are risks to travelling on public transport in India (see my previous post about the raging rhino bus drivers), but the reward is that you get to meet local people on buses and trains. Also, many buses in Asia play local music, giving the journey an exotic air.
On our three hour bus trip between Kumily and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the driver had an ancient tape player perched on a dirty old towel on top of the engine casing next to him. Although it sprouted a myriad of wires it worked just fine. The bus driver skilfully manoeuvred his clunky old vehicle through stark mountain ranges and the kaleidoscope of life in Indian towns and villages, accompanied by loud Indian music all the way. I felt like I was in a Bollywood film! To get a taster of that journey take a look at this brief video clip.
On that same journey, the bus got pretty crowded and a woman near me was nursing her four year old daughter while I had a free seat next to me. The mother and I tried to persuade the little girl to sit with me but she was very shy and unsure of this foreigner. So I gave her a pen.
In response, her Mum opened a box she was carrying. It was full of the cheap jewellery you see on sale in bazaars around India. She insisted I have a pair of earrings. Touched by her generosity, I tried to put them in my ears straight away to show my appreciation for the gift. However, the earrings had thicker posts than the ones I usually wear and I couldn’t get one of them in. The woman came and sat next to me and after much gentle coercing got the earring through my ear. Then she took a chain out of her box and put that around my neck, despite my protests. I tried to pay her for them, but she was most offended and made me put my purse away.
By this time, the little girl, who had been watching the earring episode from close quarters, had lost her fear and sat happily between me and her mother. For about an hour I entertained her with jigsaws, music, maps and funny photos on the ipad. When the crowd on the bus dispersed, they returned to their seats and at the next pit stop I shared some food with them. Even though we had no common language we had connected through our common humanity.
We were sat near the front of the bus and the bus driver had been watching our interactions with interest. He was one of the better bus drivers we had in India and didn’t drive as recklessly, yet he had had to swerve twice on this trip. Once to avoid the flailing arm of a drunk man who was very near the edge of the road, and once to avoid an old lady in an apple green sari who dashed across the road to greet someone. When we got off the bus at Madurai, he confided to me that “driving in India is difficult”. I sympathised with him wholeheartedly!
A couple of days later, we travelled by train from Madurai to Villupuram. We didn’t book our tickets until the day before so there were no seats left and we had to get a sleeper, even though we were travelling during the day. As luck would have it, we were in a compartment with a very interesting 74 year old Indian man. He was a retired professor of physics so his English was excellent and we were able to converse about a wide range of topics, something not usually possible because of the language barrier. Besides the usual topics (family, where we live, our opinions of India, our travel plans), because he had a very open mind, we could discuss normally taboo subjects like religion and politics and try to put the world to rights.
I have always thought that travel is the best education … certainly it is for the things that matter. In this crazy world we’re living in at the moment, it has never been so important to connect with ordinary people worldwide. When we do, we realise that we are all striving for the same things – peace, love, and happiness.
I’d love to hear your stories about people you have connected with on your travels and what they have taught you.