Karnatakan Expeditions

Me, on the upper berth of the Chalyuka Express

Me, sat on the upper berth of the returning Chalyuka Express

49 hours later I found a number 4 tempo, the penultimate leg of my 1700km journey home from Karnataka, deep in the Indian peninsular. I’d been in Karnataka for a week-long Indicorps’ workshop, an experiment into multiple thresholds of humanity. The number 4 tempo takes me from Ajmer railway station to Shastri Nagar, where I can catch the local bus to the village of Chachiyawas.

I shared the tempo with two men. One of the men seemed to enjoy talking at the other one. Until the other one got out. Then he turned on me. ‘Jajijajas,’ he hollered. I drew blank.

‘Kya?’

‘Jajijajas!’ He was persistent. He moved next to me to see if I’d understand him better when he spat it in my deaf ear. ‘JAJIJAJAS! GAAM!’

Gaam means village – I put two and two together – he meant Chachiyawas.

‘Ha! Mei Chachiyawas se!’ I replied. He was ecstatic. He was also very drunk, barely coherent and by this point was projecting chewed tobacco, adding another coat to the several layers of dirt and sweat that occasionally terraform my face.

The journey to and from Karnataka is a logistical challenge; over 100 hours round-trip. This journey is the last of my multi-day travel during the Indicorps Fellowship (my final trip back to Ahmedabad in eight weeks is a spritely fourteen hours).

I commenced my erstwhile Karnatakan adventure in the early morning eleven days ago. The bus connecting me to Ajmer was full when it arrived and made only a marginal attempt to slow down; there was no chance of me performing the acrobatics required to reach the roof while laden with rucksack. I hitched on the back of a motorbike instead, the driver kindly dropped me at Ajmer’s government bus station.

The first time I used government bus transport I wanted to cry. Government bus stands in Rajasthan come straight from a sci-fi script; dozens of huge, lumbering buses rolling in and out of a giant concrete-cum-corrugated shack, complete with terminals (as if an airport), flashing neon signs, and offering enough varieties of human and kichori to match a Star Wars bar scene.

There is no English, even the signs are written in Devenagari, but nowadays I can read the script enough to figure out which of the nineteen ticket counters sells tickets to Kota.

This six hour leg of the journey was the most uncomfortable. As a law of Rajasthani bus physics, when the outside temperature is 45C, the inside temperature hovers around 307C. You have only two options, the sauna sweatbox rollercoaster or the blow-dryer catapult express. With the windows closed, you suffocate in a sweaty suspension-less haze. If you open the windows, you can hang out in the exhaust stream of a sand geyser.

The bus was full of characters. I was lucky to get a seat next to the central aisle, which was jammed with larger women. When someone decided to belt out track five of the Ultimate Rajasthan Dance Collection 2011 I was repeatedly face-bumped by an oversized bottom keeping to the beat. Later, the same lady asked me to call a number from her phone. She was illiterate (unable to read the numbers she gave me) and her phone was set to Hindi. That was interesting. The noise on the bus meant I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying, but between my intuition and her frantic gesturing we eventually reached resolution.

The ride to Kota has its moments. After four hours, you descend through a gap in the mountains into a valley where the historic city of Bundi is situated. The winding road clings to the side of the valley. Opposite, the foreboding city palace and walls impose over the crumbling blue and brass havelis of the old city. In the center, a dried up lake plays home to grazing cattle.

Entering Kota offers a contrast, being hit first by the smell emanating from Asia’s largest fertilizer factory. Moments later, you spot red lights somewhere in the stratosphere that mark the perimeter of numerous industrial and chemical plants, before trundling into the smoggy, sweaty, and crowded bus terminal from another planet (but still in the Star Wars galaxy).

That evening I was meeting three of my co-fellows in Kota for the next leg. I tried to catch an auto-rickshaw to the railway station. Auto-wallas are notorious for trying to cheat foreigners, so after several minutes of failed trade negotiations, I usually end up walking (and regretting my stubborn nature for the sake of Rs. 20 (30p/40c)). The first walla offered me Rs.50 for the short trip. I explained this was unfair and he wouldn’t budge. The next offered me Rs. 70, which he reduced to Rs.50 after a little hassle. Then a member of India’s vodka-testing-team came to share his wisdom. He explained that it was Rs.100 to the station and that he would take me. Faced with exploitation or death, I chose neither and moved on. Luckily, I spotted a tempo (shared transport) heading for the train station, and for the cheap sum of Rs. 5, I made it there.

I met up with my co-fellows outside the station and indulged in some Punjabi Paneer. Our late train finally arrived at 12.30pm. Thirteen hours after I’d left Chachiyawas, I hadn’t even escaped Rajasthan.

The train was delightful, complete with overbooked waitlisted travelers who had fallen asleep in our pre-booked berths. When we claimed our seats, a disconcerted evictee wasn’t happy so he slept on the floor between our beds, feet up in the face of a co-fellow, and made loud, heavy, sweaty noises. We got a photo which made it better. We fell asleep quickly and woke up around 6am, nineteen hours into my adventure.

This part of the journey, aboard the FZR BCT JANTA EXPRESS, was scheduled to take twenty hours and fifteen minutes and would get us as far as Dadar Station in Bombay. When we woke up six hours into our journey, we were clearly a little agitated that we still had fourteen hours to go in a crowded train. Chai generally solves all world problems, and it definitely helped that morning.

We were excited to see that we had electricity outlets in our carriage. But much like my home in Chachiyawas, the train enforced blackouts for the entire day. With mobile internet off the table, we shared stories from the two months since we last met and did some reading. I actually finished my second book in less than a month – Game Change. It wasn’t as funny as Tina Fey’s Bossypants, but it was very interesting.

We shared the carriage with a school football team on their way from somewhere in northern India (I want to say Punjab but I’m not sure). My conversation with them faltered and nosedived when I tried to explain that I support Manchester United, but they chatted with my co-fellows while I dreamed of a day when I speak Hindi properly. We all remarked on the contrast between what we saw and our project sites – that a school could afford to send a team across the country to participate in a football tournament; while in Chachiyawas, we ration the food we give to our kids (despite their clear malnourishment).

Indian trains are like mobile cities. We brushed our teeth, attempted to shower, ordered food and drank even more chai – all without leaving our carriage. The climate change as we travelled south was noticeable, from the sweaty, arid desert in Rajasthan through into Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. In Maharashtra we crossed a fairy-tale border – the mighty Narmada river – and into the lush and green Western Ghats region of western peninsular India. The temperature, with relief, drops massively.

By 8pm, thirty-three hours after leaving my room, we made it to Bombay, where we met up with more Indicorps’ Fellows and members of the Indicorps’ staff team. Here we were rushed. The team was splitting as the ongoing train to our final destination – Dharwad-Hubli – was overbooked. The Chaluyka Express was available only by ladies quota, meaning that the women had seats. The men were booked on a private bus from across the city.

I was stunned by my first experience of Bombay. Like most of India, but more apparent, the desperate poor were flanked by the indolent rich. Our bus departed from a roundabout that would have resembled somewhere in New York’s Queens or Brooklyn, were it not a very un-American roundabout.

The bus was a few minutes late, arriving at 9.45pm. After gorging on some cheap (Rs.10) fruit salad – my first fruit in weeks – we got on. Our Indicorps’ staff member had our tickets, sleeper seats 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23. And there were only three of us. We saw the berths, S18, S19, S20, S21, S22 and S23, and got in. These were an exciting few minutes as we made ourselves comfortable on the two double berths and a single, happy we would finally get some sleep on the air-conditioned bus, complete with suspension and other fancy additions (including power sockets).

Ten minutes later we were kicked out of our berths, our temporary joy permanently suspended by the realization that we were booked in the sleeper seats, not the sleeper berths. We tried to make ourselves comfortable on the reclining seats on offer. The air of demoralization was palpable – fourteen hours in a seat makes your bottom ache.

I woke up around 5am, fourty-two hours after leaving Chachiyawas. It was cold and mosquitoes – currently off-season in Chachiyawas where they are executed by sun-driven firestorm – were feasting on whatever skin was exposed from the thin sheet I had covered myself in. Not happy. But the scenery was markedly different, as was the level of development. On either side, lush green fields and blossoming trees made me feel I’d crossed into India’s nirvana.

Six hours later we reached Dharwad. It’s difficult to explain my surprise at a city where none of the buildings are in decay, where streets are clean and where everyone – men and women – are dressed in clean clothes. Occasional beggars aside (and assuming I didn’t see many slum-areas), this was a city, and state, decades ahead of rural Rajasthan in development stakes by both economy and equality.

Fourty-nine hours after leaving Chachiyawas we arrived at our home for the next few days, a nature and yoga center a short local bus ride from Dharwad city center. Exhausted, we had two hours to freshen up and prepare ourselves for the week-long Indicorps’ workshop.

The journey was the easy part. But thankfully, despite being 1700km from home, Karnataka still serves chai.

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