There are so many ways to get around in India. You can hop in a taxi, get on a train, board a domestic flight or zip through the streets in an autorickshaw.
Each method of transport offers the traveller a unique insight into the amazing, vibrant personality of this incredible country, with a few surprising discoveries thrown in for the open-minded explorer. I’m here to offer you the high points (and some of the challenges) of a few main modes of Indian transport and to hopefully entice you towards your own intrepid Indian adventure. All you need is a bright sense of humour and you’re all set! Hang on to your backpacks!
The first thing to understand is that driving in India is like navigating by sonar. Upon your arrival in India, whether it’s Goa, Mumbai or New Delhi, you will most likely find yourself riding in a taxi from the airport, chatting merrily to the driver, when you will be interrupted mid-sentence by the blast of the car horn. You will look out the window to see what some offending vehicle has done, but there will be nothing to see. Why did the driver sound the horn? Is the driver seeing things?
Traffic will keep moving, and your driver will keep intermittently beeping the car horn. Before too long you will realise that he isn’t the only driver with an attachment to his car horn. The closer you get to the heart of the city, the more you can hear horns echoing along the roads. Driving almost seems to be done by ear, rather than by sight, in India. Horns are sounded as if to say “Here I am, let me through!”.
It is a disaster waiting to happen, yet to everyone’s amazement, traffic flows smoothly. Cars merge, change “lanes”, and weave in and out without incident. Even pedestrians simply step through the traffic while waving a hand to signal their intentions. At first, it may seem a little frightening to watch, but within a couple of days, you will no longer even notice the beeping of the horns.
Travelling by train across the Indian subcontinent is breathtakingly fun. You can book a berth or two, either top bunk or bottom bunk, and stretch out to watch the countryside pass by. There are so many people in India. You can’t look more than a meter without seeing someone.
As you settle in for your journey you will hear a man coming along the passage yelling out “chai, chai, chai”. You will peer down the passageway and see a man coming along with a tray of metal cups and a teapot and a jug. For a few rupees (barely five cents!) you can have a delicious cup of chai tea or coffee, brought straight to your seat.
The only downside to train travel is using the restroom – an endeavour only for the brave! Upon entering the restroom, you will find yourself looking down the toilet – straight onto the train tracks clickety-clacking right underneath you! There is something a little confronting about this situation, but what is travel for, except for trying new things? You will feel all the braver for simply having used the restroom. A train ride through India is a definite must when visiting!
Domestic flights in India don’t appear to be any more unusual than in any other country, even though you’re likely to board an aircraft that has SpiceJet emblazoned across the side. Flying in India does tend to highlight the different ways time is perceived by people in different cultures. It’s a good idea to be relaxed about your schedule when travelling in India in general, but particularly with air travel. There’s definitely a more relaxed attitude to getting things done. This is very apparent when taking domestic flights between cities. After what seems like a very long flight, much longer than expected, you are likely to hear the captain’s voice over the intercom. He will state that there is a queue at the airport, and you will be delayed, but “by not too long”. The captain’s statement may not be very reassuring to tired passengers, however, you will eventually land at your destination.
Riding in an autorickshaw is the best and most convenient way to get around, whether to venture to the local shops or to see the local community attractions.
You need to have your wits about you when negotiating the tariff, and be prepared to walk away if you can’t reach an agreement on the price. Drivers will often relent when they see you walking away towards their competition! Once the price has been agreed upon, most drivers are generally great to chat to. You can find yourself being given top tips on local tourist places, lessons in the local language, and even a turn at driving – if you and your driver are truly game! Travelling by autorickshaw is fascinating for people-watching too. You will find yourself passing another autorickshaw crowded with at least ten children on their way to school. They lean out of their autorickshaw from every possible angle, grinning and laughing and waving at you. Further down the road, you might watch a man on a motorbike, his wife and kids perched behind him and having lots of fun. Their smiles are infectious.
The roads just seem to be teeming with activity and life. There is constantly something going on, something intriguing to see. Truly never a dull moment. Who needs to visit a tourist attraction? Just take an autorickshaw ride around the streets. It is just as rewarding.
Travelling around India, whether in a local village or across the vast continent, is an adventure in itself. The experience of transport within the country is almost part of the culture, the very heartbeat of Indian life. At times it can seem chaotic, wild, confusing, nonsensical and yet somehow it seems to work well. People get on with their work and play and errands and school. The best way to enjoy transport in India, and to get the most out of the experience, is to embrace the present moment, keep a relaxed attitude, and be open to discovering whatever the present situation brings. I think that is why the people of India seem to really understand how to live life to the full and to celebrate the ordinary.
There’s no rushing to the next appointment, no hurrying to avoid being late, no getting worked up and stressed over little inconveniences. I just want to soak up this whole new way of living, to somehow capture this spice of life in a jar and take it home with me. Be sure to keep a travel journal when in India, if only to record your transport adventures, for you will surely have many. To have ridden in an autorickshaw, watched the Indian countryside from a rumbling train while drinking a warm chai, or laughed over insanely laid-back schedules is to have experienced the uniqueness of India and received an invaluable gift.